What caught my eye recently was an item on eBay: a page from the Nuremberg Chronicle (1493), with a woodblock of a witch on it. I have a strong interest in the history of the depiction of witches, so I bought it. I am now intensely interested this image, its iconography, other versions of the image, the story behind the image, and the subsequent history of the story. I started with the thought that I would do a short blog post on this image. And so I pulled at this thread, and now I feel like I have picked a hole in the sky and the universe is gonna fall right through on my head.
There is no way of accounting for what I have found in the last few weeks in just a single post, so I will separate the threads of what I now have in hand into four or five posts. I am not sure it matters where I start, but the story "Of a certain witch, and her miserable death" is somewhere near the beginning. The story of The Witch of Berkeley appears under the year 1065 in William of Malmesbury’s Monachi De Gestis Regum Anglorum (1125; Chronicle of the kings of England, Bk.2, §204) and under the year 852 in Roger of Wendover's Flores Historiarum (ca. 1236; Flowers of History).
William of Malmesbury (d. 1143), "the foremost English historian of the 12th century," known for his strong documentation but somewhat-haphazard chronology, wrote his Chronicle in what was the second largest library in Europe at the time (see here). Critical editions of William's Chronicle attempt to identify his sources, but no source is known for the following story in the editions I have looked in (1840 edition by Sir Thomas Duffus Hardy here, 253–56; 1855 edition by I. P. Migne in the "Patrologia Latina" online here; 1887–89 edition by W. Stubbs, reprinted 1968 by Francis Edward Harrison, here, 156–58 [whole volume available in pdf here ]), and it is not clear what reason Roger had for dating it to 1065, when the "sanguinary" Pope Gregory the Sixth was taking possession of St. Peter’s.
Roger of Wendover (d. 1236), a medieval chronicler who worked in the famous library at St Albans Abbey, culled much of his history from previous writers but added, according to Wikipedia, "a full and lively narrative of contemporary events, from 1216 to 1235." Roger's Flores Historiarum is probably indebted to William but, possibly, both writers are indebted to earlier sources. William is the only source identified for the following story in the editions I have looked in (1841 edition by Henry Octavius Coxe here, 286–88; 1871 edition by Henry Richards Luard here, 381–83). It is not clear what reason Roger had for dating the story to 852, when Burgred became King of the Mercians and married princess Æthelswith, daughter of Æthelwulf, King of the West Saxons. Possibly, the story was four centuries old when recorded by Roger.
Below are translations of the relevant passages from William of Malmesbury and Roger of Wendover and the original the Latin text of each. The translations are taken from the relevant volumes of the Bohn’s Antiquarian Library series, namely:
William of Malmesbury, Chronicle of the kings of England. From the earliest period to the reign of King Stephen, tr. J. A. Giles (London: Henry G. Bohn, 1847), 230–32. (here).
Roger of Wendover, Flowers of History: Comprising the History of England from the Descent of the Saxons to A.D. 1235, formerly ascribed to Matthew Paris, tr. J. A. Giles (London: Henry G. Bohn, 1849), v.1, p.181–83 (here).
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William of Malmesbury on "a certain wicked woman"
§204. About this time, a certain wicked woman, living in the town which is called Berkeley, devoted to gluttony and wantonness, and even in her old age putting no limit to her crimes and witchcraft, continued immodest to the day of her death. One day, when she was sitting at dinner, a jackdaw, which she kept as a pet, began to chatter something or other. And when the woman heard it, her knife fell from her hand, and her face began to grow pale; and uttering a groan, she said, "This day I shall meet with a great disaster, for my plough has this day come to its last furrow." And when she had said this, a messenger of woe came in; and when the woman had asked him why he came, "I bring you news," said he, "of the death of your son, and of the decease of his whole family, by a sudden destruction." And the woman, being greatly affected by this misfortune, immediately took to her bed, and became afflicted with a sore disease. And when she found that it was creeping down to her vitals, she wrote a letter to summon her surviving children to her, and they consisted of two, a monk and a nun. And when they came, she addressed them thus, with a voice broken by sobs: "My children," said she, "I, to my great sorrow, have always been a slave to the practice of demoniacal arts. I have been a sink of all vices, a teacher of all unholy allurements. And yet, amid all this wickedness, I have always had a hope founded on your religion, which has steadied my despairing soul, and I have looked forward to finding you my defenders against devils, and my protectors against my most cruel enemies. Now, therefore, since I have come to the end of my life, I entreat you, by the breast on which I bare you, that you will endearoar to relieve my torments. When I am dead sew me up in the hide of a stag, and then place me in a stone sarcophagus, and fasten the lid upon it with iron and lead; and then bind the stone round with three most powerful chains of iron, and employ fifty clerical singers of psalms to chaunt, and as many priests to celebrate masses for three days, and by these means to check the ferocious attacks of my adversaries. And if I lie in this way unmoved for three days, on the fourth day bury me in the ground." Accordingly, everything was done as she had commanded them. But, alack the day! neither prayers, nor tears, nor chains were of any avail. For though on the two first nights the choirs of psalm-singers were watching by the body, the demons came and broke open the door of the church, which was shut fast with a mighty bolt, and easily burst asunder the two outer chains; but the middle one, which was the strongest, remained uninjured; and on the third night there was, about cockcrow, a noise as of enemies marching up, and the whole monastery seemed to be moved from its foundations. Then one of the demons, who was more formidable in countenance than the rest, and more conspicuous for his stature, shook down the doors of the church with a violent assault, and dashed them to pieces. Clergy and laity were stupified, all their hair stood on end, and the singing of psalms ceased. And then the demon, with arrogant gestures, as it seemed, proceeded to the tomb, and calling gently on the name of the woman, commanded her to rise. And when she replied that she could not because of her chains, "You shall quickly," said he, "be released, to your own misfortune." And in a moment he burst the chain which had mocked the fierceness of the other demons, as if it had been an hempen string. He also pitched aside the lid of the sepulchre, and in the sight of them all, dragged the woman out of the church, where before the doors was seen a horse neighing proudly, with iron hoofs, and nails projecting from him on all sides, and the wretched woman was thrown upon him, and so disappeared from the eyes of the bystanders. But her horrible cries, imploring help, were heard for nearly four miles.
Now this story which I have related will not be incredible, if the dialogue of the blessed Gregory be read, in which he relates that a man who had been buried in a church, was turned out of doors by demons. Moreover, among the French, Charles Martel, a man of illustrious courage, who compelled the Saracens who had invaded Gaul, to return to Spain, is related, when he had ended his course of this life, to have been buried in the church of the blessed Denys. But because for the sake of the pay of his soldiers, he had tampered with his own patrimony, and also with the tithes of nearly all the churches of Gaul, he was carried away bodily out of the sepulchre, in a miserable manner, by malignant spirits, and has never been seen since to this very day.
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William of Malmesbury, "De muliere malefica a daemonibus ab ecclesia extracta"
§204. Hisdem diebus simile huic in Anglia contigit, non superno miraculo, sed inferno praestigio; quod cum retulero, non vacillabit fides historiae etsi mentes auditorum sint incredulae. Ego illud a tali viro audivi, qui se vidisse iuraret, cui erubescerem non credere. Mulier in Berkeleia mansitabat, maleficiis, ut post patuit, insueta, auguriorum veterum non inscia, gulae patrona, petulantiae arbitra, flagitiis non ponens modum, quod esset adhuc citra senium, vicino licet pede pulsans senectutis aditum. Haec cum quadam die convivaretur, cornicula quam in deliciis habebat vocalius solito nescio quid cornicata est: quo audito, dominae cultellus de manu excidit, simul et vultus expalluit; et, producto gemitu, "Hodie," ait, "ad ultimum sulcum meum pervenit aratrum; hodie audiam et accipiam grande incommodum." Cum dicto nuntius miseriarum intravit: percunctatus quid ita vultuosus adventaret, "Affero," inquit, "tibi ex villa illa," et nominavit locum, "filii obitum et totius familiae ex subita ruina interitum." Hoc dolore femina pectus saucia continuo decubuit; sentiensque morbum perrepere ad vitalia, superstites liberos, monachum et monacham, pernicibus invitavit epistolis. Advenientes voce singultiente alloquitur: "Ego, filii, quodam mea miserabili fato daemonicis semper artibus inservii; ego vitiorum omnium sentina, ego illecebrarum magistra fui. Erat tamen, inter haec mala, spes vestrae religionis quae miseram palparet animam; de me desperata, in vobis redinabar; vos proponebam propugnatores adversus daemones, tutores contra saevissimos hostes. Nunc igitur, quia ad finem vitae accessi, et illos habebo exactores in poena quos habui suasores in culpa, rogo vos per materna ubera, si qua fides, si qua pietas, ut mea saltem temptetis alleviare tormenta: et de anima quidem sententiam prolatam non revocabitis, corpus vero forsitan hoc modo servabitis. Insuite me corio cervino, deinde in sarcophago lapideo supinate, operculum plumbo et ferro constringite; super haec lapidem tribus catenis ferreis, magni scilicet ponderis, circumdate: psalmicines quinquaginta sint noctibus, eiusdemque numeri missae diebus, qui adversariorum excursus feroces levigent. Ita, si tribus noctibus secure iacuero, quarta die infodite matrem vestram humo; quanquam verear ne fugiat terra sinibus me recipere et fovere suis, quae totiens gravata est malitiis meis." Factum est ut praeceperat, illis magno studio incumbentibus. Sed, proh nefas! nil lacrymae valuere piae, nil vota, nil preces; tanta erat mulierculae malitia, tanta diaboli violentia. Primis enim duabus noctibus, cum chori clericorum psalmos circa corpus concreparent, singuli daemones ostium ecclesiae, immani obice clausum, levi negotio defringentes, extremas catenas diruperunt; media, quae operosius elaborata erat, illibata duravit. Tertia nocte, circa gallicinium, strepitu advenientium hostium omne monasterium a fundamentis moveri visum: unus, ceteris et vultu terribilior et statura eminentior, ianuas maiori vi concussas in fragmenta deiecit. Deriguere clerici metu, "steteruntque comae et vox faucibus haesit." Hic arroganti, ut videbatur, gestu ad sarcophagum accessit, inclamatoque nomine, ut surgeret imperavit: qua respondente quod nequiret pro vinculis, "Solveris," inquit, "et malo tuo"; statimque catenam, quae ceterorum ferociam eluserat, nullo conamine ut stuppeum vinculum dirupit. Operculum etiam tumbae pede depulit: apprehensamque manu, palam omnibus, ab ecclesia extraxit: ubi prae fori bus equus, niger et superb us, hinniens videbatur, uncis ferreis per totum tergum protuberantibus; super quos misera imposita, mox ab oculis intuentium, cum toto sodalitio disparuit. Audiebantur tamen clamores per quatuor fere miliaria miserabiles suppetias orantis.
Ista incredibilia non judicabit qui legerit beati Gregorii Dialogum, qui refert in quarto libro nequam hominem, in ecclesia sepultum, a daemonibus foras ejectum. Apud Francos quoque non semel auditum est quod dicam: Karolum Martellum insignis fortitudinis virum, qui Saracenos, Gallias ingressos, Hispaniam redire compulit, exactis diebus suis in ecclesia sancti Dionysii sepultum; sed, quia patrimonia omnium pene monasteriorum Galliae pro mercede commilitonum mutilaverat, visibiliter a malignis spiritibus e sepulchro abreptum, ad hanc diem nusquam visum. Denique illud revelatum Aurelianensi episcopo, et per eum in vulgus seminatum.
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Roger of Wendover, "Of a certain witch, and her miserable death"
A. D. 852. […] In those days there lived in the village of Berkeley a certain woman, who was a witch, a lover of her belly, and given to lasciviousness, forsaking not her flagitious courses and her fortune-telling even in her old age, but remaining shameless even to her death. One day, as she sat at dinner a young raven, which she kept for her amusement, began to chatter I know not what; on which the woman let the knife drop from her hand, and turning pale in the face, began to cry, and exclaimed, "I shall hear of some heavy calamity to-day, for my plough is come to-day to the last furrow;" and no sooner had she so said, than there entered a messenger with doleful tidings. On her inquiring why he came, he replied, "I have to inform you that your son and all his family have been suddenly crushed to death." Struck with this sorrowful news, the woman immediately became very ill and took to her bed; and sensible that the disease was creeping on to her vitals, she sent a letter for her yet surviving children, the one a monk and the other a nun. On their arrival she addressed them with sobs after this manner, "My children, it has been my miserable fate, that I have all my life given myself to devilish practices, having been the sink of every vice, and the teacher of all manner of impurities. Yet, in the midst of my wickednesses, I placed my hope for the salvation of my perishing soul in your religion, trusting that you would be my defence against my adversaries, my guardians against my cruel foes. Now, therefore, that I am come to the end of my life, I beseech you by these breasts which have nourished you, that you do your endeavours to alleviate my torments. As soon as I am dead, sew me up in a deerskin, and then place me in a stone coffin, fastening well the lid with iron and lead, and binding it round with three very strong iron chains; after which, procure fifty ecclesiastics to sing psalms, and as many priests to celebrate masses for three days, that so the fierce attacks of my enemies may be repelled; and then, if I shall lie in security for three nights, on the fourth day bury me under ground." They did as she had directed; but, alas! neither prayers, nor tears, nor chains availed anything; for on the first two nights, while the quires were singing around the corpse, the devils came and burst open the church door, which was fastened with a huge bar, and broke with ease the chains that were about the extremities of the coffin; but the middle one was too strong for them, and remained entire. But on the third night, about cock-crowing, the whole of the monastery seemed to be shaken from its foundation by the noise of the approaching demons. One of the devils, who was more terrible in look and taller of stature than the rest, with a violent onset shivered the church-doors to fragments; the clergy and laity became stiff with fear, and their hair stood on end, and the singing of the psalms ceased. Then the demon, approaching the tomb with a haughty air, called the woman by her name which has not been recorded, and commanded her to rise; she replied that she could not for the fastenings. "There is now no hindrance," said he, and straightway he broke the chain which had baffled the efforts of the other devils, with as much ease as if it had been of tow; and then kicking off the lid of the coffin, he in the face of all dragged the woman forth from the church, where was seen before the doors a black steed, proudly neighing, with hoofs of iron, and completely caparisoned, upon which the wretched woman was thrown, and she quickly disappeared from the sight of the beholders; yet her fearful shrieks were heard for nearly four miles as she cried loudly for help.
Now what I have related will not be considered incredible, if you read the dialogue of the blessed pope Gregory, where he narrates how a man, who had been buried in a church, was dragged out of it by devils; and among the Franks, Charles Martel, a man of singular courage, who compelled the Saracens who had entered Gaul to retire back into Spain, after he had ended his days, was buried, as it is said, in the church of the blessed Dionysius; but because he had invaded the patrimony of nearly all the churches of Gaul by applying the tithes to the payment of his soldiers, his body was miserably torn from the tomb by malignant spirits, and was never more seen unto this day.
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Roger of Wendover, "De quadam muliere sortilega, et ejus miserabili morte"
A. D. 852. […] Circa dies istos, mulier quædam malefica, in villâ quæ Berkeleia dicitur degens, gulæ amattix ac petulantiæ, flagitiis modum usque in senium et auguriis non ponens, usque ad mortem impudica permansit. Hæc die quadam cum sederet ad prandium, cornicula quam pro delitiis pascebat, nescio quid garrire cœpit; quo audito, mulieris cultellus de manu excidit, simul et facies pallescere cœpit, et emisso rugitu, hodie, inquit, accipiam grande incommodum, hodieque ad sulcum ultimum meum pervenit aratrum quo dicto, nuncius doloris intravit; muliere vero percunctatâ ad quid veniret, affero, inquit, tibi filii tui obitum & totius familiæ ejus ex subitâ ruinâ interitum. Hoc quoque dolore mulier permota, lecto protinus decubuit graviter infirmata; sentiensque morbum subrepere ad vitalia, liberos quos habuit superstites, monachum videlicet et monacham, per epistolam invitavit; advenientes autem voce singultiente alloquitur. Ego, inquit, o pueri, meo miserabili fato dæmoniacis semper artibus inservivi; ego omnium vitiorum sentina, ego illecebrarum omnium fui magistra. Erat tamen mihi inter hæc mala, spes vestræ religionis, quæ meam solidaret animam desperatam; vos expectabam propugnatores contra dæmones, tutores contra sævissimos hostes. Nunc igitur quoniam ad finem vitæ perveni, rogo vos per materna ubera, ut mea tentatis alleviare tormenta. Insuite me defunctam in corio cervino, ac deinde in sarcophago lapideo supponite, operculumque ferro et plumbo constringite, ac demum lapidem tribus cathenis ferreis et fortissimis circundantes, clericos quinquaginta psalmorum cantores, et tot per tres dies presbyteros missarum celebratores applicate, qui feroces lenigent adversariorum incursus. Ita si tribus noctibus secura jacuero, quartâ die me infodite humo. Factumque est ut præceperat illis. Sed, proh dolor! nil preces, nil lacrymæ, nil demum valuere catenæ. Primis enim duabus noctibus, cum chori psallentium corpori assistabant, advenientes Dæmones ostium ecclesiæ confregerunt ingenti obice clausum, extremasque cathenas negotio levi dirumpunt: media autem quæ fortior erat, illibata manebat. Tertiâ autem nocte, circa gallicinium, strepitu hostium adventantium, omne monasterium visum est a fundamento moveri. Unus ergo dæmonum, et vultu cæteris terribilior & staturâ eminentior, januas Ecclesiæ impetu violcuto concussas in fragmema dejecit. Divexerunt clerici cum laicis, metu steterunt omnium capilli, et psalmorum concentus defecit. Dæmon ergo gestu ut videbatur arroganti ad sepulchrum accedens, & nomen mulieris modicum ingeminans, surgere imperavit. Quâ respondente, quod nequiret pro vinculis, jam malo tuo, inquit, solveris; et protinus cathenam quæ cæterorum ferociam dæmonum deluserat, velut stuppeum vinculum rumpebat. Operculum etiatn sepulchri pede depellens, mulierem palam omnibus ab ecclesiâ extraxit, ubi præ foribus niger equus superbe hinniens videbatur, uncis ferreis et clavis undique confixus, super quem misera mulier projecta, ab oculis assistentium evanuit. Audiebantur tamen clamores per quatuor fere miliaria horribiles, auxilium postulantes.
Ista itaque quæ retuli incredibilia non erunt, si legatur beati Gregorii dialogus, in quo refert, hominem in ecclesiâ sepultam, a dæmonibus foras ejectum. Et apud Francos Carolus Martellus insignis vir fortudinis, qui Saracenos Galliam ingressos, Hispaniam redire compulit, exactis vitæ suæ diebus, in Ecclesiâ beati Dionysii legitur fuisse sepultus. Sed quia patrimonia, cum decimis omnium fere ecclesiarum Galliæ, pro stipendio commilitonum suorum mutilaverat, miserabiliter a malignis spiritibus de sepulchro corporaliter avulsus, usque in hodiernum diem nusquam comparuit.