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Chickpeas, Menstrual Blood and Witchcraft April 24, 2012

Author: Beach Combing | in : Modern , trackback

Beach offers today for contemplation this extraordinary early modern text from De morbis ueneficis ac ueneficiis (1595) by Battista Codronchi (obit 1628), a practical guide to dealing with witch’s spells. In this book BC explains a curious personal experience that led him to undertake his study: an illness that struck his baby daughter Francesca. Beach should also note, here at the beginning, that of BC’s fourteen children, eleven died in infancy. This might explain better than any other fact his tone in the following passage.

A number of years ago, my daughter Francesca, who was ten months old and in the care of a wet-nurse, was afflicted by an extraordinary loss of weight, and with ever-increasing frequency her breath would come in loud gasps. When her swaddling-bands were taken off, she would always wail and cry and behave as though she were sick, quite unlike the way children act during the removal of the bandages, since they are usually quiet and take pleasure in the process even though they may  be in discomfort or experiencing some distress or physical pain. We found no preternatural cause for her condition but we changed the wet nurse. [translation here and in what follows from Maxwell-Stuart]

Note to any broody time-travelling readers: never become a wet nurse. The chances are you’ll end up arraigned on a charge of witchcraft. In this case the wet nurse was lucky to just get the sack, particularly given what came after.

However, Francesca continued to decline and my wife began to suspect that because the child was rather pretty, she had aroused the envy or hatred of some elderly woman who had produced these harmful affects by means of poisonous magic. So my wife searched the mattress and found several signs of poisonous magic namely, chick-peas, coriander-seeds, a scrap of charcoal and a fragment of bone taken from a corpse, and a lump of something I did not recognize, but which an experienced exorcist told me was the kind of thing made by these offensive, shameless women I have been discussing [witches] from various substances mixed with menstrual blood. In addition, to this there were some feathers skillfully sewn together so that they could easily be attached to a cap, as is the fashion.

It is difficult to know what to make of this list. Was Francesca really under attack? Or was this just a collection of material that had accidentally accumulated? If Beach goes upstairs to his bed how many ‘witch’s tokens’ will he find in a sheet that has not been changed for a week and in and around a mattress that has not been turned for a year. Was ‘the menstrual bomb’, nothing more perhaps than a bit of melted tar brought in on the father or mother’s foot?

We burned all these in a fire what had received a blessing. Exorcisms were carried out for three days and other holy remedies applied, and she began to recover and put on weight, to the extent that we thought she had been cured. Nevertheless, a few days later she was very disturbed and was beginning to cry a lot, so we searched her bed again and found several more bits of magical apparatus which we burned. She seemed to be restored to health, but on the day of the full moon that month she spent the whole night sleepless and crying. Next morning her colour had turned ashen, and her physical appearance was so changed from what it had been the previous evening that it made us tearful and astonished in equal measure. Yet again we searched her bed and found two small pieces of dried nut and white bone, nine or ten fish-bones which had been fashioned into hair combs, and some little garlands put together with remarkable skill from various objects. After these had been surrendered to the fire we went to live in another house, and when an experienced exorcist had employed every other, more powerful remedy [at his disposal], by God’s kindness she recovered without any natural remedy.

What starts as an almost comic misunderstanding – at least according to Beach’s rationalist explanation above – becomes something sinister: there’s a short story in this. It is one thing, after all, to confuse a stray chick pea with witchcraft, but what of the little garlands ‘put together with remarkable skill’ or the fish-bone combs, more misunderstandings or a very pissed off member of the serving staff? Beachcombing hasn’t the slightest idea, but he is struck how well the parents’ understandable anxiety survives four centuries. Any other cases of cursed objects: drbeachcombing AT yahoo DOT com Beachcombing seems to remember an instant from Roman history in Tacitus or Suetonius?

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26/4/2012: Adrian (of anomalist fame) has the menstrual lump down as a sootikin a new word for Beach’s vocabulary. Then Invisible dances with a feather crown: The “little garlands” in your post about the struggle to save young Francesca from evil influences brought to mind the “feather crowns” of folklore. They are circular feather formations found in pillows and featherbeds. I have always associated them with witchcraft or thought of them as an omen of death, but apparently they are also a sign that the dead person has gone to heaven. ( I can’t help but think that this is a later interpretation, meant to comfort those left behind. After all, if a loved one has died, which is more productive: assuming that the feather crown is a crown of glory or an artifact of witchcraft that must inevitably lead to investigations, trials, and lynch mobs?) Apparently there is a museum with a large collection of these items.  Here is an excerpt from The Superstitious Mind: French Peasants and the Supernatural in the Nineteenth Century, Judith Devlin, which tells a similar story of an overlooked child—from 1954 France.   And this excerpt from Hoosier Folk Legends, by Ronald L. Baker gives both interpretations of the feather crowns.  And one more set of tales about feather crowns as the result of a curse:  Isaac Bashevis Singer also wrote about feather crowns in the Jewish tradition in the short story, ”A Crown of Feathers”. Thanks Adrian and Invisible!

23 May 2012: Invisible has some skepticism in relation to the sootikin: Quite unable to resist, I went looking for sootikins online, only to find this site http://unclestinky.wordpress.com/2008/01/25/sootikins/, which claims that the disgusting objects are mentioned in Pepys and Boswell, as well as an account from the reign of Queen Anne. What the site says about hygiene is also open to debate, but that’s another post entirely. I have to say, I cannot find any reference to sootikins or anything like them in Pepys or Boswell. Nor, indeed, anywhere else I have looked except in the poem below by Thomas Hood’s son, Tom Hood. It seems unlikely that he would have used a smutty word in a poem written for 19th-century children. Can someone quote the original reference to the sweepers in church or at the Thanksgiving service of Queen Anne? Nearly all the references online are identical and seem associated with The Urban Dictionary site. The Naming Of Kittens by Thomas Hood/Our old cat has kittens three/ what do you think their names should be!/ One is tabby with emerald eyes,/ and a tail that’s long and slender,/ and into a temper she quickly flies/ if you ever by chance offend her./ I think we shall call her this -/ I think we shall call her that -/ Now, don’t you think that pepperpot/ is a nice name for a cat?/ One is black with a frill of white,/ and her feet are all white fur,/ if you stroke her she carries her tail upright/ and quickly begins to purr./ I think we shall call her this -/ I think we shall call her that -/ Now, don’t you think that sootikin/ is a nice name for a cat?/ One is tortoiseshell yellow and black,/ with plenty of white about him;/ if you tease him, at once he sets up his back,/ he’s a quarrelsome one, ne’er doubt him./ I think we shall call him this -/ I think we shall call him that -/ Now, don’t you think that scratchaway/ is a nice name for a cat?’ Thanks Invisible!