The Witch and Her Cow-Sucking Bag

Witches in the margins. Paris, Bibliothèque nationale de France, MS. Fr. 12476 (Le Champion des Dames)

Witches in the margins. Paris, Bibliothèque nationale de France, MS. Fr. 12476 (Le Champion des Dames)

I thought I’d put up a Halloween post a couple of days in advance, so we can get in the mood. One of the issues I’ve noticed a lot of people dealing with is the way that spookiness and fancy dress are both increasingly prescriptively gendered, even (especially?) for children. Girls’ costumes tend to be sexy – though there are some excellent suggestions for more imaginative costumes here.

Added to this is what I call the ‘witch problem’. The image of the witch at Halloween is deeply reliant on misogynistic lore: she’s a crone, an ugly woman who lives alone – what could be worse? Witch hunts and stories about witch hunts ensure that we think we know what happens to a witch in the end: burning alive.*

witchburnt

These stereotypes combine to make Halloween a slightly difficult event for feminists. So I wanted to explore a little bit about witchcraft and gender, and perhaps to unsettle that cliched image of a toothless, cackling crone powerless to resist her tormenters.

One of my favourite medieval witches comes from the popular book ‘Handling Sins’, which was written by a monk in the early fourteenth century. This book if full of macabre and plain bizarre stories. In theory, they were supposed to make medieval readers feel shame for their sins, and to teach good and bad Christian behaviour by example. In reality, a certain flavour of trick-or-treat spooky humour creeps in to this particular narrative. I’m going to quote the Middle English (with a bit of regularized spelling), because it’s just so brilliant. The story begins:

“There was a witch, who made a bag,/ A belly of leather, a great swag./ She conjured so this bag-belly,/ That it went and sucked men’s ky [cattle].”

The tale goes on to describe how the capacious leather bag glides from cow to cow, becoming full and squashy with white liquid.

wineskin

The witch rubs her hands in glee and the villagers lose their cows’ milk. Naturally, the villagers soon become suspicious, and when they see the scrotum-like skin sack bobbing up and down amongst their cows they are outraged. Summoning the witch as the likely guilty party, they drag her before the local bishop.

This is where the story becomes truly odd.

The bishop demands that the witch should tell him how she activates her special bag. Happily, she explains the special words one must say and instructs the bishop in the spell. Perhaps suffering from a little performance anxiety, the bishop clears his throat and recites the words, to no avail. Piteously, he exclaims:

“Alas! It will not rise!”

To which the witch replies, amused, that it is belief in the spell that makes all the difference.

The story is, so the author tells us, an demonstration of the fact that belief is crucial to everything. It’s actually told as an illustration of the first commandment: ‘I am the Lord your God, thou shalt believe in no other gods but me’, which medieval people understood to be not only about monotheism, but also about the importance of faith.

I’ve seen the story of the witch interpreted as a sort of crude joke on men, perhaps especially celibate clergymen, who need a little witchcraft to make their bags ‘rise’. In medieval England, the word for a moneybag, a purse, was a ‘male’, and Chaucer makes a pun on its other meaning – which is the modern one – inviting his readers to think of that other masculine container that hangs at a man’s waist.

 But just recently, a friend showed me an amazing witchy survival from Iceland, which changed all of that for me, and made me rethink witches and gender roles entirely. In Iceland, it was men who were witches, not women. And they had an even more gruesome tradition to do with skin containers, this time involving an actual scrotum.                                  
                                                                                                                                                          This link comes with a warning, because it is truly disgusting. Icelandic witch-men would first obtain a dying friend’s permission then, after death, would peel off the skin of his legs complete with penis and testicles, to wear them as ‘nabrok': skin trousers. A coin and a magic symbol written on paper were inserted into the scrotum, and thought to attract money to the wearer. This story unsettles our more familiar image of The Witch, and yet it also echoes some of the wonderfully bizarre innuendos of the medieval English witch with her ‘cow-sucking bag’. Male or female, witches had a dark power over human sexuality, and their magic exploited that most potent symbol, the male body, transforming it into something gruesome or absurd, a joke or a moneybag.                                                                    
                                                                                                                                                            I’m really not sure what these witchy stories ultimately say about male or female potency. They’re not easy stories to interpret – not least because the Church, both in Iceland and in England, demonised witchcraft and was also fascinated by it, constructing ever-more grotesque, far-fetched or chilling stories to feed the imagination of the faithful. But what sticks in my mind is the ending of the story about my medieval witch, with her ‘cow-sucking bag’. The shame-faced bishop does command that she must stop practising witchcraft, but he doesn’t punish her, and the last picture we have is of her triumphant demonstration of her skill, and his failure to ‘make it rise’.

Note

* There are a lot of myths about witches and witchhunts. These were not a particularly medieval phenomenon, but Early Modern, and witches were often hanged, not burnt, despite the popularity of that image. If you want to know more, there’s a brilliant academic study called The Witch In History, by Diane Purkiss. 

About Jeanne de Montbaston

Researcher in Medieval Studies
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2 Responses to The Witch and Her Cow-Sucking Bag

  1. Pingback: Silent Sunday Round Up of Inspiring Blogs by Women | feimineach.com

  2. Pingback: Witches and Wicked Bodies: Imagining the ‘Other’ | Jeanne de Montbaston

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