Category: renaissance

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.

Waxworks

Waxworks

The macabre feelings stirred by waxwork figures go far beyond their use in horror films, back to the Terror of the French Revolution, and beyond to their use as funeral effigies and in magic rites of popular Italian Catholicism and Roman-Etruscan witchcraft.

We begin with  a brief look at wax museums in horror cinema (going back to 1907).  The most famous example, 1953’s House of Wax, not only created Vincent Price as a horror actor, but pioneered the use of 3D.  It happened to be a remake of 1933’s Mystery of the Wax Museum, coincidentally another technological pioneer thanks to the film’s use of Technicolor’s early 2-color process.  Offering a few more comments on horror films in this genre, we note some common themes: wax figures created over human remains, waxworks as uncanny, liminal presences, neither living nor dead (though being alive enough to kill you), and madness or death awaiting one who accepts the challenge to overnight in a wax museum.  All of these have historic roots reaching far beyond their cinematic iterations.

A final commonality is the presence of waxworks murderers and representations of historic villains and villainy, with a particular emphasis on the French Revolution.  Naturally, this brings us to a central figure in our story, Madame (Marie) Tussaud, whose name has become synonymous with waxworks.

Her story begins, however, not in France, but in Switzerland, where as a child she began assisting the wax modeler Philippe Curtius, whom her mother served as housekeeper.  Her move to France came when the Prince of Conti invited Curtius, his assistant and domestic to join an artistic circle he sponsored in Paris.

Through the Prince’s connections, Curtius and Tussaud entered elite circles, including the court at Versailles, this thanks to Louis XVI’s sister, Madame Elizabeth, who sought out Tussaud as a mentor to help her create religious figurines in wax. When the Revolution broke out, Tussaud and Curtius were called upon to demonstrate anti-royalist sympathies by documenting the Revolution’s victories.  This meant crafting likenesses of heads that tumbled from the guillotine, to be carried on pikes or displayed on trophies. This could be particularly gruesome work given the empathy Tussaud had developed with contacts at the court, as we hear in a grim passage from Tussaud’s Memoirs, read by Mrs. Karswell.

Wax heads?
When Revolutionaries don’t have real heads, wax will do.

In 1804, when Tussaud accepted an invitation to display waxworks in London (and was later prevented from returning to France by the Napoleonic Wars), she brought with her Curtius’ concept of a discrete room dedicated to the infamous. His “Den of Thieves” became the “Chamber of Horrors” central to Tussaud’s fame in London and later the world.  The Victorian’s fascination with murder and executions discussed in our “Gallows” and “Gibbet” episodes was enthusiastically exploited by Tussaud, and we hear some amusing details and contemporary criticism of all this from the magazine Punch.

Tussaud was by no means to the first to display waxworks or even waxwork horrors in England. We have a look at some earlier innovators, including a “Mrs. Salmon” whose work illustrating some rather bizarre legends was shown on Fleet Street, a popular 18th/19th-century location for waxworks exhibitors once they had graduated from installing traveling displays at Fairs.

Charles Dickens gives us a taste of the life of traveling waxworks exhibitors in his 1840 novel The Old Curiosity Shop, which features and impresario named Mrs. Jarel clearly inspired by Tussaud.  We hear a passage from that and several more from an obscure 1896 non-fiction work containing a trove of information on the waxwork business in 19th-century England: Joe Smith and his Waxworks.  In particular, we hear more about the public’s hunger for murderers and how that is best accommodated.

Old Curiosity Shop
Mrs. Jarel schooling her waxworks apprentice in The Old Curiosity Shop

Our association of waxworks with the macabre also would seem to have to do with their historical use as funeral effigies. We have a look at the practice (dating to 1377) of crafting wax and wood stand-ins for England’s royal funerals and how their post-funeral display in the crypts of Westminster Cathedral by the 1800s had evolved into what might be considered England’s oldest wax museum. Along the way, we hear a strange anecdote of these wax monarchs showing up in the Piccadilly tube station and of similar effigies in France being treated like living humans in quite surprising ways.

Another forerunner of the wax museum can be found in Italian Catholicism, in particular, with the creation of votive offerings left at shrines to represent prayers that have been answered. A common form of these, representing relief from medical afflictions, are small wax models of the afflicted body part miraculously healed.  But wax arms, hearts, feet, and hands are only the beginning.  Full figures — wood and paper mâché bodies with wax heads and hands, and dressed in the wardrobe of the person commissioning the figure — once populated certain churches.

We discuss a few examples of this including the Basilica of the Most Holy Annunciation (the Annunziata) in Florence and The Shrine of Our Lady of Grace (Le Grazie) near the town of Mantua in Lombardy. The first no longer exhibits these figures but was described by a 16th century Dutch visitor as resembling “a field of cadavers.”  The second also features the taxidermied remains of a crocodile suspended over the sanctuary.

Le Grazie
Votive in Le Grazie: spared from execution! .

Scholars, including the art historian Aby Warburg, have commented on the similarity between these votive wax figures an figurines used in sympathetic magic. Illustrative of this: in Florence, when political tides changed, the removal of a disfavored person from the Annunziata would be referred to as a “killing.”

Connections with Etruscan magic, the source of magical practice and witchcraft belief in ancient Rome is also discussed in this context.  As are the Romans’ use of wax funeral masks representing the ancestors and a wax effigy created for the funeral for Julius Caesar, one which was partially mechanized and sported realistic wounds from his assassination. Perfect for a Chamber of Horrors!

We wrap up the show with a bit of later history on Madame Tussauds, a talking parrot, and a strange birthday party celebrated in 1969 by Vincent Price and Christopher Lee.

 

 

Holy Puppets, Medieval Robots, and More

Holy Puppets, Medieval Robots, and More

This episode looks at puppets given life through magical or mechanical means, holy puppets of the Catholic Church, medieval robots, an early automata of gothic literature, some related films, and an Alpine sex puppet that only puts up with so much.

We begin at the end of Carolo Collodi’s  original Pinocchio story, or at least the end of the story’s first draft as serialized by the Italian children’s magazine, Giornale per i bambini in 1881.  As is our way, we examine some of the darker elements of the tale that never made it into the 1940 Disney film, (though we do hear a snippet of one particularly dark scene from that film.)

Pinocchio nearly fried in oil — from Collodi’s 1881 book.

Long before Collodi imagined his marionette, the medieval Church made use of puppets, or jointed figures, that could be manipulated to enact Christ’s Passion during Easter week.  Along with jointed shoulders allowing a figure of the Savior to be naturalistically unpinned from the cross, many of these puppets featured joints at the knees, elbows, and hips; some had rotating heads, and some fingers jointed to match each skeletal bone.  Others were rigged to bleed, roll their eyes, or even appear to speak.  We hear a report of a particularly bizarre method used to simulate tears in one figure from Germany as well as some interesting trickery resorted to by Bernese monks in the 1600s.

One of the most famous of these figures, especially because of its strangely lifelike skin, is the Christ of Burgos, Spain. Mrs. Karswell reads for us a passage mentioning a particularly gruesome legend associated with the figure from French poet and writer Théophile Gautier’s 1843 book, Wanderings in Spain.

Another famed Christ puppet was the 15th-century Rood of Grace once housed at a now ruined abbey in the town of Boxley in Kent.  A number of miraculous abilities were attributed to this figure, which was attacked (literally) by Protestant Reformers as an example of Catholic chicanery.  We hear of its unseemly end and an equally unseemly ballad by which Cromwell’s men mocked the figure in bawdy verse.

Puppet Christ
German Christ puppet, the “Miracle Man”

Spain’s particularly rich heritage of mechanically animated holy figures owes much to Muslim innovations there.  It was from here that geared devices such as astrolabes entered the West, and here that that weight-driven clocks were employed almost two centuries before their use elsewhere in Europe.  We hear a few examples of Eastern travelers tails of automated wonders (and automata) from the first century, including one describing the remarkable Palace of the Tree in Baghdad.

Such real-world (if a bit mythologized) accounts were an inspiration in the medieval West, particularly in the Anglo-Norman epic poems or Romances of the 13th century.  We hear some passages describing the mechanical marvel’s of the fairy Esclarmonde’s bedhcamber from the Romance of Escanor by d’Amiens and of a confronation between the knight Huon de Bordeaux and a pair of giant men of copper armed with flails.

Esclamonde is an interesting figure as she is sometimes said to have been tutored by Virgil, the ancient Roman poet, who in medieval legends had become something of a wizard.  There are dozens of tales of Virgil crafting of metal assorted mechanical or magical wonders: flies, horses, human figures, and a serpent (or lion) which predates the legends associated with the Bocca della Verità (mouth of truth) adored by tourists in Rome (and described by Cary Grant in the clip we hear from the 1953 film Roman Holiday).  Virgil’s enchanted castle in Naples was also said to be guarded by men of copper, armed with flails — as in the Norman poem. And we hear of a strange ritual whereby the wizard was said to have attempted to cheat death, one involving a bit of butchery and grievous mistakes.

We also look at the 13th century tale known as the “Prose Lancelot” as well as Chrétien de Troyes’ telling of the Perceval legend, both from the same era and both featuring animated men or beasts of metal with which the knights must grapple.  In these cases, however, the figures are animated by demons who must also be defeated.

Often these medieval robots would be presented in scenes depicting underground treasure-houses or tombs.  We hear one such story  told in a William of Malmesbury’s chronicle Deeds of the Kings of the English, and another from the  French Romance of Eneas.

The legends of Tristan and Isolde also furnishes us a similar example in a 12th-century version by Thomas of Britain.  It features Tristan romancing a mechanical replica of his beloved Isolde, who resides in his secret “Hall of Images” along with a mechanical maidservant and mechanical dog.

Tourist Trap poster
Tourist Trap poster

The psychological morbidity of Tristan making out with a lost lover is reflected in a few bizarre horror films  from the 1970s.  We discuss 1979’s Tourist Trap and 1971’s Vincent Price vehicle, The Abominable Dr. Phibes, both of which feature automata.  We also hear a bit about the 19th-century German writer E.T.A. Hoffman’s short story “The Sandman,” which features a mechanical woman who becomes the object of the narrator’s crazed obsession.  You can read this delightfully dark and invenntive story in English here.

Our final lifelike puppet comes from the Alpine legend of the Sennentunschi or doll used (erotically) by the lonely herdsmen (or “Sennen”) during their long seasonal isolation on remote mountain pastures. Created out of rags, straw, and other odds and ends —  initially out of boredom and mischief —  the doll is brought to life by an irreverent “baptism,” and after serving the herdsmen enacts a gruesome revenge for the indignities it suffers at their hands.  We hear a clip from the entertaining Swiss film of 2010, Sennentunschi, and hear of an actual specimen of a Sennentunschi doll (or one assumed to serve this function, sans supernatural animation) discovered in 1978.

Sennentunschi puppet, from Rätischen Museum, Chur, Switzerland.
Sennentunschi puppet, from Rätischen Museum, Chur, Switzerland.

There’s a parallel in the Sennentunschi story to the Czech legend of a childless couple adopting a log, which comes to life, which served as the basis for the 2000 film, Little Otik, by stop-motion master director Jan Švankmajer (We hear a clip from this too).

The show closes with a look at an unlikely connection between our topic and Alvin Schwartz’s  juvenile folklore classic Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark and a tragic tail connected to the 1940 production of Pinocchio featuring the artist formerly known as Ukulele Ike,

Beasts of the Bestiaries

Beasts of the Bestiaries

The bestiaries of the Middle Ages and Renaissance were books describing animals (some recognizable and others fantastic) in terms borrowed from classical texts and framed by Christian teachings.  In this episode, we examine a few of the stranger beasts and strange customs and beliefs associated with them.

Here’s a brief look at the animals we’ll be examing (“brief” because I’m rushing to get this episode out on the last day of the month).

Our first is the bonocan, a bull-like creature either from Macedonia or somewhere in Asia, depending on your source.  Its memorable trait is the very peculiar means of self-defense it employs.

The bonacon does its business
The bonacon does its business

Next, the manticore,  a tiger-like beast from India that comes with a few extra bells and whistles like a tail that shoots quills. In the later Middle Ages it became muddled with the mantyger, a creature with a tiger’s body and man’s head.

The leucrota and the crocota were similar or identical creatures with terrifying ear-to-ear mouths equipped with a bony ridge in place of teeth.  Their tendency to dig up corpses and vocalize like humans suggests they were inspired by the hyena.

Manticore
Manticore from 13th-century English manuscript.

The basilisk is a sort of serpent, whose name comes from the Greek for “little king.”  It was small (originally) but deadly.  Not only was it venomous, but its breath, and even its glance could kill. Mrs. Karswell relates three legends of basilisks as threats to medieval towns.

Vienna’s basilisk tale involves an baker’s apprentice who must defeat the monster residing in the depths of a well in order to win the hand of his beloved.

The legendary basilisk of Warsaw was discovered haunting the cellar of a ruined building and was so fearsome only a convict facing death dared face it.  We also look at the basilisk as the heraldic symbol of Basel, a city which destroyed the basilisk that menaced it while still in the egg (in one of the strangest incidents in the history of man’s relationship with poultry).

We also look at a tale from Cumbria, England, in which a cockatrice — a creature similar to the basilisk but with the head of a rooster — menaces a church.

Our episode closes with a look at the salamander of the bestiaries, a creature produces a deadly poison that vies with that of the basilisk, and one believed to withstand fire. While the latter is purely fictitous (though believed in some places up into the 19th century), the former is based on an actual poison (salamandrine) exuded through the skin of certain species.  We’ll examine how this poison relates to a peculiar urban legend originating in Slovenia and hear some accounts of Victorian “human salamanders,” that is, sideshow performers said to be impervious to fire.

Basilisk
Basilisk from De Natura animalium,ca. 1270