Friday, March 12, 2010

Exorcisms and conjuring tricks: Lancashire, c.1650

Seventeenth century Lancashire seems to have been regarded as a reliable source of supernatural follies. Ben Jonson has Satan tell the naïve devil Pug (in The Devil is an Ass) that he might cope adequately with being the diabolic familiar of some Lancashire witch, but street-wise London is out of the question.

I have been looking at Zachary Taylor’s The devil turn'd casuist, or, The cheats of Rome laid open (1696), obviously a late 17th century text, but it contains an anecdote dated back by the author to the mid-century. It concerns that time-honoured device for high-pressure proselytizing, an exorcism. The Catholic priest conducting the exorcism wanted to put on a good show, and seems to have been willing to help things along a little: it came down to a conjuring trick, with misdirection of the audience, and an accomplice.

Who bungled it:

“Between 30 and 40 years ago I am told there was another Exorcism as this, in the same place, for it is a Nest of Papists. And when the Devil was to go out, he said he would have a living soul with him, which frighted the poor People sadly, and made them Sweat and Sigh, not knowing whom he would have. But the Priest manfully withstood him, and would not suffer him to touch any Soul there. This was a little comfort to them. Then the Devil would have some other living Creature, a Cock or Hen, &. But the Priest thought that too good a Morsel for the Devil, and would not allow it him. In short the Priest would allow him nothing but three broken pieces of a Tobaco-pipe, which he laid upon a Trencher on the Table, and when he went, he was to take them, as a sign of his Departure. When the minute was at hand, the Priest makes a bustle, and cries out now He comes, He comes, He comes, &c. and by this means (which is right Leger-de-main) calls the People’s eyes from off the Trencher to the Demoniack, and an hand came behind over the Table, and catch’d at the pieces of the Pipe, but unluckily got but two, the third slipping off the Trencher, which a Protestant took up. And when the Priest told them that they might know by what they saw that the Devil was gone out. Yes saith the Protestant perhaps he is, but he is better than his word, for he hath left one piece of his pipe behind him, and here it is. This I had from a neighbouring Clergy-man, who is rector of the Parish where the person lived that took up the Pipe, and who had it from his own Mouth.”

The set-up here was to have the fragments of pipe stem seem to have disappeared as evidence of the departure of the exorcised devil. There’s a parallel in the exorcisms reported from 1696. The demoniac is named as Thomas Ashton, a weaver from the parish of Wigan. In his case, the signal of the devil’s departure was that one of the diamond-shaped panes of glass (a ‘quarrel’) in the window would vanish. But the exorcists realise that they have too much attention fixed on the window from the very people they want to convert, the local Protestants. Nor do they seem to have a notion of misdirecting attention at the crucial instant, so they abandon the plan:

All the People, especially the Protestants cast their eyes upon the Window, and the Quarrel out of which he was to go, and take it with him. But whether the peoples eyes being fixt upon the Quarrel might make them apprehensive, that they would discover the Trick by discerning how the quarrel was conveyed away (for the priests Elbows were often very near it: but whether it was this or something else I know not; but neither the Devil nor the quarrel went.”

This particular exorcism did not run smoothly: the weaver Ashton had been primed with some Latin, but the attempted impressive execration of the devil in the learned tongue faltered when the priest himself forgot the Latin for a toad, and had to be prompted by a spectator, while another Protestant observer, getting drawn in, enthusiastically joined in with speaking to the devil in Latin: he wanted to see the devil’s tongue (actually blackened either by dye or thumb pressure, says Taylor), and cried out ‘Verte ad me’, ‘Turn towards me!’, which Ashton did not understand, and ignored.

The pamphlet runs together various follies of this kind. In this final story, a Mrs Ditchfield is the target for conversion, and the fake demoniac is a maid servant called Alice Pennington, a convert and a willing (if rather giggly and transparent) accomplice. A ‘good understanding Protestant’, William Smith, sets about demonstrating that what seems wonderful in the possessed maid is less remarkable when performed with equal aptitude by himself:

“in a little time they gained upon her (Mrs Ditchfield), and she began to tell Mr Smith of the virtue of the Holy-Water, and what strange effects it wrought on the Demoniack, of which she could desire that he might be a witness; and so to the Maid they went, and she sprinkled Holy-Water in her face, and the Maid spit at her, Oh (saith she) do not you see what a strange power is in the Holy-Water? Yes (saith Mr. Smith) and pray will you try it upon me; and with some persuasions she was prevail’d with to make the Experiment on him, and she flung Holy-Water on his face, and he spit in her face; and she flung again, and he spit again, what do you mean saith she; O what Strange power saith he, is there in this Holy-Water, but Dear Mrs, saith he, do you not plainly see that all this is only to delude and abuse you, I am heartily sorry for you; she made him no reply, for they had now prevail’d upon her.”

(Image from Histoires prodigieuses et memorables, 1598Slide 64)

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