Category: madness

The Lover’s Head

The Lover’s Head

The motif of lovers retaining the head of a decapitated partner is surprisingly widespread. In this — our romantic Valentine’s Day episode  — we have a look at old ballads, literature, fairy tales, legends, and even a few historical anecdotes in which such things occur.

We begin with the English murder ballad, “In Bruton Town,” also known as “The Bramble Briar,” “The Jealous Brothers,” or “The Constant Farmer’s Son.”  It might seem a strange inclusion at first as there is actually no decapitated lover in the song, but it’s widely recognized by scholars as having derived from a 14th-century story identical in all other elements of the narrative.  Though no heads are removed, there is a murder, namely that of a suitor courting the sister of two brothers who find his social status unacceptable (as well as the fact that he is slipping into their sister’s bedroom along the way). There is also a visitation by the ghost of the dead lover, in which he reveals the location of his corpse, with whom the woman lives for three days in the woods before being forced home by hunger — all of which may remind some listeners to the lover’s ghost in “Fair Margaret and Sweet William” discussed in our Undead Lovers episode.  The segment begins with a snippet from a version of the song given a enthusiastically gothic treatment by The Transmutations.  The a cappella version is by A.L. Lloyd.

The probable source story  for the ballad is from Giovanni Boccaccio’s Decameron, a tale told to entertain her fellow travelers by Filomena, one of the refugees fleeing plague-stricken Florence in the novel’s frame story.  She describes the tragic romance of Lisabetta and Lorenzo. As in our ballad, Lorenzo is an unworthy suitor engaging in secret rendezvous with Lisabetta, whose brothers are similarly protective of her and their sister and family status. Lorenzo meets his end when invited by the brothers to join them on an excursion out beyond the city.  He later appears in a dream to reveal the location of his corpse.

Maestro di Jean Mansel
Illustration for tale of Lisabetta of Messina from The Decameron by Maestro di Jean Mansel (1430-1450)

As she grieves over her lover’s body, Lisabetta recognizes that she is physically unable to transport it back for burial, and so does the next best thing, removing the head with a handy razor.  The rest of the story relates how the head is hidden in pot planted with basil, the discovery of which causes the brothers to flee from justice. Mrs. Karswell reads for us all the grisly details Boccaccio provides.

Roughly three centuries later, we find a lover’s remains planted in a pot in Italian poet Giambattista Basile’s Pentamerone or “The Tale of Tales,” perhaps the earliest compilation of European fairy tales. The story, “The Myrtle,” presents a fairy who lives in a sprig of mirtle kept by a prince who nightly makes love to her as when she assumes a human form. When she is murdered by jealous rivals, the prince’s servant mops up her bloody remains and dumps them in the pot where they regenerate through the mirtle. The understandably annoyed fairy sees to it that her would-be assassins meet a fitting fate.

We then take a quick look at other writers who picked up Boccaccio’s tale, including the 16th-century German playwright Hans Sachs and 19th-century English poet John Keats (“Isabella, or the Pot of Basil”). The derivation of the folk ballad may have come through an English version of Sach’s play, but there’s no documentation to prove this.

Isabella and the Pot of Basil, William Holman Hunt, 1868.

Another interesting iteration of the story comes from Denmark, from the pen of Hans Christian Andersen — from his 1872 story “The Rose-Elf,” or “The Elf of the Rose.”  This one tells much the same tale, but presents it through the eyes of an invisibly small elf who occupies a rose, and later a leaf in the tree under which the murderer buries the lover’s body. While the elf may have been inserted in an effort to position the tale as one for children, the story is grim even by Andersen standards.

We then examine a couple historical cases of loved one’s heads kept as postmortem mementos, among these, the head of Sir Walter Raleigh kept after his beheading by his wife Elizabeth Throckmorton and that of Thomas More kept not by his wife but his daughter, Margaret Roper.

Next up, a few tales of the preserved heads of lovers serving as objects of terror and disgust rather than romantic attachment.  The first is that of Arthur and Gorlagon, one probably composed in 14th-century Wales.  It’s a truly weird narrative, so much so that some scholars have suggested it was composed as a joke or parody.

Without giving too much away, the story (which we hear at length) is perhaps best described an Arthurian Shaggy Dog story, a werewolf story actually, one that meanders in the classic shaggy-dog mode and likewise can’t be expected to deliver the anticipated payoff, though it does provide us the preserved head of a deceased lover.

A similar tale with an embalmed head employed as an ever-present, shaming reminder of a wife’s infidelity is found in The Palace of Pleasure a collection of stories by John Painter published in several volumes first appearing in 1566. This one features a pleasingly gothic scene of a black-clad woman with shaven head employing some rather gruesome tableware.

We wrap up with the tale of Willem Mons, an unfortunate lover of Catherine the Great who lost his head (though Catherine hung on to it) and the 2016 story of Davie Dauzat of Bellmont, Texas, who decided the family freezer would be a good place to retain the head of the wife he decapitated. The closing song snippet is by Arrogant Worms.

#30 Loup-Garou, Werewolves in France

#30 Loup-Garou, Werewolves in France

The werewolf (Fr: loup-garou) epidemic of 16th-century France forms the core of our show, but we also include some medieval French werewolf tales as well as the legend of a figure connected to both werewolves and Bluebeard.

In our last episode on Bluebeard, I promised to recount a legend that may have inspired Charles Perrault’s story. This would be the story of Count Conomor, or “Conomor the Accursed,” a 6th-century ruler of Brittany. Here the role of Bluebeard’s new wife is played by Trephine, the daughter of a rival count.  Through her forbearance, she came to be regarded in local traditions as a saint (therefore the chapel depiction below).  Her adventures include interaction with the helpful ghosts of Conomor’s slain wives, decapitation by Conomor (with miraculous cure) and a magic ring  The curse upon this wicked count continues into the afterlife, during which he is condemned to roam the countryside in the form of a werewolf.

A revived St. Tryphine. Statue in chapel of St Trémeur, near Carhaix, Brittany
The decapitated but ambulatory St. Trephine. Statue in chapel of St Trémeur (her son), near Carhaix, Brittany

Our next segment looks at some medieval werewolf stories, including the 12-century poem by a Marie de France, “Bisclavret,” in which the werewolf plays a surprisingly sympathetic role, the tale of Sir Hugues de Camp-d’Avesnes, condemned to an afterlife as a werewolf for burning a town in the 1131, and that of the knight Raimbaud de Pulet, who in a fit of despondent madness becomes a werewolf.

The French werewolf epidemic, which between 1520 and 1630, resulted in the execution of more than 30,000 individuals was the result of a link forged between the werewolf and a new, more aggressive attitude toward witchcraft arising in ecclesiastic councils taking place in Basel Switzerland in the 1430s.  The first regions in France to begin prosecutions were therefore naturally those adjacent to Switzerland.  Many there were overseen by Henry Bouguet, a judge who tried approximately 600 witchcraft cases in the locality.  Most of the stories recounted in this episode come from his writings on the subject, while others come from the The Werewolf  by highly eccentric English scholar Montague Summers, who was discussed in Episode 1.

Montague Summers and his classic volume on werewolves
Montague Summers and his classic volume on werewolves

The first of Bouget’s cases examined is that of Michel Verdun, who shortly after a wolf attack in which the beast is wounded is discovered treating a matching wound on his arm.  Verdun’s testimony implicated two other men likewise said to transform themselves into wolves, Philibert Montot, and Pierre Bourgot, who provides a lurid testimony including accounts of bloody crimes committed in wolf form, attendance at a witches’ sabbath and being initiated into his wicked ways by a black rider he meets in the forest.

Gevaudan
The Beast of Gevaudan. Outside the witchcraft paradigm discussed in the episode, but a nice image.

The next case discussed (and judged by Bouget) is that of Gilles Garnier, who also spoke of a forest meeting with a diabolical figure who presented him the magic ointment necessary for transformation. Garnier’s case is interesting in that he brought home human flesh from his werewolf attacks for his wife to enjoy.

Another case in this same area mentioned by Boguet is that of the Gandillons, a whole family of alleged werewolves.  It begins with a female werewolf, Perrenette Gandillon, who attacks a brother and sister and is then killed by a mob.  Her sister, Antoinette confesses to also being a werewolf and attending a witches sabbath, as do her father and brother.  Wilkinson reads for us a colorful description of the wolf-like behavior of the male Gandillons in their prison cells.

Outside of Bouget’s jurisdiction, we find the case of the Werewolf of Chalons, a tailor discovered abducting children and butchering them in his shop.  We also hear the story of Jean Grenier from Bordeaux (see the comic below).

The show closes with an account of 20th-century lycanthropy from Grenier’s home town of Bordeaux.  When an unnamed assailant confesses to murdering a stranger invited into his home for a meal in 1989, he is examined by prison psychiatrist Michel Bénézech, who makes the diagnosis of “pathological lycanthropy.”  The quotes we hear from Bénézech are from the BBC show “The Secret Life of Ghosts & Werewolves.”

Story of Jean Grenier from "The Usborne Guide To The Supernatural World" (1979)
Story of Jean Grenier from “The Usborne Guide To The Supernatural World” (1979)

 

 

#18 Wild Men, Furry Saints, and Burning Dancers

#18 Wild Men, Furry Saints, and Burning Dancers

This time round we look at the medieval myth of the Wild Man, its connection to seasonal folk traditions, peculiar influence on Church teachings, and a macabre historical incident featuring dancers costumed as Wild Men.

We begin with a bit of Edgar Allen Poe filtered through Roger Corman, namely a clip from the director’s 1964 production The Masque of the Red Death.  In the film, Corman incorporates a grisly scene borrowed from Poe’s short story “Hop Frog,” an accident revolving around highly inflammable ape costumes.

We then turn to Poe’s historical inspiration for this scene, namely a 1393 celebration held in the Parisian court of Charles VI, a masque which has come to be known as Bal des Sauvages (Ball of the Wild Men) or more commonly the Bal des Ardents (Ball of the Burning Men).  As you may guess, the Wild Man suits donned for this event also proved quite flammable, leaving four courtiers dead.  Graphic details are provided. While Charles also wore one of these less than safe costumes, he was not injured in the event but went on to suffer from troubles of a different sort, as we later explore.

Bals des Ardents, from Jean Froissart Chroniques, 1483
Bals des Ardents, from Jean Froissart Chroniques, 1483

Other costume customs associated with the Wild Man are next examined — a strange case from James Frazer’s The Golden Bough (involving a blood bladder), and mention is made of Wild Man costumes of straw or vegetation often identified as “straw bears,” as in the Straw Bear Festival of Whittlesea, in the UK, or other vegetation clad Wild Men who appear in Carnival processions in Basel, Switzerland, Telfs, Austria, and the Wild Man Dance held every five years in Oberstdorf, Bavaria.  Audio clips from the events in Whittlesea, and Telfs are heard in the background.

Wild Man dancers from Oberstdorf, Bavaria.
Wild Man dancers from Oberstdorf, Bavaria.

Classical figures that blended into the Wild Man mythos are discussed: the satyrs, fauns, and particularly Silvanus, as are other pagan figures that tended to overlap with the Wild Man —  the Dusios of the Celts of Gaul, the schrat of German-speaking lands, and the ogre, a figure seemed particularly influential in French and Italian traditions.

While pagan versions of Wild Men were regarded by the Church as demonic, the image of the Wild Man was in some occasions adopted into saint iconography.  We see a number of examples drawn from the era of the Desert Fathers, when solitary hermitage in the wild was commonly understood to be a path to God.  Medieval artists, we learn, tended to take the “wild” aspect of these figures, rather literally, and certain church legends seem to support this.

St. Mary of Egypt from the Dunois Book of Hours.
St. Mary of Egypt from the Dunois Book of Hours.

Real world figures equated with the Wild Man are also examined.  We meet the first historical example via a painting of the 16th-century figure, Petrus Gonsalvus, an object in the famous Wunderkammer (“cabinet of curiosities”) collection at Ambras Castle in Innsbruck, Austria.  Other items in the collection, including a disturbing portraits of a deformed court jester and of a Hungarian nobleman living with lance embedded in his head are mentioned, as is an odd pop song related to one of P.T. Barnum’s sideshow personalities, Jo-Jo the Dog-faced Boy.  A clip from Jean Cocteau’s 1946 adaptation of “Beauty and the Beast” is heard.

Petrus Gonsalvus, anonymous 16th-century painting.
Petrus Gonsalvus, anonymous 16th-century painting.

Oh, I also promised to post this picture of Barbara van Beck…

Barbara van Beck by William Richardson
Barbara van Beck by William Richardson

We conclude the show returning our attention to France’s Charles VI, hearing the story of his mental breakdown and behaviors and delusions that earned him the epitaph, “Charles the Mad.”

Charles VI accosted by mysterious stranger before his mental breakdown.
Charles VI accosted by mysterious stranger before his mental breakdown.