The Bibliothèque nationale de France (BNF) possesses countless treasures, but one of the most intriguing is certainly the first known depiction of a witch flying on a broom. As with the trope of a stork bringing a family a newborn baby, the image has embedded itself so deeply in our culture that we seldom stop to ask what it means or where it originally came from.
The marginal illustrations of the 1451 edition of French poet Martin Le Franc’s Le Champion des Dames (The Defender of Ladies), a manuscript of which currently resides in the BNF, include an image of two women levitating, one on a stick, the other on a broom. In Witchcraft in Europe, 400-1700: A Documentary History, history professors Alan Charles Kors and Edward Peters assert that this edition of Le Champion des Dames contains “the first such illustration in the pictorial history of witchcraft.” Elsewhere they call it “the first known illustration of women flying on broomsticks.”
Le Franc’s lengthy poem on virtuous women (I almost wrote “nasty women”) features a section on witches, alongside of which the broomstick illustration appears. Fascinatingly, the two women have no physical deformity whatsoever and cannot be visually singled out as witches—but for the broomstick. Their covered heads is a sign that they are Waldensians, a kind of precursor to the Protestant Reformation.
But why broomsticks?
Definitely NOT the first depiction of a witch on a broomstick—it’s from 1910—but it was just too good not to use here.
Busting out his Freudian playbook, Dylan Thuras at Atlas Obscura muses 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.” Furthermore, pagan rituals of the day often incorporated phallic forms, and the image of a broomstick between a woman’s legs would have been quite unsettling to Catholics.
The engine behind the power flight lay not in the stick, however, but in the “ointment” or “potion” that was applied to it, which might have included nightshade, henbane or fly agaric magic mushrooms. The Atlantic’s Megan Garber found this reference in the 15th-century works of Jordanes de Bergamo:
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.
“Other hairy places”—sounds like a veiled reference to genitalia, to which the levitating stick of course comes into close proximity.
Matt Soniak found a 1477 reference from Antoine Rose, who, after being accused of witchcraft in France, confessed that the Devil had given 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!’”