“She put such a powder in sweet milk”

Food and the diabolic

Some of the most fascinating stories of girls, women and the feminine are ones of food. Even today it is an incredibly gendered site. A fascinating glimpse into this is offered by the role food and nourishment played in the accusations of the early modern witch hunts which swept across Europe and North America during the fifteenth and sixteenth century ( Levack, 2006).

These hunts were both hysterical and logical. Some seemingly appearing out of nowhere, other great panics following periods of great dearth and illness ( Briggs, 1991 ). But all grew from accusation of diabolism in the midst of the community. Perhaps you have heard of the Malleus Maleficarum, the hammer of the witches and the wild tales of diabolic sex with the devil, stealing and eating little children… the sixteenth century narratives revel in the details ( Clark, 1980) ! But ultimately these were actually very real conflicts.

Such ‘reality’ is clear in the way in which food was inescapable from the accusations that swarmed the female witch. It certainly has a long and nuanced history but one bizarre aspect of the accusations, specifically of women, was the focus upon food, food preparation and the act of ‘feeding’ infants .

Most simply, the diabolic witch was often suspected because of the involvement of the community of early modern women in food preparation. That they slipped something into food and drink that would cause lameness or even death. In the 1627 trial of Ursula Götzin in Marchtal, she was accused of putting ‘’Black ointment in a little cake which would make animals and beasts lame’’. Judith

Wagner in Augsburg in 1689 was accused of giving a ‘‘powder to her little sister Sara’’ in her food, and ”smeared a salve in the mouth of another young boy at the instruction of the devil’’. Even more saliently. Barbara Kurzhalsin gave a child a ‘’diabolic powder’’ and ‘’gave it to eat in a puree’’.

The nature of such accusations could certainly be woven into a neatly patriarchal story. Women’s oppressive confinement to the domestic sphere natural aligns them with food preparation – and thus it was only fitting that fire and brimstone male community leaders should condemn them for malevolent witchcraft in such a way. But, as is always the way, this is not quite true. Frankly, it is a much less interesting way to understand this.

Look at these cases again. Judith Wagner was ,in fact, accused by a mother of a child who ‘’began to scream so loudly that the mother could not soothe it’’. Whilst Ursula Gotzin’s primary accuser was Anna wife of Hans Hommel of Marchtal. Who, again, was obsessed with the idea she had been fed some malicious substance. At a wedding, Ursula had : ‘’Passed her a glass to drink out of’’ after which ‘‘[she] did not feel too well’’. This was then a power contest within the female community ; paradoxically grounded in it would seem a female understanding of the great authority of the food producer. These accusers understood these women they accused .They understood the ability of the female to reach terrifying closeness to them and their children through communal feeding and childcare. The female witch is perhaps more helpful to be read then, by women, than by men. To Anna, Ursula’s terrifying power over bewitched food came from the acceptable female power which was its reverse.

To finish this tale of the female witch as the food giver, is also the motif of the witch as the malign mother. Take even a peek into any early modern gallery and the mother is inescapable be this the Virgin Mary or any woman caressing her babe( Roper, 2004). I think such a focus uncovers the deep power of the mother in Early Modern culture ; specifically, her capacity to nourish. However, such an authority became malignly warped in the stories of diabolical witchcraft.

When a woman was accused, it commonly appeared in the context of a dead infant. Not only this, but of one who was starved. In one case, the witch was accused of actually inverting the flow of the maternal fluids as she sucked the infant dry, instead of it sucking from her breast. Its mother described how “its little breasts had been sucked out so that milk had been pressed out from the child’s little teats contrary to nature, . . . and from this time on the child had lost weight so that it looked as if hardly a pound of flesh remained on it”.

Another baby was found to be covered with a myriad of tiny teats as if it had become a mere drinking vessel for the thirsty witch. During the trial of Anna Schwayhofer, the baby was described as “ganz starr vnd hart, wie ein holz” ( Clark, 1991).

The female power here is acute; yet it is perverse, almost grotesque. The witch whose power over food was both authoritative and malign is one way to glimpse the complexity of female power in the early modern world. The malignity of the reverse power had to rest on a community of female trust and domestic authority – because only then could the despicable reverse be conceived of.

Food is ultimately a contested space then – pulled apart by the figure of the virtuous mother, the nurturing woman but testament to the way in which female power continues to be desperately uneasy. It teaches us to be wary of overly simplistic gendered stories.

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