Alexander Roberts, ‘Preacher of God’s word at Kings Lynn in Norfolk’ produced his 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 practise: of her contract vocally made between the Deuill and her, in solemne termes, by whose meanes she hurt sundry persons whom she envied (etc) in 1616. It is an interesting composite of brief demonological treatise and a reportorial pamphlet occasioned by a particular case in which he had had a personal involvement.
The work is not, of course, ‘original’; it offers no new opinions; Roberts is doctrinaire rather than insightful. But as he was a conscientious and learned man, he wrote a highly symptomatic book. In the first place, it is the form of his treatise that is indicative. Any demonological tract, when written with application, tended to be a text surrounded by side-notes. Roberts has not reached the condition of some of the more massive works, where a window of authorial text sits inside a square fortress of citation.
But his annotation is thorough enough to be eloquent of a text made out of derived opinions, an argument sustained by its sources.
The overall structure is also one of an enwrapped account: the disaster which overtook the quarrelsome and needle-tongued Mary Smith is told in a set of plain text pages, preceded by seven lengthily expounded and much-annotated ‘propositions’ about witchcraft advanced by Roberts, and followed by two more ‘propositions or corollaries’. Any witchcraft tract is made up by accretion: confirmatory opinions, various witnesses, individually incredible stories that, together, confirm an unlikely truth. One of demonology’s enfolded narratives was its own counter-discourse, and here, though Reginald Scot is either not known to Roberts or was avoided, Johan Weyer pops up repeatedly. He’s there to be confuted, of course, a voice of unreason amongst so many witnesses to the truth. But then, what curious witnesses they are! Roberts naturally uses first the standard bible texts, but (as a learned man of his age would do), he then multiplies examples from what he calls the ‘gentiles’ – a whole anthology of enchantresses in the classical world from Homer’s Circe onwards. Roberts means to reinforce his opinion about the veracity of witchcraft by the unstated ‘no smoke without fire’ tactic behind this and all such accumulations. But assembling the kind of stories people have told one another merely witnesses the general way in which people like stories. Such fictionality witnesses something in us, not in reality. Roberts, a bookish man, clearly cannot resist books: they have an authenticity to him, an authority worth repeating no matter (in the end) what they are, provided they are revered enough.
Out of the usual defensive welter of the demonologist (for witchcraft belief was always sandbagging itself against disbelief, and this work is just a conspicuous example of that) emerges the unlucky Mary Smith, a shrewd and shrewish woman with ‘a tongue like a tang’. She was perhaps smart enough to spot the symptoms of conditions that the people she cursed so accurately were concealing from themselves. In a later age she might have been a brilliant diagnostician, or at the least an astute health visitor. Anyway, if the people she crosses are starting to show their age or fray in health, she voices it sharply, her malediction foresees the worst possible outcome for the sufferer.
A sailor, John Orkton, struck her son, so she “wished in a most earnest and bitter manner, that his fingers might rotte off”. Whatever symptom of disease she had noted and used to give force to her curse, after nine months, “his fingers did corrupt, and were cut off; as also his toes putrefied & consumed in a very strange and admirable manner”. Mary Smith then took pleasure, it seems, in her astute observation: the “malitious woman, who long before openly in the streets, (whenas yet the neighbours knew of no such thing) rejoicing at the calamity, said, Orkton now lieth a rotting”.
A similar victim was Cicely Bailey, who provoked Mary Smith by sweeping in a manner Smith considered offensive to her (I should imagine that the direction in which the dirt was flicked was involved): “Mary Smith began to pick a quarrel … and said unto her she was a great fat-tailed sow, but that fatness should shortly be pulled down and abated. And the next night being Sunday immediately following, a Cat came unto her, sat 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 sick, languished, and grew exceeding lean; and so continued for the space of half a year together…”
Cicely Bailey did finally escape, and back at work in service to a master who lives outside Mary’s operating radius, recovered (one can imagine) her comfortably fat tail. The cat is the interesting thing here. All too clearly Mary Smith found her neighbours intolerably irksome. But she loved her cat, in a way we’d all recognize and understand. But in the age of demonology, part of the evidence against her was her victim Cicely’s account (and 17th century building standards feature here) of peeping through a crack in the partition between the house she inhabited and Mary Smith’s bedroom. The cat, off duty from oppressing plethoric Cicely (“the Divel being willing to apprehend and take hold upon such an occasion, that so he might do some pleasing office his bond-slave”) is being caressed: “whom she adored in submiss manner, upon her knees, with strange gestures, uttering many murmuring, broken, and imperfect speeches, as this Cicely did both hear and see, there being no other partition between the chamber wherein she performed these rites, and the house of her master with whom she then dwelt, but only a thin seeling of board, through a cranny or rift whereof she looked, listened attentively unto her words, and beheld diligently her behaviour, and might have seen and heard much more, but that she was with the present spectacle so affrighted, that she hastened down in much fear and distemper.”
The cat, identified by Roberts with the devil, was attacked by a neighbour with sword and pikestaff. It still managed, maimed, to get away and die somewhere. Mary Smith subsequently accuses the neighbour of having killed her cat, but Roberts opts to ignore her knowledge of its death to play up the supernatural quality of its apparent survival: “a great Cat which kept with this Witch (of whose infernal both purposes and practises wee now speak) frequented their house; and upon doing some scathe, her husband moved therewith, thrust it twice through with his sword: which notwithstanding those wounds received, ran away: then he stroke it with all his force upon the head with a great pike staff, yet could not kill her; but she leapt after this upward almost a yard from the boards of that chamber where she now was, and crept down: which he perceiving, willed his lad (a boy of fourteen years) to drag her to the muck-hill, but was not able; and therefore put her into a sack, and being in the same, still moved and stirred. Whereupon they put her out again, and cast her under a pair of stairs, purposing in the morning, to get more help, and carry her away; but then could not be found, though all the doors that night were locked, and never heard what afterward became thereof.”
A silkman, John Mason, tried to call in a debt from Mary’s husband. After “some execrations and curses being wished unto him, within three or foure days (being then gone to Yarmouth in Norfolk upon necessary business) there fell sick, and was tortured with exceeding and massacring griefs”. Mary has managed to trigger stress enough to affect him. We are told that his condition did finally improve when “this mischievous woman was committed to prison … at which time (so near as he could conjecture) he then received some release of his former pains, though at the present when he made this relation, which was at Candlemas last past, had not perfectly recovered his wonted strength: for his left hand remained lame, and without use.” So Mason sounds like a slowly-recovering stroke victim, a man who’d been in a poor state of health and who had just needed agitated alarm.
I know that I am sounding like Edward Bever on the efficacy of witchcraft, and maybe this post can be thought of as a response to his book, which I had out of the library just long enough to gallop through perhaps a third of the work before some other reader requisitioned the work. But one Elizabeth Hancock, after a quarrel about a hen, goes the same way as Mason, Mary triggers a psychosomatic collapse: “whereupon, breaking forth in some violence, she wished the pox to light upon her, and named her proud [h]inny, prowde flurts, and shaking the hand, bade her go in, for she should repent it; and the same night, within three or foure hours after these curses and imprecations uttered, she was taken and pinched at the heart.”
Elizabeth Hancock suffers a ‘sodaine weaknesse in all the parts of her body’, but with no loss of appetite. Every time she feels a little better, she gets some fresh air by leaning on the open-air stall in her house and shop. And, every time she is seen there, Mary Smith puts more the pressure on her: “whom this Marie Smith seeing, did ever ban, adding the former curse, the pox light upon you, can you yet come to the door?” After three weeks of this, there’s a climactic episode:
“and at the end of these three weeks, being but very weak, came forth as she used to do, to take the ayre, this mischievous woman most bitterly cursed her again, whereupon she went into the house, fell into such a torturing fit, and nipping at the heart, that she fainted, hardly recoverable for the space of half an hour, and so grievously racked and tormented through all parts of her body, as if the very flesh had been torn from the bones, by the violent pain whereof she could not refrain, but tore the hair from off her head.”
Elizabeth, convinced that she is the victim of Mary Smith’s effective curse, plays the part of witch’s victim with great energy. One doubts that there was much wrong with her, her appetite remained good. But she is getting three weeks in bed, lots of attention, and if she can get Mary Smith incriminated for witchcraft, then convicted and hanged, the witch will lose her power, and Elizabeth wins the quarrel.
With this forceful and unpleasant personality, and victims either willing to act out the part assigned them or exhibiting symptoms of a more advanced stage of their illness, it was in the end easy enough for Mary to believe in her own malign powers.
Roberts as minister got to know her in her last days, and says he will be “sparing by anie amplification to enlarge this” but will “nakedly rehearse the truth, and number of her own words unto me.”
From Roberts, Smith learned how to analyse her experience in the right demonological way: her first surrender to the devil, who “appeared unto her amidst these discontentments, in the shape of a black man, and willed that she should continue in her malice, envy, hatred, banning and cursing; and then he would be revenged for her upon all those to whom she wished evil: and this promise was uttered in a low murmuring and hissing voice” (Roberts makes a point of this, that the devil "cannot so perfectly represent the fashion of a man's body, but that there is some sensible deformity, by which he bewrayeth himself ... as in his body assumed, so in his speech there is a defect, for it is weak, small, whispering, imperfect."
Mary was executed on January 12th, 1616, in very “distemperate” weather. They clearly wanted to postpone the business to a better day, offering up as an excuse the notion that she might be brought to acknowledge more of her crimes, but Mary was not minded to oblige them “which she in no wise would condescend unto should be deferred”.
Despite the weather, a large crowd gathered, and Mary took control of the proceedings. As before, when she was considered to be an associate of the devil, she’d thoroughly convinced people that such were her real powers, so at the end she managed to play up to their ideology forcefully enough to give the impression that she was, despite everything, on her way to heaven:
“she in particular manner confessed openly at the place of execution, in the audience of multitudes of people gathered together (as is usual 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 the means whereby she trusted to obtain the same, as before, hath been specified. And being asked, if she would be contented to have a Psalm sung, answered willingly that she desired the same, and appointed it herself, The Lamentation of a Sinner, whose beginning is, Lord turn not away thy face, &c. And after the ending thereof thus finished her life: So that in the judgment of charity we are to conceive the best, and think she resteth in peace, notwithstanding her heinous transgressions formerly committed.”