Wednesday, May 02, 2007

Two versions of wonder

I happened across the 1651 pamphlet, A Wonder of Wonders. Being a faithful Narrative and true relation of one Anne Green. It was written by one W. Burdet, who then seems to have produced a second version, for he signs off this effort by saying that he will ‘(at present) desist from reciting any further circumstances’, which makes him a likely author for the second, expanded version of the pamphlet. In this, the synoptic title has lost its conventional catchpenny ‘wonders’, and become a plainer Declaration from Oxford, and it speaks confidently of Anne Green having been ‘unjustly hanged’, and having received ‘an unjust sentence’. The chief addition is an edifying prayer which she is alleged to use ‘morning, noon, and night’ – its content is predictable.

But what is interesting about all this is that there is also an account by an Oxford scholar, Richard Watkins: Newes from the dead. Or A true and exact narration of the miraculous deliverance of Anne Greene, who being executed at Oxford Decemb. 14. 1650. afterwards revived and by the care of certain physitians there, is now perfectly recovered. Together with the manner of her suffering, and the particular meanes used for her recovery. Written by a scholler in Oxford for the satisfaction of a friend, who desired to be informed concerning the truth of the businesse. Whereunto are added certain poems, casually written upon that subject., Oxford 1651. As Watkins says, what happened was “a very rare and remarkeable accident, which being variously and falsely reported amongst the vulgar (as in such cases it is usual)”: he is writing a consciously scholarly, non-populist account – he has probably seen Burdet’s.

This duplication allows us to catch a popular writer in operation, tailoring his account for a readership in the English Commonwealth. I will interline his narrative with the more sober version given by the scholar.

Burdet tells a story that started at the house of Sir Thomas Read at Duns Tew in Oxfordshire, when Anne Green, a servant, working hard turning malt, retired in pain to the ‘house of office’, and there spontaneously aborted a foetus ‘about a span long’. She covered the little corpse with dust and rubbish that lay to hand, and left it in a corner of the toilet. She immediately told a fellow servant. Burdet gives her words that could come from a ballad: ‘Alas, alas, Mary, that ever I was born, to live and die in shame and scorn’. She uncovered the body, and ran shrieking into the house, and this alerted her master and mistress. They soon learn from her that the father was ‘a Gentleman of good birth, and kinsman to a justice of Peace’.

~ Watkins agrees the facts, and also describes Anne as being “of a middle stature, strong, fleshie, and of an indifferent good feature”. He can say that she had been seduced by Jeffery Read, Sir Thomas’s grandson, who was 16 or 17, and explains further that she did not know that she was pregnant until she aborted.

Back with Burdet, instead of the matter being dealt with inside the household, or the parish, Anne was carried before a justice, who found her guilty of fornication, though not of infanticide. Nevertheless he committed her to prison to await trial. Her trial came quickly, and it was short one: she was sentenced to death by hanging. At the gallows, she fell down on her knees at the foot of the ladder, and asked God ‘to show some remarkable judgement on her, for a signal and testification to the world of her innocency’. It was Saturday 14th December, and I assume that she was hanged at dawn.

~ Watkins makes no substantial comment on the trial itself. Of Green at the gallows, he merely reports that “those that were present do testify that she spake very sensibly”, when explaining that she could not subsequently remember anything she had said or done.

Burdet reports Green at the gallows making an elaborate speech to the people ‘which was with great comfort, and undauntedness of spirit by this poor soul performed’: as so often, that suggestion that it is up to the condemned to make the onlookers feel morally reconciled to the spectacle they have gathered to watch. She was then turned off the ladder. As she has requested, a kinsman of hers hangs his full weight onto her legs to speed her death. A trooper hammers at her breast with the butt of his musket to the same end – these things are in the woodcut. After half an hour, her dead body in taken down, and packed ‘into the Chyrurgions chest’, for it has been begged for the purposes of an anatomy lecture.

~ Watkins agrees these basic facts, with the added detail that the under sheriff asked her friends to stop hanging onto her, or the rope she was being hanged with might break. Green was put into a coffin, Watkins says, and the corpse taken for dissection. His account is far more concerned to expound what the doctors did, and is convincing about the medical details. When the coffin was re-opened, she was heard to be breathing still, or at least rattling in her throat. A ‘lusty fellow’ that stood by started stamping on her to end her misery (!), but at that moment, 9 am, Dr Petty and Thomas Willis arrived: they gave her cordials, let her blood, put tourniquets on her limbs, administered the inevitable enema, and massage. More usefully – alongside its more obvious discomforts, it must have been cold, being hanged at Oxford Castle in a mid-seventeenth century December, and she has been laid out in a wooden box since – the doctors put her in bed with a woman to act as a source of warmth. In Watkins’ account, in which, throughout, those in authority behave like gentlemen, the under sheriff now solicits the governor to let her live if she revives, and the governor is ‘willing to co-operate with divine providence’

By Monday, in Watkins’ account, she had revived enough to be questioned. He affirms that she didn’t know she had been on the gallows, and could not recall anything she said (‘notwithstanding those that were present do testify that she spake very sensibly’). He comments that she seemed simply to resume just where she had left off, on the topic of her innocence regarding the infanticide, which she had spoke of when in prison: ‘seeming to go on where she had so long time left off; like to a clock whose weights had been taken off a while, and afterwards hung on againe.’

Green was, according to Watkins, wholly recovered within a month, and during this time she, living, was visited in the room where she was due to be dissected, by gentry who were admitted for a voluntary payment- and their generosity was such that what was gathered paid the apothecary’s bill. The castle governor was a major contributor. Finally Green took herself away, carrying off with her own recently occupied coffin to show her friends in the country.

But now hear Burdet. In his account, after 14 hours in bed with the woman placed there to warm her, Green spoke, and to dramatic effect: “Behold Gods providence, and his wonder of wonders” (you see the two women in bed together in the woodcut, and the word-scroll coming from Green’s mouth).

Burdet reflects that this miracle should remain on record ‘for a president to all Magistrates, and Courts of Judicature, to take special care in denouncing of sentence, without a due and legal process, according to the known Laws of the Land, by an impartial and uncorrupted Jury’. But this recovery, he says, ‘moved some of her enemies to wrath and indignation, insomuch, that a great man amongst the rest, moved to have her again carried to the place of execution’. However, ‘some honest Souldiers then present, seemed to be very discontented thereat, and declared, That there was a great hand of God in it’. These words ‘bought a final end and period to their dispute and controversie’.

In his re-worked version, the Declaration from Oxford, Burdet makes Green, who has come back from the dead, deliver some of the expected visions: ‘This poor Creature is now well recovered, and in perfect health; since which time, being asked what apparitions she saw during her Trance, she replied, That being (as it were) in a Garden of Paradise, there appeared to her 4 little boyes with wings, being four angels, saying Woe unto them that decree unrighteous Decrees, and take away the right from the Judges, that the innocent may be their prey.’ She said that she remembered nothing of being taken to the gallows, but could recall what she said to the crowd, and asserted that ‘being upon the ladder … she saw her chief enemy dead before her (which is observable, that within some hours after, Sir Tho. Read died.)’

~ This, conversely, is Watkins’s debunking: “It may perhaps be expected by some (and 'tis pity I can give them no satisfaction) that I should relate some story … of what fine visions this maid saw in the other world … But for such matters the Ballad-makers must rest contented: since she (as you have heard) was so far from knowing anything whilst she was dead, that shee remembered not what had happened to her even when she was yet alive … One thing more hathe been taken notice of by some, as to the Maid’s defence; that her Grand Prosecutor Sir Thomas Read died within three daies after her execution; even almost as soon as the possibility of her reviving could be well confirmed to him. But because he was an old man, and such events are not too rashly to be commentated on, I shall not make use of that observation.”

So Burdet embroidered his story piously, adding words, visions and miraculous proofs. But he also tells the truth in his own way, a truth which Watkins is busy to suppress. It seems clear that Green was hanged because of Sir Thomas Read’s anger and humiliation. One way or the other, Read swayed the court to a guilty verdict. Burdet’s account gives a Green who talks about her enemies, ‘great’ men: Sir Thomas Read, and the unnamed man who urges that the recovered woman should go again to the scaffold. Saved by ‘honest Souldiers’ – the armed Parliamentarian forces, exercising their new strength – Green survived this second threat. Instead it is the unjust great man who dies, struck down in answer to the prayers Anne Green made at the foot of the gallows ladder.

Watkins, as I say, minimises all gentlemanly unpleasantness, and is expansive about the expert care Green received from the doctors, who also have the final word about the non-viability of her foetus, so that “That foul stain of murder, which, in most mens judgments (and, perhaps, Heaven it selfe also bearing witness) was so harshly charged upon her” was removed – and that parenthesis is as far as Watkins will go on the miraculous possibilities of her survival.

Two authors, one describing class animus repudiated by heaven, the other, kindness. Burdet reworks Anne Green into a repentant sinner now justified by heaven, she has ceased to be a balladic fallen woman, and has become a new model puritan. Watkins shows decent behaviour and expert medical intervention. The wonder in one is from heaven, the only wonderful thing in the other account is the skill of the doctors. But there was more in Watkins’ publication, and what follows exposes his misrepresentations: ‘Whereunto are added certain poems, casually written upon that subject’. The last section of his pamphlet, transcribes poems written by about 40 Oxford undergraduates, in English and Latin about Anne Green (they include the young Christopher Wren). It is a heartless and callow display of thin witticisms: women will cheat even Charon; like cats, women have many lives; women always have another trick. A Mr Pope reflects that
“One thing both hang’d and sav’d her, shee was light
and that
“Had but a modest soule that under gone
'twould soon for shame have quitte its mansion.”

She has been “both hanged, and pressed”, but is still alive, scoffs Mr Mathew.

Anne’s seducer is given a jocular warning that she will be coming after him for more:
“Read this thou youthful, Read, and be afraid,
Shee’s a maid twice, and yet is not dismaid.”

Antony Wood enjoys Anne’s bravado in facing death on the scaffold, like the heroine of a play:
Nan plays a prize with death, she mounts
The stage, and there brave soul recounts
Her former pranks …”

As “Death’s puzzler! Selfe-surviver!”, she prompts these undergraduates to consider her paradoxical status, Death’s apparently diminished power. It is all callous and unfeeling, a matter for jokes. All the class fault lines Watkins had tried to conceal are displayed: if Burdet had wanted to write a third pamphlet, he would have found plenty to fuel his indignation.

See also for Dr Thomas Willis:

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