Burning Women pp 175-210 | Cite as

Civility and “Dying” to Speak

Sati, the Fetish, and History
  • Pompa Banerjee
Part of the Early Modern Cultural Studies book series (EMCSS)


The bizarre intersections of Hindu widows and European husband-murderers highlighted at the end of the last chapter signal that the crossings between the sati and European wives, widows, and witches might manifest themselves in unexpected ways. One final overlap among the widely divergent cultural discourses that constructed the sati in India and the chaste women and unruly wives in Europe occurs at the site of speech and writing. The acts of speaking and writing crucially informed the gendered construction of women in Europe and India and I suggest that this site might furnish the most far-reaching of all the mergings discussed in this book. European representations of the sati’s silences ironically spoke to the European ideology of the chaste, silent, and obedient wife. The silent sati who did not inscribe her own history and went smiling to her funeral pyre in obedient silence resonated with European ideas of the “good wife” who did not speak. By contrast, European profiles of Hindu widows who spoke eagerly in her final moments to affirm and uphold the violent patriarchal ideology that brought her to the pyre intersected with the last dying speeches of European female husband-murderers who were encouraged to speak in public in order to repent and proselytize in the final moments before their burning.


Final Moment Good Wife European Traveler European Representation Travel Writer 


Unable to display preview. Download preview PDF.

Unable to display preview. Download preview PDF.


  1. 5.
    Margaret P. Hannay, “‘O Daughter Heare’: Reconstructing the Lives of Aristocratic Englishwomen,” in Attending to Women in Early Modern England, ed. Betty S. Travitsky and Adele F. Seeff (Newark: University of Delaware Press, 1994), 35–63.Google Scholar
  2. 9.
    Thomas Edwards, Gangraena, 35–37. For the connection between womens’ voices and religious discourse, see Suzanne Trill, “Religion and the Construction of Femininity” in Women and Literature in Britain, 1500–1700, ed. Helen Wilcox (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996, rpt. 1998), 30–55. We need to emphasize that restrictions against women preaching in public did not always hold up in public. Despite the proscription, women did preach in public, and they were not always greeted with hostility. The French painter Corneille le Bruyn traveled through Italy before joining a Dutch fleet to the Levant. Sometime during his sojourn in Rome from 1674 to 1677, Le Bruyn witnessed a “remarkable” woman, a shoemaker’s wife who “appear’d every Day at the Window of an upper Chamber, and from thence Preached to the People twice or thrice a Day, by which means she continually drew together a great many People; some out of Curiosity, and others out of Devotion. I could very easily hear her out of my Chamber, Lodging then very near the Place where she Liv’d. The Inquisition, who had been very much offended at her for a long Time, caus’d her to be Apprehended, but soon after released her. I could not understand whether it was upon condition that she should Preach no more or no; but let that be as it will, upon her return she began her Preaching again as before. Having often seen a great many People stand before her Door, and even Persons of Note in their Coaches, to hear her Preach, I had the Curiosity to enquire what sort of Woman she was, and they told me that she could not so much as read a Word, but had always one to read to her. At that time I was not very well vers’d in the Italian, having been but a few Months at Rome, I was forc’d therefore to inform my self by others what Things she treated of, and they assured me that what she deliver’d in her Preaching was very good.” See M. Corneille le Bruyn, A Voyage to the Levant; or, Travels in the Principal parts of Asia Minor, the Islands of Scio, Rhodes, Cyprus &c. with an Account of the most Considerable Cities of Egypt, Syria, and the Holy Land. Done into English by W. J. (London: Printed for Jacob Tonson, 1702), original emphasis, 7.Google Scholar
  3. 10.
    See J. A. Sharpe, “Last Dying Speeches: Religion, Ideology and Public Execution in Seventeenth Century England,” Past and Present 107 (May 1985), 144–67, esp. 156; for a discussion of this pattern of sin and repentance, see Dolan, “Home-rebels,” 1–37; and Natalie Zemon Davis, Fiction in the Archives, 7–35.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  4. 12.
    Gilbert Dugdale, A True Discourse of the Practices of Elizabeth Caldwell, Ma. Jeffrey Bownd, Isabell Hall, Widdow, and George Fernely, on the Parson of Ma: Thomas Caldwell, in the County of Chester, to have murdered and poysoned him, with divers others (London, 1604).Google Scholar
  5. 21.
    [If the woman has given her word to follow him to the death, they make at the same moment, the necessary preparation for such an affair; because there is no more recourse for the woman: she can no longer retreat, and also the event can no longer suffer any delay; because it is necessary that the woman be burned the same day that her husband is burned.] See Abraham Roger, La Porte Ouverte, Pour Parvenir à la connoissance du Paganisme caché (Amsterdam: Chez Jean Schipper, 1670), 129, translation mine.Google Scholar
  6. 33.
    See Edith Hall, Inventing the Barbarian: Greek Self-Definition through Tragedy (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1989).Google Scholar
  7. 37.
    Samuel Purchas, Hakluyt Posthumus, or Purchas his Pilgrimes, twenty vols. (Glasgow: James McLehose and Sons, 1905), 1: 486. See also Stephen Greenblatt, Marvellous Possessions, 10.Google Scholar
  8. 38.
    Thomas Hariot, “A Briefe and True Report” in The Roanoke Voyages, ed. David B. Quinn (New York: Dover Publications, 1991), 314–97, esp. 373, 377.Google Scholar
  9. 39.
    See Karen Ordahl Kupperman, ed. Captain John Smith: A Select Edition of his Writings (Chapel Hill NC: University of North Carolina Press, 1988), 156, 169. There are other issues at play in Smith’s account that are not explored here; for instance, the whole notion of bounded land, which was the way land was understood in England, as opposed to Powhatan’s concept of shared, communal land.Google Scholar
  10. 41.
    The travelers frequently report feeling overwhelmed and absorbed by the East. For one thing, the “old” world was already inhabited and settled. Augusta Lima Cruz writes that with the opening of the sea route to India, the Portuguese had found the Indian Ocean region already explored and exploited. Signs of the accomplishments of the Eastern peoples were evident everywhere and were at least comparable to advancements in their own cultures. Hakluyt registers John Evesham’s astonishment when he is confronted with the pyramids of Egypt in 1586: “[T]he heigth of them, to our judgement, doth surmount twise the heigth of Paules steeple.” Describing his Egyptian travels, Ludovico Varthema noted in Cairo “very many more habitations than there are in Rome,” and the richness and elegance of workmanship of the fountains, buildings, and gardens in Damascus seem to him remarkable. Mecca’s beautiful temple appeared “similar to the Colosseum of Rome” and the temple in the city of Ta’iz was “built like the Santa Maria Rotunda of Rome.” The East threatened precisely because of its accumulated layers of civilization; it was more cunning and possessed seductive power to absorb alien cultures, thus robbing the travelers of their previous cultural determinants. See Augusta Lima Cruz, “Notes on Portuguese Relations with Vijayanagara, 1500–1565,” in Sinners and Saints: The Successors of Vasco da Gama, ed. Sanjay Subrahmanyam (Delhi: Oxford University Press, 1998), 13–39; Richard Hakluyt, Principal Navigations, 3: 351; Ludovico di Varthema, Itinerary, 7, 8–10, 19–20, 35. For a discussion of the dual conception of the East as the seat of immense riches and culture as well as the center of barbarism and despotism, see Emily C. Bartels, “The Double Vision of the East: Imperialist Self-Construction in Marlowe’s Tamburlaine, Part One,” Renaissance Drama, new series 23, Renaissance Drama in an Age of Colonization, ed. Mary Beth Rose (Evanston, IL: Northwestern Press and the Newberry Library, 1992), 3–24.Google Scholar
  11. 45.
    Thomas Herbert, Some Yeares Travels into Africa & Asia the Great: Especially Describing the Famous Empires of Persia and Industan. As also Divers other Kingdoms in the Orientall Indies, and I’les Adjacent (London: Printed by R. B. for Jacob Blome, 1638), 207–09.Google Scholar
  12. 54.
    Elizabeth Hallam, Jenny Hockey, and Glennys Howarth, Beyond the Body: Death and Social Identity (London: Routledge, 1999), 26.Google Scholar
  13. 55.
    Mary Douglas, Purity and Danger: An Analysis of the Concepts of Pollution and Taboo (London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1966), 121.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  14. 57.
    Edward S. Casey, “Keeping the Past in Mind,” in American Continental Philosophy: A Reader (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2000), 241–57, esp. 244–45.Google Scholar
  15. 59.
    Karl Marx, Capital: A Critique of Political Economy, trans. Samuel Moore and Edward Aveling, ed. Frederick Engels (New York: Modern Library, 1906), 85.Google Scholar
  16. 60.
    Emily Apter, Feminizing the Fetish: Psychoanalysis and Narrative Obsession in Turn-of the-Century France (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1991), 5. See also William Pietz’s analysis of the fetish in relationship to European mercantile and imperial activities in Africa in “The Problem of the Fetish, I,” Res 9 (Spring 1985), 5–17; and “The Problem of the Fetish, II: The Origin of the Fetish,” Res 13 (Spring 1987), 23–45. For a summary of the history of the word and concept as it evolved through European vernaculars and the compelling link to colonialism, see Anne McClintock, Imperial Leather: Race, Gender, and Sexuality in the Colonial Contest (New York: Routledge, 1995); and Steven F. Kruger, “Fetishism, 1927, 1614, 1461,” in The Postcolonial Middle Ages, ed. Jeffrey J. Cohen (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2000), 194–208.Google Scholar
  17. 61.
    For critiques of Freud’s concept of the fetish, see Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari, Anti-Oedipus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia, trans. Robert Hurley, Mark Seem, and Helen Lane (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1983), and Lucy Irigaray, Speculum of the Other Woman, trans. Gillian C. Gill (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1985).Google Scholar
  18. 65.
    The Body in Parts: Fantasies of Corporeality in Early Modern Europe, ed. David Hillman and Carla Mazzio (New York: Routledge, 1997), xi.Google Scholar
  19. 66.
    Jonathan Sawday, The Body Emblazoned: Dissection and the Human Body in Renaissance Culture (London: Routledge, 1995), 191.Google Scholar
  20. 69.
    Peter Stallybrass and A. White, The Politics and Poetics of Transgression (London: Methuen, 1986), 191.Google Scholar

Copyright information

© Pompa Banerjee 2003

Authors and Affiliations

  • Pompa Banerjee

There are no affiliations available

Personalised recommendations