William of Malmesbury and the Witch of Berkeley

Ask any medievalist to name a famous witch and odds are that the Witch of Berkeley will figure high in someone’s list. First appearing as a digression in William of Malmesbury’s Gesta regum Anglorum (c.1123), the story of how the witch’s corpse was ripped from its tomb by a mob of angry demons and taken to Hell on the back of a wild, demonic horse certainly resonated with readers. From preachers’ manuals warning of the perils of dying unshriven, to its later-life working as a folk ballad by the Poet Laurate, Robert Southey (c.1798), the Witch of Berkeley enjoyed a long literary lifespan.  To whet the appetite for my forthcoming journal article on the topic (*cough* shameless plug *cough*), I thought it would be a good idea to provide a quick overview of William of Malmesbury’s rationale for writing the exemplum in the first place. Although stories of supernatural encounters were no doubt intended to entertain the reader – something that is true even today – the exact literary function of the Witch of Berkeley within the Gesta regum has been often overlooked by medieval historians. As I mentioned in my article on William of Newburgh’s Historia rerum Anglicarum, ‘wonders’ were often inserted into the wider historical narrative to obliquely comment upon contentious political events. What, then, irked William of Malmesbury?

FIGURE 1 Nuremberg

Witch of Berkeley woodcut, in Hartmann Schedel, Liber chronicarum (Nuremberg: Anton Koberger, for Sebald Schreyer and Sebastian Kammermeister, 1493)

The narrative provides some key clues in this regard. William begins by noting that the mulier in question was a lifelong practitioner of augury (that is, divination through the observation of birds). Having learning through her art  that one of her sons had died in a domestic accident and that she herself had not long to live, she called her remaining children – a monk and a nun – to her bedside. Knowing that damnation was near, she gave instructions for her corpse to be sewn into deer skin and placed in a stone sarcophagus within the local church. The lid was to be fastened with iron and lead and the coffin itself to be bound with three heavy iron chains. Fifty masses were to be said day and night over her body and then, on the fourth day, it was to be removed from the sarcophagus and placed in the ground. These instructions were mostly followed to the letter. However, on the third night, a large and terrifying demon burst through the main entrance of the church, shattering the door to pieces. Striding up to the coffin, the demon cut the chain as if it were not even there, kicked off the lid, and dragged the woman out by the hand. A monstrous stallion stood waiting by the door with iron hooks protruding all the way down its back. The ‘poor wretch’ was set upon the barbs, after which she and the horse vanished along with the rest of the demonic horde. It was said that her cries for help could be heard for up to four miles away

A chilling story, certainly, but what does it all mean? The motif of forced expulsion from holy ground is, I believe, the symbolic weapon that links the Witch of Berkeley to its historical and manuscript context. William was a canny writer, and it is no coincidence that he inserts his witchcraft story (along with myriad other wonder stories) just after 1051. This was a precarious time in English history, when civil war almost erupted between Edward the Confessor and the ambitious noblemen, Godwin of Wessex (father of Harold Godwinson). The depth of Godwin and Edward’s enmity is too great to go into much detail here, but it suffices to say that Godwin was exiled from England as a result of his growing unease about Norman influence in the English court. As an outlaw Godwin took to committing piracy along the English coast and almost engaged Edward in battle. But the political winds are ever-changing. Soon enough Godwin was allowed to return to England, with the Norman contingent, led by Robert of Jumièges, archbishop of Canterbury, being expelled in his stead.

So, we can see quite clearly that the expulsion of disruptive bodies – be it from hallowed ground or the nation state – tied the Witch of Berkeley to the wider historical narrative. William of Malmesbury was no fool, and he leaves it up to the reader to decide who exactly was being criticised. Was it Godwin, for conspiring against the divinely-wrought authority of the king, or Robert of Jumièges, a portent for what was to come in 1066? The Gesta regum doesn’t pull any punches in its denunciations of the contemporary political climate, at one point likening the relationship between Normandy and England to that of a pair of conjoined twins: one twin, dead and rotten (Normandy), yet sustained by the life-force of the other (English taxes). And yet this is not to say that William was completely anti-Noman. He was too sophisticated a historian for such a one-sided viewpoint. The breakdown of the natural order of things seems to have been his primary concern. The Witch of Berkeley was expertly constructed to pass ironic judgement on all kinds of transgression.


Sources Cited:

Stephen Gordon, ‘From Malmesbury to Southey: The Witch of Berkeley in Context’, coming soon!

William of Malmesbury, Gesta regum Anglorum: History of the English Kings, vol. 1 ed. and trans. R. A. B. Mynors; completed by R. M. Thomson and M. Winterbottom (Clarendon: Oxford, 1998)


Publications Galore

Once again, life has kinda gotten in the way of doing any blog updates in recent months. Hopefully things will get a little less hectic in the near future, but in the meantime I thought I’d take the opportunity to share links to a couple of my recent publications.

My article  ‘The Three Living and the Three Dead in the Horae of Galiot de Genouillac (Rylands Latin MS 38)’    appears in the latest issue of Source: Notes in the History of Art, where I take a concise (but hopefully compelling!) look this really wonderful version of the Three Dead artistic motif. As you can see below, it is certainly is one of the unheralded treasures of the John Rylands Library. I also delve into other interesting things regarding the horae (among other things, the identity of one of the illuminators) so please click on the above link to find out more.


Figure 4

Copyright: University of Manchester

Earlier this year I was also pleased to see the publication of my chapter  ‘Dealing with the Undead in the Later Middle Ages’  in Thea Tomaini’s wonderful edited volume Dealing with the Dead: Mortality and Community in Medieval and Early Modern Europe (Brill 2018).



Artfully composed photos courtesy of yours truly

In my chapter I explore the archaeological evidence of the fear of the walking dead in the later Middle Ages, and the difficulties involved in using written texts to find meaning in unusual burial practices. This has been a long time brewing, but with the recent media interest in the unusual skeletal remains from Wharram Percy it has certainly come at a very opportune time. If interdisciplinary investigations into revenants tickle your fancy, please click the link above to find out more.

Until the next post…

Brief Update: Revenants and Alchemical Monsters

Fig. 1. Strange Alchemical Images


Well, it’s been a while since I’ve made any updates. Real life has the habit of getting in the way. Just to keep the engine turning over, I thought I’d provide a couple of links to blog posts I put together for the nascent Pulp Impact public engagement website (of which I am a contributing editor).






The first essay is basically a brief overview of my one true academic love, medieval revenants, while the second looks at the alchemical figure of the Rebis (or ‘double thing’). Enjoy!

From Beatus to Buffy: A Few Notes on the Mouth of Hell

It’s been twenty years since Buffy the Vampire Slayer first hit the airwaves. As a child, I thought the fact that Sunnydale High School was located atop a ‘hellmouth’ – a portal to the demonic realms – was merely a cool dramatic conceit, another example of Joss Whedon’s genius. As I got older, went to university, and developed my interest in medieval history, I was intrigued to discover that the concept of a ‘Mouth of Hell’ was a central feature of Christian iconography.  For centuries it was a popular motif in sculpture, manuscript illumination, and drama.  What, then, are the origins of the hellmouth, and why does its symbolism resonate so strongly even today.

Fig. 1 Hours of Catherine of ClevesFig. 1. A stereotypical Hellmouth, Hours of Catherine of Cleves, Morgan M.945 (c.1440), fol. 107r  (source: wikicommons)

It’s assumed that the idea of an all-consuming Hellmouth derived, in part,  from ancient Mesopotamian creation myths, which, through many transformations, found their way into Judo-Christian thought as the mighty sea-beast Leviathan. Job 41 was the Biblical precedent through which the concrete association between Leviathan and Hell was made.  Verses 19-21 are particularly evocative:

Flames stream from its mouth;
sparks of fire shoot out.
Smoke pours from its nostrils
as from a boiling pot over burning reeds.
Its breath sets coals ablaze,
and flames dart from its mouth

Biblical exegesis often involved the creation of typologies. That is, it was believed that events in the Old Testament prefigured and anticipated those found in the New.  Thus, the swallowing of Jonah by the whale – only to be disgorged after three days – was said to correspond with apocryphal tale of Christ’s Harrowing of Hell and the liberation of the Patriarchs from the shackles of the Devil (fig. 2). It was the reference to the ‘hooking of Leviathan’ in Job 41: 1-2 that made the connections between Leviathan/Hellmouth, the whale that swallowed Jonah, and the Harrowing of Hell explicit. In sum, to be swallowed was to be damned. The motif of the infernal, consuming mouth was the perfect image through which to weave all these disparate theological motifs together.

Fig. 2 Harrowing of HellFig. 2. Harrowing of Hell, alabaster relief (c.15th century) Honolulu Museum of Art (source: wiki commons)
Fig 3 WinchesterFig. 3. Hellmouth, Last Judgement, Winchester Psalter (c.1150s), fol. 39r (source: wikicommons)

The Hellmouth was often employed as a general symbol of damnation. The famous full-page illumination contained in the Winchester Psalter (1150) is a case in point (fig. 3). Here, an archangel locks the gates of Hell in the aftermath of the Last Judgement. The multitude of eyes, snouts, mouths and maws is suggestive of chaos, sinfulness and monstrosity – a complete inverse of Divine order.

Fig. 4. Beatus detailFig. 4. Hellmouth (detail), Beatus Apocalypse (c.12 century), Rylands Latin MS 8, fol. 197r (source: John Rylands Library)

A significant number of Hellmouths contain leonine features.  Figure four, taken from the Rylands MS 8 Beatus Apocalypse (c.1200) depicts a giant, yawning mouth with a clearly noticeable mane. Illuminators taken with the lion-motif were most likely working form scriptural precedents. Psalms 22: 21 (“Rescue me from the mouth of the lion”) and Psalm 10: 19 (“He lies in wait like a lion in cover; he lies in wait to catch the helpless; he catches the helpless and drags them off in his net”) appear to be the most likely sources.

As well as acting as a symbol for the gateway to Hell, the motif of unnatural consumption was further highlighted through the depiction of Satan himself feasting on the damned. One of the most famous examples can be discerned in the thirteenth-century Last Judgement mosaic found in the Florentine Baptistery (fig. 5). Showing a vivid and appropriately chaotic vision of Hell, the image of Satan can be read as a pointed inversion of Christ Panocrator (Christ Enthroned), while the three heads are likely to represent an infernal parody of the Holy Trinity. The attention of the viewer is directed to the sinner being consumed in Satan’s maw.  Likewise, Giotto’s Last Judgement scene in the Scrovegni Chapel, Padua (c.1305), depicts a hairy, corpulent Satan simultaneously gorging on and defecating the damned.

Fig. 5 BaptisteryFig. 5. Last Judgement, Florentine Baptistery (c.13th century) (source: Wikicommons)
Fig. 6 GiottoFig. 6. Last Judgement (detail), Scrovegni Chapel, Padua (c.1305) (source: Wikicommons)

As the centuries progressed, the ubiquity of the Hellmouth image led to its use in more popular and commercial contexts. By the early modern period elaborate hellmouths were being used as props in Mystery Plays.  As noted by Gary D. Schmidt, surviving documentation from the Drapers Guild, Coventry (1562), reveals a payment for ‘kepyng of fyer at hell mouthe’, suggesting that pyrotechnics were being employed to simulate an appropriately hellish environment.  Bellows and braziers were likely used to create the illusion of a fiery, smoky, and actively monstrous doorway to damnation – the very image of Leviathan as described in Job 41:19-21.

This talk of special effects and stagecraft brings us, appropriately enough, back to Buffy. The series ends with the reformed vampire Spike destroying Sunnydale’s hellmouth with the  the help of a magical amulet.  It is a spectacular ending, one that would have surely impressed the directors of the Last Judgement mystery plays.


Further Reading

Hughes, Robert, Heaven and Hell in Western Art (London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1968)

Schmidt, Gary D., The Iconography of the Mouth of Hell (London: SUP, 1995)

Sheingorn, Pamela, ‘Who Can Open the Doors of His Face?’ The Iconography of Hell Mouth’, in The Iconography of Hell, ed. by Clifford Davidson and Thomas H. Seiler (Kalamazoo, MI: Medieval Institute Publications, 1992), 1-19

Boasting and Gloves: Some Thoughts on Hondscio, Grendel’s Forgotten Victim

Beowulf Detail


I’ve taught Beowulf to undergraduates for a number of years now, covering a wide range of topics, from the ‘hellish’ nature of the natural environment and the social role of gift-giving, to the question of what actually defines a ‘monster’ in the Anglo-Saxon mindset. The social function of boasting has also generated lively and interesting discussions in the past.  On this latter point, one character whose name never fails to raise a smile amongst students is mentioned only once in the poem, in Beowulf’s colourful retelling of his fight with Grendel during his audience with Hygelac (ll.2076-2080). From Seamus Heaney’s translation, the passage is as follows:


There deadly violence came down on Handsio

and he fell as fate ordained, the first to perish,

rigged out for the combat. A comrade from our ranks

had come to grief in Grendel’s maw:

he ate up the entire body


Who, then, is Hondscio, this most unlucky of Geatish warriors? In the parlance of Star Trek, he’s a redshirt to Beowulf’s Captain Kirk. As a victim of Grendel’s wrath, he meets his demise in ll. 740-744a:


He [Grendel] grabbed and mauled a man on the bench,

bit into his bone-lappings, bolted down his blood

and gorged on him in lumps, leaving the body

utterly lifeless, eaten up

hand and foot. Venturing closer

his talon was raised to attack Beowulf.


Our omnipresent narrator does not give Hondscio’s name, nor dwell on his untimely death. He’s merely an obstacle between Grendel and his intended target, Beowulf. Compare this to the immediate naming of Aeschre, Hrothgar’s advisor, who is abducted by Grendel’s Mother in a revenge attack against Heorot, and whose severed head is found near the grendelkin’s lair (l.1421). Hrothgar shows more sorrow for Aeschere  (ll. 1328-30) than Beowulf does for his yet unnamed comrade.


For those of you familiar with Old English, Hondscio is not the subtlest of puns. It reflects the famed Anglo-Saxon love of riddles and wordplay. Hondscio is a compound word, comprising hond (hand) and scio (shoe) – literally ‘handshoe’, or ‘glove’. Tell a bunch of students that a mighty Geatish warrior was named Glove and mirth usually follows.  But why ‘glove’? As noted by such scholars as James L. Rosier and Seth Lerer, the Beowulf poet is making a playful connection between Hondscio, a man consumed by Grendel, and the monster’s own ‘pouch’ or glove (OE glof, l. 2085), in which he intended to ensnare (or consume) Beowulf. As with Hondscio’s name, this is the only reference to the pouch in the entire poem.  The imagery of grasping hands, empty hands, and covered (or swallowed) hands interweaves throughout Beowulf’s boastful speech. As Seth Lerer eloquently puts it: ‘what is it that looks like a hand but swallows like a mouth? Answer: a glove.’ That Grendel swallows a Glove is suitably ironic and may have been worth a laugh or two around the mead hall.


There may be another reason why we have a victim named Handscio, and this is to do with the context in which he is mentioned. Boasting was an integral part of Anglo-Saxon warrior culture. Much as Anglo-Saxon poetry involved the formation of compound words and the use of appositions to build upon linguistic and poetic themes, so the act of boasting – elaborating upon one’s achievements – can be read along similar lines. Beowulf, of course, takes Unferth’s riposte about his failed swimming contest with Breca (l.516) and turns it into a boast about an epic battle with sea creatures at the bottom of the ocean (ll.530-606). He does the same in his audience before Hygelac, adding impressive new details about his battle with Grendel, including a reference to Hondscio and a detailed description of his adversary’s glof. In some respects, the act of ‘boasting’ is also like wearing a glove: the facts (the hand), are given a brash new covering.


We can understand now why Hondscio was not named in the original onslaught. There he was only a helping hand, an unlucky first victim. As related to Hygelac, he becomes Hondscio, an adornment, the very epitome of a hero’s boast.


Sources Cited


Beowulf: A Verse Translation, trans. by Seamus Heaney; ed. by Daniel Donoghue (London: Norton, 2002

Seth Lerer, ‘Grendel’s Glove’, ELH 61 (1994), 721-751

James L. Rosier, ‘The Uses of Association: Hands and Feasts in Beowulf’,  PMLA 78 (1963), 8-14


An Alchemical Miscellany from the John Rylands Library

The horror film As Above, So Below (dir. Dowdle, 2011) taps into the popular perception of alchemy as a mysterious, decedent, unnatural art. Delving deep into the Parisian catacombs in an attempt recover the mythical ‘Philosophers’ Stone’ –  an artefact said to grant eternal life and turn base metals into gold – the story’s protagonists are instead picked off one-by-one by the ghosts and demons that dwell within. Whereas modern fiction writers have focused mainly on the negative aspects of alchemy, early modern period practitioners would not have viewed their endeavours as being morally or spiritually suspect in any way.  As we shall see, alchemy was considered a learned and noble pursuit.

Alchemy Fig. 1

Fol. 2v. Dedication to John Dee and inscription of ‘Jo. Huniades’ (top left) (photo: Stephen Gordon)

Latin MS 82 from the John Rylands Library in Manchester is a fascinating, if often overlooked, alchemical miscellany dating to the early seventeenth century. According to an inscription on the top of fol. 2r, the book appears to have once been owned by ‘Jo. Huniades’ –  Janos Banfi-Hunyadi (1576-1646) –   a Hungarian alchemist who lectured in chemistry at Gresham College, London, and was good friends with Arthur Dee, the son of the famed astrologer, John Dee (to whom the book is dedicated).

The book contains extracts from a variety of well-known alchemical and scientific works, including those by Thomas Norton, Raymond Lull, Heinrich Khunrath, Paracelsus and Michał Sędziwój (otherwise known as Sendivogius). While the purpose, processes, and symbolism of alchemy are much too dense to go into detail here, for the remainder of this post I just want to take you through some of the more interesting folios from this manuscript.

Alchemy Fig. 2

Fol. 4r: John Dee’s Monad Heiroglyphica (photo: Stephen Gordon)

One of the most striking pages from this miscellany included a representation of John Dee’s famous Hieroglyphic Monad. The Monad defies easy explanation, but can generally be read an amalgamation of the seven main astrological symbols (pictured to the left and right of the Monad) and as an expression of the alchemical process – i.e. the mystical joining of the sun ☉ and moon ☽; the four elements emerging from the fifth (represented as a cross); enabled through the active ingredient of fire ♈. In sum, the Monad is a symbol of physical and metaphysical perfection. Alchemical bon mots that frame this central image include:

  • Omne domum perfectum à יהוה (every perfect gift is from God’, taken from James 1:17)
  • Orando et Laborando quaeras, & invenies (You strive by prayer and work, and you will discover)
  • Est in mercurio quicquid quaerunt sapientes (there is in Mercury whatever wise men seek)
  • Unum in Omnibus Omnia in Uno (one in everything; everything in one)


Alchemy Fig. 3

Fol. 23r: The Unitrinum alchemical monster (photo: Stephen Gordon)

The idea of the interconnectedness of things – ‘one in everything, everything in one’ – is a central tenet of alchemical philosophy. Often this idea was expressed in the form of the ‘alchemical monster’, such as that seen on fol. 23r and which, incidentally, is my favourite image from the manuscript. The name of the monster, the Unitrinum, seems to derive from Nicholas of Cusa’s 1441 treatise, De docta ignorantia, specifically the passage “join together what seems to be the opposite and you will not have ‘one and three’ or the reverse, but ‘one-in three or a ‘three in one’ (unitrinum seu triunun), that is the Absolute Truth”.

As with all alchemical illustrations, the image is thick with symbolism. The head to the far left, with the red, bird-like beak, incorporates another version of Dee’s Heiroglyphic Monad, while the other two heads would seem to represent the sun or moon (or else the ideals of mercury and sulphur). The wings attached to the feet of the monster provide further references to Mercury.

Alchemy 4

Fol. 26r: Diagram of the alchemical citadel (photo: Stephen Gordon)

The compiler of Latin MS 82 – perhaps Banfi-Hunyadi himself – incorporated a number of engravings from Heinrich Khunrath’s  Amphitheatrum sapientiae aeternae (1595), such as this diagram showing the ‘alchemical citadel’. According to Khunrath, there is only one true door to alchemical and spiritual truth – a truth represented by a tiny version of the Hieroglyphic Monad atop the entranceway to the inner sanctum.

Alchemy fig. 5

Fol. 69r: the ponderous life of an alchemist (photo: Stephen Gordon)

Alchemy wasn’t all about discovery and creation, it also involved a lot of thought and spiritual contemplation. This ink drawing of a woman, head in hand and looking pensively out at the reader, is titled nescio quid meditans (‘Contemplating I know no what’), a quote taken from the from Satires of the Roman poet Horace.  Are we seeing here the inner thought and frustrations of Banfi-Hunyadi?

Alchemy fig. 6

Fol. 12v: Thomas Norton’s alchemical poetry (photo: Stephen Gordon)

Alchemy fig. 7.1

Fol. 73r: The ‘anatomical furnace’ from Latin MS 82 (left) (photo: Stephen Gordon), compared to diagram found in the Latin Aurora Thesaurusque Philosophorum (Basel 1577) (right)

While most of Latin MS 82 is written in Latin, there are numerous vernacular passages and annotations interspersed throughout the text. Folio 12v, for example, contains two extracts from Thomas Norton’s poetic Ordinal of Alchemy (1477), an alchemical reference guide that enjoyed much popularity at the beginning of the seventeenth century. Another text copied into Latin MS 82 includes part of the vernacular version of the Anatomia Corporum adhuc viventium (‘the anatomy of still living bodies’) by the physician and mystic, Paracelsus. Specifically, the compiler has copied the section relating to the distillation of urine and the diagnosis of illness. As you can see here, the monstrous-looking still has been given the proportions of an average human figure. It was believed that a diagnosis of the patient’s illness could be made by observing the parts of the ‘body’ where the urine vapours condensed. Although dubious to modern sensibilities, this is one of the most practical extracts in the entire manuscript.

Alchemy fig. 8

Fol. 18r: Further alchemical/astrological diagrams

Latin MS 82 provides a fascinating insight into the world of early modern occultism and the erudition of its practitioners. Of course, it is difficult for the modern reader to truly understand the nuances behind alchemical symbolism. Books of spiritual alchemy were intentionally obtuse, making that much harder to decipher the intentions behind such images as the monstrous Unitrinum. Further work needs to be conducted on Latin MS 82 for it to truly reveal its secrets.

Works Cited

Appleby, John H., Arthur Dee and Johannes Bánfi Hunyades: Further Information on their Alchemical and Professional Activities, Ambix 24 (1977), 96-109


Forshaw, Peter J., ‘The Early Alchemical Reception of John Dee’s Monas Hieroglyphica’, Ambix 52 (2005), 247-269

McGinn, Bernard, ‘Unitrinum seu Triunun: Nicholas of Cusa’s Trinitarian Mysticism’, in Mystics: Presence and Aporia, ed. by Michael Kessler and Christian Sheppard (Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press, 2003), 90-117