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.)

How a Snowball Fight led to the Divine Comedy

Dante’s Divine Comedy is one of the most magnificent pieces of writing in human history. Told in terza rima over 100 cantos, Dante relates a journey through hell, Purgatory, and heaven, where he gazes upon the face of God. In the epic poem, Dante coined a number of new words and some attribute the birth of modern Italian to Dante’s writing. 

But it might never have been written at all, if not for a snowball fight in the year 1300.

Dante, as painted by his contemporary, Giotto. 

Dante, as painted by his contemporary, Giotto. 

In the city of Pistoia, a few miles from Florence, a young man threw a snowball, and his uncle scolded him. A few days later, in revenge, the nephew struck his uncle for dishonoring him. But now the uncle was dishonored—so his son attacked the snowball-thrower and cut off his hands. As if this escalation wasn’t enough, the son then went after the snowball-thower’s father and killed him. 

This feud, between members of the Pistoian Cancellieri family, created a civil war in the city, as everyone took sides. The Florentines, trying to put an end to the bloodshed, arrested the leaders of both factions and imprisoned them in Florence.

However, the Pistoian feud then exacerbated the existing rivalry between two leading Florentine families, the Cerchi and the Donati. Although Dante was married to Gemma Donati, he sided more with the new-money Cerchi family, who were neighbors to the Alighieri. And in 1302, the war between the Donati and Cerchi factions resulted in the exile of a number of supporters of the Cerchi, including Dante.

Dante’s exile was traumatic—he was banned from ever returning to his hometown of Florence, and charged with a number of crimes, including embezzlement and disturbance of the peace. For the next two decades, Dante traveled across Italy, yearning to restore his reputation and return to Florence. 

During this long exile, Dante wrote the Divine Comedy, which contained his condemnation of the factional chaos that expelled him from Florence. In Inferno, Dante throws the leaders of the factions into hell, including members of the Donati faction and one of their allies, Pope Boniface VIII. The poem was the perfect vehicle for Dante to vent his frustration at the disorderly politics of late medieval Florence. And it almost certainly never would have been written if Dante had not been exiled.

And that’s how a snowball fight led to the Divine Comedy. 

Dante and his Poem, a fresco by Michelino (1465). 

Dante and his Poem, a fresco by Michelino (1465).