Medieval Europe Couldn’t Quit This Story About a Woman Eating Her Lover’s Heart

Some stories are so good that they’re told over and over again, morphing in their details but staying the same in their essence. In Europe’s High Middle Ages, one of the most persistent stories was a gruesome tale of love and cannibalism, the Legend of the Eaten Heart. For years, starting in the 1800s, scholars tried to sort through the story’s many versions to puzzle out where it had originated, but there was a difficulty—one Indian version of the exact same story that had to be somehow factored in.

The scholars who collected versions of this story counted them differently, but there are somewhere between about 14 and 24 distinct tellings, starting around 1150 A.D., as an aside in the story of Tristan and Iseult. In the most basic version of this story, a married woman takes a lover, and her husband finds out. When the lover dies or is killed, the husband takes possession of his heart, cooks it, and feeds it to his wife, who dies shortly after.

There are two main variations, dealing with how the lover dies. In one version, the husband tracks down the lover and kills him. In the second, the lover dies some other way, usually when he goes off to the Crusades. He wants his heart removed and sent back to his lady love (this was a popular gesture at the time), but while the heart is en route, the husband intercepts it and takes possession.

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