How to win love and influence people, 15th century style

I have had the most wonderful morning reading 16th century love poetry and it is because of witches and it is because once upon a long time ago a witch told me that I was cursed. I did not mind this overly because then, as now, my heart skips a little beat when I get to the part of Tennyson’s poem where the Lady of Shalott finally decides to live cursed and not die spinning.

She left the web, she left the loom

She made three paces thro’ the room

She saw the water-flower bloom,

                She look’d down to Camelot

Out flew the web and floated wide;

The mirror crack’d from side to side;

“The curse is come upon me,” cried

                The Lady of Shalott

                                                ~From The Lady of Shalott by Alfred Lord Tennyson

The Lady of Shalott, based on The Lady of Shal...

The Lady of Shalott, based on The Lady of Shalott by Alfred Lord Tennyson. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Yes. It still makes my heart skip a beat, but I digress. Curses…love potions.

When I was just shy of 18, I was in my last year of school. I had chosen to leave my all girls’ Anglican school to go to a very grown-up sort of school in the middle of Braamfontein. It really was wonderfully grown-up. We didn’t have to wear uniforms. It was in a 5-storey office block – no more quaint lych gates for me. This was inner city schooling. It had a cafeteria on the top floor. We could smoke in the cafeteria and in the corridors! We caught municipal buses to school. We could occasionally look out the windows and see end-of-Apartheid’ protestors knocking over concrete dustbins and setting fire to things in the street. This was not a peaceful suburban school. It was terribly exciting. I died my hair Elvis black which, frankly, looked ridiculous and I got myself a nose ring. My father despaired. My grandfather laughed for days, clicked his tongue and said “wangya”. My fairy godmother begged me to stop wearing black clothes. I was wild with a capital W until you looked closer and noticed that I was still sitting quietly in the class furiously taking notes and not ever getting into any trouble. No matter. I felt wild with a capital W.

At my wild school I met all sorts of wonderfully different friends; people I probably would not have had the chance to meet in insular private school South Africa. One of these lovely interesting people was a petite girl with pixie-cut blonde hair. She had fine elfin features to match her hair and she wore flowing dresses. One day in our smoky cafeteria, we got to chatting about life and how truly awful and difficult it is for teenagers. We were deep; it was meaningful. After hearing my stories of untimely deaths and cruelly heavy burdens, she suggested to me that my family was cursed, and that we had been so for many generations. She had a way to remove the curse for us because, she was a witch, a white witch, and she wanted to see me happy and…well…uncursed.


And so it was I found myself one Friday morning taking a little porcelain pillbox filled with nail clippings, a few strands of hair and a drop or two of blood in it to my elfin school friend with which she would do magical things. It was such a delicately carved pillbox. I’m sorry that I don’t own it anymore.

I hadn’t thought about this pillbox or the friend for years until I started reading the book about the Witch Hunts in Europe, the topic of my previous blog post which was a very long time ago. Sorry! You see, a lot of what these old world witches were doing was sorting out people’s love lives. Some of the stories are simply flippant, stories of unrequited love seeking a happy ending. Some are more heartbreaking, like the wife who consulted the local ‘wise woman’ to make up a potion for her that would stop her husband beating her for just enough time for her bruises to heal. She was told to prepare a meal of an egg and a herb, costa cavallina, for her husband which would buy her three days of infatuation.  It didn’t work and instead made him furious. What I thought as I read about all of the love potions and posies and rituals, however, was “who on earth would believe this nonsense?”. And then I remembered a time when I believed in a little bit of magic making a lot of sadness less. I remembered my little pillbox. It really was so pretty.

So, for those who still do believe in a little magic smoothing the way to true love, (I know you’re out there because I get a pamphlet handed to me at intersection in the traffic from a doctor of dubious origin advertising his services in the “returning of lost lover”. He is a special doctor with offices in Sandton, no less, who will also give you bigger or smaller “bums and boobs”) I present the potions, rituals and concoctions that could have got you killed for making and prescribing a long time ago and that maybe, just maybe, might aid the course of true love’s running smooth. The ingredients aren’t often recorded so let this not serve as a recipe book!


In love with a married man? Want him to leave his wife for you?

Wash your hands and feet facing backwards, with your knees bent. When done, take the water and pour in into a road the man and his wife will walk on.

Have you got a headache? Are you tired of your lover’s advances?

Take a holy candle and light it. Bend it at the junction of three roads. Keep the bent candle in a safe place and voila!

Want to seduce a man who doesn’t know you exist?

Capture 2 swallows. Yes, the birds. Burn them and grind what is not ash to powder. Slip it into his drink for instant ba-da-bing.

Want to rekindle some passion in a relationship turned dull?

Prepare a magic ointment from pagan bones, herbs, locks of hair, feathers, mice, and the hooves of female mules. Burn altogether until powder. Smear on body.

This ointment can also be used to “spread hatred and cure invalides”. Use with caution.

Burning at the stake. An illustration from an ...

Burning at the stake. An illustration from an mid 19th century book. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

There are other marital aids; some involve wax effigies, some thread spun by virgins. All of these mentioned above were prepared by and suggested by a woman called Metteucia di Francesco. Nigel Cawthorne writes about her in his book, Witch Hunt: A History of Persecution. It makes me inordinately sad that she was executed in 1427. She was paraded through the town on a donkey in a white paper hat, her hands tied behind her back. She was led to the town square where she was burned alive. For selling people hope. Because that’s what she was doing really. Perhaps she was a charlatan. Perhaps she was making money out of people’s despair. I’d like to think that she wasn’t. I’d like to think that she was kind, like my pixie friend, that she gave people hope that life wouldn’t always be sad; life wouldn’t always be lonely.

I don’t believe in this sort of magic anymore. I’ve little need for that kind of hope because life is mostly an absolute delight. What I do believe in though is the power of words to move. So, if you want my advice on winning love, read a little poetry! And I ask you with tears in my eyes if you think you could possibly go wrong with Marlowe’s The Passionate Shepherd to His Love?

COME live with me and be my Love,
And we will all the pleasures prove
That hills and valleys, dale and field,
And all the craggy mountains yield.
There will we sit upon the rocks         
And see the shepherds feed their flocks,
By shallow rivers, to whose falls
Melodious birds sing madrigals.
There will I make thee beds of roses
And a thousand fragrant posies,   
A cap of flowers, and a kirtle
Embroider’d all with leaves of myrtle.
A gown made of the finest wool
Which from our pretty lambs we pull,
Fair linèd slippers for the cold,
With buckles of the purest gold.
A belt of straw and ivy buds
With coral clasps and amber studs:
And if these pleasures may thee move,
Come live with me and be my Love.
Thy silver dishes for thy meat
As precious as the gods do eat,
Shall on an ivory table be
Prepared each day for thee and me.
The shepherd swains shall dance and sing
For thy delight each May-morning:
If these delights thy mind may move,
Then live with me and be my Love.

20 thoughts on “How to win love and influence people, 15th century style

  1. My youngest, in a brief flirtation with Wicca, discovered that the application of patchouli oil to the ‘third eye’ whilst sitting cross legged outside under a full moon would greatly assist her passage to white witch enlightenment. Unfortunately said oil dripped into her first (or second eye, I guess it depends which way you are looking at her) and the accompanying temporary blindness, shrieking and hopping about smacked more of satanic possession.

    • I also love it. I have a print of it in my daughter’s room. She recently covered it up with about 500 garish Christmas stickers. It was too quiet in her room for too long. I should have known there were shenanigans afoot.

    • Thank you. It is such a lovely painting. Not being anywhere near a gallery where it has been shown, I didn’t realise it was so small in real life until a friend sent me a photograph of it. I was quite disappointed actually because it had assumed such huge proportions in my mind.

  2. Apparently the way to a lovers heart is paved with dead swallows…WAY too hard for this little black duck! Methinks I will stick to handing over the remote control, serving up the ubiquitous and most adored baked bean on regular occasions in homage to my beloveds strange pecadillos. I love the very first line of that poem “Come live with me and be my love…” THAT is where the possibilities lay, forget the golden buckles and the meals on silver platters and the wistful promises to entice…so much bowerbird posturing and fancy talk…that first line is the beginning…the start. Where all of the hormones, lust, desire to “first do no harm” all tangle into a gorgeous repast…it’s all downhill after that first line BUT what a first line! “Jaded…moi?”

    • Nice to see you, Narf. It’s been a while. I hope all is well down south.

      All I would need to keep 23 is bacon and watermelon. I’ve not yet had to use either on the offensive but I am not above using such tactics to keep him from engaging with the many and apparently lovely single Russian ladies in our neighbourhood who keep tempting him on his Facebook page!

      • At least his competition is Russian, mine is “local sluts” a whole lot less exotic but they are very persistent (I get a mail a day 😉 )

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