We’re about halfway through my Magic & Witchcraft in Early Modern Europe course and I haven’t even got to the witch trials yet, most likely much to my students’ frustration. For foundation, I drag them through centuries of medieval history and theology to get them to understand the initial connection between witchcraft and heresy. I could probably accomplish this task in a much shorter time, simply by presenting the image below in full context.
These flying women are included in the marginalia of the manuscript version of Martin le France’s long poem Le Champion des Dames (The Champion of Women), dated circa 1440. You will notice that they are identified as “vaudoises” at the top, which could generally refer to witches, but more likely is a specific reference to the Waldensians (Waldenses, Vaudois), a heretical sect who existed on the fringes of medieval Christian society from their emergence and almost-immediate condemnation in the later twelfth century. The Waldensians were essentially reformers, emphasizing the authority of the Bible over the Church, but their zealous preaching led to their gradual demonization by branding them as disciples and servants of Satan. The Waldensians of the later middle ages, like the witches of the early modern era, were said to worship their master at inverted/perverted “sabbats” in which they are envisioned paying homage to a goat/devil. Another text from the mid-fifteenth century, Johannes Tinctoris’s Traite du crisme de Vauderie, includes a graphic illuminated image of a Waldensian sabbat—note the flying figures in the sky.
Martin le France and Johannes Tinctoris MSS at the Bibliotheque nationale de France.
The association of a well-known heresy and witchcraft through the sabbat demanded some sort of travel mechanism, as everyone knew that demonic rituals were held in faraway places–the inaccessible “blue mountain”, the dense Black Forest, the isolated “field of the goat” (Akelarre in the Basque Country). What better way to get there than on a flying broom? The alluring image of dangerous and demonic agents utilizing a familiar household object to reach their secret destinations immediately caught on, and remains very much in play today.
Raphael Tuck Halloween Postcard from the 1910s.