Category: Italy

The Hellish Harlequin: Phantom Hordes to Father Christmas

The Hellish Harlequin: Phantom Hordes to Father Christmas

Harlequin is an enigmatic figure with roots in dark folklore of France, specifically that of the Wild Hunt (Chasse Sauvage) a nocturnal procession of ghosts or devils, particularly associated with the time around Christmas and New Year.  The myth is also common to England and examined more closely in its Germanic manifestation in Episode 16, “The Haunted Season.” We open with a snippet from an album dedicated to Hellequin’s folkore by a Belgian band called Maisnée d’Hellequin.

In the show, we trace a thread leading from medieval stories of Hellequin (Harleqin’s ancestor in France) and King Herla (the English equivalent) to the more recent theatrical figure of Harlequin, along the way examining a link with the traditional English Christmas play (mummers’ play) and its role in the evolution of the figure of Father Christmas.

 

1601
A darker Harlequin from the 1601 book, Compositions de rhétorique de Mr. Don Arlequin

Our first story comes from the French-Norman monk Oderic Vitalis, from volume two of his Ecclesiastical History. It was written in about 1140, making it not only the first account mentioning Hellequin (“Herlequin” in his text) but also the first European ghost story, one Vitalis relates as a true event transpiring on New Year’s Eve 1091, and told to him by an eyewitness, a priest, by the name of Vauquilin (Walkelin).

While returning  from a visit to an ailing member of his parish, Vauquilin, hears the thunder of what sounds like an approaching army and is met by a giant with a club, whom he recognizes as Hellequin and who in this case serves as a sort of herald of the ghostly crew that follows.  It’s a richly detailed and extravagantly ghoulish tale, splendidly read by our own Mrs. Karswell.

Without giving away too much, suffice it to say, that the spirits Vauquilin sees passing are enduring a sort of purgatorial torment for past sins, an apparently temporary but unenviable state of earthbound damnation.  (For more on medival tales of ghosts visiting mortals from purgatory, see our “Ghosts from Purgatory” episode.)  In the procession, these sinners are accompanied by devils who torture them, chief among these, apparently Hellequin.

Our next story, from around 1190 paints a more detailed picture of the English version of Hellequin, King Herla. It was written in Wales by the courtier Walter Map and contained in his eccentric collection of myths and pseudo-historical anecdotes called De Nugis Curialium, or “trifles for the court.”  This one’s more of an origin story explaining King Herla’s transition from mortal king to ghostly rider.  I won’t give away the details on this one either, but it involves a dwarf king’s wedding party inside a mountain, parting gifts, and bad gift etiquette.

1601
A darker Harlequin from the 1601 book, Compositions de rhétorique de Mr. Don Arlequin

Our third story comes from 14th-century France and is a bit different as it doesn’t describe what are supposed to be supernatural events but a representation of this, a fictional procession imitating Hellequin’s ride.

The procession in this text takes the form of a charivari, a sort of parade with participants noisily banging pots and pans or playing discordant music on various instruments. Charivaris were most commonly occasioned by weddings, in particular those which defied some social convention, such as the rushed wedding of a widow or widower who not honoring a suitable period of mourning.

In our story, the wedding is that of a figure named Fauvel, who is marrying the allegorical figure of Vainglory. Fauvel, by the way, is a horse representing all the worst traits of social climbers of the day.

The satiric Romance of Fauvel (“Romance” = “novel”) was written in 1316 by a Gervais du Bus, then much enlarged in 1316 with additions, including our charivari scene, by another writer by the name of de Pesstain.  The text describes a particularly carnivalesque scene including a bizarre, wheeled noise-making machine, and all sorts of taboo-breaking behavior by the participants. The connection between the Wild Hunt and carnival is also noted in an 18th-century German carnival procession we hear described, one mimicking in this case Frau Holde and her retinue. The Fauvel passage ends with the narrator encountering a giant recognized as Hellequin, who is bringing up the rear — leading from behind in this case.

Fauvel
Charivari illustration from The Romance of Fauvel.

We then have a look at the theatrical, Harlequin who originated in the 16th century as a stock figure from the Italian commedia della’arte, where he’s known as Arlecchino. He wears a black half-mask along with a suit sewn with multicolored diamonds. And he always carries a sort of short club, an element that seems to be borrowed from the diabolical Hellequin.  Though he’s most well known as an Italian figure, Arlecchino seems to have his source, as a theatrical entity, in a devil of this name from medieval French mystery plays.  We also look at some supernatural Hellquins in secular plays including a 13th-century work by the Norman poet Bourdet and the satiric work, Le Jeu de la feuillée by Adam de la Halle.

We then follow the theatrical Harlequin to England where in the 18th century, the commedia plays morphed into were called “harliquinades,” frothy comedies, which eventually evolved into the British tradition of Christmas pantos/pantomimes.

We also examine a little remarked upon influence of the commedia and harliquinades on England’s seasonal mummer’s plays, particularly the traditional Christmas Play.  An echo of Arlecchino’s trademark slapstick, or club, along with a mumming character called “Father Beelzebub” helps us connect the character of Father Christmas found in these plays with the devilish old Hellequin/Herla of French and Anglo-Norman folklore.

Father Christmas (on left) from Sandys Christmastide, its History, Festivities and Carols (1852)

 

Witchcraft in Southern Italy

Witchcraft in Southern Italy

In southern Italy, belief in witchcraft  has a long history, much of it centering on the town of Benevento, about 30 miles east of Naples.

From a 1428 testimony by accused witch Matteuccia da Todi, we have the first mention (anywhere in Europe) of witches flying to their sabbats — their gathering spot, in this case, being Benevento.  Matteuccia was also the first to speak of  flying ointment as a means to achieve this.  We include  a musical setting by the southern Italian band Janara of the incantation that was spoken while applying the ointment.

Sermons of the Franciscan monk Bernardino of Siena seems to have introduced the idea of Benevento as a mecca for witches, mentioning a certain tree  as the center of these gatherings, one later identified as a walnut.

Raffaele Mainella walnut tree
“Walnut of Benevento” by Raffaele Mainella, 1890?

Though no tradition around a specific location for this tree has survived in Benevento, the legend has been wholeheartedly embraced by the local distillers of Strega (witch) liqueur, created in 1833 and now distributed worldwide. This seems to have been part of a 19th-century revival of interest in the legend, which saw the composition of a popular poem, “The Walnut Tree of Benevento,” which added a serpent living in the tree’s branches, and probably inspired Niccolo Paganini to compose his signature piece, Le Streghe, (The Witches) from which we hear a snippet.  (Yes, that’s a real clip about Strege liqueur and elections from the film Kitty Foyle).

What really locked down the local mythology was an essay written in 1634 by Benevento’s chielf physician, Pietro Piperno, one titled “On the Magical Walnut Tree of Benevento.”  This is the first mention of the species of tree in question.  Piperno also places the walnut at the center of a curious rite conducted by the Lombards occupying the region in the 10th century, a rite he sees as a model for the Benevento witch tales of his own day.  Mrs. Karswell also reads for us a retelling from Piperno’s text of a hunchback who stumbles upon a sabbat, only to have the hump on his back magically removed.

The discovery of a the ruins of a temple to Isis in Benevento in 1903 led to further speculation as to possible origins of the region’s witchcraft myths, but it was the Roman goddess Diana most strongly associated with southern Italy’s witches, in part because the name used there for a type of witch is janara, believed to come from the Latin dianara, a servant of Diana.

We hear snippet form a 2015 Italian horror film called Janara  (retitled in English “The Witch Behind the Door”), a bit about folk practices taken against these night-hag-esque beings, and of their activities at sabbats, which apparently includes dancing La Volta.

Then we hear a tale of “the fishwife of Palermo,” as she’s identified in 1588 trial records of the Sicilian Inquisition.  It illustrates an aspect of Italian witch mythology that seems to have absorbed elements of fairy lore, including details such as a beautiful king and queen presiding over nocturnal gatherings.

From Naples we hear the sad tale of the “Witch of Port’Alba,” who was sentenced to a peculiar fate for casting spells on her wedding day, a story involving leaping, bell-wearing witches on the slopes of Mr. Faito on Naple’s southern outskirts, and a story of a witch calming lost souls said to be screaming from the depths of Vesuvius.

Still from “Magia Lucan” by Di Gianni”

We then move beyond the witch of folklore and Inquisitions to the notion of the witch as folk-healer, something very much alive and well, as represented in the short documentaries on Souther Italian magic made in the 1950s-70s by Luigi Di Gianni in conjunction with anthropologist Ernesto de Martino, who was mentioned in our discussion of tarantella possession in our Pied Piper episode.  An example of these films would be L’Attaccatura (dialect for fattucchiera, the standard Italian for folk-healer, or literally “fixer.”  A whole playlist of the films can be found here, though unless you speak Italian (and local dialects), you’ll have to settle for YouTube’s auto-translate function.

Of great interest to those consulting folk-healers is protection from the evil eye or malocchio. The concept of fascinatura or “binding” is central to the evil eye’s workings, one which happens to be the English title of a 2020 Italian folk-horror film sampled in the discussion.

The driving force of envy said to be behind the evil eye is well illustrated in the spurned lover a the center of the 1963 film Il Demonio, from which we hear excerpts.  (In the show, I mistakenly called the film “Demonia” (feminine form), missing the point somewhat as the actual “demonic” forces portrayed might not be those belonging to the rejected female lover and town outcast/witch, but those of the male villagers around her.)

Still from "Il Demonio"
Still from “Il Demonio”

A number of magical charms and gestures prescribed against the evil eye are examined, as are the pazzarielli of Naples, flamboyantly costumed characters who deliver street blessings against the malocchio.  Their characteristic cry, “Sciò sciò ciucciuè” (sort of “shoo, bad luck”) is take up as a 1953 song by Nino Taranto, which we hear (along with a Calabrian song about the possessor of the evil eye, the jetattore)

"Sciò Sciò" Neapolitan luck-bringer figure
“Sciò Sciò” Neapolitan luck-bringer figure

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Plague Doctor Unmasked

The Plague Doctor Unmasked

The figure of the masked plague doctor is an object of intense fascination but also the subject of much misinformation. This episode sorts things out while seeking particular evidence for such handsomely dressed character in the historical record.

We begin with a few clips from horror films in which plague doctors figure, including the 2008 film The Sick House in which the spirit of a plague doctor menaces an archeologist, and the 2019 film The Cleansing in which a malevolent bird-masked “Cleanser” stalks through 14th-century Wales.

As most listeners are somewhat familiar with the plague mask and its presumed function, we get that out of the way first, noting the mask’s connection to the antique belief in miasma, or disease-carrying air as the cause of the plague and other ailments. We also clear up the misunderstanding that the plague doctor is a medieval character (since he only appears in the 17th century).

His first appearance is in a German broadsheet from 1655, in which the crow-like character identified as “Dr. Beak” and lampooned (along with doctors in general) for being greedy as carrion crows.  As this image was copied and recopied for centuries, it raises the question as to whether the birdlike mask was in fact drawn from life or created strictly in the service of this original broadsheet’s metaphor.

"Dr Schnabel/Beak of Rome, Paul Fürst, 1656
“Dr Schnabel/Beak of Rome, Paul Fürst, 1656

Next we look at other evidence for the character in the form of actual artifacts, including two masks exhibited in museums in Berlin and Ingolstadt, Germany.

v
Mask in Berlin Museum of German History

As there are reasons to doubt the authenticity of these, we next look at evidence of plague masks associated with the island of Poveglia in the Venice Lagoon.  Along the way, we learn a bit more about early measures the city took against the plague (including the invention of the concept of shipping quarantines along with coinage of the word).

We also review a bit of general information about the islands in the Venetian lagoon (including others besides Poveglia) used for the clinical isolation of victims of plague, leprosy, and the mental illness.  A photo taken on Poveglia in 1899 is discussed as it may show an actual plague mask in use in the late 19th century.  We also hear some snippets from the TV Show Ghost Adventures, which popularized a number of legends associated with Poveglia, including tales of asylum torture and suicide.

1899 Photo from Poveglia
1899 Photo from Poveglia

Next, we look at the first textual evidence for this plague mask and suit, in a 1682 volume attributing its invention to Charles de Lorme, royal physician to Louis XIV and the Medici Family, among others.

While the design of the mask seems to be a first with de Lorme, we also hear of some other uses of protective plague garments are documented in France and Italy around this time.

A surprising example from Basel, Switzerland provides rare evidence of particular doctor known to have worn a plague suit and mask.  It’s 17th century painting of the family arms of the Zwinger family of Basel, painted for the doctor and theologian Theodor Zwinger the Younger, and depicting him in a plague mask and suit.

Theodor Zwinger Family Crest
Theodor Zwinger Family Crest

We also have a look at the symbolic use of special historic plague garments, special colors worn in France and Italy for medics working with plague victims, and the symbolic and practical function of the stick or baton held by the the plague doctor in most every historical illustration.

The Great Plague of Marseille (1721 to 1722) provides us one more name of a doctor known to have worn a plague suit and mask.  His name was François Chicoyneau, and his efforts were not well received by the citizens he was assigned to serve in Marseille, as we hear.

Along the way, Mrs. Karswell provides us some contemporary accounts documenting other aspects of the Marseilles plague, the last bubonic pandemic of Europe, including novel means of disposing of plague corpses considered by the town council, a curiously relevant form of social distancing, and the basis of the legend of “Four Thieves Vinegar.”

Finally, we discuss those plague doctor masks worn in the Venetian Carnival, learning that they are a strictly modern creation not associated with the 16th-18th century commedia della’arte tradition that gives us the other masks.

We end with a strange parallel between an opera about performers in the commedia della’arte and a 1928 film starring silent horror great Lon Chaney, Sr.  Included is a bit of music used to promote the film in question, Laugh Clown, Laugh.”

Lon Chaney, Sr. "Laugh Clown, Laugh"
Lon Chaney, Sr. “Laugh Clown, Laugh”