Dracula and the Ottomans

Dracula and the Ottomans

by Gemma Masson, PhD candidate at the Centre for Byzantine, Ottoman and Modern Greek Studies, University of Birmingham.

Like most people who went through a teen-vampire-infatuation phase, I became aware of Dracula at a young age, spending my pocket money to buy the Penguin edition of Bram Stoker’s Gothic classic and receiving the expected ribbing from my peers for my “morbid” interests. As a keen historian throughout school, I was also aware of Vlad the Impaler and the fact that many of the history documentaries I watched avidly on TV connected the two. Years later, when I began to pursue my graduate studies in my chosen field of history, my interests shifted to focus on the Ottoman Empire (how and why this happened is another story entirely) and so I started reading everything I could get my hands on. The fifteenth century was a key period for the Ottomans, centring around the 1453 capture of Constantinople (AKA Istanbul). This was the victory of Mehmed the Conqueror, son of Murad II, who had previously…..oh hello? Who’s this? Things just got a lot more interesting.



An ambitious sultan, Murad had turned his attention towards Europe and devoted much time and energy into expanding his realms and influence in that direction. In doing so, he came up against the Order of the Dragon, a chivalric order specifically founded to keep the Ottomans out of Europe. Vlad II was the ruler of the Principality of Wallachia, which lies within modern day Romania. He was also a member of this order, hence his title ‘Dracul’ (The Dragon). Both politically and geographically, Vlad II found himself between the proverbial rock and a hard place, with the Hungarian rulers to the West staunchly in favour of forcefully expelling the Ottoman Turks from Europe, and the Ottomans pressing from the East. This Catch-22 scenario led to Vlad II compromising and breaking treaties and usually counting on being able to talk his way out of a sticky situation.

Murad reached a point in 1442-3 where he was no longer willing to take Vlad II’s promises on good faith and sought a more tangible guarantee of good behaviour. This manifested in the taking of Vlad II’s two youngest sons, Vlad – later to become known as Vlad the Impaler, and Radu, to the Ottoman court. Ostensibly hostages, the two young princes were subjected to an education as befitted their rank, learning not only warfare, horsemanship and combat skills, but also Turkish, Arabic, the Koran and Islam, with all the accompanying philosophy and history that implies. During their time at the Ottoman court, they came into contact with Prince Mehmed, the future Mehmed The Conqueror.

The brothers were both very different boys and they grew into very different men. Radu, the youngest, was nicknamed ‘cel Frumos’, meaning ‘the Beautiful’ or ‘the Handsome’, which was a sobriquet he lived up to – charming every man and woman he met. He was much favoured by Mehmed, and the two became very close, with some sources claiming they were lovers. Vlad, on the other hand, could not have been more of a stark contrast to his brother. Dark, surly and quiet where his younger sibling was fair and charming, Vlad maintained his hatred of the Ottomans and, though living amongst them for years, never saw them as anything but the enemy. While Radu was being won over by Ottoman culture, viewing their captivity as good fortune, Vlad also sought to make the best of the situation by applying himself to learning everything he could. He studied everything about the Ottomans, intending, at the first opportunity, to use the knowledge against them. He took his fathers oath to rid their lands of the Turks as his own mission.

Historians Gavin Baddeley and Paul Woods have examined the time the boys spent at the Ottoman court in their youth through the lens of modern psychological theory, using Freud to argue that the young Impaler’s experiences would have had a profound affect upon his adult personality.1 While the argument could be made that, by the standards of his contemporary time, at thirteen or fourteen years old Vlad was already a man when he arrived at Murad’s court. Children were required to mature very rapidly at this time, and the children of the nobility doubly so, as they were to be groomed as leaders and warriors from birth. However, there is no denying that his time with the Ottomans did shape much of his adult life, much of it spent fighting them and using the knowledge he had gained there.

Baddeley and Woods also address the question of Radu labelling his conversion to Islam and his complete assimilation into Ottoman culture as a classic case of Stockholm Syndrome.2  Arguably Radu, as the younger, was still more malleable and open to coercion than Vlad. Another contributing factor could have been the boy’s natural differences. While Vlad was fully committed to the role of prince and warrior. Radu, with his fondness for fine things and comfortable living, found peace and compromise to be more acceptable and better for his country, even if it meant his entering Ottoman service. The desire to feel safe and accepted was doubtless contributed to by the constant uncertainty of their position: one wrong move on the part of their father, and the boys would have been punished. Such an environment would contribute to the stress and anxiety of the boys, causing each to react in their own way.

Into adulthood, each prince became more rigid in his convictions and the rift between them grew. Upon the death of their father and older brother Mircea in 1447, Murad (then re-enthroned after a brief interregnum during which Mehmet was on the Ottoman throne) sent Vlad to claim the throne of Wallachia with the understanding that he would rule as an Ottoman vassal and pay the traditional tribute. Why Murad felt he had succeeded in winning Vlad to his cause is baffling. It is likely that Vlad played his part well and paid lip service to the sultan in order to gain his freedom. Even if the sultan had his doubts in terms of legitimacy, Vlad had the superior claim to the throne, with Radu being both too young and too obviously Ottoman in his dress and manners. Murad, a shrewd ruler, would have seen the sense of allowing the elder brother to have his throne. However, life as an Ottoman vassal was the last thing Vlad had in mind. Taking to himself the title ‘Dracula’, meaning ‘Son of the Dragon’, in memory of his father, Vlad began mustering his resources to fight the Ottomans.

Owing to the apocryphal, almost mythical nature of the stories about Vlad which have survived it is hard to know how accurate sources are. What is clear is that the sultan sent emissaries to Dracula’s court to discover why Vlad had not sent the promised tributes owed to the Ottoman court. Konstantin Mihailovic, a Serbian convert in service to the Ottomans, writes in his memoirs that the sultan’s emissary, Hamza, had been impaled along with the rest of his party.3

When this news was received at the Ottoman court the sultan called for Radu, who had remained behind when Vlad returned home and, according to Mihailovic,

“Having risen, the Emperor took him by the hand and seated him alongside himself on the right side in another somewhat lower chair and ordered that a purple garment of gold cloth be brought and placed on him.”4

The implications of this are more than the sultan simply showing favour. The reference to a cloak of purple and gold is key. The Ottomans were very keen to showcase themselves as the rightful inheritors of the Roman Empire by right of conquest, and they did this by co-opting visible and obvious elements of the cultures they conquered in a bid to legitimise the inheritance and make it acceptable to the population. Imperial purple was the colour worn by Roman magistrates, and later the rulers of both the Holy Roman Empire and the Byzantine Empire, the latter of which the Ottomans would finally defeat in 1453 with their taking of Constantinople. In clothing Radu in purple and gold, the sultan not only shows him favour but marks him as a future ruler. After Vlad’s death in 1476 in battle, Mehmed did enshrine Radu in his place. Owing to the convoluted nature of warfare and politics at the time, Radu reigned twice after his brother’s death.

The problem with verifying historical events in the life of Vlad is that much primary documentation concerning his life is missing, for one reason or another and thus histories have often been resurrected on folk tales and oral accounts making much of the information we have on this individual somewhat apocryphal. Given the huge amount of scholarly literature on the novel, I am forced to confine myself to a brief discussion of the person of the Count and his identity as Vlad Dracula which, in itself, is a contentious subject. Professor Elizabeth Miller raised the issue of identity in her 1997 paper entitled ‘Filing for Divorce: Count Dracula vs. Vlad Tepes’ in which she acknowledges that Stoker found the name ‘Dracula’ in a copy of An Account of the Principalities of Wallachia and Moldavia (1820) by William Wilkinson, which he borrowed from the Whitby Public library in the summer of 1890. However, this text suffers from the same problem that many histories of the family have in that ‘Dracula’ is used to refer both to Tepes’s father, also called Vlad and the Impaler himself. Wilkinson also seems to have translated ‘Dracul’ into ‘devil’ in the English instead of ‘Dragon’, arguably a more accurate interpretation due to the family connection to The Order of the Dragon.5 Miller concludes that Stoker gained his total knowledge of Vlad from Wilkinson, and as such any deeper connections to the Impaler beyond the borrowing of a name are circumstantial and that serious scholarly effort should be made to distinguish the differences between the historical Voivode and the Vampire of Stoker’s creation. Dracula historian Raymond McNally responded to Miller’s article in his own paper entitled ‘Separation Granted; Divorce Denied; Annulment Unlikely’ in which he argues that historians and literature scholars are well aware of the division and able to separate myth from fact.6 However, it is all very well to say that scholars and academics can make the distinction but for someone like Dracula, so prevalent in popular culture, I agree with Professor Miller that a popular distinction should be made.

In conclusion, the relations between the Ottoman Empire and the family of Vlad Dracula were much more long-winded and complex than I have stated here. However, perhaps next time Francis Ford Copella’s classic is aired on TV we might spare a thought for the real life history which often inspires such characters and events. The truth might not always be stranger than fiction, but it can certainly be just as interesting.

1   Gavin Baddeley & Paul Woods, Vlad the Impaler: Son of the Devil, Hero of the People, (Ian Allan Publishing Ltd, Chatham, 2010)

2   Ibid

3   Konstantin Mihailovic, Memoirs of a Janissary, trans. Benjamin Stolz, (Markus Wiener Publishers, Princeton, 2011)

4   Ibid

5   Elizabeth Miller, ‘Filing for Divorce: Count Dracula vs Vlad Tepes’ accessed at http://www.ucs.mun.ca/~emiller/divorce.html on 6th August 2013.

6   Raymond McNally, ‘Separation Granted; Divorce Denied; Annulment Unlikely’, Journal of Dracula Studies, No 1, 1999.


A woman’s place is in the kitchen?

The Rise of the Chef: The Skill of Cooking Becomes More Complicated

by Mary Farrell.

Women have always been involved with food: gathering food; growing food; processing food; cooking food; presenting food; feeding their families. This is something that is true across the world and throughout history. Yet in many societies, indeed most, women have tended to be poorly represented at higher-status activities associated with food. Think of the Michelin chefs, famous chefs, head chefs – do we automatically think of men? It is fascinating that, even in societies in which women are considered “liberated” from the restraints of traditional gender mores, and protected at work from the most egregious cases of gender discrimination, women are significantly under-represented as top chefs, and women’s writing about food has been typically relegated to the areas of domestic and family life. Even now, it seems that men’s involvement with food, whether in preparing it or writing about it in the public realm is seen as having more gravitas; as being, almost by definition, higher status. The question is why this is the case? How did it all get so confused? After all, women remain the predominant cooks in the domestic setting. In order to understand the particularity of this phenomenon we must look back through history in order to understand the curious state of affairs we now find ourselves in.


Illustration by Rita Blair

The Creation of the ‘Le Chef’

It is during the 17th century we witness the emergence of the concept ‘The Chef’. Early chefs were members of the military and were exclusively men when, in the 17th century, the landed nobility began to rely on chefs to prepare food. The employment of a man in this capacity was seen as a sign of one’s status at that time[1]. As chefs began to take on more power in shaping the cultural and culinary world around them, they searched for ways to separate cuisine with a high social value, or haute cuisine, from the everyday, and little valued, cookery of women[2].

It is also at this time, the era of the Industrial Revolution, that we see the emergence of two distinct spheres, the domestic/private/feminine on the one hand, and the professional /public/masculine on the other. Prior to this, most women and men’s lives overlapped. Most work was carried out around the home where women were the primary food providers and caretakers while also taking part in home-based manufacturing. The Industrial Revolution relegated women to the private realm of household management, child rearing and religious education, as factories split the family unit. Working-class men worked in the mines, mills, and workshops and women remained in the home with the farm and family, creating the concept of “homemaker”. This division reinforced an already gendered world by identifying separate spheres, unequally weighted in favour of the masculine and the public. This dichotomy prevails to this day and continues to underpin our understanding of the public/private realms and the concepts of masculine and feminine.

This gendered division of the skill of cooking, aided by the rise of separate spheres for men and women, prevented women from participating in the growing restaurant industry in Europe (Ferguson 2004). Men controlled the means of professional legitimation such as authoring cookbooks, teaching at culinary schools, and exhibiting at culinary expositions thereby juxtaposing men in the role of ‘‘educator’’, and their women audience members as ‘‘students’’, helping to institutionalise the exclusion of women from professional cooking (Ferguson 2004).

The terms ‘chef’ and ‘cook’ are directly related to the separation of the public and the private sphere. The chef means “chef de cuisine” or “head of the kitchen” and related directly to the métier of food preparation in the professional public sphere. The term cook is understood more as much more working class, understood as being a nose-to-the-grindstone worker, a cog in a wheel. The chef is a professional who goes through proper training and rises in the ranks of a military system, a term historically associated with men, whereas the cook is self-taught, home-schooled, working by instinct and has historically been associated with women and the private sphere. A chef is granted higher public status and the freedom to be creative and imaginative with their food; a cook may only be responsible for following the chef’s recipes and produce food. In Ratatouille, Revel believes that the raw edible materials in the hands of “mothers” can lead to some fine “craftsmanship” but not great art, whereas the chefs have to transcend everyday methods to realise a grand cuisine which should be restricted only to professionals, who are undoubtedly men. When Colette asks Linguini “How many women do you see in this kitchen?” her response is illuminating,

“Because Haute Cuisine is an antiquated hierarchy built upon rules written by stupid old men. Rules designed to make it impossible for women to enter this world…” People think haute cuisine is snooty, so the chef needs to be snooty”[3].

Colette reveals that cuisine is associated with high culture and the world of the professional man whereas cooking is associated with working class people and women’s work. This hierarchical stance creates binaries – art/craft, cultivated or educated professional cuisines /local cooking, and male chefs/female cooks. This dichotomous relationship is played out in the world of the professional chef, where women and men are judged according to their gendered understanding of the skill of cooking within our culture, to women’s disadvantage[4]. The most recent academic work researching women chefs found that females are overly represented at the cook level and underrepresented at the head chef level, questioning whether the gendered understanding of chef and cooks reveal a bias against women based on their gender and historic hierarchical structures[5].


Illustration by Rita Blair

With the emergence of modern feminism, the predominant representations of the domestic are of oppression, entrapment, tyranny, enslavement; “captive wives and housebound mothers”. Women are portrayed as victims, subjects of male action and female biology, removing women’s agency and dismissing the domestic and the myriad of important actions that take place within this space. Betty Freidman argued in The Feminine Mystique that the domestic was contrary to the aims of feminism.  As a result, the relationship between the female, food and the domestic has long been identified as oppressive; a representation of powerlessness.  This has excluded the female in the domestic space from telling her story, who, while working within this private sphere was able to carve out her own area of power and independence. The greater intimacy, the very domesticity that is often seen to relegate women’s involvement with food to a “lower” level, also means that their cooking, writing and talk of food are rich with social context in the way that more formal involvement often is not, giving us abundant insight not just into their own and their family’s lives, but to social mores and historical context.

In recent years, food studies and third wave feminists have helped to open up the domestic space to further investigation, allowing us to recognise the significant lives of women in the domestic spheres. By conceptualising the kitchen as a space as opposed to a place, we can represent a site of multiple changing levels and degrees of freedom, self-awareness, subjectivity and agency.  Here, food studies uncover a relationship with food and the domestic that reveals “opportunities” to demonstrate creativity and skill, and accruing value within families and communities and increasing opportunities to express resistance and power; it permits a revision of the text to allow for more a “more nuanced, culturally inclusive consideration”, suggesting that the domestic sphere functioned as a space of freedom and power for women even as it constrained them in other ways[6].

My PhD key factors for the gender disparity in head chef positions in the  restaurant industry in Ireland. It has always fascinated me as to why, when women carry out cooking in the domestic setting, it is men who consistently feature as the top chefs in my industry. The rise of the chef has resulted in a complicated and misunderstood relationship for women and their relationship with the skill of cooking.  The rise of the chef, married with the separation of the two spheres – the public and private – seems to me a good place to begin the story for women chefs and the many challenges they may face through their careers.  Many challenges remain for women in this industry but by looking back at how it all began it helps me frame my research and develop it through the lens of feminist discourse.



[1] Trubek, A. (2000), Haute Cuisine: How the French Created the Culinary Profession, Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press.

[2] Chakraborty Poushali, (2013), Cooking and Performance Negotiating Art and Authenticity in Ratatouille, Ruphkatha Journal, On Interdisciplinary Studies in Humanities, Volume V, No 2 pp.355-364.

[3] Chakraborty Poushali, (2013), Cooking and Performance Negotiating Art and Authenticity in Ratatouille, Ruphkatha Journal, On Interdisciplinary Studies in Humanities, Volume V, No 2 pp.355-364.

[4] Swinbank, V. A. (2002). The Sexual Politics of Cooking: A Feminist Analysis of Culinary Hierarchy in Western Culture, The Journal of Historical Sociology, Vol 15, pp.464–494.

[5] Harris Deborah A. & Patti Giuffre, Patti A, (2015), Taking the Heat , Women Chefs and Gender Inequality in the Professional Kitchen , Rutgers University Press

[6] Abarca, Meredith E. (2008), Voices in the Kitchen: Views of Food and the World from Working Class Mexican and Mexican American Women. U.S.A: Library of Congress.

Women in Irish Ghost Stories

Where our witches at? Women Are Boring is donning its Hallowe’en hat for the weekend and getting SPOOKY. This piece, by Dr. Clodagh Tait, looks at women in Irish ghost stories, and is the second in our two-part Hallowe’en series (read the first one, on the origins of Hallowe’en, here).

In 1937, Mrs Maggie Gallinagh told Mary Anne Gallinagh a ghost story.

One evening round about Halloween, one of the Harvey sisters of Inver, Co. Donegal, was putting in her ducks at twilight, when she saw a woman dressed in grey ‘looking through the kitchen’. When Miss Harvey spoke to the woman she vanished, but then appeared to the other sister the next evening. The sisters sought the help of Fr George Kelly, parish priest of Inver, who advised them to carry holy water, and when the apparition returned on the third evening the sister who saw her addressed her with the question Fr Kelly recommended: ‘In God’s name what is troubling you?’ The woman replied ‘I am your mother and I am twenty years dead, I am on my way to heaven, and I want three Masses said one from each of you. You three [the girls and their brother] are the only ones living belonging to me, and I want you to pray for me and I will keep you out of danger…when you are on your death bed I will come down and bring you up into the glorious kingdom of heaven, where we will live happy for ever.’ The woman then disappeared, and was never seen again.

It may come as a surprise that ghost stories like this one can be taken seriously by historians. The fact that they are usually written at a distance from their supposed occurrence, passing meanwhile by word of mouth, means that the researcher will look in vain in them for objective ‘facts’ (even if that researcher believes that such events could have happened in the first place). But to dismiss such tales as hearsay, fiction or delusion is to miss the point. People in the past have always reported sighting of ghosts and other supernatural beings. Therefore it is the historian or folklorist’s role to attempt to understand what work such stories did in communities, and to listen for what they express about ideas held about the relationship between the dead and the living and about ‘world-views’ more generally.

The beliefs of Irish people in the past

From my point of view, the tale of the ghostly Mrs Harvey reveals several things, about the beliefs of Irish people in the past and other aspects of their thinking. We learn something, for example, about expectations of the behaviour of the returning dead and interactions with them. It seems to some degree that actions performed by ghosts, the circumstances in which they were encountered, and reactions to them, were gendered. Female ghosts often appear in or near domestic spaces, and female percipients of ghosts likewise tend to encounter them in familiar places close to home. Due to greater restrictions on their movements, especially at sunset and after dark, women were less likely than men to report meeting the returning dead further afield. When they saw the ghost of their mother, the Harvey girls were engaged in the routine activity of putting the ducks into their house for the night; the ghost appears at a widow of door ‘looking through the kitchen’.

The episode of ‘haunting’ (if we could even call it that) in the Donegal story is limited. While nowadays we seem to expect ghosts to be trapped endlessly – and usually mutely – in a specific place to be encountered again and again, Mrs Harvey’s ghost reflects the kinds of revenant who tended to be more commonly reported prior to the twentieth century. Those ghosts usually returned in a purposeful way to deliver a single message, and their haunting was limited in duration. The appearance of Mrs Harvey’s ghost is also notable. She arrived dressed in grey, and until she disappeared the first percipient seems to have believed her to be real. This solidity of appearance is quite common in Irish ghost stories: ghosts can be touched, and touch (even hit) others; they need to open gates to pass through; they even eat and drink.

We might also remark on the way the Harvey girls react to the ghost. While clearly initially somewhat afraid, they stand their ground and challenge her. This would have been a usual course of action in medieval and early modern accounts of haunting, when it was believed that ghosts brought messages, but could not speak until they were spoken to. In cases of ghost-seeing in the Irish past, we find percipients did not usually need professional intermediaries like exorcists or mediums to communicate with ghosts on their behalf: while the Harvey’s consulted a priest, they did not require his aid, though it does seem that in the cases of some particularly troublesome spirits the special skills of a priest might be called on.

Ghosts and Irish christianity

The story of Mrs Harvey very definitively places ghost belief in a Christian framework: Fr Kelly arms the girls with holy water and holy words. The ghost is on her way to heaven but needs the intervention of the church to get there – three masses for her soul, in return for which she offers her own prayers and the promise of heaven to her children. Such a story thus performs a dual purpose: to grapple with the possibility of returning spirits, but to house them securely within Christian teaching. For this reason, the Catholic church in particular was happy enough to accept stories of haunting. Sightings of ghosts fitted in with the doctrine of souls working off the penalties due for their sins in Purgatory, and the possibility that their time there might be shortened by the prayers and other assistance of the living.


Another underlying theme of Mrs Harvey’s story is motherhood and women’s domestic roles. Supposedly twenty years after her death, the deceased Mrs Harvey continues to exhibit care and concern for her children. Very many Irish stories of the supernatural describe female revenants visiting their own homes, caring for children and carrying out domestic chores. In one Co. Roscommon story , an aunt charged with taking care of an infant whose mother had died experienced a shape passing her at the door and found that the baby would not drink any of the milk she prepared for her. The next day in the bedroom ‘whom did she see sitting on the bed but the dead mother and she combing her hair. She faded away out of sight.’ The mother in this tale is definitively dead, but often similar revenants are patently not actually ghosts, but women who had been stolen by the fairies. One the informants cited in Lady Augusta Gregory’s folklore collection Visions and Beliefs in the West of Ireland stated ‘I believe all that die are brought among them [the fairies], except maybe an odd old person’. However, others seem to have believed that only a certain category of the supposedly dead were with the fairies. Numerous stories told of how young women stolen by the fairies could be rescued by their husbands and loved ones, or recalled those who had been released after a period of time and returned to their families.

 Lady Gregory’s informants told several stories of mothers either returning from fairy captivity or appearing as ghosts, including this unsettling one supplied by Mrs. Farley:

‘One time myself I was at Killinan, at a house of the Clancys’ where the father and mother had died, but it was well known they often come to look after the children. I was walking with another girl through the fields there one evening and I looked up and saw a tall woman dressed all in black, with a mantle of some sort, a wide one, over her head, and the waves of the wind were blowing it off her, so that I could hear the noise of it. All her clothes were black, and had the appearance of being new.’

Her companion could not see the spirit which so frightened Mrs Farley that she did not attempt to question it and fled ‘and the woman seemed to be coming after me, till I crossed a running stream and she had no power to cross that.’

This revenant, implicitly identified as the Clancy children’s mother, was so ‘present’ to Mrs Farley that she could assess the quality of her clothes – they have the appearance of mourning rather than grave clothes – and even hear the sound of her headdress flapping in the wind. Perhaps Mrs Farley’s terror responded in part to the rawness of the dead mother’s mourning for the children to whom she had been lost. After all, one of the things we learn from ghosts, even if we believe that they are only figments of imagination, is about emotion: about grief, anger, disappointment, remorse, and compassion. Most of all we recognise the longing for the loved dead – and the mingled hope and dread that they might in some way long for us – that persists as strongly now as it ever did at the Halloween firesides of the past.

Select bibliography:

Irish Folklore Archive, Schools Folklore Collection: www.duchas.ie

  1. Davies, The Haunted: A Social History of Ghosts (Basingstoke, 2007).

A.Gregory, Visions and Beliefs in the West of Ireland (Gerrards Cross, 1992 [1920])

  1. Narváez (ed.), The Good People: New Fairylore Essays (Lexington, 1997).




Women: ruling Hallowe’en since forever

Where our witches at? Women Are Boring is donning its Hallowe’en hat for the weekend and getting SPOOKY. This piece, by Dr. Lucy Ryder, is the first in our two-part Hallowe’en series (the second is coming on Monday). Read on and learn all about where Hallowe’en originated, and how women have always been central to the festival.


We love you, Lisa Simpson

Where does Hallowe’en come from?

Hallowe’en is one of the most secular of religious festivals, and possibly the most misunderstood. Deriving from the considerably more ancient Samhain (first recorded in the Irish tale Tochmarc Emire meaning ‘When the summer goes to rest”) the current fright night we now experience is a long way from its very ancient, but decidedly muddled, origins.

From an archaeological viewpoint, the period around Samhain (stretching from 31st October to, in some traditions, November 2nd) is difficult but not impossible to trace for the landscape historian. The communities and settlements where these rites are played out become the stage for interconnecting stories, beliefs, and tradition.

Add folklore and oral history to what Tolkien called the “soup pot of history” (or should that be witches brew?!) and we begin to see a potent narrative where women are well and truly in the heart of the Samhain festivities – both in terms of driving the activities and also the balance of power.

The Hallowe’en traditions of ‘trick or treating’ and dressing up in scary clothing for sweets is the latest in a tradition to mark the end of autumn. There are many ideas as to the origin of Hallowe’en, and in some respects which is nearest to the truth has become less of an issue. However, what is consistent is that women are central to the theme.

Cailleach: the Old Crone

The Gaelic goddess Cailleach (or Old Crone) presents a strong image of the woman and landscape intertwined to end the autumn and bountiful seasons. It is suggested (Mac Curtain, 1980: 27) that the name ‘cailleach’ had a double meaning in primitive Irish; the word ‘caille’ meant a veil, and no later than the fifth century AD ‘cailleach’ is recorded to mean both a nun and, almost simultaneously, becomes in secular mythology the word for ‘an old hag’.

Said to be closely associated with the dead and hostile to the living, Cailleach Bhéarra marks the end of autumn and the start of winter in the most vigorous of fashions by crossing the Irish landscape with a hammer pounding the fertile ground to solid rock. Cailleach was said to dwell at cave sites and prehistoric standing stones and megalithic tombs across Ireland, (Champion and Cooney, 1999: 200; Dowd, 2015: 251-2) and was thought to be such a malignant force that her suspected presence in Badhdh’s Hole in County Waterford causes local communities to be uneasy about archaeological investigations of the site (Dowd ibid.). Her presence at these locations brought spirits to her. (Editor’s note: Badhbh is pronounced ‘bibe’. This is another word for ‘banshee’, and the word is still in use in Waterford today: generally used to describe a contrary or nasty person – usually a woman!)

Interestingly, many hillforts and megaliths in England and Scotland are associated with fairies that are supposed to roam freely on Hallowe’en. Clay Hill, near Warminster, is a hot bed of little folk, and folklore tells of large fires and strange-talking people revelling in the darkness of the 31st October. Maybole in Ayrshire is also known for fairy activity within the archaeological remains.

Spooky sites in Ireland

The archaeological importance of the change in the seasons can be found particularly in Ireland, and the folklore echoes the evidence. The Mound of the Hostages (Duma na nGiall), a passage tomb in the Tara-Skryne Valley in County Meath, is thought to be illuminated by the ‘Samhain sunrise’ in early November, and reinforces the tie (in a narrative at least) between Cailleach the Crone and the ancient communities that constructed the tomb between 4,500 to 5,000 years ago (between 2500 and 3000 BC).

Many of the symbols we now associate with Hallowe’en seem to derive from Cailleach; the Crone’s Cauldron, said to collect the souls of the dead, was also thought to represent the earth mother’s womb ready for reincarnation. Her association with the dead certainly seems to be the link between the festivals, marking the end of the autumn and the long winter to come, and the spookier Hallowe’en that we celebrate now.

In many neo-pagan and Wiccan accounts, Cailleach is thought to be the goddess of Samhain, but she has competition from another powerful Gaelic woman – in this case, the daughter of the druid and sun god Mog Ruith. The fort is at Tlachtga, also in County Meath (currently under archaeological investigation, which can be found at https://www.facebook.com/ExcavationsatTlachtga/) is said to be named after Tlachtga, a druidess who was also the daughter of Mog Ruith and the original site of Samhain festivities. Presiding over her temple, all fires in the kingdom were extinguished and were relit from the sacred flame at Tlachtga on the eve of Samhain (Evans, 2014). The Anglo-Saxon tradition for Samhain refers to ‘need-fire’, where fires held magical properties – this was carried on into later traditions, as we’ll see below.

How did modern Hallowe’en begin?

The ancient traditions and Catholicism collided when Pope Saint Boniface’s festivity to honour dead saints was moved from May to coincide with the Samhain celebrations on November 1st  (generally thought to be sometime after Pope Gregory the III, around the end of the eighth century (Roy, 2005: 95)), when communication with the deceased was thought to be the most convivial.

The Abbot of Cluny Saint Odilo was attributed to bringing All Souls Day remembrance to the party sometime between 962 and 1049 AD, and therefore, the blurring of practices laid the road to the Hallowe’en we know today. Within this new order, outside of the religious practices of the Catholic Church, women, already so pivotal in the origin of Samhain/Hallowe’en, once again became fundamental in its next phase.

Women and Hallowe’en

Women were central to the home and its protection, and during the days leading up to All Souls Day on the 2nd of November, a number of protective methods were implemented to keep those within the home safe from anyone, or anything, wandering about in the darkness. Fundamental to this was protecting the boundaries, and additional care to bring plants. Women were primarily charged with ensuring the living and the dead were kept at a safe distance from each other, and this included putting bent nails in doors and salt in keyholes (which also worked the rest of the year), and bringing in plants from the natural world. Elderberry branches above lintels were thought to protect homes from malevolent spirits and witches, and crosses made of rowan twigs were carried for protection. Food needed to be prepared and left on the doorstep to appease witches. Strands of hazelnuts (either worn or kept in the home) also brought protection to the home, and were used and carried by young women to ensure fertility for the coming year.

This is crucial to our narrative of women in Hallowe’en, as this period was also seen by women as a time to harness the spirits around and put them to good use – in the form of both divination (seeking knowledge of the future or the unknown by supernatural means) and catopromancy (divination with mirrors). Hallowe’en was the time to predict and safeguard the future; Apples, echoing back to Pomona, were used for divination for future and the longevity of life, and were included in cakes made with coins (wealth), rings (marriage), or marbles (single/childless). inside, whatever you ended up with was your future (Editor’s note: a similar practice continues in Ireland today with the barmbrack [‘báirín braic’ in Irish],  a sweet fruit loaf which contains a number of different objects,including a ring, and which is traditionally eaten around Hallowe’en. Learn how to make your own barmbrack here.). The protecting hazelnuts were placed into fires with single girls reciting love spells such as “if you love me pop and fly, if you hate me, burn and die” in order to establish future suitors.

The practice of catopromancy (divination with mirrors) is most associated with Hallowe’en, and used by women to predict their future, be it wealth, health, or partners. In particular, this tradition was popular during the Victorian period where women would call to the mirror to show their future husband over their shoulder! Catopromancy also assisted communication with the dead, which undoubtedly lead to the game of calling “Bloody Mary”, who would be summoned with the threat that she would curse someone to die before the year was out.

As children born on Hallowe’en were thought to have the gift of communication with both the dead and fairies (or other fey like creatures) the act of women undertaking communication with the spirit world shows another blurring of traditions surrounding the festival.

Throughout the history of Samhain/Hallowe’en, women have had a pivotal role to play. From changing the seasons, and changing the earth, to calling the spirits, relighting the fires and protecting the home, to helping communities through the winter, their role is imprinted on the natural and archaeological landscape around, and accessible through folklore and material culture. And all this without once mentioning riding on a broomstick….


Dowd, M. 2015. The Archaeology of Caves in Ireland Oxford: Oxbow Books

Evans, K. 2014. Tlachtga: The Birthplace of Hallowe’en? http://digventures.com/2014/10/tlachtga-the-birthplace-of-halloween/

Gentilcore, R. (1995). The Landscape of Desire: The Tale of Pomona and Vertumnus in Ovid’s “Metamorphoses” Phoenix, 49(2), 110-120. doi:1. Retrieved from http://www.jstor.org/stable/1192628 doi:1

Mac Curtain, M. (1980). Towards an Appraisal of the Religious Image of Women. The Crane Bag, Vol. 4, No. 1, Images of the Irish Woman pp. 26-30

Roy, C. 2005 Traditional Festivals: A Multicultural Encyclopedia, Volume 1. ABC-CLIO Ltd

Sitting with strangers and touching stomach soap: Reseaching Performance Art in Eastern Europe

by Dr. Amy Bryzgel

Imagine you walk into a stranger’s home and he shows you pictures of his stomach being operated on — skin pulled back, a layer of fat being removed. “I took the fat from my stomach, and made a soap from it — here, feel it,” he says, as he takes a piece of soap from the drawer and shows it to me. “Does anyone know I’m here?” I think to myself, “should I be here? Is this dangerous?”

Bryzgel - Albania

Amy Bryzgel meets with artists from the artistic and activist group Montenegrin Alternative Culture, Podgorica, June 2013

A few weeks later, I found myself in another stranger’s home. “Would you like a beer?” he asks. I take a sip from a freshly poured beer and he shows me some pictures. “Here, I tried to urinate into my mouth, and when I couldn’t, I urinated into my hand and drank it.” “Was this really beer on the table?” I thought to myself.

This is my research. For two years, I traveled across Eastern Europe, to 21 countries and countless more cities, and met with over 250 artists, curators, art historians, and arts practitioners to gather research for my forthcoming book, Performance Art in Eastern Europe since 1960.

The man who had his stomach operated on is Zoran Todorović. He is contemporary artist from Serbia, and I met with him to talk about his art. He made the soap for a work called Agalma, the title being a reference to a Greek word meaning gift, and the work was a gesture of intimacy with his viewers—at the exhibition of the work, which documented the surgery and making of soap, he invited visitors to wash their hands with the soap. At one exhibition, visitors were given the opportunity to be bathed with the soap, by two curators, in a private room. The man who urinated into his hand is Siniša Labrović. This performance is called Perpetuum Mobile, and refers to the current position of artists in the neoliberal system, where artists struggle to make a living for themselves. Labrović created a way to be self-sustaining, by creating a performance that enabled him to feed himself

2.31.2 Todorovic-Agalma performance dokumentation photo - Beograd 2003

Zoran Todorovic, Agalma, documentation of performance, Belgrade, 2003. Courtesy of the artist

During the communist period in Eastern Europe, performance art—live art created by visual artists, also known as body art, live art, action art—usually developed unofficially. Painting and sculpture, the traditional art forms, were under government control, and were usually employed in the service of the state. Depending on the country in question, the state’s control over art varied. We are familiar with the propaganda paintings and cult of personality busts and statues from the former Soviet Union, however, in places such as Yugoslavia and Poland, artists had a bit more leeway. Artists were able to create experimental art in artist-run or student venues, but not in official state-run galleries, museums and institutions. Still, performance art was never really recognised as a legitimate art form as it was in Western Europe and North America, and developed, for the most part, underground.

It is for that reason that I had to spend two years traveling through the region to meet with and talk to artists, to gather the oral histories to create a written history that had not yet been written. How did the genre develop? Why did artists create performances? How did they create them? These were the questions I asked. I met with artists who worked both during the communist period and who are working now (and some artists whose work spans both the communist and post-communist periods), in order to gauge how the art form has developed before, during and since the transition.

As an undergraduate student in art history at Boston University in the 1990s, I rarely, if ever, encountered an artist from Eastern Europe in my courses. In fact, I would dare to say that I didn’t encounter one contemporary artist from the region in either my courses or my textbooks. For various reasons, the art of Eastern Europe was largely omitted from the history of art. During the Cold War, travel to the region was difficult, and most scholars lacked the language skills to do primary source research. Those who did would have found few, if any, primary sources for their research, because the state controlled the art history discourse as well. And with most art in the service of the state, the meaning was not open to interpretation—all art served the state ideology of building socialism. So while experimental art in the region developed underground, art history as a discipline was stalled, and art historians have been playing catch-up since the 1990s.


As a 3rd generation American with Polish roots, the omission of Eastern European artists from my discipline was personal. So I set out to fill this gap in my later research. Studying performance and body art from the region not only worked to fill a lamentable gap in the literature of 20th century and contemporary art, but also provides insight into the social and cultural conditions of late socialism in the region. Analysing the range of activities that were allowed and prohibited, where and when, has served as a litmus test for the limits of freedom in state sponsored socialism. For example, Yugoslav Croatia has a strong tradition of street art, public actions and performances in the 1970s and 1980s, yet this type of public display was virtually absent from the public sphere in Bucharest, in Ceaușescu’s Romania at the same time. In 1981, Tomislav Gotovac walked down the main street of Zagreb, completely naked, shouting “Zagreb, I Love You!” in a performance entitled Lying Naked on the Asphalt, kissing the asphalt (Zagreb, I love you!). In Bucharest, however, artists such as Geta Brătescu and Ion Grigorescu created body art and performances in the privacy of their studios, documenting the performances through photography or film. While Gotovac was arrested for public nudity, he was given the minimal sentence, because the judge was understanding of his artistic intentions. In Bucharest, however, an artist even attempting such a display would have faced more serious consequences—so serious that no one even dared try. This is just one example of the different manner in which state-sponsored socialism was implemented across Eastern Europe.

Performance Art in Eastern Europe since 1960 will be the first comprehensive attempt to write the history, chronology and development of performance art in Eastern Europe.

It covers over 200 artists in 21 countries, working from the 1960s until today. It fills an unacceptable gap in the literature on performance and contemporary art, which traditionally only includes the history and development of performance art in Western Europe and North America. Beyond that, it tells a range of compelling stories of artists finding ways to create experimental art in unfavourable conditions—not only under censorship, but with a deficit of materials and support for their work. Putting this history together required months of travel to and through the “other side” of Europe, meetings with artists in their home, cafes, bars; numerous cups of coffee and glasses of beer, and hours of engaging conversation. And it was anything but boring.


Holding Out for a Heroine: Women in Folktales of the Western Malayo-Polynesian Language Group

by Ikhlas Abdul Hadi.

Folktales are told across all known cultures throughout the world. We are familiar with a few, mainly through Disney’s popularisation of tales such as Cinderella, Snow White, and Sleeping Beauty. This well-known list of female-oriented stories may lead some to believe that folk stories are dominated by female characters. The opposite is true however, when we look at international collections of folktales that have appeared in print. With women making up nearly 50% of the world’s population, it may come as a surprise that there are not as many folktales about women as there are about men. In a quantitative study led by Jonathan Gottschall, it was found that this phenomenon is prevalent worldwide; that ‘male main characters […] outnumbered female main characters by more than 2 to 1’ (100).

Ikhlas 1

The table above is taken from Jonathan Gottschall’s Literature, Science, and a New Humanities (2008)

‘Male main characters…outnumbered female characters by more than 2 to 1’

At present, there are no conclusive answers to this conundrum – some speculate that the blame is to be laid on the male editors who chose to include more male-oriented stories in their folktale collections; but Gottschall is unconvinced. He found that this discrepancy between male and female characters occurred even in collections edited exclusively by women. He suggests that the ‘missing tales of women’ could have been caused by a lack of folkloric access to storytelling women; this hypothesis imagines the existence of women who possess more female-oriented stories, but they were inaccessible due to past societal restrictions on interactions with male collectors (151). Another possibility is that there just weren’t as many stories told about women; that early female-led stories centring on a pre-industrial life are more home-based, and are less interesting than men’s. This is a rather problematic suggestion, and shows that there is still room for further research in this area. But the aim of my studies is not to answer why there aren’t many female-led stories. I decided to take on a route similar to the motivations of the founders of Women are Boring: approaching the problem by showcasing female-led stories that have made it into printed folktale collections through research.

Even though there are not as many folk stories about women as there are about men, there is still plenty of potential in working with the materials available and shedding light on these female-led stories. I believe that the more they are studied, the more they will become known around the world. Following this line of thought, I decided that while I was bringing light to little known female-oriented stories, I might as well focus on a group of women whose folk stories had never before been collectively studied – those from the Western Malayo-Polynesian language group. This language group consists of languages spoken in southern Vietnam, the Philippines, the island states of western Micronesia, Indonesia, Madagascar, and my home – Malaysia.

Because of these specifications, I experienced the absence of tales on women first-hand.

My initial scope of research was on Malay folktale texts, but this was widened to the Western Malayo-Polynesian language group as it was difficult to find a sufficient number of female-led stories for analysis. Selection of tales was further complicated when searching for plots that featured female characters who shaped the outcome of a story. If the women were not active characters, these stories would not yield sufficient information for further analysis. Because of these specifications, I experienced the absence of tales on women first-hand. Upon scouring online collections and libraries in the University of Leeds and the Royal Netherlands Institute of Southeast Asian and Caribbean Studies (KITLV), I managed to obtain only 100 printed stories that contained active female protagonists from Western Malayo-Polynesian societies. To illustrate how difficult it was to obtain these 100 stories, take a look at Mable Cook Cole’s collection of 61 Philippine folktales: in this collection, only 4 tales contained plots that features active women and thus were included in my thesis.


The Western Malayo-Polynesian language group

We live vicariously through these stories, and they can assist us in making judgments in our own lives.

With an arsenal of stories from the Western Malayo-Polynesian language group, I use findings from evolutionary theory to better understand why they have managed to survive. Because folktales are a universal phenomenon, it has been argued that they are an inherently human activity. The persistence of their existence provides a hint of their importance to humans, and evolutionary literary theorists argue that stories can implicitly help humans with navigating both their physical and social world through simulated events. We live vicariously through these stories, and they can assist us in making judgments in our own lives.

With an evolutionary understanding of human drives, I began looking through the stories for common themes that may confer evolutionary benefits. I saw that an overwhelming number of stories were focused on searching for a partner (approximately 50% of the collected stories), and another large theme was focused on women’s roles in the family (approximately 40% of the stories). It’s a staggering number; almost 90% of the female-led stories collected dealt with themes that were related to reproduction, a key element in propagating the human species. It is a number that seems to suggest that we (or at least Western Malayo-Polynesian societies) were telling stories that held evolutionary-beneficial themes, implicitly designed to help us survive better.

Almost 90% of the female-led stories collected dealt with themes that were related to reproduction, a key element in propagating the human species.

It could be argued that viewing these stories from such a perspective limits the potential of women; if ‘beneficial’ stories were ones that promoted reproduction, it would stand to reason that they would promote the tired idea of women as mothers. Indeed there are plenty of stories that promote motherhood as the ultimate goal for a woman. When viewed from an evolutionary perspective, it can make sense that we tell such stories. Childbirth is necessary in order for humans to continue to exist, and thus there is always a need for mothers. But this heavily simplified analysis of folktales needs to take into consideration that folk stories normally rely on a fairly conservative, heteronormative storytelling tradition that may be serving a patriarchal idea of womanhood.

This is why we should not view these stories in isolation; there are plenty of other tales that exist alongside those with ideas of women as ‘natural’ mothers. There are Western Malayo-Polynesian stories of mothers, when lacking support from their family, who abandon their children. This may seem to run counter to the idea of the ‘natural’ mother, a mother who is ‘naturally’ able to give birth and raise a child into adulthood on her own. But it has been shown across evolutionary psychology that the ideal mother figure can only be attained if she feels that she will be supported upon giving birth. If not, history and oral stories show that mothers will cease investing in their children when they find themselves in poor circumstances. There are also stories of women who reject marriage and motherhood, preferring instead to rule kingdoms or sacrifice themselves to bigger cause. These stories imply that there are other options besides motherhood, other paths in life that may benefit a woman from an evolutionary perspective other than reproduction. Thus there are various adaptive ‘lessons’ that can be reaped from the fictional depictions of womanhood, ones that are not necessarily based on patriarchal ideas.

We should not view these stories in isolation; there are plenty of other tales that exist alongside those with ideas of women as ‘natural’ mothers.


Anna and Elsa from Disney’s (2013) Frozen

I would also suggest that the lessons derived from folktales are always changing. When comparing stories that have been accepted in the past, to the ones that have been popularised today, there is a clear distinction in values. Bringing in Disney again, a company that is arguably the largest distributer of modern folktales, we see a difference between the ‘lessons’ to be derived from Cinderella and her stepsisters, Drizella and Anastasia (1950), and from Anna and Elsa, sisters of the immensely successful movie Frozen (2013). The female protagonists of Frozen are not competing with each other to win the attraction of a Prince, or in evolutionary terms, a reproductive partner. They have other concerns – an aspect that is reminiscent of findings from my own research, where approximately 10% of the Western Malayo-Polynesian stories focused on themes beyond searching for Prince Charming. It is a small percentage of stories, but it may be an indication of a change in women’s priorities, and perhaps a change in the way women can obtain evolutionary benefits for themselves.

Throughout my research on Western Malayo-Polynesian stories, I had been introduced to many different types of women; mothers who are patient with their unhelpful children, mothers who despair and abandon their children; sisters who protect each other from monsters, sisters who fight and attempt to murder each other; wives who sacrifice themselves for their husband, wives who dream of better husbands; princesses who are given away in marriage, and queens who turn down offers of marriage. And there are more folktales out there; tales that tell of implicit evolutionary advantages, which have yet to be considered. Further research is thus always needed to assist in re-evaluating the evolutionary underpinnings of how and why women are portrayed in certain ways, and also to recover more of these ‘missing tales’ of women.



by Lottie Whalen

‘On or about December 1910, human character changed’ Virginia Woolf famously suggested, as she considered the radical changes in art, everyday life, and human consciousness and perspective that appeared at the start of the twentieth century.

Likely 1910 stood out to Woolf as this was the year of Roger Fry’s exhibition ‘Manet and the Post-Impressionists’, which showcased work by Cezanne, van Gough, Gauguin, Matisse and Picasso to a largely unimpressed London audience. However, many other dates stand out as significant moments in the cultural shift that we now broadly define as modernism – that radical, experimental turn taken by artists determined to break with the past and ‘make it new’. Three years after Fry’s exhibition, in 1913, the first Armory show – or International Exhibition of Modern Art – caused shockwaves in New York and marked a true watershed moment in the history of modern culture. The show brought works of Post-Impressionism, Cubism, and Dada to America for the first time, including ‘shocking’ pieces such as Henri Matisse’s Blue Nude and Marcel Duchamp’s Nude Descending a Staircase. Art critics, the media and the general public were all utterly baffled, bemused, and captivated by the spectacle. For literature, 1922 proved to be the crucial moment that high modernism truly came into its own: that year saw the publication of T. S. Eliot’s The Wasteland, James Joyce’s Ulysses, Virginia Woolf’s Jacob’s Room, F Scott Fitzgerald’s The Beautiful and Damned, and the first English translation of Marcel Proust’s À la recherche du temps perdu.


Portrait of Mina Loy, by Man Ray

We might also add 1915, the year when Others: a Magazine of the New Verse was first published in America. A modest edition at just 18 pages long, the first Others may have gone largely unnoticed if not for an experimental and daring sequence of verses by a certain Mina Loy: ‘Love Songs’.

Loy had already begun to make a name for herself, after her innovative poetry had appeared in a various notable avant-garde little magazines. Yet this poem provoked a scandal that propelled both her and the new forms of ‘free verse’ poetry into the public consciousness; suddenly everyone was talking about – and puzzling over – modernist poetry. Loy’s ‘Love Songs’ was variously praised and parodied in the press, and it even prompted the noted poet Amy Lowell to withdraw her involvement with Others in disgust. Unsurprisingly, Others’ editor Alfred Kreymborg was delighted with this publicity. The opening of the poem may have lost some of its shock value over the century since it first appeared, but its mix of earthy eroticism and sublime lyricism remains striking:

Spawn of fantasies

Silting the appraisable

Pig Cupid    his rosy snout

Rooting erotic garbage

“Once upon a time”

Pulls a weed    white star-topped

Among wild oats sown in mucous membrane

I would   an eye in a Bengal light

Eternity in a sky-rocket

Constellations in an ocean

Whose rivers run no fresher

Than a trickle of saliva

These are suspect places

Two years later, in 1917, the New York Evening Sun newspaper declared Loy to be the archetypal ‘modern woman’: intellectual, sexually liberated, well dressed and cosmopolitan. She had arrived in New York via several stop offs at various European cities. Born in London in 1882, she left to study art in Munich, and then Paris. After moving to Florence, she became involved with the Futurism movement and had affairs with their leaders F. T. Marinetti and Giovanni Papini. When she moved to New York in 1916, she was already known to avant-garde circles thanks, in part, to the ‘Love Songs’ scandal; as such, she quickly found herself mixing with the likes of Marcel Duchamp and William Carlos Williams in the art collector Walter Arensberg’s Greenwich Village salon.

She would leave the city to marry the enigmatic Dada poet Arthur Cravan in South America (in 1918) and, after his mysterious disappearance the same year, spend the 1920s in Paris, a regular face among the avant-garde crowd. As the outbreak of World War Two became inevitable, she returned to New York, where she wrote poems and made assemblage artworks inspired by the homeless bums who congregated around the Bowery.


ca. 1926, Paris, France — Peggy Guggenheim (standing), well-known American society girl who recently joined the ranks of young American business women in Paris, opened a lamp shop with famous British artist Mina Loy (seated) in the heart of the French capital. — Image by © Underwood & Underwood/Corbis

Over the course of her travels through the capitals of modernity, Loy mixed with everyone who was anyone: Gertrude Stein, James Joyce, Djuna Barnes, Salvador Dalí, Marcel Duchamp, Ezra Pound, Peggy Guggenheim, Man Ray, and Joseph Cornell – to name just a few. Yet Loy was much more than a beautiful and witty guest at modernist parties and salons: as well as her talent for poetry, she was a skilled painter and a member of Paris’ prestigious Salon d’Automn, she made clothes and hats, wrote a novel, acted as a gallery agent, and designed lampshades, objet d’arts, and household objects. In 1920s Paris, she ran a short-lived but successful lampshade design business, with the financial backing of Peggy Guggenheim.

This leads me, finally, to my own research, which takes as its starting point the response to Loy’s ‘Love Songs’. In his autobiography, Kreymborg reflects on the scandal that the poem provoked, and suggests:

‘Had a man written these poems, the town might have viewed them with comparative comfort. But a woman wrote them, a woman who dressed like a lady and painted charming lampshades’.

He felt that the question that had perplexed the disgusted public was simple: ‘if [Loy] could dress like a lady, why couldn’t she write like one?’. Kreymborg’s comments reveal much more than simply the public’s reaction to a poem by Mina Loy. By highlighting the seeming incompatibility between the writer of sexualised, masculine free verse and the well-presented lady decorator, Kreymborg highlights the dichotomies that increasingly began to define the arts in the twentieth century. Applied arts and interior design were understood to be quaint, staid feminine activities, linked to bourgeois housewives and those concerned with taste and fashion – far removed, then, from the serious business of masculine high-art. It was not, Kreymborg suggests, the words on the page that offended people; after all, the same poem attributed to a male poet would have been accepted with ‘comparative comfort’. As modernism began increasingly to define itself, in critic Christopher Reed’s words, as ‘an heroic odyssey on the high seas of consciousness’, critics, artists and writers rushed to distance the defining work of the period from domesticity and the decorative. The serious business of modernism was men’s work and it did not happen at home.

Kreymborg’s patronising adjective, ‘charming’, also clearly points to the inferior status of the applied arts. Loy’s lampshades are seen as pretty trifles, the result of a quaint feminine hobby that one would expect a lady to engage in. This critical attitude has persisted: in a 1997 review of a biography of Loy and a new edition of her poems, Mark Ford claims that her ‘dilettantish approach to the various arts that appealed to her’ – that is, poetry, painting, collage, novels, and a ‘commercially successful’ design business – make ‘assessing her work a hazardous business’.


Assemblage by Mina Loy titled “Househunting” c.1950

Although Loy was by no means unique in her experimentation with different media, here the combination of gender and commerce prevent her from being considered a serious artist. Ford appears to fall back on the traditional stereotype that connects feminine craft to the trivial, the superficial and the merely decorative. Eighty years on from the ‘Love Songs’ scandal, Loy is still the beautiful, well-dressed creator of pretty lampshades who, consequently, cannot be assimilated in to the modernist canon.

However, this view overlooks the significant ways that these two creative practices (writing experimental poetry and making lampshades) interact with and inform one another. In Loy’s vision, light was synonymous with modernity: her early manifesto ‘Aphorisms on Futurism’ declares that ‘the Future is only dark from outside / Leap into it – and it EXPLODES with Light’. Her lampshades functioned like magic lanterns or cinema screens; they harnessed the power of electricity in order to transform domestic spaces in to the strange, enchanted scenes created in ‘Love Songs’, or the ‘stellectric’ illuminated cityscapes described in later poems. More than simply a way of making money, Loy’s lampshades expressed her creative vision in a different medium. In this way, we begin to see how Loy’s various activities (writing, painting, designing) form part of a wider aesthetic project that cuts across high art and middlebrow culture in an effort to bring art in to everyday life.

Through the process of reassessing Loy’s body of work, my research aims to reveal the peripheral spaces of female creativity – and the alternative strains of modernism – that existed outside of the dominant, masculine realm of high art.

Alongside Loy, I consider women such as Anni Albers and Sonia Delauney, pioneers of textile art, whose work influences aesthetics and art practises to this day; and the surrealist artist and writer Leonora Carrington, whose subversive work disrupts typical ideas of domesticity and homeliness, and foregrounds powerful forms of female creativity, collaboration and magic. Perhaps just as significant are the countless ordinary women who brought modernism and modern art in to everyday life through the clothes they wore and the way they decorated their homes. Although it continues to be an overlooked and underappreciated area, interior design and decorative arts provided women with an opportunity to shape the spaces of modernity and, in the process, forge new artistic identities. Understanding Loy’s transgressive artistic identity allows us to understand decoration and domesticity as vital yet hidden facets of modernity, and to move towards a greater appreciation of the female contribution to twentieth century art and culture.