As Halloween approaches, witches will again stalk the night. Or rather, they will stalk office parties, faux-haunted houses established for the season, and ultimately the rite of trick-or-treat itself. They will not evoke much terror as they pass. Instead, they’ll inspire, at most, a few harmless chills and thrills, and a sense that we are all partaking in some silly fun. How different, we might think, if we are somewhat historically minded, from times long past when our credulous ancestors really believed in the power of witches, demons, and other things supernatural and occult.
There is no denying the widespread belief in diabolic magic in premodern Europe. And the horrors of witch-hunting were, alas, all too real. While the number of victims never rose to the mythical level of nine million, still probably something like 50,000 people were executed for the crime of witchcraft in western Europe from the fifteenth to the eighteenth century. The small territory around Cologne in what was then the politically fragmented Holy Roman Empire produced some 2,000 victims in just ten years, 1626 to 1635. But the history of witchcraft, and of magic in general, is far more complex than just its most dismal chapters.
One cannot say that witchcraft was a joke in medieval Europe. But, as fearful as witches were thought to be, people definitely also made jokes about them.
Without trying to soften the hard reality of the witch-hunts, scholars of magic and witchcraft have nevertheless begun paying attention to other aspects of this history. In my article on “Diabolic Magic” in the new Cambridge History of Magic and Witchcraft in the West, I tell the standard tale of fear and condemnation, including witch trials. But I also stress that more complicated attitudes existed, ranging from deep credulity to skepticism to outright disinterest.
Regarding my title here, one cannot say that witchcraft was a joke in medieval Europe. But, as fearful as witches were thought to be, people definitely also made jokes about them. Consider one of the most famous passages from one of the most infamous texts in European history, the witch-hunting manual Malleus maleficarum (Hammer of Witches), written by the German inquisitor Heinrich Kramer in 1486. He recounts how witches often attacked male sexuality, in particular by causing men’s penises to disappear. They couldn’t really remove these organs from men’s bodies, but they could create illusions so that it appeared to be so. They could also make it appear as if they had collected these stolen penises in large chests, or sometimes they would stash them in birds’ nests.
At one point, Kramer even told a story about a man who confronted the witch responsible for his affliction. She told him to climb a certain tree and take any penis he wanted from those he found there. When he tried to take a particularly large one, however, the witch warned him not to, because it belonged to a priest.
This is a joke (although Kramer may not have realized he was telling one). The notion of an especially well-endowed priest is an obvious jab at supposed clerical celibacy, and it had been a common feature of bawdy humor in Italy, at least, for centuries. So was the association of penises with birds. Boccaccio tells a charming story of a pair of young lovers who fell asleep in each other’s arms after their amorous exertions. The girl’s father discovered them the next morning, his daughter still holding her lover’s “nightingale” in her hand.
Similar humor can be found elsewhere. To give just one example, a few decades before Kramer wrote the Malleus, the Swiss clergyman Felix Hemmerli recounted a story not of witchcraft but of demonic power. A randy clergyman (that perpetual figure of fun) had just fled his village to escape the angry husbands he had been cuckolding. Wandering in a nearby wood, he met a monk who was actually a demon in disguise. This monk told the priest that he knew a spell to make his penis disappear, and the priest eagerly agreed. He lifted his robes, the monk touched his member, and it was gone. The priest then hurried back to his church, rang the bell to assemble his flock, and proudly lifted his garments to show them that he was no longer any threat. At that moment, of course, his penis reappeared, as Hemmerli describes it “in even greater fullness than before.” The village husbands were probably not amused, but one imagines that most people who heard this story, likely meant to be recounted in sermons, got a good chuckle out of both the stupidity of the priest and the craftiness of the devil.
Honestly, I don’t tell a lot of jokes in my scholarship. But I do try to illuminate more fully a world in which jokes could be told, and some measure of fun derived, even from the imagined horrors of diabolical witchcraft.