Thursday, October 25, 2007

'The Steem of Mad Doggs': Renfrewshire, 1698.

I am working rather too hard for the extra investigations required by the tangential investigations of this blog. But my ‘Witchcraft and Drama’ course has come round again, spurring me to read some of those pamphlets I have previously missed. My latest has been that by Sir Francis Grant, Lord Cullen, about the Renfrewshire witch scare:

A true narrative of the sufferings and relief of a young girle; strangely molested, by evil spirits and their instruments, in the west collected from authentick testimonies there-anent. With a preface and post-script containing reflections on what is most material or curious; either in the history, or trial of the seven witches who were condemn'd to be execute in that countrey. This comes in as late as 1698, and its interest made me reflect that we tend to read earlier works, and so miss out on highly evolved demonological discourses from the very end of that lamentable tradition. It also prompts me to consider that, in scholarship about the witchcraft panic, the general focus is awry, and should always be on the accusers, not the accused.

Grant is fascinating. He was a very devout lawyer, an intelligent and informed man who will deploy the discoveries of the dawning Enlightenment to reinforce the assertions of Enlightenment’s very opposite:

“there needs not so much Metaphysicks to unriddle the Appearance of Witches as Beasts, and the like: Since their reall persons may be covered with a Vehicle; which by dispersal of the Rays coming therefrom, may fascinate the Eyes by the same Impressions that come from the true sight of such”.

Grant is not a man to give any ground at all – all demonology is true, with no concessions. Thus, though he admires “our Famous K. Ja. 6th” (King James) as an unimpeachable author, it clearly bothered him that James had given some ground to scepticism in the Daemonologie. Addressing the transvection of witches, James had produced a canny limitation on this power: in his view, witches can fly, “but in this violent forme they cannot be carried, but a shorte boundes, agreeing with the space that they may reteine their breath: for if it were longer, their breath could not remaine unextinguished, their bodie being carried in such a violent & forcible maner”. King James backs this up with the amazing assertion that when people fall from very high places, they are asphyxiated before they hit the ground: “as is oft seen by experience”. Grant will have none of this: “As it’s easy for [the devil] to Condense a part of the Vechicle: which may protect the Breathing and yet cutt the Air, like the Fence of Dyvers, & beak of a Sloop”. Again, the quasi-scientific language, deployed to argue that the devil contrives face masks for his aerial passengers. So the King was right, but wrong, as satan had a way round the brathing problem. When arguing that Satan can also create a ‘Vehicle’ of condensed air behind which the real form of the witch is hidden, and a “dispersal of Rays” to deceive the eye, Grant was also silently correcting the King’s theories: James did not think that witches could take the form of smaller animals: it would be just too painful to be so compacted. Grant has a particular need to establish this point, for his eleven year old informant lets it be known at one point that “M.M. … had appeared to her, and pincht her leg in the likeness of a Bumbee”.

The afflicted child that Grant found so convincing that he was among those who had seven people hanged as a consequence of her accusations was Christian Shaw, of Bargarran House, a “smart lively Girl”, who snitched to her mother that the housemaid Catherine Campbell was illicitly drinking the household milk, and got the fiery response from ‘Katie’: “The Devil harle your soul thorow Hell”. Campbell was unlucky: I suppose that the kindest construction on what followed is that Christian Shaw then succumbed to a mild attack of tetanus -

(“her Body was often bent & rigid, as she stood like a Bow on her Feet and Neck at once” – just look at that 1809 painting of a sufferer). But Christian had an available range of metaphysical explanations for her distressing symptoms: she was, of course, bewitched. At some point, her subsiding symptoms would have been overtaken by the necessity to sustain the accusations she had made, and she became an adept and dangerously manipulative fraud (for the best possible motives, of course). In her later life, she would make a major advance in the spinning of fine linen yarn:

This clever girl could therefore contrive such staggering proofs as her glove, dropped in public view as she attended Kirk, levitating back to her hand. I suspect a minor magic trick involving a very fine thread. Christian was embarked on a course she had to see through. Her piety sustained her, as she effectively set about purging the parish of everyone that she had heard spoken ill of by those adults she respected. The number of her persecutors increased alarmingly, as the intrepid Christian fingered anyone with a bad local reputation. Those who cursed were a particular target, she also named a local crippled man, and of course swept up anyone previously suspected of witchcraft. But she is a child, and can be alarmingly arbitrary: an “Old Highland fellow” unluckily arrived at the house, weary from journeying, and sought shelter. Christian took an instant dislike to him, and he joined her other victims.

With these young accusers, there is always the possibility that an adult was colluding with or directing the ‘demoniack’ or child witness, as happened with Anne Gunter, or Edmund Robinson. I don’t think this was the case here. ‘M.M.’, who wickedly took the shape of a bumble bee to sting Christian, was a local gentlewoman. My illustration is the final page of this pamphlet, where the author complains about ‘M.M.’ having used legal redress against his pamphlet, reducing her name to the initials. Galling for the lawyer author to have the law turned against him, and this avenue of escape was not available to the seven who were found guilty of the persecution of Christian Shaw, and hanged. But that anyone can use the law as a positive defence is a sign of better times to come – in cases like that of the Throckmorton children, those accused seem to have no notion of any legal assistance, of habeas corpus, nothing: they are helpless as doom engulfs them.

Christian duly recovered after a satisfactory number of deaths, her case won by her fantastic ingenuity and persistence in her visitations, and her occasional spectaculars (she could move along without her feet seeming to touch the floor, I think especially when there was a stair hand rail to help things along). She was also backed up by three who had the wit and unscrupulousness to turn ‘confessing witch’, and escape the gallows by collaborating the child’s story against their fellow accused.

My post title comes from Grant’s heated argument that “The confederated Devil may, upon the Witches desire, infuse poisonous Humours, extracted from Herbs, of the same invisible Operation with the Steem of Madd dogs, or the Pestilence” to inflict such awful sufferings on his victims.

I will next read Grant’s Sadducimus debellatus: or, a true narrative of the sorceries and witchcrafts exercis'd by the devil and his instruments upon Mrs. Christian Shaw, daughter of Mr. John Shaw, of Bargarran in the County of Renfrew in the West of Scotland, from Aug. 1696 to Apr. 1697. I expect more of the same, meanwhile, the case has a book about it now:

The Kirk, Satan and Salem: A History of the Witches of Renfrewshire, by Hugh V. McLachlan, which I will have bought into my college library. But while the title, as I imply, may help the book find its audience, the real focus ought to be on the perpetrator, the self-fancied demoniack, young Christian Shaw.

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