Baker Academic

Saturday, October 1, 2016

Muted Male Members Made into Vestal Vegans by Wily Witches

This is the safest image I could find related to our topic.
We Christians don't often like to talk about the Middle Ages. Medieval Christianity was sort of like our ponytail-and-Amway stage. We were the worst combination of ourselves: overzealous, superstitious, and absolutely certain. To be fair, everyone is entitled to a subpar millennium. But there is a common tendency among modern folks to see the 5th-15th centuries as "Dark Ages", which is probably chronological snobbery. Let's not be so quick to judge. Who is to say how future generations will judge the spray-tan-and-reality-TV era of Christianity?

Should we believe everything we read about medieval Christianity? For example, should we believe reports that there was a disappearing penis problem among Christian men? Did fine, Christian gentlemen blame witches for "glamouring" their penises away or keeping said penises hidden in bird nests? And did they accuse witches of raising some of their penises as pets? Most importantly, did the witches feed their penis pets oats and corn? Callie Beusman addresses these concerns in her Broadly article. A number of our readers have demanded that I address these concerns with an article that employs the word "penis" at least twenty times. I will do my best as it is a very serious issue.

Much of the article hinges on a 15th-century guide to rooting out witchcraft and devilry called the Malleus Maleficarum. I just happen to have this book in my personal library (because Jesus historians are secretly wizards). I have looked into the matter and I am chagrined to report that it is all true. Although according to Heinrich Kramer—the chief author of Malleus—the penis problem was due to illusion more often than not. I.e. these men didn't really become Ken dolls; they were just glamoured into believing they had. You know, the age-old problem of being tricked by a witch that your member is gone. Apparently this was such a widespread problem in 1486 that Kramer devotes almost three chapters to it. The book was reprinted 29 times between 1487 and 1669. So it is probably closer to the truth to say that men had penis paranoia, devoting various degrees of energy to the disorder. Not so much penis envy; but perhaps penis entropy.

So real was the illusion that men commonly accused witches—through the devil's power—of collecting "twenty or thirty members together, and putting them in a box, where they move themselves like living members, and eat oats and corn. . . ." While this information might assuage the fears of our vegan friends, penis entropy seems a disorderly and highly disconcerting problem.

How was it done according to Kramer? By "confusing the organ of vision by transmuting the mental images in the imaginative faculty." Kramer (as does much of Malleus) attempts to allay superstitions of a kind. The witches weren't really keeping penises as pets, it was an illusion of the devil. See, problem solved.

But we haven't even discussed the insidious matter of ventriloquists. According to Kramer, tricking perception can be done without help of devilry. Sleight of hand and ventriloquy can cause similar delusions among upright, Christian men. Such is the danger of consorting with wicked, voice-throwing scoundrels. On this point, I must agree with an otherwise loathsome piece of literature. Ventriloquists represent a clear and present danger to our way of life. My good people, they must be stopped.

So what do we make of the story about a man who was made to climb a tree to retrieve his stolen member? I refer you to the article linked above to learn more about the myth of phallus trees common in Europe during this time. Long story short, the man climbed up to the nesting phalli and "tried to take a big one." But the witch refused him, explaining, "You must not take that one . . . . because it belonged to a parish priest."

One is left to wonder how the witch came to have access to the member of the parish priest. And with such a massive loss, was this cause for ecclesial lament? Not so much penis entropy; but perhaps penis elegy. Or perhaps the priest was actively invested in the devil's business. If so, perhaps penis equity?

The Malleus Maleficarum is a window into a Christianity driven by fear of the outsider, misogyny, and masculine insecurity. Indeed, such paranoia can cause widespread delusion and false belief. Worst of all, these vices conjure scary levels of impotency.

Feel free to share this article with your Christian friends looking for Halloween costumes.

Anthony Le Donne, PhD
author of Near Christianity: How Journeys along Jewish Christian Borders Saved my Faith in God


  1. . . . .
    . . . .
    . . . .
    /Sleight/ of hand.

  2. Great stuff. I am checking with my conjuring friends whether this phenomenon has been explored in any depth by magic historians, e.g. Peter Lamont or Ricky Jay who tend to collect weird anecdotes from the past.

  3. Let me get this right, my historical urology scholar friend: the penis problem was due to illusion "more often than not"? So, according to Kraemer, it was sometimes NOT just an illusion?

    1. That's right. If the witches were acting on the devil's power, it was most likely illusion. But if the devil was directly responsible - so Kraemer - the member might face mortal danger.

    2. That member should really beware, especially if the devil is the one from that Garth Brooks skit on SNL.

  4. I plan to forget I ever read this.

  5. Richard Kaufman, prolific writer and publisher of magic, immediately responded to my query: "This is not news to anyone who's read Scot's Discoverie of Witchcraft (1584)."
    Scot's book is often referenced by modern magicians.

  6. FYI, the Malleus Maleficarum, like the witch-hunt, is an early modern phenomena, not medieval.

  7. So far as I know, most medieval thinkers viewed belief in the existence of witches as a noxious superstition. As the anonymous commentator above me mentioned, the witch scare was more of a renaissance than medieval thing.