I read a lot of scholarship about the witch scares of early modern
I introduce my ‘Witchcraft and Drama’ course with a lecture on the Throckmorton children (The most strange and admirable discovery of the three witches of Warboys,1593), and ask my students for their responses (how did three teenage sisters, aided by their younger siblings, come to destroy the Samuels family, mother, father and daughter, by pressing an accusation of witchcraft with such pertinacity?). They are fascinated, but baffled.
I’ve recently been reading Edmond Bower’s Dr Lambe Revived, Or, Witchcraft Condemned in Anne Bodenham (1653). The booklet poses the usual reading challenge: the author has an absolutely settled opinion, and fits the events into a master narrative – but it is one that we repudiate entirely. So we try to read through his representation, and penetrate into the opacity behind a report which was a clear case to him.
The accused was the local ‘wise’ or ‘cunning’ woman. She is reported to have been 80 (‘80’ often seems to be used as a vaguely suitable assigned age, in these reports). A Catholic, a great gossip and teller of tall tales, alcohol dependent, and capable of enhancing her ‘cures’ and predictions with props sufficient to impress a servant girl, Anne Styles.
Meanwhile (and here I plunge into conjecture), in the Goddard household, an intense power struggle has developed. The central figure is Mistress Goddard. On one side are her household servants, led by Mistress Elizabeth Rosewel; and on the other side, her daughters-in-law. Mistress Goddard sometimes laughs at the idea, but does seem to be troubled by fears that someone was trying to poison her. One assumes she was ill in some undiagnosed way. The servants, if they are not actually poisoning their mistress themselves and aiming to pin the blame on the daughters-in-law, certainly advance a long way towards poisoning those daughters-in-law. This plot the servants seem to represent as a way of delivering the exemplary punishment that will reveal to the world the corruption of their mistress’s relatives.
The dupe, the step-and-fetch-it, is Anne Styles, who goes backwards and forwards between the busily conspiring servants and the oracular Anne Bodenham. The latter only had to perform a bit of mumbo-jumbo to set the girl’s imagination off: Anne Styles comes back with breathless accounts of Mistress Bodenham’s supernatural CCTV into the Goddard household, spirit boys dancing with cat and dog familiars and the rest. Illiterate herself, she excitedly reported that Mistress Bodenham conjured out of books: one seemed to have a picture of the devil in it. Among the things she reports seeing in Mistress Bodenham’s green scrying glass, is her mistress’s bedchamber, and poison under the bed bolster. But Mistress Rosewel will not investigate this.
Mistress Bodenham next foretells that an attempt will be made to poison Mistress Goddard when a cup of sage ale is served to her. (Visit http://www.gallowglass.org/jadwiga/SCA/cooking/sage_notes.html
for a work in progress on every folk remedy using sage - including sage ale, a health drink of the period.)
The ale is prepared on the day foretold. Rosewel gets Styles to check it: to her, it looks contaminated. But Rosewel carries it to her mistress. Styles asks if Rosewel duly told their mistress, but only gets the enigmatic reply: ‘her Mistris knew well enough of it by her looks’.
What was going on? I assume that Mistress Bodenham knows all about the sage ale because she has herself prescribed it, for whatever symptoms Mistress Goddard manifested. (Like everyone in the household, she sent Styles to consult the ‘witch’ on her behalf.) The cure was not working. The servants want to represent this cure as containing poison, put in it by the daughters-in-law. Why Rosewel cannot voice her suspicions to her mistress is unexplained. She was either poisoning her mistress, and wanting to incriminate the relatives, or had to deliver the sage ale under surveillance by the daughters-in-law, and can only mime her suspicions. The response from the servants to this confusion is muddled and callous: Anne is sent to procure a powder to put (as retaliation) in the broth of Mistresses Sarah and (another) Anne, the two daughters-in-law. It then proves that they cannot administer the powder, so Anne is sent again to Bodenham, for some other way to ‘make the young Gentlewomen exemplary’.
At this dangerous moment, Mistresses Sarah and Anne counter attack with all the effectiveness granted to rank against mere servants. Having heard a story that they are mentioned as purchasers of poison in nearby Sarum, they set about finding out just who has been buying poison. In the Goddard household, the servants see that they have over-reached, and are compromised. Mistress Rosewel and another maid persuade Anne Styles that she must flee to
Not that investigation seems to have happened, for Edmond Bower is entirely prepared to locate the evil in Anne Bodenham. Anne Styles’s horror that she might have sold her soul to the devil during one of her consultations with Bodenham is the drama that flamboyantly occupies all the foreground. Bower’s way of thinking is perhaps best revealed by the moment when he suddenly remembers from reading Scot’s Discovery of Witchcraft that one way to find out a witch is to bring the suspect into the presence of the person she is afflicting. Anne Styles (of course without having the chance to see Anne Bodenham being ushered into the room) of course falls quiet on cue. But that Bower only recalls from Scot’s withering attack on the credibility of the ‘witchmongers’ a piece of the witchmonger’s glib and easily falsified lore betrays what he is.
His investigation, such as it is, of Anne Bodenham, duly turns up her books, which prove to have nothing at all to do with magical practice (though he still hopes that a more incriminating text remains to be found). Bower plies Mistress Bodenham with ale, and to get that small solace, she plays along with him to an extent, offering to find lost treasure for him. Bower wants her ‘to confesse other Witches, and to tell things they had done’: he is starting to witchhunt, in the manner of Hopkins or the continental inquisitors. He reports confirmation of Jean Bodin’s cruel imputation about accused witches pretending to cry: Bodenham was ‘never seen to let fall a tear; but yet many times she would make such an artificiall noyse, that one would have thought she wept’. The great revelation is that Bodenham confesses that she was formerly a servant to Dr. Lambe’: the astrologer, hated as the client of the Duke of Buckingham, had been beaten to death by the
Bower pauses once in his narrative to consider the people whose murky manoeuvres led to Bodenham’s death and Anne Styles’ distress: he says he only names these people, who are doubtless very sorry for repeatedly consulting a witch, as incidentals necessary to his 'discovery' of the witch. In his epilogue, he says in more general terms that the purpose of the work is to show people the evil consequences of consulting 'wise-women'.
The enigmatic figure is Elizabeth Rosewel. What was she up to? She is glimpsed by Styles in Bodenham's scrying glass ‘standing in her Mistriss Chamber, looking out of the Window with her hands in her sleeves’. She consults Bodenham (by proxy) ‘to enquire concerning sweet-hearts, when she should be marryed, and how she should dis-ingage her self from her sweet-hearts that formerly had solicited her in way of marriage’. That first detail looks subversive to me, in a way Bower has not recognised: in Styles's dream image lurks a recognition: Elizabeth looks like she has supplanted her mistress: she isn’t at work in that room, but watching. Her ambition might be one to be achieved erotically: she wants to get clear of suitors that were acceptable enough to her earlier. I jump to the conclusion, you see, that she was beginning to see herself in her mistress’ place. Working at second hand, she was (perhaps) on the way to getting the obvious impediment to her ambitions out of the way, and suspects for the death already lined up. She didn’t succeed; her instruments failed her, but she got away unscathed. Anne Bodenham was foolish enough to play along boastfully with someone who was (like Frances Howard before her) determined to gamble very seriously. The man in this fraught household emerges as a little more than a cipher, and may not have been party to Elizabeth Rosewel’s scheme. Which might not have existed...