Trip report: Witches and Wicked Bodies

As I mentioned in my previous post, my wife and I were in London last weekend, so after going to the V&A on Saturday we met up with friend Abi to go to the “Witches and wicked bodies” exhibit at the British Museum. This is another little one-roomer, and it’s mostly prints, posters, handbills, and books — that is, what-you-might-call-art rather than the artefacts you’d normally find in the BM. It covers the period from about 1450 to about 1900, with a few classical bits and pieces to show that witches aren’t just a late-medieval and later concept.

The main thrust is to show the evolving depiction of the witch, presumably as it goes hand in hand with evolving conceptions of the witch. And that is interesting — I’ll come back to it in a second. But there’s also just a lot of interesting art in this exhibit. I don’t know much about art, but it’s creepy and evocative.

Hans Baldung, Bewitched Groom, 1544 I think? That horse looks like a horse that just kicked someone, all right.
Hans Baldung, Bewitched Groom, 1544 I think? That horse looks like a horse that just kicked someone, all right.
Daniel Hapfer, Three witches beating a devil. I didn't write down the date. "Gib Frid" apparently means "uncle."
Daniel Hopfer, Three witches beating a devil. 1505-36. “Gib Frid” apparently means “uncle.”

A lot of this art is German, which is interesting because Germany in the 17th century is Witch Panic Central. This Daniel Hopfer piece is earlier than the majority of witch freakouts, but it’s definitely from an era in which people believed in witches. But witches are both serious business and a suitable object for comedy devil-beating images.

Martin Schongauer, St Anthony Tormented by Demons. That demon in the bottom right is just having a grand old time, but the one with the big nose on the left looks concerned.
Martin Schongauer, St Anthony Tormented by Demons. That demon in the bottom right is just having a grand old time, but the one with the big nose on the left looks concerned.

During the age of the witch trials, things get a little weird. Like, this broadside, “Witchcraft in Trier,” is from around 1600 — the Trier witch trials ended in about 1593. And it is a fascinating piece; clearly the product of genuine fear and horror and fascination. I can sit here and smile at it and go “man, that’s fucked up.” But it’s also a legacy of a really scary event that lead to hundreds of deaths.

The card next to this piece told me that a) Anonymous German lived from 1473 to 1531, and b) that this piece is from around 1600. I think a) is very likely to be wrong.

Or check out Matthaus Merian I’s “Witchcraft,” from 1626:


But I think that my favourite part of the whole exhibit was this Temptation of Saint Anthony by Jacques Callot (1635). I don’t think it is easy to see how Saint Anthony would be tempted by a giant goddamn dragon spewing other dragons out of its mouth or an armoured goblin shooting some kind of monstrous lion-cannon thing, but what do I know? Perhaps it’s a tribulation rather than a temptation.


Then you get into a later period and people start viewing witches in a more symbolic light.

Richard Earlom (after David Teniers): "The Witch." Late 18th/early 19th c, I can't remember. But check out that Cerberus. My wife pointed out to me that he is like a dachsund. I call him Derperus.
Richard Earlom (after David Teniers): “The Witch.” Late 18th/early 19th c, I can’t remember. But check out that Cerberus. My wife pointed out to me that he is like a dachsund. I call him Derperus.

And a Gillray caricature to class the joint up:


By 1890, witchcraft is all symbolic or romantic, presumably because no one really believes in it — but interestingly to me, this is what people think of when they think of witchcraft, not all that stuff with sticking people with needles and Vinegar Tom and angry disputes over who moved the branch an old lady left over a puddle. So the historical fact of the witch persecutions is married to a completely ahistorical understanding of what people meant when they said “witch.”

Anyone who tells you that the Halloween image of a witch is “historically inaccurate” should be punched in the gizzard or at least gently corrected, because honestly the horrible old hag with the broomstick and a black dress is way closer to the actual Thirty-Years’-War conception of a witch than Symbolic Serpent Moon Lady. As we have seen.

Lest I be misunderstood as taking a cheap shot at modern-day witches (who are usually much more clued in about this than people who just happen to know some witches), let me point out that Treadwell’s Books has an upcoming class on making witch hats.

Odilon Redon, Serpent-Auréole (1890)
Odilon Redon, Serpent-Auréole (1890)

So anyway: for me, the most interesting things were the prints and other popular materials from the 16th and 17th centuries, as well as the King James Daemonologie and so on. But the whole thing is good — once again, it’s the BM, so the depth and range of their collection is excellent. It’s pretty tightly focused: 4-500 years, pretty much Europe only, but that allows you to see the same themes appearing and reappearing, both as expressions of widespread popular belief and as evidence of artists copying and inspiring each other. It’s one room, so it’s pretty manageable in time terms. And it’s free. Check it out if you’re in the area or visiting the BM for another reason; I’m not sure it’s quite enough to merit a visit all by itself. But then that’s what I did. It’s on until January.

Oh, and there’s a pretty cool display of Albrecht Durer’s Triumphal Arch downstairs, so you could check that out as well. That’s only on until mid-November.

Trip report: Witches and Wicked Bodies

Witch trial!

Remember when I talked about Francois Villon and that somehow-authentic sound  that old court records seem to have? These ones are from Little Oakley in Essex, which was the site of one of the burials I studied in my thesis. If it weren’t for the fact that people got the jail and even died, witch trials would be some funny stuff. Consider, for instance, this excerpt from the testimony of Annis Herd, an accused witch: 

The said Annis Herd saith, that she told one of her neighbours that the churle (meaning Cartwrite) had carried away a bough which she had laid over a flowe in the high way, and saide that she was faine to goe up to the anckle every steppe, and that shee said hee had beene as good he had not caried it away, for she would fetch as much wood out of his hedges as that doeth come unto. And she saith also that she remembreth she came unto goodman Wad, & telled him that she was presented into the spirituall court for a witch … 

Also she confesseth yt Lannes wife gave her a pinte of milk & lent her a dish to carie it home in, & that she kept the dishe a fortnight or longer, & then sent it home by her girle, & also that Lannes wife came to her for ii. d. which shee ought her. 

… but denieth that she hath any imps Aveses or blackebirds, or any kine called Crowe or Donne: And all and every other thing in generall, or that shee is a witch or have any skill therein.

On the one hand, it’s comedy gold: a pint of milk? Crime of the century. The 16th century, that is. But on the other hand … look, if you are a 16th-century Essex housewife, maybe do not tell anyone that you were presented into the spirituall court for a witch. Like, that’s almost weirder than thinking you’re a witch, isn’t it? Going around saying you are? 

Mind you, not all contemporaries were convinced by this whole witch idea, either on evidentiary or theological grounds. This excerpt comes from another 16th century source, a pamphlet called The Discoverie of Witchcraft

My question is not (as manie fondlie suppose) whether there be witches or naie: but whether they can doo such miraculous works as are imputed unto them … O Maister Archdeacon, is it not pities, that that which is said to be doone with the almightie power of the most high God, and by our saviour his onelie sonne Jesus Crhist our Lord, should be referred to a baggage old womans nod or wish, &c? … If witches could helpe whom they are said to have made sicke, I see no reason, but remedie might as well be required at their hands, as a pursse demanded of him that hath stolne it. But trulie is is manifold idolatrie, to aske that of a creature, which none can give but the Creator. The papist hath some colour of scripture to mainteine his idoll of bread, but no Jesuiticall distinction can cover the witchmongers idolatrie in this behalfe. Alas, I am sorie and ashamed to see how manie die, that being said to be bewitched, onelie seeke for magicall cures, whom wholesome diet and good medicines would have recovered.

Again, I have nothing to say here except that I adore the insult “baggage” and would like to see it used more often. 

Don’t forget! My talk at Treadwell’s is coming up on Monday!

Witch trial!