Cheese gives you nightmares: Old Hags and heartburn

Cheese gives you nightmares: Old Hags and heartburn – Focus on “the Nightmare”

Caroline Oates

Abstract

Stories of witches transforming men into beasts of burden told by Homer, Apuleius, and St Augustine follow a narrative schema also found in legends of people turned into horses by witches with magic bridles. The stories figuratively convey symptoms of the nightmare, known as the “Mare” or “Old Hag.” Cheese features in several of them. Although these narratives seem a far cry from the commonplace that cheese is indigestible and causes nightmares, indigestion and the Mare are inextricably entwined. This essay explores the relationships between them. [1]

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Aperitif: “Bread and Cheese is Very Well, but Cheese and Cheese is No Sense”

A group of medieval and early modern stories about men transformed by witches was described by Gareth Roberts as having a “Circean configuration” because they share a schema and several motifs with Homer’s story of the encounter between Ulysses’ companions and Circe (Homer 1979, 159-67 (X); Roberts 1996, 192-4). They tell of youths in foreign territory lodging with witches who offer them food, then transform them into dumb beasts of burden, and exploit them. In its fullest expositions, an older, wiser companion arrives, accepts what the witch offers, but then overpowers her and forces her to restore the younger victim.

Behind the imagery are some of the features of the “Mare” or “Old Hag” type of nightmare, characterised by terror, an impression of being awake but powerless to move or speak, and sensations of weight on the chest. Popular tradition represented such experiences as assaults by witches sitting on sleepers’ bellies, inflicting terrifying dreams, and leaving their victims exhausted and haggard (“hag-ridden”) in the morning (Hufford 1982, 1-9, 54-5 and 245-6). Reginald Scot in 1584 reported a priest’s experience of the Mare:

There cometh unto mee, almost everie night, a certeine woman,

unknowne to me, and lieth so heavie upon my brest, that I cannot

fetch my breath, neither have anie power to crie, neither doo my

hands serve me to shoove hir awaie, nor my feete to go from hir

(Scot 1886, 66 [IV.9]).

In some versions, transformation happens during a dream or state of trance. Most victims are turned into horses or asses and burdened with packs or ridden by the witch, conveying the Mare’s weighty pressure on the sleeper. Just as sufferers of the Mare experience sleep paralysis and cannot cry out, people transformed by witches are powerless to prevent their transformation and are unable to talk.

Cheese appears in the earliest versions: in Apuleius’ Golden Ass it signifies women as sexual partners, much as the term “crumpet” is now used in Britain (Apuleius 1977, I: 4-19). However, Apuleius worked the metaphor into the narrative so subtly that his readers are unlikely to notice its significance unless they already know what it means. St Augustine, Bishop of Hippo (AD 345-430), did not; but Shakespeare did and exploited it in The Merry Wives of Windsor (First Quarto edn, 1602) as we shall see below (pp. 214-16). The cheese-woman metaphor was familiar in Europe. Monks in medieval Germany were called “cheese-hunters” (Grimm and Grimm 1854-1954, sub Kasejager). According to a Spanish proverb, “Cheese without a rind is like a maiden without shame” (Lean 1902-4, 1:502). In Britain, “cheese and cheese” referred to two women kissing or on horseback together. As one man explained: “Bread and cheese is very well, but cheese and cheese is no sense” (Wright 1898-1905, 1:576). Men were bread and women were cheese according to their respective areas of agricultural activity, men in the grain fields and women in the dairy. The metaphor is still current: men’s magazines feature photographs of “cheesecakes.” Anglo-Irish men might call a good-looking woman “a nice piece of cheese” or “a tasty piece of Cheddar”; a girl who has had many boyfriends is a “blue cheese” and one in search of a husband is a “mousetrap” (pers. comm. Fionnuala Carson Williams, Gerard Hennessey, and Richard Walsh).

Cheese signified women, the good wife and the bad, the maternally protective as well as the appetisingly dangerous and oppressive. Homely cheese warded off harm to people in vulnerable situations: a traveller in the Scottish Highlands would find his way out of a thick mist by looking through the hole in a piece of rind from the Christmas cheese, Caise Calluinn (Campbell 1902, 232). The dangers of cheese were mainly to men and mice. Foreign cheese entraps unwary travellers in St Augustine’s stories, while old cheese, which was dry and hard to swallow, served as a metaphor for a bossy wife in The Old Cheese, a broadside poem of 1725. The association of cheese with womanhood sheds light on various customs, including the cheese ladle that symbolised a domineering wife in “skimmington rides” and the “groaning cheese” provided at a childbirth (Underdown 1985, 99-103; Opie and Tatem 1989, 182-3). It also illuminates the “bread and cheese ordeal” to determine guilt or innocence discussed later. For better or for worse, cheese decided destinies, revealing the innocence of those who swallowed it, but choking and silencing the guilty, just as the nightmare choked and silenced her victims.

Cheese signified women and, by extension, it signified sex. An Irish chieftain nicknamed Cheese-Guzzler O’Ruairc died of a “surfeit of sex” in 1204; his fatal partner was a real woman, but the episode bears overtones of the night witch (Annals of Loch Ce 1871, 1:232-3). Explicitly sexual terms applied to cheese: one type was called spermyse. Its sexual connotations gave rise to related comparisons, such as the cheese-making analogy of conception and the metaphor of worms in cheese for the creation of the world, or the destructive effects of concupiscence (Ginzburg 1976, 67-9; Ott 1979, 699-711). In Ben Jonson’s The Alchemist from 1610, the procurer of clients describes an apothecary seeking magical help to win the favours of his neighbour, a young widow:

A miserable rogue, and lives with cheese, and has the worms. That

was the cause indeed why he came now. He dealt with me in private

to get a medicine for ’em (Jonson 1998, 259 [Act 2 scene 6, lines

81-4]; an apothecary is the last to need advice on anthelmintics).

This meaning of cheese corresponds with the marked, sometimes explicit, sexuality often present both in the Circean narratives and in medieval interpretations of the Mare as assaults by lascivious incubi. Hildegard of Bingen (AD 1098-1179) saw something sexual in the nightmare. She attributed it to desiccation of the blood and demonic exploitation of the trace of sin left in people from the sexual act that led to their conception or “coagulation”–a cheese-making metaphor (Hildegard of Bingen 1903, 142; Petrina 1993-4, 396).

References to cheese in night witch stories raise the question of whether they relate to the commonplace that cheese causes nightmares. Initial investigations suggested otherwise. None of the people to whom I spoke and who knew both that cheese signifies women and that it causes nightmares connected the two ideas. The commonplace that cheese gives you nightmares is interpreted rationally as a natural effect, usually of indigestion, and is confirmed by some people’s experience of cheese-induced dreams that bear little resemblance to the Mare. Moreover, although familiar to most British people, it is virtually unknown elsewhere in Europe. It is seldom documented, therefore difficult to date, but is traceable to the seventeenth century and is probably much older. After all, some people experience it, cheese was proverbially indigestible, and indigestion was the commonest natural explanation for nightmares in medical literature from antiquity onwards. A rational commonplace about bad dreams being caused by indigestible cheese looks very different from stories of transforming witches with metaphoric cheese. Yet indigestion has a close relationship to the Mare: the intrusive spirits that provoked nightmares could also cause heartburn, and for the same motives, as I will show later.

The Circean schema occurs in oral and literary narratives in several genres: tales, realistic novelle, and, especially, legends and personal experience stories (although often only in partial form). It has affinities with AT 303, “The Twins or Blood Brothers,” but most closely matches ML 3057 *, “The Witch-Ridden Boy,” which Katharine Briggs also classed as ML 3055, “The Witch that was Hurt” (Briggs 1970-1, A1:70; B1:xxxii). Certain textual lines of descent are clear, between Homer, Apuleius, and Shakespeare, for example. These, however, are of less concern here than the association of the stories with the Mare, whose features are conveyed by imagery and metaphors that are as durable as the narrative schema itself. Different authors exploit the schema to express a variety of ideas, but they share a concern with people being overpowered and deprived of their ability to communicate effectively.

Cheese, Barley Meal Honey, and Pramnian Wine: Circe’s Recipe for Transformation

When Ulysses’ companions visit her home on their travels, Circe receives them hospitably, feeding them “cheese, barley meal, and yellow honey flavoured with Pramnian wine” (Homer 1979, 161 [X]). But into this she mixes a powerful drug to make them forget their true home. After they have eaten, Circe strikes them with her wand, transforming them into swine, wolves, and other animals, using them to guard her palace. Although they retain their human minds, they are unable to speak. Forewarned and armed by Hermes with the antidote to Circe’s drug, Ulysses arrives and accepts her food, but, when she tries to transform him, draws his sword and terrifies her into submission. She invites him to her bed, which he also accepts, but only after forcing her to swear to stop her tricks and restore his companions to human form.

Like the Mare, Circe overpowers, oppresses, and deprives her victims of speech. Her power is unmistakably sexual, but it strips unwary men of their manliness. Cheese does not look out of place on her supper table and later commentators saw more significance in the drugs in the mixture. St Augustine repeated the pharmacological rationalisation, while, for early modern authors, Circe’s meal was merely wholesome fare concealing dangerous substances to poison the incautious, just as her homely welcome masked her predatory intentions. Circe’s cup was an analogy for witchcraft itself, seductive lies that beguiled and unmanned men, and inverted the normal order (Roberts 1996, 202-5).

In ancient Rome, however, cheese and honey was marriage food (Etienne 1987, 303). Recognising Circe’s meal as a mock wedding feast for an oppressive enslavement of men, Apuleius drew more attention to the cheese.

More Gorgon than Gorgonzola: Cheese and Nightmares in The Golden Ass

Transformation by witchcraft is the main theme of The Golden Ass, the second-century novel by Lucius Apuleius of Madaura in North Africa. It recounts the youthful misadventures of the narrator, also called Lucius, in the Greek region of Thessaly. Like Ulysses, Lucius travels in foreign territory and enters the home of a powerful witch. Forewarned, he is wary of her, but accepts food and sex from her servant. Unlike Circe’s victims, Lucius actively seeks his own transformation, after watching the witch turn into an owl (compare ML 3045, “Following the Witch”). However, the servant makes a mistake and he becomes an ass instead. While transformed, he is oppressed, exploited, and unable to speak.

Apuleius took Circe’s cheese and put it further forward in the story, before Lucius arrives at the witch’s house. It is clearly a metaphor of women and has an important relationship with the sexually predatory, vindictive, blood-draining, heart-stealing night witches described early in the novel (Apuleius 1977, 1:5-19). Three references to cheese surround the episode of the assault of the witch Meroe. Indigestion also features, and there are recurrent references to choking and strangulation. Lucius tells Aristomenes, a fellow traveller, of his recent experience of nearly choking to death on a piece of polenta caseata, dough fried with cheese (Apuleius 1977, 1:4-5). Aristomenes had had his own cheese-related misfortune; he had travelled there to buy honey and fresh cheeses, but every cheese available had been bought by a wholesaler aptly named Lupus (“Wolf,” a common epithet for sexually predatory men). He had then met up with his old friend Socrates, who was in a sorry state. The witch Meroe, a tavern landlady, had enslaved him as her lover and robbed him of his meagre earnings from carrying baggage like a beast of burden. Aristomenes gave him shelter at his lodgings, but the witch came with her sister in the night to take her revenge. Meroe cut Socrates’ throat, drained his blood, and pulled out his heart, plugging the neck wound with a sponge charmed to stay put unless running water touched it. The witches urinated on Aristomenes as they left, but otherwise ignored him.

Seeing no sign of a wound on Socrates’ neck when he awoke, Aristomenes assumed he had had a bad dream provoked, as the physicians say, by overindulgence the night before. Setting out on their travels again, Socrates said he had dreamed that his heart was torn out through his throat, and now felt weak and hungry. Aristomenes gave him the cheese he had in his bag, but, as Socrates ate, the colour drained from his face and Aristomenes could not swallow his bread for fear of being accused if his friend died. Having eaten almost a whole cheese, Socrates was now very thirsty and went to drink at a river. As he drank, his wound reopened, the sponge fell out, and he died. After burying him by the river, Aristomenes went into voluntary exile, never to return home to his former wife.

Each man’s problem with cheese exactly mirrors his involvement with the witches. They ignored Aristomenes, who had failed to buy cheese. Socrates was totally overpowered and drained dry by Meroe, and eating too much cheese provoked his fatal thirst. Lucius, half-choked by cheese, is later transformed by the witch’s servant, but recovers after immersion in water and divine intervention. Cheese signifies wives as well as witches: Aristomenes had cheese in his bag, which he gave away to Socrates, just as he had a wife at home whom he abandoned. The men’s evocative names attach the episode to the overall structure of the novel. Socrates, lacking the virtuous restraint of his famous namesake (who also had an oppressive wife), dies the evil death, away from home and without decent burial. Fearful Aristomenes, unlike the daring legendary hero of that name, ended up in the death-in-life of exile. Lucius, bearer of the author’s name, is temporarily choked by cheese and transformed, but is later restored to human shape and made a priest of Isis. Cheese-eating is also a metaphor of experience on the road to redemption, the via media between the extremes of heroic activity and philosophical contemplation. Excess and avoidance are equally unfulfilling and redemption is only earned by taking the risk, trying a bit of the cheese, suffering the nightmare of transformation, and emerging from the experience as a more mature self.

Cheese in The Golden Ass has a destiny-deciding power related to communication problems, as the Mare did. It permanently silenced Socrates, and temporarily choked Lucius, who is later unable to communicate while transformed: when the ass tries to speak all he can do is bray (Apuleius 1977, 7:3). The cheese’s relocation to the beginning of the story invites us to look there for the Circean oppressor that transforms men and prevents them from communicating; it is adumbrated in the opening address of narrator Lucius. He tells of his arrival in Rome as a foreigner and his struggle to learn Latin, and then draws a parallel between his linguistic difficulties and the subject of his story, his transformation. The novel also closes with references to his mastery of Latin: restored to human form, he becomes an advocate in the lawcourts, pleading cases in Latin (as Apuleius himself did). The parallelism between opening and closure reveals the Circe to be the mother tongue of the Romans. It had the power to choke the foreigner into silence and make him make an ass of himself until he finally defeated it, mastered the conventions of Latin, and regained his vocal power.

The Ulysses figure that overpowers the witch is Lucius himself, older and wiser.

True Stories of Transformation by Bewitched Cheese in The City of God

St Augustine heard two examples of equine transformation by bewitched cheese in Italy (Augustine, 18:xviii). They belong to the same family as The Golden Ass, although Augustine heard them told as true. One was a regional tradition that epitomises Apuleius’ story: tavern landladies, skilled in magic, usually give something in cheese (in caseo solent dare) to travellers to transform them into pack horses (iumenta) and, after using them to carry things, restore them to human shape. The other was a personal experience story of transformation during a dream that more clearly resembles the Mare. One Praestantius said his father ate some of that drugged cheese in his own home and fell asleep for several days. He later said he had dreamt he was transformed into a horse and had transported soldiers’ rations, which witnesses confirmed as true. Cheese plays an important role in both instances, but, despite noting the similarity with The Golden Ass, Augustine did not notice its metaphoric meaning and rationalised the dreams of transformation as the effects of drugs or poison (venenum) and demonic illusions.

Same Story Without the Cheese: Transformation by Eggs or Magic Bridle

In some medieval and early modern versions of the story, eggs take the place of the magic cheese. A legend of this type was reported in the Malleus Maleficarum of 1486/7 (Sprenger and Kramer 1486-87 II. 2. 4). A young sailor disembarking in Cyprus was transformed into an ass after eating eggs given by a young witch, who kept him as her beast of burden for three years. No significance was attached to the eggs in the Malleus, nor in Reginald Scot’s retelling, although he perceived the implicit bawdiness of the story (Scot 1886, 75-6 [V. 3]; Roberts 1996, 193). In an Italian novel of 1582, the young hero is turned into an ass by hard-boiled eggs given by an old witch (Selva 1582). Eggs were a good substitute for cheese. They were equally associated with female sexuality, with witches who sail in eggshells, and with the incubus nightmare that afflicts the eater who forgets to break the shell; they are also hard to digest (Newall 1971, xv; Opie and Tatem 1989, 135-6). Other equine transformation stories do not specify the means, but sexuality is often present, even explicit, and sometimes the gender roles are reversed. Boccaccio told a tale of a man who wanted a priest to turn his naked wife into a horse, but demurred at the priest completing the transformation by adding the tail (Decameron IX.10). A story in the Life of St Macarius concerns a rejected suitor avenging himself by hiring a magician to turn a married woman into a horse; the saint dispels the illusion with some holy water (Migne 1844-64, LXXIII:1109). [2]

Most frequently, people are transformed into horses and asses by a magic bridle (Motifs D 535, G 241.2.1.1; Kittredge 1928, 184; Briggs 1970-1, Vol. B part 2, 749-50; Kvideland and Sehmsdorf 1991, 184-7). It was a common motif from the Middle Ages to the modern period and was even more effective than cheese for controlling, choking, and silencing men transformed into horses. The correspondence with the Circe story is clearest in the legends “The Blacksmith’s Wife of Yarrowfoot” and “The Two Fellows” (ML 3057* or ML 3055: Briggs 1970-1, Vol. B part 2, 623-5, 715). A robust youth in a master’s service starts to sicken. He confides in an older youth that the master’s wife comes to him every night, bridles him to transform him into a horse, and rides him all night, leaving him exhausted and drained in the morning. The older youth exchanges sleeping places with him, and, when the mistress arrives with the bridle, lets her transform him and ride him to the witches’ meeting. Later, slipping out of the bridle, he puts it over the witch’s head, turning her into a horse instead. He rides her home and ties her up in the stable (or takes the horse for shoeing) before removing the bridle. Next morning, the master finds his wife in the stable (or in bed with a horseshoe on her foot). The younger man suffers no more assaults and recovers after eating butter from the milk of cows fed on churchyard grass, “a sovereign remedy for consumption brought on through being witch-ridden.”

The story contains the essentials of the Circean plot. The youths are away from home, lodging with a powerful woman who necessarily feeds them. Like Circe, she is an unsuitable partner who preys on young men to exploit them, and they cannot speak out against her–she is the boss’s wife. Like Ulysses, the older youth takes his place, accepts what she offers, but, armed with foreknowledge, defeats her at her own game and exposes her publicly.

The supernatural magic bridle story had a realistic counterpart in the story “Aristotle and Phyllis” (Sarton 1930). Alexander’s wife was distracting him from state business until Aristotle persuaded him to pay her less attention. To avenge herself, she seduces the philosopher, who plays along with her request to prove his affection by letting her saddle, bridle, and ride him (Figure 1). Seeing this, Alexander asks Aristotle why he submitted to such humiliation. The philosopher answers by saying, if Alexander’s wife can make a fool of a wise old man like himself, how much more of a fool might she make of a younger, less wise man? As Ulysses did, but in a very different way, Aristotle helps Alexander to return to his normal self by outwitting the Circean woman with the disorderly power to turn men into something other than they should be and deprive them of their manly voice. Phyllis was motivated by vindictiveness; others bridled and saddled men for profit. A pamphlet of 1595 described how one Judith Philips (whose name sounds suspiciously like Phyllis) “cozened” a rich man wanting to meet the Queen of the Fairies. She persuaded him to let her saddle, bridle and ride him; then, as he waited for the Queen to appear, Judith ran off with his valuables (Rosen 1969, 215; and see figure on front cover).

The marked sexuality of fabulates and literary narratives with a Circean plot is less prominent in personal experience stories. Equally, David Hufford found that there was rarely anything sexual about his informants’ descriptions of the experience of the Old Hag or Mare. The nightmare affected women as well as men, both men and women could send it, and the assailant could be represented as either a female or male figure (Hufford 1982, 130-1). This suggests that the sexual aspect of the narratives was largely a trope for the strong desires that were central to both malefic witchcraft and the Evil Eye. Witches wanted what they lacked and could not get in normal ways. Those wants might be sexual, or they could be for food, drink, power, vengeance, profit, or whatever else they wanted; and any intense desire can be described metaphorically as lust. As King James said, witches are motivated by either envy or vindictiveness: they want what others have, or revenge against those who offend them (James VI and 1 1597, 32-5 [II.2]). Witches transform people into horses for vengeance or to profit from them by stealing their power; in some tales the witch profits financially by selling the horse (Kittredge 1928, 184, 502, n.93). Nightmare witches exacted retribution for violations of norms of behaviour or took the power they wanted from their victims by riding off with their spirits and exploiting them as horses (Pocs 1999, 50, 65-6, 79-81 and 93). Likewise, the Evil Eye steals the vital fluids and productive potential of anything exposed to its envious gaze, or punitively blasts those who refuse to share (Dundes 1992, 263, 268-70). Characteristically dry, envious, and vindictive witches wanted blood, in more than one sense. A common theme underlies these different types of malefic assault: strong wants unsatisfied in the material world strike out for satisfaction in spirit, taking and consuming the power and profit-making flow of vulnerable bodies and processes, including fluency of breath and speech, and even, as we shall see, the digestion of a dinner.

Anne Armstrong’s Piece of Cheese: A Remedy for Transformation

Transformation by magic bridle featured in personal experience stories of witnesses accusing witches in trials both in England and in Hungary (Briggs 1962, 102; Porter 1974, 144-5; Pocs 1999, 79-80, 93). In 1672-3, the deposition of Anne Armstrong, a young Northumbrian woman, combined the magic bridle story with traits of the Mare, the Circean schema, and many motifs common to other versions (Denham 1967, 2:299-314). Among these were: a transaction involving eggs; bewitchment by ocular fascination; transformation in spirit; exploitation by being ridden; loss of vocal power; dry witches who drain blood and steal power; a warning from an old, wise man; and a piece of cheese. In the latter, however, the cheese is the remedy rather than the cause of transformation.

Anne’s ordeal began with her journey to the home of a woman to buy eggs, but they quarrelled over the price. The woman deprived Anne of the profit of the transaction and “looked her head” to bewitch her. Later, she came and put a bridle on Anne while she lay in a trance, transformed her spirit into a horse, and rode her to the witches’ meeting. Forewarned by a wise old man, she refused their food to prevent them from harming her (like Circe’s potion, otherworldly food makes people forget to go home). She was ridden home and returned to human shape, but her ability to communicate was impaired and she could not speak openly about her experience until she ate a piece of cheese. As the old man predicted, she found it lying by her head when she awoke in a field on 27 December. The date is of interest. This was the Feast of St John the Evangelist, who, as supposed author of Revelation, was an ideal patron saint for a woman with much to reveal, and the first verses of St John’s Gospel were used to protect against witchcraft (Thomas 1971, 187). Here, words were made flesh again in a piece of cheese that restored Anne’s power of speech. It was also Christmas cheese that, like the Caise Calluinn, helped her find her way out of the fog of witchcraft.

After eating it, she was able to reveal the witches’ names and the malefic acts they reported to the Devil, which corresponded with real misfortunes suffered by witnesses and their animals, whose bodies were drained of blood until they sickened to death. She said she heard one witch tell the Devil that she had “got power of” George Taylor’s foal. George Taylor testified that, when his foal died, they opened the body and found barely a quart of blood in it. What the witches wanted from their victims, in Anne’s story, was their power and blood. They were dry, “had no means of obtaining water” at their feasts, and, having less vital fluid than they wanted, took it from victims who consequently had less blood than they needed to survive.

Anne Armstrong’s piece of cheese was also a way of appealing to be believed, marking her innocence of witchcraft. Cheese had long had a destiny-deciding role in distinguishing guilt from innocence in the bread and cheese ordeal or “holy morsel” (Motif H 232; Thomas 1971, 218). Only the innocent could swallow it, while it choked the guilty. As a symbol of the body of Christ, bread’s role makes sense in an ordeal appealing to divine judgement; but there was less scriptural justification for the use of cheese in that context. Apuleius, however, shows that cheese had the power to choke and decide men’s fates before the full establishment of Christianity, and there are very early references to the bread and cheese ordeal to detect a thief (Eckstein 1927-42, 4:1033-4). Anglo-Saxon law made provision for it and, although it fell from judicial use after 1215, it lingered in popular custom into the early modern period (Kittredge 1928, 238). In 1618, Jane Bulkeley distributed pieces of cheese to an assembled group in order to discover a thief (Thomas 1971, 220). In William Rowley’s The Witch of Edmonton (Act 4 scene 1), the witch exclaims: “Let ’em eat cheese and choke” of her false accusers. The fatal power of ordealic cheese has left a linguistic trace in the expression “hard cheese” meaning “bad luck,” which is exactly what a dry, old piece of “choke-dog” cheese would be if one’s life depended on swallowing it. Bread and cheese signified men and women; united, they symbolised the family and community that decided fates by binding the innocent to the place where they belonged and had a voice, while separating the guilty outsider whose words were untrustworthy. Anne Armstrong swallowed it. In so doing, she demonstrated that her words could be trusted and that she belonged to the community of the living, not to the witches’ alien world of deception and theft.

Choked with a Piece of Toasted Cheese: The Merry Wives of Windsor

William Adlington’s 1566 translation of The Golden Ass fell on fertile ground: Shakespeare liberally exploited the Circean schema and many motifs from Apuleius in The Merry Wives of Windsor. There are references to transformations, hag-riding, a nocturnal attack of retributive fairies, and an old witch. Here, too, we find communication problems. As modern editors have emphasised, it is a play about the conventions of English (Shakespeare, ed. Melchiori 2000, 3-9). Language is transformed and distorted in manifold ways, ranging from Sir Hugh Evans’ Welsh pronunciation, Corporal Nym’s cliches, a Latin lesson, and countless comments on improper usage, metaphors, and other linguistic metamorphoses. It is also a comedy about cheese. This is fitting for a play set among rustic people, with a Welshman in a central role–cheese was classed as peasant food, and Welshmen were stereotyped as excessively fond of it, especially toasted (Zall 1977, 132; Camporesi 1994, 37-63). The Circean schema, however, and the union between the linguistic and cheese themes at the end, suggest that Parson Hugh Evans is present because of the cheese rather than the reverse.

As in The Golden Ass, cheese is meaningful both literally in the text and metaphorically in relation to the two main plots: the courtship of Anne Page, and Falstaff’s punishment for lusting after two married women. Rennet derives from “runneth” and no one runs more than Mistress Quickly does. She is the active agent who ensures that Anne marries Master Fenton, her favourite, rather than her parents’ preferences, Dr Caius and Master Slender, whose unsuitability is emphasised by their being likened to cheese. Slender has a “whay-coloured beard” and is insulted by being called a “Banbury cheese,” which was very thin (Quarto edn, Act 1 scene 4, line 5; Act 1 scene 1, line 120). Although Doctor Caius is French, his name rhymes with “cheese” and its orthography is close to both the Welsh and the Irish for cheese, caws and caise respectively. Slender and Caius, two cheeses, obviously cannot marry Anne because “cheese and cheese is no sense.” The point is reinforced at the end, when each is tricked to the altar with a disguised boy instead of Anne. Bread and bread….

Cheese crops up in Falstaff’s attempts to seduce Mrs Page and Mrs Ford. Corporal Nym, dismissed by Falstaff for refusing to carry the love letter to Mrs Page, vindictively informs Mr Page of Falstaff’s intentions: “… Falstaff loves your wife. Adieu. I love not the humour of bread and cheese. Adieu” (Act 2 scene 1, line 123). This does not simply mean displeasure at the prospect of reduced rations–mere bread and cheese–after his dismissal. It also refers to the reason for Nym’s dismissal, his dislike of the idea of helping Falstaff to make the ideal human sandwich with Mrs Page.

The Circean schema is radically altered. Falstaff is certainly a newcomer to the area, and dines at the homes of the Pages and the Fords. However, he merely imagines that the wives give him encouraging looks, and it is he, not they, who is the sexual predator and oppressor. The wives are outraged by his love letters, but cannot publicly challenge him because Mr Ford is insanely jealous, so they resort to action rather than words to defeat him. Yet they play Circe’s part, too, by luring Falstaff with feigned offers of love to exploit him for their amusement and punish him by making an ass of him. Having invited him to Mrs Ford’s house, they pretend that Mr Ford is returning, necessitating Falstaff’s concealment in the dirty linen basket. He is thrown in the river, his first punishment for trying to get into the wives’ underskirts. Immersion in water restored Lucius; Falstaff’s ardour is not dampened. His second ordeal is to be turned into an old hag, disguised in the clothes of an old aunt reputed to be a witch in order to escape from Mr Ford again. The disguise as a witch is appropriate, since Falstaff had assumed Circe’s role; but he is Circe’s victim too, deprived of his manly appearance and not daring to speak. For his final ordeal, the wives arrange to meet him at midnight in Windsor Great Park, disguised as Herne the Hunter. He waits, like Lucius, soon to be transformed into something other than expected, but purely figuratively in Falstaff’s case. Instead of the wives, Evans dressed as a satyr and the children disguised as fairies come to him, pinching him to punish his lustful mind. Falstaff, aware of Evans’ Welsh accent, calls out “Heavens defend me from that Welsh fairy lest he transform me to a piece of cheese”–into both what stage Welshmen love best, and a woman, the nadir of Circean oppression (Act 5 scene 5, lines 81-2).

Once the joke is revealed, Falstaff observes that he is “made an ass,” unmanned and foolish for being led, by his guilty conscience, to believe they were real fairies (Act 5 scene 5, line 124). Mr Ford had also made an ass of himself by his groundless jealousy of his wife, transforming himself into Mr Brook to try to catch her out. He is restored to normality by the wives’ trick to expose Falstaff and demonstrate their virtue. Here, the language theme joins the cheese theme. Ford had previously said that he would rather trust Parson Hugh with his cheese than his wife with herself (Act 2 scene 2, line 287). Now he tells the Welshman: “I will never mistrust my wife again, till thou art able to woo her in good English” (Act 5 scene 5, lines 132-3). The conventions of marriage are secure because Evans, the lover of real cheese, is manifestly foreign to proper English pronunciation, and Falstaff, the chaser of metaphoric cheese, is revealed as a foreigner to the norms of proper conduct. It is the very conventional wives who, like ordealic cheese, decide who is in and who is out, who has a voice and who has no power to speak.

Falstaff also draws both themes together, uniting them with hag-riding, desiccation, madness, and the bread and cheese ordeal. Teased to exasperation, he cries:

Have I laid my brain in the sun and dried it, that it wants matter

to prevent so gross o’erreaching as this? Am I ridden with a Welsh

goat too? Shall I have a coxcomb of frieze? ‘Tis time I were choked

with a piece of toasted cheese! (Act 5 scene 5, lines 134-8).

This toasted ordealic cheese is aimed at Evans, who retorts: “Seese is not good to give putter, and your pelly is all putter” (Act 5 scene 5, lines 139-40). He is alluding to another dairy proverb: “The more butter, the worse cheese”–milk skimmed for butter-making produces inferior cheese, and cheese made with whole milk reduces the cream available for butter-making (Lean 1902-04, 1:435). Nor is it good to offer women to butter-bellied Falstaff, too ugly and degenerate to be desirable. Cheese and language combine once more, as Falstaff parries the jibe with a stab at the Welshman’s linguistic offence:

“Seese” and “putter”? Have I lived to stand at the taunt of one

that makes fritters of English? This is enough to be the decay

of lust and late-walking through the realm (Act 5 scene 5, lines

141-4).

The mention of lust brings the toasted cheese to choke him–not real toasted cheese but what it represented, the wives and Evans in person, hot as toast with indignation. They silence him by metaphorically transforming him into still lower orders of being–a “hodge pudding,” a “bag of flax,” given to unruly behaviour, blasphemy, and other misuses of language. Falstaff is finally lost for words: “I am dejected, I am not able to answer the Welsh flannel…. Use me as you will” (Act 5 scene 5, lines 160-2). He soon retrieves his voice and old buck self, however, when the tables are turned on his tormentors, who, like the witch transformed by her own bridle, are turned into asses themselves. Anne Page has secretly married Mr Fenton, averting the conventional but potentially oppressive marriage her parents were trying to arrange.

Toasted Cheese: Rabbits and Rarebits

Falstaff called for toasted cheese to choke him: cooking intensified the properties of cheese. It was extra tasty–“tosted cheese hath no master” went the proverb (Ray 1678, 82). It was even more alluringly dangerous as metaphor: toasted cheese was like an adorned woman in the Devil’s trap for men, said Odo of Cheriton (d. 1247), warning of the perils of adultery:

Cheese is toasted and placed in a trap; when the rat smells it, it

enters the trap, seizes the cheese, and is caught by the trap. So

it is with all sin. Cheese is toasted when a woman is dressed up

and adorned so that she entices and catches the foolish rats:

take a woman in adultery and the Devil will catch you (Hervieux

1896, 221, no. 49a). [3]

Toasted cheese was extra effective as therapy: Francis Grose alleged that Welsh midwives would apply it to the “janua vitae” to speed up a slow delivery by enticing the baby out (Grose 1785, sub Welch Rabbit). [4] Toasted cheese was even more indigestible and apt to cause nightmares (Smith 1845, 3:45; see Figure 2). The English called it “Welsh rabbit” in the early eighteenth century, and “rarebit” only became common after 1785 (Grose 1785, sub Rabbit). It has been said that “rarebit” was coined by people failing to see the joke of the mock-heroic “rabbit” for a humble cheese toastie (Palmer 1882, 431). However, “rarebit” may have become the preferred term because of prudishness about naming rabbits at all, since they, too, were closely associated with female sexuality. It is no coincidence that a cheese dish acquired this name. Before the eighteenth century, the word “rabbit” had designated only the young of the cony (Latin cuniculus, from cuniculum, meaning “hole” or “burrow”), but replaced the latter term when its phonetic proximity to “cunny” became too much for English politeness. Cony meat, moreover, shared cheese’s reputation for causing indigestion and nightmares. As Robert Burton said in 1621, “conies are of the nature of hares” and hare’s meat was “hard of digestion; it breeds incubus, often eaten, and causeth fearful dreams” (Burton 1923, 1:250 [I.2.2.1]; 2:116 [II.2.6.1]).

Contrasting Theories of Nightmares: Indigestion and the Mare

The British commonplace that cheese causes nightmares tends to be understood as the result of indigestion, and thus it continues the ancient medical theory, dubbed the “Heavy Supper Theory,” that nightmares are caused by indigestion. This has been the favourite natural explanation of the oppressive nightmare since Galen’s time (Paul of ,AEgina 1844, 1:388-9; Gregory I 1924, 309 [IV. 50]; Galenus 1965, XVII. 2:628, 747; Davies 1996-7, 47-8). According to Reginald Scot, the Mare was caused by a heavy humour:

… ingendred of a thicke vapor proceeding from the cruditie and

rawnesse in the stomach: which ascending up into the head

oppresseth the braine, in so much as manie are much infeebled

therebie as being nightlie haunted therewith (Scot 1886, 68

[IV. 11]).

Cheese had long been proverbially indigestible: Caseus est nequam, quia digerit omnia sequam (“Cheese it is a Peevish Elfe, It digests all things but itself”) (Smith 1935, sub Cheese; Tilley 1950, C 299; Etienne 1987, 299). Furthermore, although other Europeans tend not to register its effects, many British people really do experience nightmares, and indigestion, after cheese: around one in six people confirmed this in an informal poll. The presence of a cheese-specific version of the “Heavy Supper Theory” in Britain is thus less mysterious than its virtual absence elsewhere in Europe (largely attributable to different cultural attitudes to cheese).

Superficially, bad dreams provoked by indigestible cheese seem to have little in common with assaults by night witches associated with metaphoric cheese. Given the contrast, moreover, between the “Heavy Supper Theory” and the spirit assault interpretation of nightmares, it would be easy to assume that the modern commonplace emerged out of an educated tradition opposed to folk traditions about the Mare. However, the contrasting interpretations do not mark a simple division between learned rationalism and folk superstition, and indigestion is neither as straightforward nor as entirely natural as it looks, but is inextricably related to the Mare. Before the eighteenth century, education was no bar to admitting that spirits caused nightmares: demons easily did this. Conversely, scholarship was not essential for the figurative use of the Mare as a way of expressing a particular, extraordinary, nocturnal experience that might nevertheless have natural causes. That indigestion provoked nightmares was a longstanding commonplace, familiar to all, including those who accepted that intrusive spirits could cause the Mare. For those who rejected the spirit assault theory, all nightmares had natural causes; while for those who accepted it, both natural and unnatural interpretations were available, applicable according to the features of the experience. People seeking to persuade others that spirits inflicted their nightmares would have had to argue against competing natural interpretations, such as indigestion.

Indigestion was not, in fact, the most relevant natural explanation for the Mare. As medieval authors knew, it mainly affects people who sleep on their backs, and modern studies indicate that sleep apnoea is a contributory factor (William of Auvergne 1674, 1:1069, C. col. 1; Burton 1923, 1:291 [I. 2.3.2]; Jones 1949, 16, 20-2, 27-8, 50-1; Hufford 1982, 98, 210). Supine position is also evident in the traditional representation of the Mare sitting on the sleeper’s chest or belly. Defences against her include strapping a board of nails to one’s chest and, necessarily, not sleeping on one’s back (Davies 1996-7, 47). Nevertheless, it was commonly attributed to indigestion, and there was another, more significant, relationship between them: heartburn and other symptoms of cardialgia could be caused, like the Mare, by intrusive spirits, and usually for the same motives of envy and vindictiveness.

Old English aelf-sogoda, m., referred to a disease inflicted mainly by dun-elfen (Lat. castalides), who were thought to possess the victim: prayers appointed for the cure of the disease closely resemble formulas used in cases of demonic possession (Bosworth 1964, 15a). It has been interpreted as hiccups or heartburn inflicted by elves (Bonser 1926, 358). The Evil Eye caused people to choke on their food, gave them hiccups, or put them off eating (Dundes 1992, 258). In 1602, when Elizabeth Jackson looked longingly at the bread Mary Glover was eating, the bread suddenly dropped out of her mouth and she fell off her stool (Thomas 1971, 558). Witches could inflict indigestion deliberately. Alice Skilling in Cambridgeshire, in 1608, wished it on the minister and churchwardens of Mepal, saying she hoped that “the food and drink they ate may go up and down their bellies as men go to harrow” (Thomas 1971, 508). “Heart-ache” or “hartcake” applied to indigestion and complaints with similar symptoms that could have either natural or unnatural causes (Black 1903, 102; Thomas 1971, 184). Night witches in north-east England provoked such afflictions. Elisabeth Simpson was accused in 1660 of assailing Frances Mason who was sick and bedridden, “where she lay miserably tormented,, crying out that the said Elisabeth did pinch her heart and pull her in pieces (Balfour 1904, 22). In 1663, Jane Milburne testified that Dorothy Stranger tormented her “soe intollerably that she could not rest all the night and was like to teare her very heart in peeces and this morneing left her” (Balfour 1904, 26). Counter-witchcraft returned heartburn to the assailant. In 1661, Robert Phillip, a Newcastle labourer, was “sore pained at his heart and lying awake one night … the doores being shutt.” Mary Johnson appeared and told him to wipe from his brow the ointment he had used to alleviate his headache because she was “burnt to the heart” by it (Balfour 1904, 22-3).

The relationship between spirit assault and indigestion is even clearer in Scandinavian traditions relating to the hug (ON hugr), which denoted thought, desire, will, or emotion. It was an aspect of the self that was capable of causing effects on other bodies (Kvideland and Sehmsdorf 1991, 41-4). In some respects, the hug overlaps with the Mare. In others, it corresponds with maleficium and with widespread traditions about physiological disruptions attributed to other people’s thoughts, desires, or envy. Hug is semantically related to Anglo-Saxon hyge, a concept of active mind located near the heart, associated with the emotions. As Richard North remarks:

In the North-Sea Germanic languages of the early Middle Ages,

there was an oddly widespread use of hyge-words as instruments

rather than features of personality […] hyge emerges as an

isolated adjunct of the self (North 1991, 85).

In northern English dialect, the word hig denoted “a fit of passion, a huff;” higged meant “angered, offended,” higly “passionate”; to take the hig was “to take offence.” A hig was also “a temporary hurricane” (Wright 1898-1905, 3:156-7; this is Old Norse higr, which in East Anglia has the evocative name of “Roger’s Blast” (pers. comm. Jennifer Chandler)).

The hug was responsible for the sudden noises in the ears, tingles, and itches attributed to other people’s thoughts throughout Europe (Pliny 1855-7, XXVIII: 5; Ryan 1999, 159). The term hug meant “itch” in Somerset, and yuck meant the same in Lincolnshire (Grose 1787; Wright 1898-1905, 3:268). As Bente Alver records, Norwegians would clap a hand on the itching part and say: “I have your hug now.” A very strong hug could damage the objects of its owner’s desire, causing loved ones to pine away, cattle to sicken, or buckets of milk to leak. Anyone could do this, but nice people would try to prevent themselves from thinking harmful thoughts, for fear their hug might wander and damage whatever they were thinking about. The strongest form was a rehug, a “riding hug,” which assailed people in the night as a nightmare. The hug could act invisibly, or appear visibly, whether in that person’s likeness, as an animal, a light, or a thick mist (Alver 1989, 112-14). (A thick mist was a “hag” in northern England: Wright 1898-1905, 3:12).

Many effects of the hug relate to eating, matching effects of the Evil Eye. An envious or grudging person’s hugsing put others off eating or made food stick in their throats. When someone choked while eating, another might say: “Well, I don’t begrudge you your food.” The expression hugbit, “hug-bite,” referred to belching, heartburn, and other symptoms of cardialgia, which were attributed to a “biting spirit” belonging to someone else, akin to the “riding hug” (Alver 1989, 112-13). Charms to counteract the “three biters”–the envious eye, the cursing tongue, and ill will from the heart–were in use in early modern England (Thomas 1971, 186-7). Spells to send them were mentioned in medieval Scandinavian sources (Boyer 1986, 37). The spirits of the needy, greedy, and vindictive could travel and bite into other people, obstruct swallowing, impede digestion, and steal the profit of food. Since both nightmares and heartburn could be attributed to spirit assault, whether by the hug, the Evil Eye, or maleficium, it is not surprising that rational explanations of the cause of the Mare focused on indigestion rather than the more relevant supine position in sleep.

The Mare and indigestion do not fall neatly into separate categories. Empirical experience of either is entangled with metaphor, and with both natural and supernatural causal theories, in stories of assaults by night-riding witches. Even with natural causes, indigestion was an affliction of the hag in the north, where “hag” also meant “belly” (Wright 1898-1905, 3:12, sub Hag).

Digestion

Cheese gives you nightmares. Currently, it is true only literally and naturally: it “lays on your chest,” as one man said, meaning indigestion, but his metaphor was apt. Formerly, it was true both literally and figuratively, because cheese was proverbially indigestible and a metaphor of a female power that oppressed as a nightmare. The dry old hag and the dry old piece of cheese were symmetrical, one atop the sleeper’s belly and the other inside it, both sex-related, inflicting bad dreams, stifling, and stealing the profit of rest. The difficulty of detaching the night witch from cheese-induced dreams in the early modern period is illustrated by Robert Hooke’s diary entry for 23 March 1674: “Slept ill after cheese; Dremt of viragoes and other strange phenomena” (Hooke 1935, 92). He would have attributed this to natural causes but his dream of powerful female figures recalls the cheese-wielding witches of The City of God (which he had in his library: Rostenburg 1989, 168).

Several points of interest emerge from this exploration.

* Indigestion is inseparable from the Mare traditions, although it is not the most appropriate natural cause.

* The association of cheese with nightmares has persisted in Britain since at least the seventeenth century because experience confirms it and people can explain it rationally. But it is no longer understood as Apuleius presented it.

* The Circean schema shaped a wide range of very different narratives, both literary and oral, over two millennia.

* Some level of meaning also remained stable, notably features of the Mare, conveyed by imagery and metaphors that also endured for long periods.

* The cheese–woman metaphor continues even now; Apuleius used it to convey a sexuality that recurs in the Circean narratives but is rendered by other imagery in later versions.

* Cheese’s metaphoric meaning, however, and the Mare’s traits in these stories are liable to escape attention unless people already know them, just as the effects of cheese on sleep tend to be noticed more where the commonplace is known.

* Shakespeare knew the cheese-woman metaphor, and consequently spotted it in Apuleius; St Augustine apparently did not.

* St Augustine nevertheless illustrates how a storyteller unaware of a metaphoric meaning can easily transmit it in a story that others, knowing the metaphor, would understand differently.

As David Hufford showed, people who do not know the Old Hag/Mare traditions often find it difficult to articulate the experience: the traditions offered a means of doing so (Hufford 1982, 48, 52-3). Telling the story of the Mare was a way of defeating her stifling silence. Different authors transformed and exploited the figure of the transforming, exploitative night witch for different ends: some to express the experience of oppression by witches, domineering wives, nightmares, and even indigestion that might have either natural or unnatural causes; others, like Apuleius and Shakespeare, used it to talk about communication itself.

Notes

[1] For invaluable comments and references, I am indebted to Dr Willem de Blecourt, Dr Davide Brancaleone, Prof. Charles Burnett, Mrs Jennifer Chandler, Prof. Paul Guichonnet, Mr Gerard Hennessey, Mme Alice Joisten, Prof. Patricia Lysaght, Prof. Eva Pocs, Dr Jean-Bruno Renard, Dr Jonathan Roper, Prof. W.F. Ryan, Ms Ursula Sdunnus, Dr Jacqueline Simpson, Ms Magda Stirling, Mr Richard Walsh, and Dr Fionnuala Carson Williams.

[2] Kittredge (1928, 184, 502, notes 93-7) refers to many other versions. Cheese does not persist in modern hag-riding legends–although a New Hampshire legend told of a piece of cheese thrown in the fire to cure a bewitchment by burning the witch elsewhere (Baughman 1966, G 275.13).

[3] My translation. In the Middle Ages, the Devil’s mousetraps were women (Whiting and Whiting 1968, 417, 661); later, “mouse” was slang for a penis (Farmer 1891, sub Mouse).

[4] Surely a puerperal variant of the old jest about St Peter clearing the Welsh out of Heaven by standing outside the gate calling “Cause Babe! [caws pobi] That is as moch to say ‘Rosty’d cheese'” (Zall 1977, 132).

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Biographical Note

Caroline Oates is Information Officer/Librarian of The Folklore Society, as well as Visiting Tutor in the Department of Historical and Cultural Studies, Goldsmiths College, University of London, and at The Warburg Institute, where she received a PhD in 1993 for a thesis on early modern trials of werewolves.

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