Horn-bearers, voodoo dolls and magic cups: Discovering adultery with medieval magic tricks
The main attraction of magic was its perceived power to influence things that made people anxious, because they were beyond their control. Judging by medieval literature, to a medieval husband, one of the biggest causes for anxiety was his wife’s fidelity.
Cuckolds and horn-bearers
Infidelity and adultery are major themes in medieval literature. Think for instance of the courtly romance tales of adulterous lovers such as Tristan and Isolde or Lancelot and Guinevere. Although these tales often have a tragic ending, many other adultery tales, such as those in the French fabliaux or the Italian novella tradition, are rather meant to be comical. These tales are centered around the elaborate tricks used by wives and their lovers to trick a jealous, ignorant, and/or much older husband.
In medieval English literature, a husband whose wife was unfaithful was called a “cuckold”, and being cheated on was called “being cuckolded”. This word derives from the cuckoo bird which lays its eggs in other birds’ nests. Just as the bird that unknowingly hatches the egg of a cuckoo bird, the “cuckolded” husband of an adulterous wife is unaware of his wife’s unfaithfulness and does not know that his children are not actually his. Another popular medieval expression for being cheated on is “wearing horns”. This expression is used in literary texts all over Europe (for instance the German “jemandem Hörner aufsetzen” or the French “porter des cornes”). It is particularly popular in medieval Italian literature, where all kinds of plays on the word “horn” (“corno” in Italian) are used. It could for instance be said that someone “was made lord of Corneto”, or that someone “had been send to Cornovaglia”, or even that “the arms of the Soderini of Florence [which are horns] had been planted on their heads”.
In modern Italy (as well as in many other Mediterranean and Latin American countries) the horn gesture – a hand gesture made by extending the index and little fingers while holding the middle and ring fingers down with the thumb – is still understood to imply cuckoldry. In Italy, directing this gesture towards someone else is called “fare le corna”, and it is an offensive way to ridicule or insult someone.
Magic waters, voodoo dolls and magnetic wands
Considering the great shame that could be the result of being cuckolded, many medieval Italian sources mention “magic tricks” that could help husbands discover whether their wives were being unfaithful, so that they could intervene in time and spare themselves the humiliation.
The Florentine preacher Girolamo Savonarola describes a trick from the Old Testament: a type of miraculous water that God had specifically ordained against adultery. According to this tradition, any husband who wanted to know if his wife had been unfaithful, should make her wade through this water. Only if she had not sinned, would she be able to pass through “unstained and without hurting herself”.
A less violent method is mentioned in an Italian novella by Matteo Bandello. In this story, a Bohemian knight called Ulric one day has to leave his wife for a while because he has to join the household of the king of Hungary. Although his wife has never given him any cause for concern, and she solemnly vows to stay faithful, he is still desperate to keep taps on her behavior while he is away at court. The knight therefore seeks the service of an old Polish magician, who shapes a little figure of a woman for him that he can take with him on his journeys. If his wife keeps her marriage vows, the figure will remain “as fair and fresh as if it were new”. Whenever some other man is courting her, the figure will become yellow as gold, and only return to its normal state once she has refused him. However, if his wife were to consider giving in to her admirer, the figure would become pale, and if she were unfaithful, the figure would become black as coal – and it would even start to smell.
In Bandello’s story, this magical "voodoo doll" actually worked, lighting up yellow a few times when amorous rivals were lurking in the shadows. Another Italian text by the satirist Pietro Aretino, however, makes fun of the tricks of charlatan magicians and fortune tellers. One of his characters known as the Midwife also moonlights as a prostitute, procuress, and fortune teller, and instructs her audience about all the different enchantments that bawds may use to deceive the simpleminded. Desperate men and women often come to her to find out things like whether they would have a male or a female child, if someone loved them back, or if their spouses were cheating on them. The Midwife was of course willing to relieve them of these doubts in exchange for the right price, and to trick them into thinking she could do actual magic, she had come up with a nifty device:
I had carved a tiny little cherub out of cork, painted it brightly, and at the bottom of a pierced glass stuck a pivot, that is, a thin spike on which the sole of the cherub’s foot was fixed, so that a puff of breath would turn her. The lily she held in her hand was made of iron, and to bewitch her I would hold a wand on whose tip was a magnet. So when I brought the wand close to the iron, she would turn as it wished; and when a man or a woman wanted to know whether she or he was loved or whether peace would be made again with this person or that, I would spit out a string of oaths, mutter all sorts of jagged, disjointed words, and perform miracles with my wand, whose magnet made the iron lily twirl about – and so the cherub pointed to a lie as if it were the truth.
As it sometimes happened that the Midwife fortune teller actually told the truth, many people believed in her tricks.
Ignorance is bliss
In the case of the Bohemian knight Ulric and in that of the gullible customers of the Midwife fortuneteller, things end well: they were now sure of their wife’s fidelity. However, not every husband was as lucky. In the romance epic Orlando Furioso, a knight from Mantua possesses a magical cup that may likewise reveal the faithfulness of one’s wife. Himself unlucky in love, the knight offers every man that crosses his path a drink of wine from this cup.
Every husband, in my view, should always watch to see if his wife loves him, to know whether he is deriving honor or shame from her, whether he is to be called man or beast on her account. The wearing of horns is the lightest burden in the world, even though it so degrades a man – almost everyone else sees them while the man wearing them never notices he has them (…) Drink from this cup and you shall witness a notable effect: if you carry the badge of Cornovaglia, the wine will spill all over your chest, and not a drop will reach your lips; but if your wife is faithful, you shall drink it straight off.
During the ten years the knight had held this little social experiment, no man had ever been able to drink from the cup. When one of the heroes of the Orlando Furioso, the knight Rinaldo, passes his dwelling, he is offered a drink as well. After having pondered the dilemma for some time, however, he finally decides to refuse the offer. According to him, it is foolish to seek for what you do not want to find. “Let my faith remain undisturbed”, he says, “it has stood me good stead hitherto, what am I to gain by putting it to the test?” He compares the trial with the Biblical apple from the Garden of Eden: “For just as Adam, after tasting the apple, fell from happiness to tears, and lived in affliction for ever after; so if a man wants to know everything his wife has said and done, he falls from bliss to tears and despondency, and out of this he can never drag himself.”
Even if magical means can relieve your insecurities, sometimes it might still be better not to know.
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