As Halloween approaches, it offers a chance to delve into the occult, phantasmagoric, otherworldly, and haunted aspects of our world. In a series of posts, we’re exploring art history that offers a portal to a darker side of culture.
The visual of the witch on a broomstick is so ubiquitous as to be benign. Before the Wicked Witch of the West or Harry Potter took flight on the spindly cleaning tool, the image first appeared in the 15th century. Two women in marginal illustrations of the 1451 edition of French poet Martin Le Franc’s Le Champion des Dames (The Defender of Ladies), a manuscript now in the Bibliothèque nationale de France (BNF), are soaring, one on a stick, the other on a broom.
According to Witchcraft in Europe, 400-1700: A Documentary History, edited by University of Pennsylvania history professors Alan Charles Kors and Edward Peters, Le Champion des Dames has “the first such illustration in the pictorial history of witchcraft.” Le Franc’s long poem about virtuous women is interrupted by a discussion of witchcraft, and the covered heads of the two women marks them as Waldensians. This Christian movement emerged in the 12th-century. With its tenet that any member could be a priest, even a woman, and perform sacraments and preach, the bloody ire of the Catholic Church soon followed. That these heretics would also meddle with the supernatural was not a leap, but why the broomstick?
Dylan Thuras at Atlas Obscura wrote that the “broom was a symbol of female domesticity, yet the broom was also phallic, so riding on one was a symbol of female sexuality, thus femininity and domesticity gone wild.” The two women in Le Champion des Dames importantly don’t appear deformed or grotesque, they are ordinary; their corruption cannot be visually perceived. And pagan rituals before the 15th century had involved phallic forms, so the shape of the broomstick between a woman’s legs had both a sexual and spiritually deviant meaning to the Church.
Yet it was racier than that. Richard Cavendish’s 1970 An Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Supernatural cites a man, Guillaume Edelin, who confessed to flying on a broom in 1453 as the first known reference to the act. Just a few years later, in 1456, emerged the mention of “flying ointment.” Either given by the devil or crafted by a witch, the potion allowed a human to take flight, likely for a trip to the Witches’ Sabbath.
You might be able to guess where this is going. Megan Garber at the Atlantic cites the 15th-century writing of Jordanes de Bergamo, who stated:
The vulgar believe, and the witches confess, that on certain days or nights they anoint a staff and ride on it to the appointed place or anoint themselves under the arms and in other hairy places.
Hallucinogens of the time, such as ergot fungus, couldn’t just be eaten. They could be applied to mucous membranes, such as on genitalia, or those “other hairy places,” as Bergamo coyly put it. Matt Soniak at Mental Floss quotes Antoine Rose, who in 1477, when accused of witchcraft in France, confessed that the Devil gave her flying potions. She would “smear the ointment on the stick, put it between her legs and say ‘Go, in the name of the Devil, go!’”
Since many witch “confessions” were obtained under torture, and the Catholic Church and others could be wildly reactionary to any deviance, all of this is hearsay. (And think of the splinters!) But the image of the witch on the broomstick combined anxieties on women’s sexuality, drug use, and religious freedom into one enduring myth.