Tuesday, April 19, 2016

On this day in 1621: remembering Elizabeth Sawyer, convicted witch.

Three hundred and ninety five years ago today, Elizabeth Sawyer was led out to her hanging at Tyburn, after having been found guilty of the murder by witchcraft of Agnes Ratcleife.

Candidly described in the sole surviving report of her life and death as 'a very ignorant woman', Sawyer had lost her temper during her trial: 

"she was not able to speake a sensible or ready word for her defense, but sends out in the hearing of the Judge, Jury, and all good people that stood by, many most fearefull imprecations for destruction against her selfe then to happen, as heretofore she had wished and indeavoured to happen on divers of her neighbours: the which the righteous Judge of Heaven, whom she thus invocated, to judge then and discerne her cause, did reveale."

There's a sense that what she said in court (in this fashion) was the reason for her conviction. Certainly Henry Goodcole, the Chaplain of Newgate, who hastily wrote up his account of her conviction and the confession he finally got from her  ("though with great labour it was extorted from her"), shaped up and framed her story as a caution for all against blaspheming. He concludes: 

"Deare Christians, lay this to heart, namely the cause, and first time, that the Divell came unto her, then, even then when she was cursing, swearing, and blaspheming ... Stand on your guard and watch with sobrietie to resist him, the Divell your adversary, who waiteth on you continually, to subvert you that so you, that doe detest her abhominable wordes, and wayes, may never taste of the cup nor wages of shame and destruction, of which she did in this life..."

Her blasphemies seem to have caught everybody's attention. These days, we are fascinated by familiars, but plenty of witches had plenty of familiars in animal form without getting a play written about them. You can see their interest: Goodcole has her say:

"The first time that the Divell came unto me was, when I was cursing, swearing and blaspheming; he then rushed in upon me ... the first words that hee spake unto me were these: 'Oh! have I now found you cursing, swearing, and blaspheming? now you are mine.'"

And he adds a side note, reporting a spectator's extraordinary interest - he can't seem to get over it:

"A Gentleman by name Mr. Maddox standing by, and hearing of her say the word blaspheming, did aske of her, three or foure times, whether the Divell sayd 'Have I found you blaspheming?', and shee confidently sayd', 'Ay'."

Mr Maddox then disappears. He ought properly to appear among the list of names who attest to the truth that what is recorded was her confession. Goodcole promises this a couple of times in his text, but the names never got added. Doubtless Goodcole ran out of time.

Blasphemy as the moment of diabolic access went directly into the play Dekker, Ford and Rowley wrote about her.

But enough: almost 400 years later, that play has featured largely in my professional life as a university teacher. I think I know just about everything one can know, through the strange refractions of the pamphlet and the play. It is like peering into a fog, in which you can just about hear a voice, angry and lost.

Saturday, April 16, 2016

Meditation VIII: 'Upon a crumb going down the wrong way', 1666.

Meditation VIII. Upon a Crum going the wrong way.

What more mean and contemptible thing can there be then a single Crum, either in regard of its doing the least hurt, or effecting the least good; and yet, like the Tongue, which St. James saith, is a little Member, ex ollit sese, it boasteth great Matters: in the Mouth (it is true) it hath scarce substance enough to be felt; but, in the Throat, it is such as can hardly be endured. If it descend into the Stomach, it can contribute nothing to the support of Life; but, if it miss the due passage to it, how often doth it threaten Death? and sometimes also effect it: O, how frail and mutable is the Life of Man; which is not only Jeopardised by Instruments of War and Slaughter, which are made to destroy, but by an Hair, a Raisin Stone, a Feather, a Crum, and a thousand such inconsiderable things, which have a power to extinguish Life, but none to preserve it? How necessary then is it to get Grace into the Heart, when the Life that we have hangs thus continually in suspence before us? and, how circumspect should we be of small sins, which create as great dangers to the Soul, as the other things can to the Body? They that live in the Pale of the Church perish more by silent and Whispering Sins, then by Crying and Loud Sins, in which, though there be less Infamie, there is ofttimes the greater danger, in regard they are most easily fallen into, and most hardly repented of; like knots in fine Silk, which are sooner made then in a Cord or Cable, but with far more difficulty are unloosed again. Let us therefore (who often say that a Man may live of a little) think also of how much less a Man may Die, and miscarry, not in his Body only but in his Soul also.

From the Preface:

William Spurstow, who as he lived beloved of his friends, so he died of all his friends much lamented

First, His profound, and real humility, and that is a root-grace that hath many in it; and this is the true ascension of the soul:

…especially in that humbleness of mind he shewed after any large receits, or performances, wherein he shewed himself like Moses, though his face shone he knew it not.

Secondly, His Charity both in giving and forgiving, the latter of which, as it is most noble, so it is the most difficult, and that which is peculiar to Christ Disciples. …

Thirdly, To this may be added his Meekness, and Patience, the natural result of Humility, in which graces he was eminent, being seldom or never transported by passion, or if at any time those passions which do repugn that grace did arise, they soon had a counterbuff from the divine principle was in him. He alwaies had an innocent, and grateful chearfulness in his Converse, that rendred it very acceptable, being very free from that morosity of spirit which many times is like a cloud in a Diamond, and like a Curtain before a Picture. And yet as the sweetest Rose hath its prickles, and the industrious Bee (that makes the healing and mollifying Honey and Wax) her sting: So he had a sting of holy Zeal, which wisdom had the conduct of, that it was not put forth upon every trivial provocation;he knew when, and where, and how far to shew it; and in Gods Cause his Zeal was better tempered, than, like a brittle blade, to fly in shivers, and wound by-standers; but it was true mettal, and would cut deep, so as to leave impressions behind it ...

Fourthly, Add to this his peaceable disposition,

But I remember I am to write a Preface, not a Narrative of his life. He was a lover of goodmen. Loving and faithful in his Relations; a good Child, a good Father, a good Husband, a good Brother, a good Master, a good neighbour, a good Friend, a good Governor, a good Subject, a good minister: and all because he was a good Christian...

(But not, I would venture, a very good writer.)

There are more in his posthumous volume:

Sunday, April 03, 2016

Spirited away, early modern style

The passage above is taken from the incorrigible Joseph Glanvill's work, A Blow at Modern Sadducism (1668) - a work whose boundless conviction somehow failed to extend to its own rather underwhelming title, which hardly lives up to the 'Beacon Lit'/'The Beacon Quenched' style of ding-dong that was so characteristic of the age. But that by the way.

Glanvill has just surmised that "The Laws and affairs of the other world ... are vastly differing from those of our Regions". Forgetting what he's just said, he goes on to make one of his frequent close analogies: he cannot conceive of Hell except as a place with differing social classes, and laws applicable to all the fallen spirits.

He has been puzzling at the motivations of those fallen angels who become familiar spirits. One surmise he makes is that such beings are in fact spirits of the malignant dead. Or then, they might be conceived of, he suggests, as the socially most lowly demons, spirits of a working class kind, who alone would tolerate the probably painful business of inhabiting the body of a small animal. Glanvill then arrives at a surmise that apparently satisfies him as his final suggestion, based on property rights: perhaps these demonic lowest-of-the-low are prepared to give so much effort to winning witches, soul and body, because they thereby acquire property rights over them, after the completion of pact, in Hell.

Glanvill makes analogies with the right of the successful hunter to the dead body of his animal quarry, slave-owners to slaves, and if these things were not chilling enough reflections on the non-diabolic state of things, he suddenly sees these low and deceiving devils as being like "the seducing fellows we call Spirits, who inveigle Children by their false and flattering promises, and carry them away to the Plantations of America, to be servilly employed there".

This was a new form of early modern moral awfulness to me. The OED recognises the usage, under its entry for 'spirit':

The first quotation from Bulstrode Whitlocke actually records a Parliamentary ordinance passed in 1645. This is the full passage:

"May, 1645: 9. An  Ordinance against such who are called Spirits, and use to steal away, and take up children,  and bereave their Parents of them, and convey them away. And they ordered another Ordinance to be brought in to make this Offence Felony."

Despite attempts to regulate, the professional child abductor was a long-lived evil. The OED's 1690 quotation comes from this passage, which appears to be arguing that such abductions were in the end a lesser evil:

"Virginia and Barbadoes were first peopled by a sort of loose vagrant People, vicious and destitute of means to live at home (being either unfit for labour, or such as could find none to employ themselves about, or had so misbehaved themselves by Whoring, Thieving, or other Debauchery, that none would set them on work) which Merchants and Masters of Ships by their Agents (or  Spirits, as they were called) gathered up about the Streets of London, and other places, clothed and transported, to be employed upon Plantations; and these I say were such, as had there been no English foreign Plantation in the World, could probably never have lived at home to do Service for their Country, but must have come to be hanged or starved, or dyed untimely of some of those miserable Diseases, that proceed from want and Vice; or else have sold themselves for Soldiers, to be knocked on the Head or starved in the Quarrels of our Neighbours, as many thousands of brave English men were in the low Countries, as also in the Wars of Germany, France, and Sweden, &c. or else if they could, by begging, or otherwise, arrive to the Stock of 2s.6d. to waft them over to Holland, become Servants to the Dutch, who refuse none."

This was the text of the Restoration attempt at regulation of this trade in minors in 1685. Interestingly, the bias of the legislation is to create legal protections for the 'Merchants and Planters', who have been taken to law by people who had taken the money, and then complained of abduction by 'spirits'.

[A transcript of the ordinance]:

"Whereas it has been Represented to His Majesty, That by reason of the frequent Abuses of a  lewd sort of People, called Spirits, in Seducing many of His Majesties Subjects to go on Shipboard, where they have been seized, and carried by force to His Majesties Plantations in America; and that many idle Persons who have Listed themselves Voluntarily to be Transported thither, and have received Money upon their Entering into Service for that purpose, have afterwards pretended they were betrayed, and carried away against their Wills, and procured their Friends to Prosecute the Merchants who Transported them, or in whose Service they are, by Indictments, or Informations in the Crown Office in His Majesties Name, which is a great Discouragement to them, and an Hindrance to the Management of the Trade of the said Plantations, and Navigation of this Kingdom; And several Merchants and Planters having made humble Applications to His Majesty, That he would be Graciously pleased to Direct such Methods for their Retaining of Servants to Serve in His Majesties Plantations, as in His Royal Wisdom he should think meet, whereby His Majesty may be so satisfied of their Fair Dealing, as to take off all Prosecutions against them at His Majesties Suit; And also that the Scandal that now lies upon them in general, by reason of such Evil-disposed persons, may not remain upon such as shall for the future follow such Methods as His Majesty shall think fit to be pursued.

His Majesty taking into His Royal Consideration the said Request, is Graciously pleased to Declare, That such Merchants, Factors, Masters of Ships, or other Persons that shall use the Method hereafter following, in the Hiring of Servants for His Majesties Plantations, shall not be Disquieted by any Suit on His Majesties behalf, but upon Certificate thereof, that He will cause all such Suits to be stopped, to the end they may receive no further Molestation thereby.

I. Such Servants as are to be taken by Indenture, to be Executed by the Servant, in the presence of the Magistrate, or Magistrates hereafter appointed; One part thereof Signed by such Servant, and also Underwritten, or Endorsed with the Name and Hand-writing of such Magistrate, which is to remain with the Clerk of the Peace, to be Returned to the next Sessions, there to be Filed upon a distinct File, and Numbered, and kept with the Records.

II. The Clerk of the Peace is to keep a Fair Book, wherein the Name of the Person so Bound, and the Magistrates Name before whom the same was done, and the time and place of doing thereof, and the Number of the File shall be Entered: And for the more easy finding the same, the Entries are to be made Alphabetically, according to the first Letter of the Surname.

III. All Persons above the Age of One and twenty years, or who shall, upon View and Examination, appear to be so in the Judgment of the Magistrate, may be Bound in the presence of One Justice of the Peace, or of the Mayor, or Chief Magistrate of the Place where they shall go on Shipboard; who is to be fully satisfied from him, of his free and voluntary Agreement, to enter into the said Service.

IV. If any Person be under the Age of One and Twenty years, or shall appear so to be, he shall be Bound in the presence of the Lord Mayor of London, or One of the Judges, or an Alderman of London, being a Justice of Peace, or the Recorder, or Two Justices of the Peace of any other County, or Place, who shall carefully Examine whether the Person so to be Bound, have any Parents, or Masters; And if he be not Free, they are not to take such Indenture, unless the Parents, or Masters give their Consents, and some Person that knows the said Servant to be of the Name, and Addition mentioned in the Indenture, is to Attest his said knowledge upon the said Indenture.

V. If the Person be under the Age of Fourteen years, unless his Parents shall be present, and Consent, he is not to be carried on Shipboard, till a Fortnight at least, after he becomes Bound, to the intent that if there be any Abuse, it may be discovered before he be Transported. And where his Parents do not appear before the Magistrate, Notice is to be sent to them; or where they cannot be found, to the Church-Wardens, or Overseers of the Parish where he was last Settled, in such manner as the said Magistrates shall think fit, and Direct.

And because Clerks of the Peace may conceive this not to be any part of the Duty of their Office, and may therefore exact unreasonable Rewards for their trouble and pains therein, His Majesty doth Declare, That if any Merchants, or other Persons shall be aggrieved thereby, and upon Complaint to the Justices cannot obtain Relief, His Majesty will take such further care for their ease herein, as in His Royal Wisdom He shall think meet. And His Majesties further Pleasure is, That this Order be Printed and Published, to the end all Persons whom it may concern, may take Notice thereof, and govern themselves accordingly."

This all seems quite sensible, whether such provisions were observed is another matter. The legislation is all reasonable carrot and no stick; the last paragraph rather ominously anticipates the recalcitrance of some of the state officials for whom all this was a new area of duty.

Behind the terminology, 'spirits', for those who inveigled minors and other to go as servants and workers to New England was an equation, utterly pessimistic about America as a prospect, with those supernatural spirits who'd try to induce you to go to hell. The same equation is lurking too in the robust response that those who end up in New England were going to hell anyway, being idlers and good-for-nothings. Promoters of the plantations had tried to represent North America as a new Eden, a paradise on earth, not a new hell (for example William Bullock's VIRGINIA Impartially examined, 1649, or Samuel Clarke's A true and faithful account of the four chiefest plantations of the English in America to wit, of Virginia, New-England, Bermudus, Barbados (1670), while others were vehement to dispel any such notion (for instance, George Gardyner, A description of the new world (1651).

The better informed, not young people deluded by 'spirits', do seem to have been wary of the risks. I've always been struck by Old Seeley, returned to his sense at the end of The Late Lancashire Witches, threatening his whole family with deportation to the colony unless they behave themselves better in future: "I’ll ship you all for New England else."

Tuesday, March 29, 2016

Ezekiel Culverwell's abbreviated Bible

Ezekiel Culverwell! How could he not have been what he was, a pillar of godliness (as the ODNB joint life of members of the Culverwell family calls him)? Their lives read together like a godly version of Wolf Hall, religious radicals who achieved, via the founder of the family success, Ezekiel's father Nicholas, great wealth, which they deployed to organise, disseminate, foster their beliefs and community.

The long-lived Ezekiel, son of this purposeful father, strikes me as carrying a businesslike outlook into his religious writings. Capable, diligent, he can achieve something that probably makes him unique in his age: being succinct about faith and the bible. Yes, his Treatise of faith concerning Perseverance runs to a more normal 527 pages (followed by a methodical authorial index of the principal contents), but his popular Way to a Blessed Estate in this Life runs to 17 short pages

I was first struck by his A ready way to remember the Scriptures. Or, A table of the Old and New Testament. By that late able, painfull, and worthy man of God, Ezekiel Culuervvell, minister of the Word, 1637. This was printed, as it says, after his death in the same year as John Donne, 1631, but there was clearly an earlier edition, for the introduction comes from Culverwell's pen, explaining what he had set out to do, how well it had worked for him, how the aide-memoire came to the press, what it can be used for, and what it will ensure. Look at his stress on 'chief' matters, principal matters:

"Having many years ago gathered and made this brief Collection of all the principal matters contained in the New Testament, whereby I may say (I lost not my labour) for I found it by good Experience no small help unto me; for by it I could easily find any principal matter; Now although the chief use thereof be for Divines and young Students, yet upon the desire of many good Christians, which have found the like fruit and benefit, I was willing to publish the same and make it more common; unto whom I wish, that reading over the New Testament, they diligently observe the contents and chief matter contained in every Chapter and Verse, and often repeat them over, and every day to go through some Chapter or other; and the better to keep the Contents in memory, to say over daily that which is past; whereby I have good proof, that by this means, in short time one may readily tell what are the Contents of any Chapter, and where any special matter is written, (which I conceive may be a good Exercise for the training up of Children of ten years old and upward) for by reading over these Contents, a man well exercised in the Scriptures, may in one hour see the principal matters in the whole New Testament: One special use thereof will be this to fill the Head, and so the Heart, with much heavenly matter, which is the best way to keep out idle thoughts. And therefore now having my hearts desire in what I did expect, I have thought good to publish the like on the Old Testament." 

Culverwell created a vade mecum to both Testaments, first to the New, then to the Old.

Above, he sets about Genesis. Recall, this isn't intended as a summary, but rather an orientation to the Bible's full contents, partly a guide by topic, partly by memorable events or words, so Genesis chapter 3 boils down to "3 Fall, 6. Punishment, 16. Cursed, 17. Thrust out of Paradise, Vers. 23."

Here, below, a double page spread from his reduction of The Book of Job:

There's no nonsense about it: here's some of the prohibitions in Leviticus, with Culverwell not mincing his words:

There's occasionally an aspect of a found poem, as when Ecclesiastes 10 is given as: "Dead flyes, 1. Folly in Ruler, 5. Speech, 12. King a childe, 16. Curse not the King"

Just how effective he is can be grasped from a double spread from his first completed section. this is from the Acts of the Apostles. We see him reduce Chapter 12 to "Herod, 1. James, 2. Peter, 3. Iron gate, 10. Rhode, 13. Herods oration, 21. Wormes, 23. Sauls returne, Vers. 25."

The 'Iron gate' is indeed the thing anyone would remember as the angel helps Peter escape from Herod's prison: "When they were past the first and the second ward, they came unto the iron gate that leadeth unto the city; which opened to them of his own accord: and they went out, and passed on through one street; and forthwith the angel departed from him", while verses 21 through to 23 read in full:
And upon a set day Herod, arrayed in royal apparel, sat upon his throne, and made an oration unto them.22 And the people gave a shout, saying, It is the voice of a god, and not of a man. 23 And immediately the angel of the Lord smote him, because he gave not God the glory: and he was eaten of worms, and gave up the ghost.

Not that our 'painful and worthy man of God' was a corner-cutter. This was an aid to your Bible knowledge, to help you get to the chapter you wanted to consult, it saved time for the serious business. And the serious business was indeed just that. In his characteristically titled

Time well spent in sacred meditations. Divine observations. Heavenly exhortations Serving to confirme the penitent. Informe the ignorant. And, cherish the true-hearted Christian. By that late able, painfull, and worthy man of God, Mr. Ezechiel Culverwel minister of the Word. (1634), Culverwell sets out a working day for a true, believing student of the Bible:

This course have I by experience found profitable, and resolved upon, namely to be diligent in reading the holy Scriptures, and of them at the least every day four chap|ters; in like manner (for the increase of my knowledge) to spend three hours in the forenoon in searching out the sense of the hardest places, as two in the afternoon in the searching out the proprieties of the tongues, and other two in perusing the tracts and commentaries of learned men; one in meditation and prayer; what time remaineth to spend the fame in brotherly conference."

I'm rather charmed that anyone dared abbreviate the Bible, even as preparation for complete mastery of the holy text. Generally, their commentary and extrapolation piles up, like Hamlet's Ossa on Pelion.

Thursday, March 17, 2016

At Robert Egger's 'The VVitch'

As web piety or good netizenship requires, multiple 'spoilers' ahead.

I went with a friend to see 'The VVitch'. The work has been put in on this film, and it benefits. I was startled to recognise bits of the dialogue as things I'd read in witchcraft pamphlets (the Warboys/Throckmorton children, and one of the other demoniacs also verbatim - Thomas Darling, maybe?).

I especially liked the way the film adroitly exploited our typical narrative expectations of a Hollywood film - 'The Witch'? Yes, her in the woods, the one with the lair, the hag who can appear like a Cavalier courtesan. Eggers is distracting us with expectations of a daring assault on the sorceress' den by the axe-swinging father, while his film is quietly getting on with its own narrative of how Thomasin comes to accept that role. From the moment when Thomasin tries to quell her younger sister Mercy by a sudden profession that, yes, she is indeed the witch who lives in the forest, one can see her fate starting to unfold. Voicing the unthinkable makes it seem more possible.

The film is very aware of its cinematographic forebears: there's quite a set of regular tropes here. So, the young heroine who is reaching her menarche, the uncanny twins, the coven dancing round a fire in the forest. It creates its own space in which to be original by a commitment to historical reconstructions of language and religious thinking. The climax of the film, as the young women transvect up to tree top height seems less 'teenage witch' than it might, because we have watched and listened to Thomasin slowly reaching this point.

My family used to play a Scrabble-like card game called 'Lexicon', one of those games in which you pick up as many cards as you have played in your turn, until the pack thins to the last few cards. But if by that stage you have worked out that there has to be an unplayable Q or Z still lurking, then you don't want to pick up any cards, which you will probably be left with in your hand, their value to be deducted from your accumulated score.

Thomasin's game plays out like that: being forced to pick up the last, most undesirable card. After the abduction of the baby from her care, her mother suspects her. Her younger sister Mercy, herself in cahoots with Black Philip, accuses Thomasin, who rashly accepts the charge to try to assert herself over the obstreperous child. Mercy and her twin brother exchange mutual accusations with their sister, are possessed, and are killed. Her staunch brother Caleb has gone; the goat kills her father (who has also accused her of witchcraft). Finally the wretched Thomasin is caught in a fight to the death with her own deranged mother (and wins, bloodily).

What is left for her? Providence has made a very poor show as far as these Calvinist settlers are concerned. Caleb has some kind of vision of Jesus as he expires, but Eggars cunningly makes it seem mad or somehow indecent: really, heaven does nothing. Only Satan cares.

So, as the traumatised Thomasin staggers away from the corpse of her mother, what is left? She can't bury the dead and survive alone in the wilderness, she probably can't walk back to the settlement without being identified as a witch and being hanged for it. The last card, the card she doesn't want, but must pick up and try to play, is to talk to the goat.

And Black Philip answers, not at first, but soon, and then is seen, deep in shadows, as the black-dressed gentleman wearing spurs - the devil as so readily invented by the much-prompted fantasies of those accused of witchcraft. He will guide Thomasin's hand as she signs his book, and she will go naked into the forest to meet her new sisters. The actress plays the terror and the exhilaration as she transvects upwards very well.

The film accepts the supernatural as real. This is not 'The Crucible'. The weird claims of demonology are not psychologised away: evil exists. And yet, and yet, there's almost an explanation, so careful has the film been to show the mindset of the Calvinist settlers: the sin that they insist that they all bear individually, inherent to their nature, their acceptance of the demoralising possibility of their own predestined damnation. All this makes the witch or witches in the forest a very comprehensible extroversion of that (inner) state of sin: as if the community imagines them into being, the unthinkable other that it's so easy to become.

As easy, indeed, as stepping into the forest, where emptiness closes in, the arboreal labyrinth Una and Red Crosse enter in the first canto of The Faerie Queene. Here you will meet your other self: Eve / Duessa / The Witch.

Sin, in this film of continuously somber colours (sky, clothes, interiors), is a source of colour (blood red, mainly). Sin or witchcraft liberates from everything, even gravity. 

Eggers reports himself to have read the whole of the Geneva Bible, the Bible of the Puritans, to get the language right. The effort paid dividends. The phrase with which Black Philip / Satan secures his converts is based on Tyndale (2 Peter, 2), but re-appears among the cruder phrasings and vehement annotations of the Geneva text - the unjust, that 'walk after the flesh in the lust of uncleaness' 'count it pleasure to live deliciously for a season ... They are cursed children and have forsaken the right way'.

Eggers himself answers most scrupulously to a pointed query about factual inaccuracies in the film
I think he probably knew that a baby's fat was used in a flying ointment, rather than mashed-up baby - he wanted the gore, the colour. The horrible scene of the deluded mother suckling her baby, back from the dead, unable to perceive it as demonic, as a raven pecking viciously at her nipple (it prompted a unanimous wail of horror from the women present in the screening I attended), Eggers lightly passes off this as his invention, something he came up with because he is himself evil. [In a forum exchange here:
https://www.reddit.com/r/movies/comments/46m0lf/im_robert_eggers_writerdirector_of_the_witch_ama/  ]
Again, after five years with witchcraft sources, he'd know all about vampiric familiars feeding on a witch's blood. The devout mother is turning into another instance of witchcraft: her final appearance, hair down, murderous, hag-like, completes the journey.

In an earlier post, I wrote about the acute desire of the emigrants to turn back, get back to England, even if England was the Babylon of 'Dog and Bitch Yard':


Eggers has both the mother confess to her desire to be back at home, and the daughter quizzing her brother as to whether he remembers life before this exile - when they lived in a house with glass windows.

A thoughtful film: a witchcraft film with integrity. No gross CGI, no electronica on the soundtrack. I think I will have my 'Witchcraft and Drama' people watch it and learn. There: that's approval!

Saturday, February 27, 2016

Early modern text messages, painfully transmitted

The vanity of dogmatizing, or, Confidence in opinions manifested in a discourse of the shortness and uncertainty of our knowledge, and its causes: with some reflexions on peripateticism, and an apology for philosophy / by Jos. Glanvill (1661)

It’s a learned work in which our learned author displays his learning by listing all the processes and phenomena for which the learned world provides no explanation: “we are as much non-plust by the most contemptible Worm, and Plant, we tread on. How is a drop of Dew organiz'd into an Insect, or a lump of Clay into animal Perfections? How are the Glories of the Field spun, and by what Pencil are they limn'd in their unaffected bravery?” 

Such learned disquisitions on our ignorance are of course sceptical in stance. Richard Popkin, in his History of Scepticism, is kinder to Glanvill (I think) than the author of the ODNB life, taking him seriously. In his time, Glanvill was answered by Thomas White, An exclusion of scepticks from all title to dispute being an answer to The vanity of dogmatizing (1665), who rather over-anxiously sets off to warn the young wits of both universities against such a potentially debilitating scepticism: “the studious of truth may understand it alike dangerous to think every thing and nothing is demonstrated.

In Glanville’s book, knowledge has not been lost culturally in a decline from the days of the ancients. He attacks Aristotle vigorously: “That the Heavens are void of corruption, is Aristotles supposal: But the Tube hath betray’d their impurity; and Neoterick Astronomy hath found spots in the Sun.” Knowledge, rather, has been lost from its high point in unfallen Eden. The normal human condition is, for Glanvill, to be “naturally amorous of, and impatient for Truth, and yet averse to, and almost incapacitated for, that diligent and painful search, which is necessary to its discovery.” In Glanvill’s account, Adam is a fantasy figure, a hero with superpowers of knowledge, a thought experiment about what a human being could know at an undiminished, pre-lapsarian full capacity.

The very first sentence rumbles with that particular 17th century plangency: “Our misery is not of yesterday, but as antient as the first Criminal, and the ignorance we are involved in, almost coaeval with the humane nature; not that we were made so by our God, but our selves; we were his creatures, sin and misery were ours.”

But for all that relish of the gloom into which we have fallen, there’s an excited sense that there are new heroes in thought (Descartes, Gassendi, Galileo, Tycho Brahe, Henry More and, ominously enough, Sir Kenelm Digby), and that new technologies can lift our perceptions up to the levels enjoyed by Adam:

Adam needed no Spectacles. The acuteness of his natural Opticks (if conjecture may have credit) shew’d him much of the Coelestial magnificence and bravery without a Galilaeo’s tube: And 'tis most probable that his naked eyes could reach near as much of the upper World, as we with all the advantages of art.”

What seems to me interesting about this is that Adam is not a static figure of perfection, but enables Glanvill to think about what super-sensory powers might exist. His Adam, we would say, is able to perceive much further along the electro-magnetic spectrum. Glanvil’s Adam, able to perceive so much more, understands invisible forces: the magnet, gravity, and (important for Glanvill) coherencies in the nature of things, connections, all the 'sympathies' he thought Kenelm Digby was helping discover: “Sympathies and Antipathies were to him no occult qualities” … “it appears to be most reasonable, that the circumference of our Protoplast’s senses, should be the same with that of nature’s activity”

So Glanvill pivots between a fantasy of the perfect knowledge of Adam in paradise, and the present, in which new ideas may restore former states of insight and understanding. Glanvill is aware of surmises about where long-hidden knowledge can be re-found: “Modern Ingenuity expects Wonders from Magnetick discoveries”.

He comes up with an intelligent list of desiderata:
"It may be some Ages hence, a voyage to the Southern unknown Tracts, yea possibly the Moon, will not be more strange then one to America. To them, that come after us, it may be as ordinary to buy a pair of wings to fly into remotest Regions; as now a pair of Boots to ride a Journey. And to conferr at the distance of the Indies by Sympathetick conveyances, may be as usual to future times, as to us in a litterary correspondence. The restauration of gray hairs to Iuvenility, and renewing the exhausted marrow, may at length be effected without a miracle: And the turning of the now comparatively desert world into a Paradise, may not improbably be expected from late Agriculture."

There’s the recurrent early modern fantasy of instant communication over distance, here, not by using spirits, but by “Sympathetick conveyances”. Glanvill does not at this point expound a view that Adam could have done this: that would raise too many problems of its own. A telepathic Adam could have forestalled the Fall. Instead, he tells, famously, the tale of the Scholar Gypsy, an early modern Darren Brown who exerts mental control at distance over the conversation of his old friends.

What Glanvill comes up with next is not a story for a distinguished nineteenth century poem. It’s another tale of remote connection, and details both the potential and the drawbacks to having ‘sympathized hands’ (and, as they say, ‘Don’t try this at home’):

"That some have conferr’d at distance by sympathized hands, and in a moment have thus transmitted their thoughts to each other, there are late specious relations do attest it: which say, that the hands of two friends being sympathized by a transferring of flesh from one into the other, and the place of the letters mutually agreed on; the least prick in the hand of one, the other will be sensible of, and that in the same part of his own. And thus the distant friend by a new kind of Chiromancy may read in his own hand what his correspondent had set down in his. For instance, would I in London acquaint my intimate in Paris, that I am well: I would then prick that part where I had appointed the letter [I:] and doing so in another place to signifie that word was done, proceed to [A,] thence to [M] and so on, till I had finisht what I intended to make known. Now that there have been some such practices, I have had a considerable relation, which I hold not impertinent to insert. A Gentleman comes to a Chirurgeon to have his arm cut off: The Surgeon perceiving nothing that it ailed, was much startled at the motion; thinking him either in jest, or besides himself. But by a more deliberate recollection, perceiving that he was both sober, and in earnest; entreats him to know the reason of so strange a desire, since his arm to him seem’d perfectly sound: to which the Gentleman replyes, that his hand was sympathiz’d, and his friend was dead, so that if not prevented by amputation, he said, it would rot away, as did that of his deceased Correspondent. Nor was this an unreasonable surmise; but, if there be any such way of manual Sympathizing, a very probable conjecture. For, that which was so sensibly affected with so inconsiderable a touch, in all likelyhood would be more immuted, by those greater alterations which are in Cadaverous Solutions."

One can, I think, feel reasonably certain that that never happened (which is a relief). Glanvill is eager to announce a breakthrough: these rather painful early modern text messages have been sent and received (but there was a snag). His language is interesting: “there are late specious relations do attest it”. Now, the OED actually cites this very work for the first use of ‘specious’ in its current sense: that is, sense d. Of falsehood, bad qualities, etc.
1661   J. Glanvill Vanity of Dogmatizing, xii. 108  “Such an Infinite of uncertain opinions, bare probabilities, specious falshoods.”
Yet here, the batty anecdote he retails is a ‘specious relation’ with ‘specious’ in older senses: pleasing, plausible. Glanvill also uses ‘speciousness’ in this work: “Self-designers are seldom disappointed, for want of the speciousness of a cause to warrrant them” – what he means here is that we always find reasons plausible to us to support our preconceptions. We are supposed to deduce which precise meaning of a word is intended from the context in which a word is used by an author, but Glanvill’s ‘specious relation’ seems to me to say ‘specious falshood’ even before the anecdote is produced, the sceptic in Glanvill discounting the newly uncovered way to use 'sympathies' even before he's told us about it. 

Tuesday, February 23, 2016

A votive painting to the witchcraft cult?

A rather pleasing witchcraft image, from the Prado’s online collection: ‘Anonymous’ and ‘17th century’, ‘oil on board’ is all they have to say about it.

As you see, we have a variant, unique as far as I know, on the type of composition that puts an elaborate garland of flowers round a devotional image. Somebody like Jan Brueghel would do the flowers, and in the centre, the virgin and child. The figures might be work (sometimes) of a different hand. Rubens worked with Brueghel on this type of decorative/devotional art.

By the model of divided labour, ‘anonymous’ here could well have been an anonymous two. The painting in the middle, a witch at her cauldron, might be by Daniel Teniers: it certainly collects witchcraft motifs from Teniers paintings. Elements from the left and right side of this 'witches' kitchen' scene have been moved outdoors:

So we have the hag with her hair blown forwards, at a cauldron mounted on a tripod over a fire. She stirs the cauldron, while she consults the book of spells in her other hand, earnest as a cook tackling a difficult recipe. At her feet, a skull, ointment pot, and perhaps,  her athame. Music is provided by a zoomorphic attendant wearing  a peculiar hat, who is playing a nose flute, another zoomorph stands and holds a dim taper, while a crouching small demon blows the fire. Other weird faces gaze from the gloom at the scene, toad-like, bat-like, fishy or reptilian. The moon, banded by clouds, is high in the night sky.

The charm and novelty lies in the surrounding cartouche and swags of foliage. A carved lugubrious face of a dog stares from the top. Mushrooms are tied in bunches with coarse string. They seem to be ordinary boletes, rather than any poisonous type of fungus. The foliage is yew (at the top), ivy (of course), wild hops, acorns and a cherry oak gall. Spiky plants are accumulated: briars and thistles.
Notes of subdued colour are provided by a single bluebell, a buttercup, a clover head, a sow-thistle and a larkspur. The artist has not gone for melodramatic flora: it isn’t deadly nightshade, henbane, hemlock, monkshood, but just a set of ordinary enough plants. Seasons have not been observed, for we have a bluebell and ripening blackberries.

The insect life is also mundane, consisting of large and small flies on the upper volutes, balanced by a grasshopper and a wasp on the shelf or plinth below, like miniature armorial bearers. A meadow brown butterfly perches on one thistle head, a wasp or bee on another, then there is a caterpillar on a mushroom, with a shiny beetle adjacent to it. No scorpions, no great big hairy spiders, no devil’s coach men.

Who commissioned or bought this painting? It was obviously created as an object of curiosity. In itself, a fantastic world of impossible beings is surrounded by a thick border of unremarkable things: the type of plants you might ignore or tread upon, annoying little creatures you’d swat away. As a parody of the floral-devotional image, it has a sly mischief to it, prompting  a double-take from the onlooker, who might have taken it for one of those paintings that make a tribute of flowers to a divine figure that had got darkened by smoke or discoloured varnish. Instead of Mary with a verge of vibrant flowers, a composition that pushes towards us with colour and a reminder of faith, this image recedes away past mundane things into a haunted night. A familiar form of cult object is wittily - or daringly - turned into an object apparently venerating another cult.