In the Middle Ages there were two chances of life at the last moment accorded to a malefactor condemned to death, besides a free pardon from the sovereign. One of these was the accidental meeting of a cardinal with the procession to execution; the other was the offer of a maiden to marry the condemned man, or, in the case of a woman sentenced to death, the offer of a man to make her his wife.
The claim of the cardinals was a curious one. They pretended to have inherited the privileges with which the vestal virgins of old Rome were invested. In 1309 a man was condemned to be hung in Paris for some offence. As he was being led to execution down the street of Aubry-le-Boucher, he met the cardinal of Saint Eusebius, named Rochette, who was going up the street. The cardinal immediately took oath that the meeting was accidental, and demanded the release of the criminal. It was granted.
In 1376, Charles V was appealed to in a case of a man who was about to be hung, when a young girl in the crowd cried out that she would take him as her husband. Charles decreed that the man was to be given up to her.
In 1382, a similar case came before Charles VI, which we shall quote verbatim from the royal pardon.
Henrequin Dontart was condemned by the judges of our court in Peronne to be drawn to execution on a hurdle, and then hung by the neck till dead. In accordance with the which decree he was drawn and carried by the hangman to the gibbet, and when he had the rope round his neck, then one Jeanette Mourchon, a maiden of the town of Hamaincourt, presented herself before the provost and his lieutenant, and supplicated and required of the aforesaid provost and his lieutenant to deliver over to her the said Dontart, to be her husband. Wherefore the execution was interrupted, and he was led back to prison … and, by the tenor of these letters, it is our will that the said Dontart shall be pardoned and released.
Another instance we quote from the diary of a Parisian citizen of the year 1430.* He wrote:
On January 10, 1430, eleven men were taken to the Halles to be executed, and the heads of ten were cut off. The eleventh was a handsome young man of twenty-four; he was having his eyes bandaged, when a young girl born at the Halles came boldly forward and asked for him. And she stood to her point, and maintained her right so resolutely, that he was taken back to prison in the Chatelet, where they were married, and then he was discharged.
This custom has so stamped itself on the traditions of the peasantry, that all over France it is the subject of popular tales and anecdotes; with one of the latter we will conclude.
In Normandy a man was at the foot of the gibbet, the rope round his neck, when a sharp-featured woman came up and demanded him. The criminal looked hard at her, and turning to the hangman, said: —
A pointed nose, a bitter tongue!
Proceed, I’d rather far be hung.
False modesty aside, we consider it a rather glorious achievement of the pen-hand to have hit this milestone. (Previous end zone celebrations: 500 | 1000 (and 1))
And in the spirit of marking the digital feat denoted by this sort-of round number, we thought a bonus post was in order on capital punishment’s own glorious hand — the legendary Hand of Glory.
Like that dread artifact itself, today’s entry comes from someone else’s hand. Thanks to Carroll University historian Scott Hendrix (co-editor of Rational Magic) for lighting the way to some forbidden gallows-lore…
In the Harry Potter mythos this device provides light that is only visible to the holder, making it the perfect instrument of young Malfoy’s escape. That is, assuming that he doesn’t mind carrying a mummified hand equipped with fingers that burn with a gruesome light. Many people might balk at going to such lengths, and the reader could be forgiven for assuming that Ms. Rowling was exercising a bit of literary license in order to titillate and provoke her young (and sometimes not so young!) readers’ imaginations.
However, should one wish to take a trip to the charming Whitby Museum* in Whitby, North Yorkshire, England, a Hand of Glory is prominently displayed — perhaps (this is a perhaps to which I shall return later). According to the accompanying placard — though I admit I had to investigate the museum’s website to refresh my memory, as I’d not seen it in almost a decade — Joseph Ford, a local stonemason and art historian found the hand hidden in the wall of a thatched cottage in nearby Castleton in 1935.
He “immediately identified it as a ‘Hand of Glory.'” In a way, it makes sense that he would do so, as it seems that stories of such hands had become quite popular in England beginning in the nineteenth century. Several books, such as Thomas and Katharine Macquoid’s 1883 About Yorkshire and Sabine Baring-Gould’s 1873 Curious Myths of the Middle Ages, described such hands.
According to the authors these were instruments of the blackest magic, wrought by witches working in the darkest night. Through invocation of demons and the enactment of foul rituals, these witches created a magical burglar’s tool from the severed hand of an executed thief.
It seems that such tales found the Victorian imagination of English readers to be fertile ground, as the tales were told and retold. No doubt readers found themselves deliciously chilled at the idea of burglars employing such a device of black magic, guaranteed not only to open locked doors but also to keep sleepers asleep and off their guard as those with dark designs crept into their homes.
But as the title of Baring-Gould’s book would indicate, the story of the Hand of Glory had real legs. It persisted over the course of centuries and made its way across the European continent.
It was not, though, quite as old as Baring-Gould would have his readers believe.
The earliest known description of the Hand of Glory can be found in the work of the Jesuit canon lawyer and theologian, Martin del Rio. His Six Books of Magical Essays, published between 1599 and 1600, is a veritable smorgasbord of lore relating to black magic and witchcraft. One should not get the idea that del Rio approved of the things he wrote about, however. Rather, he wrote in order to educate Inquisitors about the tools employed by their foes, the witches he assumed to prowl the continent preying on the good Christians who relied on the priesthood for protection. Announcing his intent in the introduction his Six Books, del Rio wrote that
magic follows heresy, as plague follows famine. We have seen heresy flourishing in Belgium and we see swarms of witches layingwaste the whole of the North, like locusts. The heretics are strongly opposed by the Jesuits. This book is a weapon in that war.
Therefore, descriptions of the tools used by practitioners of black magic were intended to combat the “swarms of witches” that so concerned him. These witches found instruments such as the Hand of Glory, which he describes in book two of his study, to be ideal for carrying out their plots.
Del Rio’s Six Books of Magical Essays proved to be a runaway best seller, going through twenty editions between 1599 and 1755. Among the many stories it spread were those of the Hand of Glory, and soon we see stories arising of thieves making use of these devices in order to rob and plunder the inhabitants of Germany, France, and eventually, England.
Sometimes there were local variations relating to their manufacture, as in German tales in which witches made the Hand from the fingers of unborn children. Nevertheless, in all the stories the Hand of Glory is demonic and its use damns to hell those unfortunates desperate or foolish enough to manufacture it.
But what was the source of these tales? Isn’t it reasonable to assume that del Rio was relating stories of actual practices and that many of these practices had an ancient pedigree?
Perhaps we shouldn’t be so fast to leap to such conclusions, for del Rio was an enthusiastic purveyor of many tales that had no objective basis in fact, such as his stories of the Witches’ Sabbat. He described these events as dark versions of the Catholic mass, when Satan came forth in the form of a goat or a dog and “witches came forward to worship him … [offering] candles made of pitch or a child’s umbilical cord, and kiss him on the anal orifice in a sign of homage.”
Such tales were lurid and memorable … and absolutely lacking any basis in fact. (We think -ed.) Historians have given different rationales for why writers such as del Rio told and retold such stories and a full consideration of that topic would take us very far afield from our subject.
Let’s just say for now that exhaustive research by the best minds in the field have shown that there is no evidence that anything like a Witches’ Sabbat ever happened, anywhere.
Similarly, many of the stories del Rio told are likely the result of his willingness to pass along hearsay accounts. In fact, pretty much any tell he relates should be taken with many grains of salt — including stories of the Hand of Glory. There’s no doubt that it was a good story, but a story was all it was. Therefore, efforts such as those undertaken by the early twentieth-century philologist W.W. Skeats to explain the name as coming from the French, main de gloire, which he assumed to be a corruption of mandrake, are unnecessary exercises in verbal gymnastics. The entire reason he even made the effort was so that he could provide a “scientific” explanation for the powers of the Hand by explaining away the stories as nothing more than descriptions of hallucinations induced by ingestion of the mandrake root. But since stories of the Hand of Glory were nothing more than stories, rather than descriptions of something that black magicians had once manufactured, there’s little need for “scientific” explanations of the Hand’s powers.
This brings us back to the Hand of Glory displayed so prominently in the Whitby Museum.
According to the museum this is the only example of a Hand of Glory in existence** … yet it is singularly missing any sign of having been subjected to flames, used as a candle, or otherwise employed as a magical burglary tool.
Why is that? Did someone make it, then hide it, then never use it? Perhaps (there’s that “perhaps” again!). Or perhaps Joseph Ford was a little too quick in his identification of the hand he found in the wall of the thatched cottage as a Hand of Glory. Perhaps instead it’s nothing more than what it appears to be: a withered hand that could have been severed in some sort of accident, coming to be mummified in the many untold years before it was discovered. However, that would hardly make a good story for the charming museum in Whitby. After all, del Rio’s tale of a mummified hand taken from an executed thief and given magical powers through demonic invocation — that certainly makes for a better story both for the Whitby Museum, as well as for J. K. Rowling.†
On the lone bleak moor,
At the midnight hour,
Beneath the Gallows Tree,
Hand in hand
The Murderers stand
By one, by two, by three!
And the Moon that night
With a grey, cold light
Each baleful object tips;
One half of her form
Is seen through the storm,
The other half ‘s hid in Eclipse!
And the cold Wind howls,
And the Thunder growls,
And the Lightning is broad and bright;
It ‘s very bad weather,
And an unpleasant sort of a night!
‘Now mount who list,
And close by the wrist
Sever me quickly the Dead Man’s fist!—
Now climb who dare
Where he swings in air,
And pluck me five locks of the Dead Man’s hair!’
And now, with care,
The five locks of hair
From the skull of the Gentleman dangling up there,
With the grease and the fat
Of a black Tom Cat
She hastens to mix,
And to twist into wicks,
And one on the thumb, and each finger to fix.—
(For another receipt the same charm to prepare,
Consult Mr Ainsworth and Petit Albert.)
‘Now open lock
To the Dead Man’s knock!
Fly bolt, and bar, and band!
— Nor move, nor swerve
Joint, muscle, or nerve,
At the spell of the Dead Man’s hand!
Sleep all who sleep!— Wake all who wake!—
But be as the Dead for the Dead Man’s sake!!’
Scott E. Hendrix is an historian of medieval and early-modern intellectual history. He’s written a number of books and articles on subjects ranging from astrology to witchcraft, from riots to the history of science. He is an assistant professor of history at Carroll University and the co-editor of Rational Magic.