On the 21st of January 2017, millions of demonstrators marched for women’s rights and against the resurgence of conservative politics seeking to limit these rights. Perhaps most shared across social media were the many placards emblazoned with witty slogans against Donald J. Trump and in support of women’s rights to equality and self-sovereignty. One popular image depicts a uterus with one fallopian tube upturned and giving the middle finger. This image, with a seemingly sentient and independently acting reproductive organ, is not new. Various slogans inverted Donald J. Trump’s account of his sexual assaults against women in which he claims to have ‘grabbed them by the pussy’. These slogans riffed on pussies ‘grabbing back’ and showed images of hissing cats and, in one case, a furry muff with clawed hand extended. The vagina dentata (literally toothed vagina) was originally a classical concept embodied by Scylla, the maiden with snapping hellhounds sprouting from her waist.
In medieval European comedy both of the images mentioned above appear in abundance. The latter — the vagina dentata — is well represented by the Middle English tale The Wedding of Sir Gawain and Dame Ragnelle (ed. Thomas Hahn). Through a series of encounters and negotiations King Arthur promises a haggard old woman to Sir Gawain in exchange for her counsel in a life-or- death matter. This matter concerns the knight Sir Gromer Somer Joure, who threatens to kill King Arthur if he cannot answer a riddle within one year. The riddle, 'whate wemen love best in feld and town' (l.91), leaves Arthur utterly mystified.
As luck would have it, he meets an old woman who guarantees him that she can provide the answer in exchange for a mate. Negotiations proceed and the wedding date is set. She reveals the answer — “We desyren of men above alle maner thyng / To have the sovereynté, withoute lesyng, / Of alle, bothe hyghe and lowe.” (ll.422-4: we desire of men above all manner of things, to have sovereignty, with no falsehood, of all, both high and low) — Arthur is saved, and Gawain must marry the foul lady.
So, the question remains, who is Dame Ragnell? An analogue appears in the Middle High German Parzival by Wolfram von Eschenbach in the form of Cundrie, a grail messenger (English trans. Cyril Edward / German ed. Eberhard Nellmann and Karl Lachmanns). This woman speaks Latin, Arabic, and French and is versed in dialectic, geometry, and astronomy. But along with her learning comes a ferocious visage. Her hair is like boar’sbristles, her hands are clawed, she has long, plaited eyebrows, a dog’s snout, and her face is whiskered all. Most notable for us, two boar’s tusks erupt from her mouth a ‘span’ in length. The narrator initially describes her:
Her face was red, her nose snotyd withalle,
Her mowithe wyde, her tethe yalowe overe alle,
With bleryd eyen gretter then a balle.
Her mowithe was nott to lak:
Her tethe hyng overe her lyppes,
Her chekys syde as wemens hippes.
(ll.231-6: her face was red, her nose totally snotted, her mouth wide, her teeth all
yellow, with bleary eyes larger than a ball. Her mouth was not lacking: her teeth
hung over her lips, her cheeks as wide as women’s hips)
Where the Middle High German text insinuates a vaginal/labial image through Cundrie’s hair-covered cheeks, the Middle English solidifies this image with the simile between Ragnell’s cheeks and hips. And the image is made more vivid after her wedding to Gawain. During the feast the men watch in horror as she devours a prodigious amount of meat. Here she is described:
She had two tethe on every syde
As borys tuskes, I wolle nott hyde,
Of lengthe a large handfulle.
The one tusk went up and the other doun.
A mowthe fulle wyde and fowlle igrown,
With grey herys many on.
Her lyppes laye lumpryd on her chyn;
Nek forsothe on her was none iseen —
(ll.548-555: she had two teeth on each side, like boars’ tusks, I will not dissemble, a
full hand breadth, the one tusk went up and the other down. A mouth very wide and
foully shaped with many grey hairs. Her lips lay lumpily on her chin; her neck was
nowhere to be seen.)
Now Ragnell’s mouth becomes even more vulva-like. She no longer seems to have a neck or chin; her lips lie laxly across her face and are surrounded by grey hairs. Her teeth, previously only hanging over her lips, are now misshapen tusks. This scene, directly preceding the climax of her nuptials (sexual intercourse), manifests the horror of the male gaze: Ragnell holds power over Arthur as a result of his debt of gratitude for
her life-saving advice. Her threatening presence is played out in her messy mastication
of roast meats: she devours flesh in an almost theatrical performance that disgusts and
terrifies the men in the room. The literal feast presages the sexual interactions to come.
(Eating has long stood as a metaphor for the sensual and for sexual intercourse, and it
certainly serves that purpose here.)
At the point of consummation Ragnell reveals another side of herself to Gawain: she
appears as a beautiful young maiden. She states that he may either have her beautiful
during the day and ugly at night or vice versa. Gawain, left in a horrible quandary —
does he wish her public image to do him honor, or does he wish her to be beautiful just
for him? — concedes his power of decision back to Ragnell: “I putt the choyse in you. /
Bothe body and goodes, hartt, and every dele, / Ys alle your oun, for to by and selle — /
That make I God avowe!” (ll.681-4: I put the choice to you. Both body and goods, heart
and every part is all your own, to buy and sell — that I avow to God). In response to this
concession she declares that she will always be beautiful. After fulfilling perfectly her
wifely duties by giving him a son, Ragnell dies.
What part, then, does the interlude confusing the facial and vaginal labia play? When
Ragnell is found in the forest, and even later, when she first makes her entrance to the
court, she represents an unknown and ungoverned power. She is under the control of
neither father nor husband. When she appears it is not only in this ‘undomesticated’
state, but also holding the power of life and death over Arthur. Without her assistance
his entire empire would fall into turmoil. Not only this, but she refuses to obey the other
women of the court by enacting a subservient and docile role. Instead, she spars
verbally with Arthur and insists on a fully public wedding and feast (something the
others wish her to forego as a result of her disgusting appearance). Her presence is
patently threatening to the court and kingdom, and so the narrative represents her very
femininity as something liable to devour order and the patriarchal dominion. When
Gawain concedes power to Ragnell it does not afford her more political or social power;
instead she expresses her desire to be a docile and obedient wife, thus defusing the
threat her behavior poses and allowing her beautiful mien to function as women’s looks
must. Women are to be seen not heard. But, there is still a latent threat posed by her
beauty: Gawain has become a slave to her sexual charms and no longer participates in
manly pursuits like hunting and war games. In the end, the narrative, while preserving
her good behavior and her successful production of a male heir, must eliminate any
remaining suggestion of feminine power. The only way this is possible is for Ragnell to
More than any other medieval literary form, comic drama — for this is, in fact, a comedy
of sorts — uses reproductive organs and sexually explicit imagery to represent and
interrogate the role of gender in socio-political contexts. Here, Ragnell has epitomized
intelligence and wit throughout the narrative — something that is undeniably positive,
since it saves Arthur’s life. She is not depicted in a negative light per se; her character is
actually very likable. To balance this fact and this power she is made to appear
disgusting. When she becomes beautiful the reverse must occur. She no longer
challenges male power the way she once did. But the vestiges of her power remain and
the only way to ensure her docility is to kill her off, so that she can become an idol of
wifely behavior. Female power has proven too intelligent and effective, and the
narrative must neutralize this hazard. Perhaps in this day and age we should all show
more appreciation for the motif of the vagina dentata and the feminine power it
Hahn, Thomas, ed. The Wedding of Sir Gawain and Dame Ragnelle. In Sir Gawain: Eleven
Romances and Tales. TEAMS Middle English Texts, 1995.
gawain-wedding- of-sir- gawain-and-
von Eschenbach, Wolfram. Parzival. In Parzival and Titurel. Trans. Cyril Edwards.
Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009.
von Eschenbach, Wolfram. Parzival. Ed. Eberhard Nellmann and Karl Lachmanns.
Deutscher Klassiker Verlag, 2006.
CAITLIN FLYNN holds a PhD in Medieval Literature from University of St Andrews, Scotland. She is currently a Humboldt Postdoctoral Fellow at the Freie Universität, Berlin. Her research interests include the theory of comedy and laughter, the grotesque, and sexuality in medieval comic verse.