A Talian tale

The Witch of Montemurato

In City of Masks chapter thirteen, Rodolfo Rossi, the Stravagante of Bellezza, refers to a story told in Montemurato of a witch who put a curse on the walled city some hundred years before (i.e. around 1450). This is that story.

A long time ago the city of Montemurato was plagued by the tricks of a witch named Selvaggia. She lived at first in a poor hut outside the walls, having settled there after a life of drifting. She was not very good at her calling but she was very lazy and completely ruthless, which served just as well.

She gave out that she was adept at putting the ?evil eye? on beasts and people and then she let threats and rumour do the rest.

?If you don?t give me a fresh egg every day, none of your chickens will lay,? she would say to one farmer. ?A pail of milk or the whole herd of cows will dry up,? to another. To a hunter, ?You?ll catch nothing if you don?t give me something for the pot twice a week.?

Well, whether it was because the farmers and the hunter became nervous, or because a few of Selvaggia?s spells did work, in their haphazard way, word got around that it was unwise to cross the witch of Montemurato and she began to grow rich.

A house of stone was built for her (?None of the other houses you build will stay up if you don?t,? she had threatened the stonemasons.) She had a well and a pig and chickens of her own and, thanks to her awful warnings to weavers and spinners, Selvaggia had linen on her bed, warm clothes in her chest and hangings at her windows. Her larder was well stocked with cheeses and apples and olives and smoked meats. Every morning a fresh loaf was left on her door stone. Selvaggia was actually taking a tithe from every working man and woman in the region, without doing a stroke of work.

But Selvaggia was not the only witch in the city. There was another, called Maga Margherita, who had little to boast of, save her skills and the provisions she earned by exercising them. Maga Margherita lived in a small wooden house of two rooms and made her living by tending citizens? ailments with her decoctions of herbs and roots. There wasn?t a sore throat or a teething child or a birthing mother or an ailing granny in Montemurato that hadn?t been soothed by a visit and a potion or lotion from Maga Margherita.

Even in the Prince?s palace her usefulness was known and appreciated. When the Princess was brought to birth of her first child, she had a hard time of it and the midwife suggested sending for Maga Margherita. The old woman had worked with the young witch before and knew how calming her presence and her infusions were at a childbed. The Prince sent his own bodyservant to fetch the witch and she came straightaway.

Perhaps it was Maga Margherita?s presence that saved the baby princess, but it was too late to do anything for her mother but bathe her forehead and close her eyes when the time came. Which it did soon, just after she had said, ?Call her Florabella and take care of her for me.? She seemed to look as much at Maga Margherita as at the Prince when she lay down her burden and departed this life.

The Prince grieved for his wife and hired a wet-nurse for his daughter. He built a marble monument in the palace grounds for the dead princess and a stone cottage inside the city walls for Maga Margherita. He asked the witch to take a part in the upbringing of little Florabella and she was glad to oblige.