Penis-Snatching Witches

Once upon a time, a man lost his penis. Or, rather, an evil woman took his penis and stored it in a bird’s nest, along with a brood of other stolen members, which she fed with oats. After a long quest, the man found the witch and demanded that she return his manhood. She told him to climb a tree to find the nest filled with squirming penises, and take whichever one he wanted.

When he tried to take a big one, she said, “No, that one belongs to a priest.”

Did she steal it, or did she harvest it from a handy penis tree?

Did she steal it, or did she harvest it from a handy penis tree?

This story, told in the Malleus Maleficarum (1486), the most popular witch hunting manual in history, encapsulates the crime of witchcraft: witches were women who literally unmanned men. And penises pop up everywhere in witch trial records.

A witch had a lot of power over the penis. Witchcraft could make a man impotent, but only with a certain woman. A witch could turn a penis invisible, transforming an innocent man into a Ken doll. Or she can steal it completely and treat it like a pet, storing it in a box and feeding it grains. 

Witch hunters—always men—were obsessed with the power of witches to steal what they most valued: their manhood. Witches were lustful women, so sinful that they copulated with devils. As the Malleus Maleficarum warned, "All witchcraft comes from carnal lust, which in women is insatiable.” A witch’s pact with Satan was often sealed with sex. 

Or the witch promised her loyalty by kissing Satan's ass.

Or the witch promised her loyalty by kissing Satan's ass.

And witches used their demonic power to attack men.

It’s no wonder that the vast majority of witches were women. Witchcraft was a crime against society—it literally meant a witch had chosen to side with Satan over the godly community. And a witch’s crimes were always against what the society valued most: children, crops, and penises. 

Witches were handmaidens of the devil, just waiting for a chance to attack the patriarchal order. And stories about witches often reveal a great deal about male anxieties.

In another story from the Malleus Maleficarum, a man dumped a woman he'd been sleeping with, and a few days later his penis vanished. He drowned his sorrows at a tavern until he came up with a plan: he'd beat the woman until she returned his penis. He choked her until she promised to restore his member, until her face was swelling and growing black. Suddenly the man knew, without looking or touching, that his penis had been returned.

Lustful witches.

Lustful witches.

If this sounds a lot more like a violent, misogynistic fantasy than a true story, well, you've just about gotten the gist of the witch trials.

And if you can't get enough about witches, check out my latest novel, Salem Mean GirlsIt retells the Salem witch trials in the style of Mean Girls, and delves into the sticky question of why women accused other women of witchcraft.

Urine Cakes and Satan's Brides

The secret star of the Salem witch trials was a urine cake. That’s right, a cake made out of urine.

"Did you say . . . cakes made from urine?"

"Did you say . . . cakes made from urine?"

When Abigail Williams and Betty Parris fell ill with a mysterious ailment, the village doctor couldn’t find a medical cause. Instead, the doctor suspected the “evil hand"—Puritan code for demonic magic.

Magic had a complicated history in the seventeenth century. For millennia, people around the world had used magic to protect their crops, to ward off evil, and sometimes to cause harm. Counter-magic went hand-in-hand with magic. If you suspected someone was using magic to dry up your cows (a common problem in early modern Europe), you’d use counter-magic to break the spell or find the culprit.

Magic was about balance: making spells and breaking them. 

This balance ended with the Reformation. The Reformation founded multiple Protestant faiths and split the Catholic church. It had a major affect on magical beliefs, too—both Catholic and Protestant churches enforced stricter religious rules. They also tried to eradicate superstitious beliefs and magic. Alchemy, for example, became a crime punishable by death in sixteenth-century England.

Now you know why Isaac Newton didn't want anyone to know that he practiced alchemy!

Now you know why Isaac Newton didn't want anyone to know that he practiced alchemy!

In the 1500s, across Europe, there was an increase in trials for so-called “white magic”—things like love charms and finding charms. This magic was not harmful, but it was seen as irreligious for people to believe in it. 

Essentially, counter-magic became a target. The balance in witch beliefs was disrupted, as remedies against witchcraft became suddenly demonic. 

But let’s get back to that urine cake.

Don't google "urine cake." No, really. Don't.

Don't google "urine cake." No, really. Don't.

When Abigail and Betty fell ill, their neighbor, Mary Sibley, suggested a common cure—using counter-magic. She told Tituba, the Parris family slave, to bake a rye cake made with the urine of the two girls. According to Mary, feeding the urine cake to a dog would cure the victims of witchcraft, since dogs were evil companions of witches. 

Tituba baked the cake, and four days later she was arrested for witchcraft.

The urine cake made Tituba look guilty because the Reformation had convinced Salem’s Puritans that counter-magic, meant to break a spell, was itself demonic. A few days later, Tituba confessed to making a pact with the devil, reinforcing the impression that her urine cake was evil.

The urine cake pops up in my latest novel, Salem Mean Girlswhen Ann Putnam confronts Tituba and tells her not to bake the cake.

Ann cocked her head to one side. “Abigail and Betty changed their minds. They don’t want you to feed the cake to the dogs after all.” I felt a charge pass between them. “They’re going to pray that God will deliver them from the Devil. As you know, the only source of relief from the Devil is the Lord.” 

Tituba frowned. “They don’t want me to make the cake?” She looked at me. “Are you sure?”

I opened my mouth and froze. How could I contradict Ann? I wasn’t going to side with urine cakes over Jesus. 

One of the best parts of writing Salem Mean Girls was figuring out how to blend the history of the Salem witch trials in with the personal stories of the relationships between the accusers and the accused witches. And, of course, making sure that urine cake made it into the final draft.

Predicting the Future with Beans

In The Zorzi Affair, Zaneta Lucia Zorzi visits a fortune teller, anxious to learn how an arranged marriage will change her life.

   “You don’t know about the beans? With these beans, I can see the future.” 
One of Zaneta Lucia’s eyebrows dipped.
   Signora Battaglia must have seen the skepticism written on her face. “You doubt the beans? Just watch.”
   The soothsayer shook the cup, the beans jumping wildly against the porcelain. With a flourish, the woman tossed the beans onto the table between them. They scattered, falling still on the velvet surface.
   “Ah,” Signora Battaglia breathed as she gazed at the beans. “See the pattern they make?”
   Zaneta Lucia looked down, but all she saw was beans.

This scene is based on a true practice in Renaissance Venice. It was called buttar fave—tossing dried fava beans. Soothsayers would throw the beans and read their pattern to predict the future, much like reading tea leaves. And fava beans had a long history in the Mediterranean. The Romans and Ancient Greeks enjoyed the beans. Fava beans were cheap, tasty, and always around, so why not use them to see into the future?

Fava beans, predicting a cold winter in 2017. 

Fava beans, predicting a cold winter in 2017. 

However, fortune-telling beans were considered improper by the Catholic Church. Theologians believed the practice called on demons to reveal the future. The Church did reprimand a number of women for relying on the beans. Ironically, those Inquisition records are our best historical source on bean tossing. The trials reveal a hidden side of the Renaissance.

For example, in 1612 Felicità Greca was accused of witchcraft by her roommate, Angela. Felicità had repeatedly invited a gypsy over to toss beans, in spite of Angela’s warnings. Then one day, Angela was dog-sitting the butcher’s dog. With no warning, the dog went crazy, galloping around the house. The dog knocked Angela’s elderly mother to the floor, injuring the old woman. 

Angela knew this calamity was a sign: Felicità was up to no good. Angela and a neighbor confronted Felicità, where they walked in on the gypsy, still tossing beans. Angela screamed at Felicità and then reported her to the Inquisition. (Monica Chojnacka tells the whole story in Working Women of Early Modern Venice.)

Multiple other Inquisition trial records prove that Venetian women frequently resorted to beans to deal with life’s uncertainties. When I read about predicting the future with beans back in graduate school, I knew I had to include it in a book—and now it’s in The Zorzi Affair!

So skip the horoscopes—the next time you’re curious about the future, toss some beans! (just watch out for crazy dogs.)

The Politics of David

Michelangelo’s David might be the most famous statue in the world—but it was controversial when it was unveiled in Florence in 1504. 

When Michelangelo began the sculpture in 1501, it was intended to decorate Florence’s cathedral. The piece had been commissioned by the Arte della Lana, the guild of wool merchants, as a sign of their religious devotion. But in early 1504, when Michelangelo had nearly completed the statue, its intended location was changed. This started as a practical concern: the statue weighed over six tons, and it would have been extremely difficult if not impossible to raise to the roofline of the Cathedral. 

The statue was instead placed outside the Palazzo della Signoria, Florence’s town hall (now known as the Palazzo Vecchio). The piazza surrounding the building contained numerous statues intended to glorify Florence, but David would have a place of honor at the very entrance of the town hall.

And suddenly the statue became a political statement.

Today a replica of Michelangelo's David is in the statue's original position outside the Palazzo Vecchio.

Today a replica of Michelangelo's David is in the statue's original position outside the Palazzo Vecchio.

In 1504, the powerful Medici family had been exiled from Florence for a decade, and the city was being run by a republican, anti-Medicean, government. David, guarding the town hall, faced toward Rome, where the Medici resided in exile, his arm ready to cast a stone toward the Medicean Goliath if necessary. 

When the statue was unveiled on September 8, 1504, it was pelted with stones by political protestors who instantly saw the anti-Medici message. Michelangelo, who had enjoyed Medici patronage earlier in his career, may not have intended such an overtly political message, but the placement of the statue took a clear stand against the powerful family. 

When the Medici returned to Florence in 1512, they allowed the statue to remain, though they tried to reframe its political rhetoric in more favorable terms: David represented all of Florence, standing up against political rivals on the Italian peninsula who threatened their liberty. Florence’s republicans did not forget the anti-Medici message, though. In 1527, anti-Medici riots broke out in the city, and the Medici were again exiled as the 1498-1512 Republic of Florence was revived from 1527-1530. During the riot, David’s arm was broken in three places. 

Today we might appreciate the statue for its beauty, dignity, and ingenuity, but it has a long history in the sordid political machinations of Renaissance Florence.  

Renaissance Portraits

It’s no secret that people in the Renaissance were obsessed with appearances. 

In the tumultuous world of Renaissance Italy, reputation was everything—it could mean the difference between success and failure, wealth and poverty, fame and ignominy. And one of the best ways to build a reputation was through portraits. 

Lowest prices on antiquities, guaranteed! Andrea Odoni, by Lorenzo Lotto, 1527

Lowest prices on antiquities, guaranteed!

Andrea Odoni, by Lorenzo Lotto, 1527

When commissioning a portrait, Renaissance men and women could control every detail, down to the background minutiae, to project a cultivated image of oneself. In order to make an enduring legacy, you had to leave behind signs of your greatness, and portraits were one of the best tools for crafting your reputation.

See, ladies, I'm good with dogs! Federico Gonzaga, by Titian, c. 1529

See, ladies, I'm good with dogs!

Federico Gonzaga, by Titian, c. 1529

The fashion for portraiture provided a new way to manipulate one’s reputation. Though he focused on writing rather than portraiture, Stephen Greenblatt made this argument in his excellent academic work, Renaissance Self-Fashioning. Self-fashioning meant using every available tool to craft and project an intentional reputation. 

I always put on a full coat of armor when I settle in with a good book.  Federigo da Montefeltro, by Pedro Berruguete, c. 1480

I always put on a full coat of armor when I settle in with a good book. 

Federigo da Montefeltro, by Pedro Berruguete, c. 1480

I think of these portraits as the Renaissance version of a “selfie”—but requiring much more time and energy. There is a direct link between the Renaissance fixation on cultivating a reputation and our current infatuation with social media.

No biggie, just chillin' with my ermine. Cecelia Gallerani as "The Lady with an Ermine," Leonardo da Vinci, c. 1489

No biggie, just chillin' with my ermine.

Cecelia Gallerani as "The Lady with an Ermine," Leonardo da Vinci, c. 1489

In short, we have internalized the Renaissance obsession with appearances.