‘“To water a mandrake”: Corrupted conversions of the body of Christ in the necrobotany of John Webster’s The White Devil’ By Aiden Tait

“To water a mandrake”: Corrupted conversions of the body of Christ in the necrobotany of John Webster’s The White Devil

Essay by Aiden Tait

Art by Grace Guy

Blasphemous recontextualisations of religious subject matter and a preoccupation with cursed botanicals are two prolific characteristics of John Webster’s The White Devil (1612), threading his work with the visceral tangibility of mortality, the call of the churchyard, and an implicit struggle with early modern England’s tumultuous notions of faith. While previous scholarship has touched upon the manner in which religious rituals and objects are presented and converted in The White Devil, there has been little to no exploration of how Webster’s necrobotanical references participate in these processes of conversion, where necrobotany refers to flora related to or thought to be intimately associated with the dead. More specifically, Webster’s necrobotanical references to the mandrake and to the yew facilitate several corrupted conversions of the body of Christ in very suggestive ways. From the profane transformation of the body of the hanged man at the gallows into the body of the crucified Christ to the tainting of the Eucharist in the consumption of the body and blood of the dead, this paper intends to explore how examining the use of necrobotanicals through this lens of corrupted conversion offers a new perspective into Webster’s complex relationship with religious rituals in The White Devil.

The paper will first begin with the image of the corrupted body of the crucified and later resurrected Christ, and how this conversion is enacted by one of the necrobotanicals in the play: the mandrake. I will conduct a brief but relevant contextualisation of the folkloric history of the mandrake in England and analyse how this history is translated and recontextualised in The White Devil. I will discuss how the mandrake’s repeated association with the gallows and with apocalyptic references to the Last Judgment converts the hanged man into the crucified body of Christ and recalls His resurrection. From this point, I will turn to Webster’s allusions to and corruption of the Eucharist through the mandrake and the yew, both of which are believed to feed on the body and blood of the dead and both of which, from a folkloric and a textual perspective, sustain the memory of the dead similarly to the way the Eucharist sustains the memory of Christ’s sacrifice. As with the mandrake, I will also include a folkloric contextualisation of the English history of the yew. In linking these necrobotanicals to a corrupted conversion of the sanctity of the Eucharist, and in addition to Webster’s references to mummia, or corpse medicine, a new and relatively undiscussed topic reveals itself: understanding the Eucharist as theological medical cannibalism.

1. Mandragora officinarum, crucifixion, and resurrection

Mandragora officinarum, or the mandrake, is a perennial herbaceous plant whose characteristically forked root system often resembles a human figure, engendering the rich history of superstitious and folkloric beliefs surrounding it. The mandrake was prized for its analgesic, soporific, and hallucinogenic qualities by Graeco-Roman physicians such as Dioscorides in his De Materia Medica (c. 50–70 CE) and, more contemporaneous to Webster, with early modern herbalists like John Gerard in his The Herball or Generall Historie of Plantes (1597). It was also feared for its madness- or death-inducing screams once uprooted (Carter 145; qtd in van den Berg and Dircksen 73) by those still attached to its mythology. Consequently, the mandrake occupies a fascinating position in that liminal space between esotericism and secularism. While efforts were made in early modern England towards the standardisation and secularisation of Classical pharmacological and botanical knowledge, prompted by “the demand that the tradition of plant lore be re-examined, and that works of Pliny and Dioscorides be separated from the accumulated encrustation of centuries of myth and folklore” (Elliot 24), the works of William Shakespeare, Niccolò Machiavelli, and Webster maintained and even contributed to the mandrake’s folkloric and monstrous heritage. In the case of The White Devil, Webster popularises the belief that mandrakes are grown specifically from the blood-contaminated ground of the gallows (3.3.107). Much of the folklore surrounding the mandrake prior to The White Devil argues that the plant grows from the urine or semen of the hanged man (Carter 146) but, as is characteristic of his blood-soaked works, Webster makes a clear connection between the blooming of the mandrake and the shedding of the hanged man’s blood instead. 

Webster first introduces the mandrake and its association with the gallows in Act 3 Scene 1, where, in criticising Marcello’s blind loyalty to the Duke of Florence without concern for his (Marcello) own socioeconomic advancement, Flamineo makes the telling statement: “But as we seldom find the mistletoe / Sacred to physic on the builder oak / Without a mandrake by it, so in our quest of gain” (47-49). In these three lines Webster engages in several levels of inter-folkloric references with a considerable degree of poetic license regarding the mandrake, which does not, in fact, grow beneath oak trees but in ruderal or disturbed habitats (Carter 147). What is revealed in this addition, however, is a conflation of the heavenly and the profane that will come to construct many of the necrobotanicals in the play. The mistletoe that grows on the oak tree was often interpreted as the presence of the hand of God and, as such, was treated as a sacred means of curing illness and warding off evil in Druidic and Anglo-Saxon circles (Hutton 14). The oak, however, is also known as “the gallows tree” for its frequent use in Britain as a dule tree, or trees utilised for public hangings and for the gibbetting of the corpses of criminals or interlopers—much in the way Christ is hung upon the cross as a transgressive interloper. The mandrake in this instance, then, is understood as blooming from the contaminated earth beneath the hanged bodies. Consequently, Flamineo muddies the sacred by tethering it to the profane, to iterate that in seeking that which ensures protection—the mistletoe, Marcello’s loyalty to the Duke—all attempts are negated in some manner by an unavoidable, parasitic threat—the mandrake that feeds on the blood of the hanged man from the oak, the Duke’s drain on Marcello’s socioeconomic opportunities. In fact, prior to this interaction Flamineo propagates this image of blood-drinking or the consumption of bodily fluids in his statement that Marcello’s dedication to the duke “feedest his [the Duke’s] victories, / As witches do their serviceable spirits” (3.1.36-37). From this association, Webster then makes the connection between witches’ familiars feeding from their blood to the mandrake feeding from the blood of the hanged man, perhaps recalling the esoteric belief in the Middle Ages that mandrakes, like familiars, “were thought to be powerful allies who could perform true miracles for their masters” (Van den Berg and Dircksen 74). 

Establishing the association of the mandrake with the gallows and specifically with the mandrake consuming blood, Webster’s next references to the mandrake are explicitly associated with Vittoria and the spilling of her blood. In Act 3 Scene 3, after Vittoria’s arraignment, Lodovico scornfully asks Flamineo: “Wilt sell me forty ounces of her blood, / To water a mandrake?” (107), with the implication that Vittoria will be executed for her complicity in the deaths of Camillo and Isabella and that her blood will sustain a mandrake beneath her corpse at the gallows. Much in the way the blood of Christ upon crucifixion washed away the sins of humankind—“In him we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of our trespasses” (The New Oxford Annotated Bible Ephesians 1:7)—so the spilling of Vittoria’s blood in her arraignment, her persecution and her “execution” by imprisonment in the house of convertites, washes her sins from the state’s hands. Eventually, however, it is only by Monticelso paying Lodovico to kill Vittoria to avenge the death of Camillo that any true absolution from her “sins” is (dubiously) attained, articulated by Vittoria herself: “O my greatest sin lay in my blood. / Now my blood pays for’t” (5.6.236-37). In the White Devil, legal and personal absolution through bloodshed suggests a corrupted conversion from the sanctity with which the purification through bloodshed is attributed in the book of Hebrews, perverting the hallowed understanding that “under the law almost everything is purified with blood, and without the shedding of blood there is no forgiveness of sins” (10:22).

The spilling of the blood of the hanged man at the gallows, here Vittoria, at once absolves the state of her sins while feeding and sustaining the profane mandrake, who is “resurrected” when pulled from the earth like a corrupted body of Christ emerging from His tomb. We imagine the anthropomorphised body of the mandrake pulled from its earthly prison, this human-like but not quite human creature that transcends natural and divine law by its ability to be seeded and resurrected by the blood of the hanged man. However, where the resurrection of Jesus engenders faith and salvation of humankind, the resurrection of the mandrake only propagates death and madness (a fact of which is later articulated by Ferdinand in The Duchess of Malfi, in which he states “I have this night digged up a mandrake / […] / And I am grown mad with’t” [2.5.6]). Indeed, the image of the mandrake as this corrupted resurrected body of Christ is facilitated by an explicit association with the resurrected dead at Judgement made by Vittoria, who states: “I prithee yet remember / Millions are now in graves, which at last day / Like mandrakes shall rise shrieking” (5.6.64). At Judgement, John writes: “And I saw the dead, great and small, standing before the throne… And the sea gave up the dead that were in it, Death and Hades gave up the dead that were in them, and all were judged according to what they had done” (Revelation 21:12-13). The mandrakes, similarly, are raised from their dormant, “death-like” state beneath the ground, delivering the ultimate judgement unto those who hear their screams.

2: Mandragora officinarum, Taxus baccata, and the Eucharist

It is through the folkloric understanding of the consumption of the dead by the mandrake, through the blood or bodily fluids of the hanged man feeding the mandrake’s propagation, and by the yew, whose roots were believed to draw their nutrients from corpses, that suggests a corrupted conversion from the consumption of the body and blood of Christ in the Eucharist. Like the mandrake, Taxus baccata, the notoriously poisonous coniferous yew tree, has a rich necrobotanical heritage as the “tree of the dead” (Laqueur 133). Sacred to the British churchyard, the yew is a protector of the dead in that it shades grave mounds—Thomas W. Laqueur notes that “Taxus baccata almost invariably casts its shadow where the dead are, on the south and west sides of the church. Like the bodies it watches over, it is rarely found on the north side” (135) — and in that, should the bodies of the dead be rubbed with an infusion of yew leaves, the spiritual and medicinal properties of the yew were thought to “preserve them [the dead] and to guarantee their immortality” (Lee 570), a belief which reflected principles of rebirth and regeneration in Druidic death rituals (Laqueur 135). By that same token, the roots and branches of the tree were, according to Robert Turner in his Botanologia (1664), believed to “‘draw and imbibe’ the ‘gross and oleaginous Vapours exhaled from the graves by the setting Sun’” (qtd in Laqueur 135), to draw sustenance from the putrefying remains of the very corpses they were thought to protect. Turner goes on to state that it was believed that these “Vapours” gathered beneath the branches of the yew before being imbibed, and that they were understood to be the dead bodies resurrected from the earth (Lee 571). 

In Act 4, Scene 3, Monticelso questions Lodovico’s revenge plot against Brachiano and Vittoria: “Like the black, and melancholic yew-tree, / Dost think to root thyself in dead men’s graves, / And yet to prosper?” (4.3.120-22). Monticelso here refers to the perception of the gross violation of the sanctity of the dead that the yew incurs by profiteering from the decaying remains of corpses, much in the way that Lodovico is implied here to problematically profiteer from the deaths of Vittoria and Brachiano, in that their deaths would assuage his own anger, fuelled by misplaced lust surrounding the murder of Isabella. By recalling the folkloric assumption that the yew consumes the dead, however, Webster also recalls a much more telling implication. By imbibing the dead, by incorporating their gaseous Vapours and their putrefying remains into the yew’s branches and root system, the spirits of the dead are imbibed, remembered, and immortalised, as the body and blood of Christ is imbibed by His followers in the Eucharist to remember His sacrifice and to reinstate their faith in Him. As stated in the first letter of Paul to the Corinthians: 

For I received from the Lord what I also handed on to you, that the Lord Jesus on the night when he was betrayed took a loaf of bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it and said, ‘This is my body that is for you. Do this in remembrance of me.’ In the same way he took the cup also, after supper, saying, ‘This cup is the new covenant in my blood. Do this, as often as you drink it, in remembrance of me.’ For as often as you eat this bread and drink the cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes. 

(1 Corinthians 11:23-26)

Similarly, the consumption of the blood of the hanged man as the corrupted body of the crucified Christ by the mandrake is the imbibing and remembrance of the death of the body and the resurrection of the spirit of the hanged man, which, when understood as participating in this perverse form of the Eucharist, elevates the hanged man to the spiritual status of Christ.

What is brought into awareness by this corrupted conversion of the Eucharist through the yew and the mandrake is the intriguing implication that the Eucharist may be theoretically understood as a form of theological medical cannibalism. Webster’s work is not unfamiliar with the practice of mummy or corpse medicine (tinctures made from dead human flesh and bones)—a medical practice popularised from late antiquity to early modern England despite the assumption that it is relegated to “medieval” practices (Sugg, “Medical Cannibalism” 825)—with two explicit references to mummy in The White Devil and one by Bosola in The Duchess of Malfi. Gasparo scathingly remarks to Lodovico, “Your followers / Have swallowed you like mummia, and being sick / With such unnatural and horrid physic / Vomit you up i’th’kennel” (Webster, The White Devil 1.1.15-18); Isabella feigns rage at Vittoria by declaring that she would “dig the strumpet’s eyes out, let her lie / Some twenty months a-dying, to cut off / Her nose and lips, pull out her rotten teeth, / Preserve her flesh like mummia” (2.1.245-248); Bosola sounds the death-knell of the Duchess by comparing her to “a box of worm-seed, at best but a / salvatory of green mummy. What’s this flesh? A little / cruded milk, fantastical puff-paste” (The Duchess of Malfi 4.2.137-39). There is even a reference to the consumption of the hot blood of felons as a solution to epilepsy in the servant Zanche’s provocation “I have blood / As red as either of theirs; wilt drink some? / ‘Tis good for the falling sickness” (The White Devil 5.6.224), where “falling sickness” is an early modern term for epilepsy. 

Richard Sugg articulates that the human body in early modern theology and medicine “represented the pinnacle of natural creation, God’s finest piece of artistry” (Mummies, Cannibals, and Vampires 264), a vessel in which the body and soul was mediated by the “spirits” of the body and which medical cannibalism prioritised as a great life-giving force with many medicinal and pharmacological uses. These spirits, Sugg explains, “seem to have been a mixture of air and blood: that is, not just any blood, but blood in its most rarefied, vaporous state” (265). This statement recalls Turner’s “‘gross and oleaginous Vapours’” of the dead that the yew imbibes and the fact that Webster emphasises the consumption of the hanged man’s blood by the mandrake. The mandrake reflects the practitioners and users of medical cannibalism, who “were trying to swallow not just blood, but those vital spirits nestled within the blood. They were trying, at times, to gulp down the very force of life itself” (268). By understanding these necrobotanicals as metaphorically participating in these crypto-pharmacological practices and as participating in a corrupted form of the Eucharist, Webster invites us to explore the understanding of the Eucharist as a practice of theological corpse medicine. Sugg speaks to this issue, or what he cheekily coins “the weekly cannibalism of the Eucharist” (“Medical Cannibalism” 828), by recalling Paracelsian Edward Taylor’s discussion of what the communicants ate and drank during the Protestant ceremony of the Eucharist in 1691: “When the disciples ate and drank Christ’s flesh and blood, he [Turner] states, they consumed ‘not the palpable fleshly humanity, but the spiritual humanity,’ namely, ‘the virtue and power of his body and blood, his own mumia in which was the divine and human power’” (829). He expands on this by making the telling statement that “until perhaps as late as the mid-eighteenth century, Christians were effectively seeking to swallow the immortal soul” (Mummies, Cannibals, and Vampires 272). Consequently, the necrobotanicals in The White Devil as they are understood as consuming the body and blood of Christ not only engage in a corrupt conversion from the Eucharist in a play rife with the perversion of religious rituals and subject matter, but they also implicate and sharply bring to light greater theological questions. The necrobotanicals prompt us to consider the extent to which the normalisation and ritualisation of theological medical cannibalism in the Eucharist skirts the fine edge between dubious but relatively widely-accepted crypto-pharmacological and medical practices and a gross perversion of the sanctity of the body and blood of Christ.

Sacrilegious transformations of the body of the hanged man at the gallows into the body of the crucified and resurrected Christ, the perversion of the Eucharist in the consumption of the body and blood of the dead, and the consequent references to the murky waters of the Eucharist and medical cannibalism are three corrupted conversions of the body of Christ that occur in The White Devil, proliferated through Webster’s engagement with and recontextualisation of the folkloric heritage of two necrobotanicals: the mandrake and the yew. This paper has explored the various ways in which Webster’s treatment of these necrobotanicals participates in a larger tradition of the conflation of the heavenly with the profane that threads through The White Devil, prompting questions into the way religion is discussed, complicated, or implicated in Webster’s notoriously bloody, subtly blasphemous work. While this paper has touched on the necrobotany of The Duchess of Malfi, having necessarily largely focused on The White Devil for the sake of brevity, there is room for further probing—particularly as necrobotany relates to the many references to overripe fruit, decaying flora, and rotting, bloated corpses within a distinctly religious setting. What manner of grotesque and damnable corrupted conversions could we unearth in The Duchess of Malfi through this new framework of enquiry?

Works cited

Carter, Anthony John. “Myths and mandrakes.” Journal of the Royal Society of Medicine, vol 96, March 2003, pp. 144-47.

Elliott, Brent. “The world of the Renaissance herbal.” Renaissance Studies, vol. 25, no. 1, February 2011, pp. 24-41. JSTOR, https://www.jstor.org/stable/24420235. Accessed 15 Apr. 2019.

Hutton, Ronald. Blood and Mistletoe: The History of Druids in Britain. Yale University Press, 2009. 

Laqueur, Thomas W. The Work of the Dead: A Cultural History of Mortal Remains. Princeton University Press, 2015.

Lee, M R. “The yew tree (taxus baccata) in mythology and medicine.” The Journal of the Royal College of Physicians in Edinburgh, vol. 28, no. 4, October 1998, pp. 569-75, https://www.rcpe.ac.uk/college/journal/yew-tree-taxus-baccata-mythology-and-medicine. Accessed 15 Apr. 2019.

Sugg, Richard. “Medical Cannibalism in Early Modern Literature and Culture.” Literature Compass, vol 10, no. 11, 2013, pp. 825-35, doi:10.1111/lic3.12109. Accessed 15 Apr. 2019.

—. Mummies, Cannibals, and Vampires: The History of Corpse Medicine from the Renaissance to the Victorians. 2nd ed., Rouledge, 2016.

The Bible. The New Oxford Annotated Bible, 4th ed., Oxford UP, 2010.

Van den Berg, M, and M Dircksen. “Mandrake from Antiquity to Harry Potter.” Akroterion, vol. 53, 2008, pp. 67-79, doi:10.7445/53-0-41. Accessed 15 Apr. 2019. 

Webster, John. “The Duchess of Malfi.” The Renaissance and the Early Seventeenth Century, edited by Joseph Black et al., 3rd ed., Broadview Press, 2016.

—. The White Devil. Edited by Christina Luckyj, New Mermaids, 2008.