Thursday, July 05, 2007

The Placebo Effect, early modern style















“Fourthly, these charms are mere mockeries, and gross abuses, both of God, and Men his creatures, I will give you a taste of one or two, whereby you may judge of the rest, for they came all out of one shop, and are fashioned in one forge, and have the same workman or Artificer. An old woman craving help for blear eyes, had delivered a Billet of Paper to wear about her neck, in which was written, The Divell pull out thine eyes, and recovered.”

~ An illiterate old woman buys what she thinks is a charm, and it works like a charm. But the magical amulet she had been prescribed was just a curse on her, penned by the insolent practitioner. So, was she cheated, or not?

This Jonsonian moment comes from A. Roberts’ A treatise of witchcraft Wherein sundry propositions are laid downe, plainely discovering the wickednesse of that damnable art …With a true narration of the witchcrafts which Mary Smith, wife of Henry Smith glover, did practice (1616). The rest of this post describes what is, I think, one of the less well known 17th century English works on the subject of witchcraft.


Roberts, a well read clergyman, is aware of the Weyer-Scot understanding of confessed witchcraft as mental delusion, and so he buttresses his account of Marie Smith’s admitted malefice with nine lengthy ‘Propositions’ arguing the veracity of pact witchcraft. Among authors prompted to a work of demonology by witnessing a local accusation of witchcraft (we are in King’s Lynn, Norfolk), he stood in a position of some confidence: the woman accused had confessed, repented, and then insisted on being hanged without delay. Even so, there is something hectoring about the parade of pro-demonological ‘Propositions’, as though a minority voice of dissent had to be drowned out, in case he still heard it in himself.

Mary Smith was clearly quite ill-natured and unruly. Sudden vehement quarrels with neighbours, typical enough of village life, were (by the initial coincidence of those she had fallen out with becoming ill) in her case changed into evidence of her being a witch. These incidents were followed by others, impressionable people who had heard these stories fancying themselves also to be supernaturally afflicted. Perhaps Smith also came to believe in the efficacy of her curse, and that she had some connection with the devil. For she finally confessed to this, repented under the spiritual guidance of “sundry learned and reverend Divines, who both prayed for her conversion, carefully instructed her in the way to salvation, and hopefully rescued her from the Divell”, and expedited her own execution. Even so, Roberts still gives the impression that she had got away with something. He seems to think that she had committed other crimes, and that she urged her own execution to prevent further inquiries ever being made. But, as he concludes his account of her pact and final recantation, he summons up some magnanimity:

“she in particular maner confessed openly at the place of execution, in the audience of multitudes of people gathered together (as is usuall at such times) to be beholders of her death. And made there also profession of her faith, and hope of a better life hereafter … And being asked, if she would be contented to have a Psalme sung, answered willingly that she desired the same, and appointed it herselfe, The Lamentation of a Sinner, whose beginning is, Lord turne not away thy face, &c. And after the ending thereof thus finished her life: So that in the judgement of charity we are to conceive the best, and thinke shee resteth in peace, notwithstanding her heynous transgressions formerly committed: for there is no maladay incurable to the Almighty Physitian”

The four maledictions she was both accused of and confessed to read like a studied and deliberate sample of typical cases. First, there was John Orkton, a sailor: he struck her son, she caused his fingers to rot off, and though he continued to go to sea after the amputations, none of his voyages produced any profit for him or his master: like the sailor in Macbeth, he lived ‘a man forbid’, dwindled, peaked and pined under a witch’s curse.

Then followed Elizabeth Hancocke: Smith accused this girl of stealing her hen. The girl suffered violent fits “as if the very flesh had beene torne from the bones, by the violent paine whereof she could not refraine, but tore the haire from off her head, and became as one distraught, bereaved of sence, and understanding: And the same night the bed whereon she lay, was so tossed, and lifted up and downe, both in her owne feeling, and in the sight of others then present beholders of her extreamities, by the space of one houre or more”.

An afflicted sailor, a possessed adolescent girl: what follows augments this impression of reading an anthology of typical malignancies. Elizabeth Hancocke was temporarily cured after her father consulted a wizard. Roberts disapproves, but still recites the clichéd mira this village wizard produced: the father “went to one for his advice (whose fact herein is no way justifiable, and argued but a small measure of religion, and the knowledge of God in him) who first tolde unto him the cause of his comming, that is, to seeke help for his daughter, and then added, that she was so farre spent, that if hee had stayed but one day longer, the woman who had wrongd her, would have spent her heart, and so become unrecoverable, and thereupon shewed him her face in a Glasse; and further, opened the beginning cause of falling out, which was for a hen, which before this, Drake neyther knew nor heard of”.

This wizard tells the father how to make a witch cake, and how to use it: “and then gave his counsell for remedy, which was the matter sought for & desired, & that was in this order. To make a cake with flower from the Bakers, & to mix the same instead of other liquor, with her own water, and bake it on the harth, wherof the one halfe was to be applyed and laid to the region of the heart, the other halfe to the back directly opposit; & further, gave a box of ointment like triacle, which must be spread upon that cake, and a powder to be cast upon the same, and certaine words written in a paper, to be layd on likewise with the other”.

Treated with this nearly palpable low-magic version of a consecrated host, Elizabeth recovered. After her recovery, she soon got married, and, continuing the quarrel, her husband tried to kill Mary Smith’s great cat (run through twice with a sword, and hit over the head with a pike, the cat still managed to escape the sack it has been bagged up in for disposal, and was never seen again). Elizabeth again lost her health, and Roberts says she has never fully recovered it again, despite Smith’s conviction.

Mary Smith’s third victim followed a quarrel between herself and another woman of low social status, Cicely Balye, a servant. She afflicted her with a supernatural weight-loss programme (one that would make the new age practitioner a fortune these days):

Mary Smith began to pick a quarrell about the manner of sweeping, and said unto her she was a great fat-tail’d sow, but that fatnesse should shortly be pulled downe and abated. And the next night being Sunday immediatly following, a Cat came unto her, sate upon her breast, with which she was grievously tormented, and so oppressed, that she could not without great difficulty draw her breath, and at the same instant did perfectly see the said Mary in the chamber where she lay, who (as she conceived) set that Cat upon her, and immediately after fell sicke, languished, and grew exceeding leane.”

Finally, the last big dispute brings us close to early modern business studies: Edmund Newton was her competitor in the local cheese selling business. He cornered the local market, so she afflicted his body, leaving him intermittently bedridden, and also sent her ‘Toad and Crabs’ into his workplace. The toad, caught and dropped in his fire, caused Mary Smith to suffer intolerable pain while it burned. Newton was persuaded to try ‘scratching’ the witch (again, the steadily pious Roberts, who argues throughout that faith in God will protect you from witchcraft, disapproves):

“And by the councel of some, sending for this woman by whom hee was wronged, that he might scratch her (for this hath gone as currant, and may plead prescription for warrant a foule sinne among Christians to thinke one Witch-craft can drive out another) his nailes turned like feathers, having no strength to lay his hands upon her.”

~ I had not seen a case where the witch’s powers were able to defeat ‘scratching’.


Altogether an interesting pamphlet, not much cited in the scholarship on English witchcraft cases, mingling (as these things tend to do) trivial quarrels and obvious antagonisms with the impenetrable mystery of the accused woman’s state of mind.

My image is a composite from two pages of the original: Roberts' scoffing passage about misplaced faith in magic, and then a passage from the dedication of the treatise to the Recorder and Aldermen of King’s Lynn, where either Satan or Roberts’ wavering syntax tripped the compositor into a misprint. It reads:

“I haue at your appointment and request (for whom I am most willing to bestow my best labours and euer shall be) penned this small Treatise, occasioned by the detection of a late witch among you, whose irreligious care, and vnwearied industry, is not to be defrauded of deserued commendation, and by mature deliberation, and discreete search, found out her irreligious and impious demeanour, and also discouered sundry her vnnaturall and inhumane mischiefes done to others.”

Eye-slip picked up ‘irreligious’ from late in the sentence, and applied it to the aldermen.

1 comment:

Adam Roberts said...

A. Roberts stole my name! The Diuell holped him to it! Hee is a Warlock!