The strange witch at Greenwich by the pseudonymous Hieronymus Magomastix (1650) is one of those strange performances that only the mid 17th century could produce. It was written by an elderly clergyman, who does reveal that he was incumbent at St Brides in Fleet Street. It ought to be possible to find out his identity, which would have scarcely been hidden when the pamphlet came out. He preferred, though, to appear in print veiled as a ‘Magomastix’, a scourge for the wizards.
The pamphlet is cast as a dialogue between ‘Scepticus’, and ‘Veridicus’, the author figure and, as his name implies, a veridical speaker of truth. ‘Scepticus’ is misnamed, he’s a sceptic as far as the 17th century tolerated them: so eager to be instructed in matters of which he confesses ignorance that he kicks off the dialogue with effusive flattery of his interlocutor, confessing that “I was tossed and troubled in unsettled fluctuations” until he “lighted my darke torch at your bright flame” and asks for more, “knowing you are as willing to improve your able parts for publick and private good to the inlivening and inlightening of such weak tenuities as mine, as a full dugd Mother or Nurse to communicate her milke to a hungry childe…” In justice to the self-tickling author, this is all meant to be ‘jocoserious’, and the author uses the term twice so that we understand his tone throughout.
This ‘Scepticus’, so eager to be spiritually enlightened, has a question: ‘that you would be pleased to informe mee both in the quid, quale & quomodo, of the Reports in every mans tongue … of a strange witch or Ghost now at Greenwich haunting the house of one Meriday, and playing strange prankes by throwing stones at the glasse windowes, making the stooles, chaires, and other utensils daunce Sellengers round … throwing also Bookes, yea the Testament into the fire, as though it cared as little for it, as a new Enthusiast, Papist, or an Atheist, peerking the ladle out of the Wives boyling pot below, as high as into the Husbands bed above…” (This is a sample of the ‘jocoserious’ style employed.)
So, here’s our situation: poltergeist activity in a house in Greenwich in 1650. The full title of the pamphlet fills us in on what set it all off:
The strange vvitch at Greenvvich, (ghost, spirit, or hobgoblin) haunting a wench, late servant to a miser, suspected a murtherer of his late vvife: with curious discussions of walking spirits and spectars of dead men departed, for rare and mysticall knowledge and discourse, / by Hieronymus Magomastix. April 24. 1650.
After the death of her mistress, a 14 year old ‘wench’ (who I deduce was living back at the house of a relative by marriage named Meriday) embarked on confecting the ‘supernatural’ occurrences which would suggest that the recent death had not been natural, that her mistress’ unquiet spirit haunted the house, having something to impart. She did this with such success that numbers of people spent time in the house, to experience for themselves the phenomena (and, so suggestible are people in such matters, they inevitably did). The dead woman’s body was exhumed, probably because the girl’s clever and determined campaign suggested that something had to be amiss, and be worth investigation (though one rather doubts that 17th century forensics would determine much). The girl’s motive may have been indignant loyalty to her deceased mistress, but money may also have played a part if the widower had been miserly in paying her off.
The clergyman writing the pamphlet had established the basic facts of what was going on. The girl had not proved easy to break down, but he finally elicited a confession (of sorts) from her:
(Scepticus) “Proceed in your plaine story of this house haunted by Witches: I have heard of most of these pageants you have related were onely done by the wily Wench, who was servant to the woman taken out of her grave, upon suspicion of her unnatural death: and that she hath troubled and blundered the Waters, and made all this poother, to call her late master in question about the death of his Wife.
(Veridicus) It’s very true, that a bold faced brazen brow’d wench hath had a great finger in the Pye, and hath been a great stickler [i.e., instigator] in these Pageants; for I have had her in serious examination, and have with much adoe wrested from her thus much…”
You’d think this was enough, but while ‘Magomastix’ may be keen to scourge spurious wizards, like the demonologists in Walter Stephens’ Demon Lovers, he cannot bring himself to rationalize away completely such gratifying local evidence of the supernatural. Magomastix’s whole pamphlet is a carefully Protestant picking-and-choosing of what you must, and must not believe.
The manifestations were too important to him (he had his own experiences of them while round at the ‘haunted’ house), and he has the testimonies of other “solid witnesses” as well, who were utterly convinced by aspects of what they had seen in the house. His own chief experience (naturally enough) had happened just when his back was turned. The girl obviously was willing to go to extremes with a clergyman whose investigations were proving awkward:
“I my selfe being one night with much company in the house, as wee went out a round stone was throwne at my daughters heeles; another time as I was in the house with the old Wife and two children, as I went into the garden a knife was throwne after me, which I tooke up, and with vehemency threw it back againe to the very place from whence it came, daring the Witch or Spirit to throw it at mee againe, and conjuring it in the name of that Jesus which is terrible to Divells to speake unto mee, and to reveale the reason why it haunted the house and to return to it own place; but I had no reply.”
The decision he has reached is that while the girl may have confessed to imposture, she cannot have perpetrated all the poltergeist activities. Did she have an accomplice?
Scepticus puts some of the local guesswork to his instructor: “Some have great jealousie of the old Wife her Mother in Law” (he means, they suspected that she had) “a great hand … in these witchly or spiritly postures, as though by some explicite or implicite compact with Sathan, shee should delude the world by these fascinations … What think you of her?” But Veridicus exonerates the older woman: “I have no windows into her heart, and for her outward carriage it is so candid, square and faire, that I see no cause either in reason or Religion to suspect her”. The older woman was, he found, “So strong in faith, so frequent and fervent in prayer, so zealous in her devotions.”
So Scepticus draws the obvious conclusion: “Its probable the Wench acts all her self.” But here Veridicus sticks: “Something shee doth, but not all”. His position is nicely poised (and maybe the ‘jocoserious’ nature of his pamphlet indicates a certain anxiety to manage the flow of more genuinely sceptical derision). He is nevertheless, like the Protestant thinkers in Greenblatt’s Hamlet and Purgatory, determined to refute the idea that ghosts can walk:
“I assure you, what ever the Pontificans [he means the Catholics] doate or faigne, or our Vulgars dreame of the Ghosts or Spirits of this man, or that man walking after their deaths in this or that shape, is a very lye, an assured lye; take this from me, yea, from Scripture, Fathers, Reason, and Experience assuredly…that these walking, or talking spectars in humane shapes, are such men and women really as have been dead and buried; this is not only a fixion unprobable, but impossible, for these reasons …”
He goes on to explain that the souls of the dead saints are in the hands of God, they departed in peace and so cannot be perturbed in such hauntings, they are in paradise with the good thief, while “the wicked are closed in Hell … out of which there is no jayle delivery”. His view can be summed up when he says that the departed godly would not return to earth, the wicked cannot.
Denying that ‘apparitions’ are the souls of the dead, Veridicus does not deny all visions, and a lengthy list of them follows, including mention of those that afflicted Richard III, “which instances doe not onely confute and confound the ancient Saduces” but they also “muzzle the mouth of Atheisticall Politicians” who “hold that there be no reall or substantial Divells, but onely the Furies and Erinnis of wicked consciences”.
Veridicus may have eliminated ghosts, but he is determined to preserve and evidence the ‘substantial’ devil. Though at one point of his pamphlet, in scoffing at Catholic exorcisms, Veridicus asserts that “Even Sathan himselfe, is chained as a Mastiffe, and grated as a Lyon, In all his powers subordinate unto God”, he is unable to resist the notion of a ‘reall’ Satan busily prompting people in this world. Here again, in those exorcisms, one senses another reassuring evidence for the existence of the spirit world that Protestants were having to do without, obliging them to adhere more stubbornly to a belief in witchcraft, the witches as Satan’s visible agents testifying to his existence. The ‘wench’ had admitted to this tale of how “Satan entered into her as into Judas and Ananias”:
“that being one day in her mothers garden, some three weeks after her Dames death, that a stone was throwne at her, and hit her on the back, none being near her, nor within her sight; at which she much marveling from whence it should come, she tooke up the stone, looked seriously upon it, carried it up and downe the garden, with as much pride and complacency, as admiration: upon which Satan vehemently tempted her to throw it against her mothers window, which this obedient vassal did accordingly. Upon which she setting the devil a worke, as he her, as she broke the ice, an ill spirit hath waded and thrown forty stones since (as forty can testify) at the same windows, no visible hand being since.
Without much wresting and sponging shee hath freely and penitentially acknowledged both to my selfe and others, that since that stone throwne in the Garden, shee her selfe in a paltry pride to aggravate the Report of spirit haunting behind peoples backs, when she thought shee was free from being seene, hath often in acting and counterfeiting the spirit, throwne stooles, cushions, candlesticks, dishes, and kept the like Revill Rush [?]; and indeed so long goes the Pitcher to the Well, that at last it comes home broake. Sathan catcht her in her owne snare, being by a yong man taken tripping in the very act, as shee cast a great chip out of a chamber downe the staires into the house where many people were.”
Here we see a danger beyond the ignominy of simple exposure in what the girl was doing: while the pamphlet can talk quite jovially a mixture of “ingenious folly and serpentine knavery” in her actions, Magomastix cannot quite let go of the devil, who was “Baiting his hooke with many delusive promises, that if shee would go on as shee had begun, what shee did should never bee knowne, and that hee would never forsake her. I see give the Divell an inch, and hee will take an ell, sup of his broth, and eate of his roast-meate.” Her situation was that of a witch, promised things by the devil, assisted in certain acts: even her involuntary self-exposure could be read as Satan betraying her!
Satan had to be involved: the manifestations in the house were beyond her powers, too well witnessed. ‘Magomastix’ produces this rather astonishing comment, in which a whole gamut of metaphysical experiences are linked as inexplicable but true perceptions: “Stooles, sticks in the fire, laundry irons … have moved of themselves … they looking on, and seeing nothing move them more than they see, a voice, a sound, a wind, a noise, a soule in man, or their owne hearts, which they perceive really, though they see nothing visibly.”
The conclusion both parties in the dialogue are drawn to is that witchcraft has to be involved, that there must be a witch, whose familiar spirit is invisibly assisting:
Scepticus: “I have strong jealousie that this Impe hath a laire-father or laire-mother (besides Sathan the father of all impostures) some hee or shee witch, who traines her (besides these legerdemains) even in Witchcraft it selfe.”
Veridicus shares this suspicion:
“Yea, I have dealt by all ways and meanes with the Wench both faire and foule, menaces, threatening, and promises to reveale her magicall Tutresse; but shee is a subtile as a yong serpent, I can get no more out of her then water out of a stone.”
The ‘wench’ might be getting the assistance of a witch, and then the next possibility, as mentioned, was that the ‘wench’ might herself be a witch. Some tricks she could pull off by her own dexterity, the other more confounding ones through a spirit she commanded. Veridicus first produces ominous Bible examples of “yong things” and their “strong soone budding corruptions” (citing Matthew 27 and Herodias). Then he jumps to the more recent past: “Many yong wily Wenches in our Times, some discovered by Doctour Harsnet, some by Deakon and Walker, in their printed Dialoguizings, and some by deepe and judicious King James, to have playd strange reakes [the word means pranks] by the tutoring and impostures of Fryars and Jesuits, and by the trainings of some old Witches and Wizzards both black and white; and indeed I thinke an English rack, or Spanish strappado would no more get it out of her… unlesse we could discover her, as now the Scotch Witches by water Ordeall.”
Torturing her to get at the truth isn’t exactly unthinkable to him, though he pushes the thought off into Scotland.
Towards the end of the pamphlet, Veridicus, who clearly thinks very well of himself, apparently forgets what he has argued earlier, when he boastfully suggests that most of the things reported of the great conjurers he could do himself, if he took on the art of ‘meer natural magick’. Indeed, he further boasts, he could do these things, and then impart the capacity to a six year old, whose innocence would be a testimony to just how undiabolical such magic was (while the common people would think he was a great conjurer). The man who was, just pages before, half willing to put the 14 year old ‘wench’ to the question about the sources of her witchcraft, asserts that he could produce all kinds of magical phenomena legitimately if he set his capacious mind to the art; the man who condemned Jesuits and Friars for tutoring ‘young wily wenches’ imagines doing just that himself:
“I perswade my self I could do such things my self … by this meer naturall magick , or in plain tearmes, the producing of Art and nature into practice; such rare and exquisite things have been done, or may be done, especially by such instruments … That the common people .. would take me for as great a conjurer as ever Cornelius Agrippa, or Doctor Faustus, or for as great a witch as Circes, or Medea; at least as great a Juggler as once my neighbour John a Ley, or Hocus Pocus, or some cunning wise man, such as Mr Lilly is divulged, as though he were a second Merlin; when for all this, I could make a child of six years old do the like things presently and give as good a reason of what I do (as I perswade my self Mr Booker, and Mr Lilly can give of their artificiall undiabolized Predictions) as I can give a Reason why I am hot or warm, when I am in the Sun, or at the fire without any more confederacy with any Witch, or spirit.”
The Strange Witch at Greenwich involves what is ultimately an uneasy consideration of things that look like something else. An apparition is not a dead person, but a devil (inevitably, the two discuss the case of the Bible’s Witch of Endor, Veridicus asserting that what she produced was “a deluding Malignant spirit in the shape of Samuel”). Supernatural soliciting may be misleading: Veridicus tells a story that “a counterfeit voice” told “the late Mr Crashaw of the Temple, or old Muncy Duncy of St Johns in Cambridge, that they should goe to Geneva to preach the Gospell”. He disapproves, of course, as they must have left the Church of England to become Calvinists. But after we have worked through a learned list of early modern celebrity look-alikes, we hear something else about the deluded Mr Crashaw: our writer was often mistaken for him: “I have been often in the streets tooke for Mr Crashaw, when he was preacher at the Temple, and I at Saint Brides in Fleet Street.”
When he had the knife thrown at him by the diabolic spirit operating at Meriday’s house, did Veridicus attempt no exorcism (asks Scepticus)? No, says Veridicus firmly, exorcism is one of the ‘disorderly Orders’ of the Catholic church. But he admits that he did ‘adjure’ the spirit when it threw a knife at him, but “my act was so far discrepant from the practice of the Popish Priests”.
As we have heard, if he chose to take up natural magic, “the common people ... would take me for as great a conjurer as ever Cornelius Agrippa, or Doctor Faustus”. In a way, the ‘strange witch at Greenwich’ was Hieronimus Magomastix. His inflated pseudonym anticipates his final boast of how he could become a conjurer: if you set aside its etymology, it’s a conjurer’s name. He is trying to rule what must and what can’t be believed in (devils but not at any price ghosts, who are all devils), but as he tries to impose his opinions, his own unsettled nature is revealed. He is jocose, he is serious. He produces a list of pretenders, including Martin Guerre “long admitted for a husband though a counterfeit knave”; he could, like a Jesuit exorcist, instruct a wily six year old; his own lookalike became a Calvinist; we see that while he is Veridicus, he is also latently Scepticus, the real sceptic for whom “a sound, a wind, a noise, a soule in man” are all the same, clinging on to the ‘substantial’ devil in the absence of exorcisms and ghosts, while asserting, like Balthasar Bekker would do, that the devil is imprisoned in hell.
Around him swirls a chaos of inappropriate beliefs: (that) “it is the Ghost or Spirit of the dead woman her late Dame which walkes, as I assure you many in the Towne, and most in the Countrey ere she was tooke out of her Grave, did believe as their Creed verily and assuredly” (and I do like the smart distinction of town and country there.) He invents people asking him what to believe, who are notably ready to believe in him, yet his pamphlet ends with what seems to be an elaborate trailer for a long and systematic account of Satan’s true powers, but while boasting that he could deliver it, he says it’s too large a burden for his “aged shoulders”. He will set Scepticus to rights in the afternoon, for now, his stomach is summoning him off to his midday meal. And off he shuffles, offering no useful final advice on what to do about the ‘wench’, his present ‘rare and mysticall’ discourse about Satan and witchcraft merely ‘jocoserious’, stretched to a fraction of the length that any self-respecting 17th century clergyman writer would run to on such a subject (though promising more after lunch).
In the final assessment, he just blogged about it, didn’t he?