Burning Women pp 137-173 | Cite as

Disorderly Wives, Poison, and the Iconography of Female Murderers

  • Pompa Banerjee
Part of the Early Modern Cultural Studies book series (EMCSS)


The excavation of the origins of a curious anecdote that recurs in European accounts of sati reminds us that the nightmarish space of fear and dread that the widow often occupied also spilled over to European constructions of other cultures. I explore below another eerie convergence within the contradictory discourses of Hindu widows and European witches, wives, and widows. The image of the sati as a poisoner who was burned as an example to potential husband-killers forms one of the most remarkable crossings between the Hindu sati and European wives and widows. At a time when sensational trials of husband poisoners rocked England, France, and other regions, and the specters of murderous wives, midwives, and witches armed with poison cast long shadows, European travelers’ view of the sati as a husband-poisoner had extraordinary resonance. Although most travelers regarded the Hindu sati as an innocent or saintly victim deluded by a cruel religion, others believed that the sati was burned for poisoning her husband. Scores of travelers repeated the same “reason” for widowburning—it was to prevent Hindu wives from poisoning their husbands. Although the use of this poison story was not limited to the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, it acquired a special urgency in early modern narratives.


Title Page Domestic Space Good Wife European Traveler Conjugal Love 
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© Pompa Banerjee 2003

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  • Pompa Banerjee

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