Tuesday, April 19, 2016

On this day in 1621: remembering Elizabeth Sawyer, convicted witch.

Three hundred and ninety five years ago today, Elizabeth Sawyer was led out to her hanging at Tyburn, after having been found guilty of the murder by witchcraft of Agnes Ratcleife.

Candidly described in the sole surviving report of her life and death as 'a very ignorant woman', Sawyer had lost her temper during her trial: 

"she was not able to speake a sensible or ready word for her defense, but sends out in the hearing of the Judge, Jury, and all good people that stood by, many most fearefull imprecations for destruction against her selfe then to happen, as heretofore she had wished and indeavoured to happen on divers of her neighbours: the which the righteous Judge of Heaven, whom she thus invocated, to judge then and discerne her cause, did reveale."

There's a sense that what she said in court (in this fashion) was the reason for her conviction. Certainly Henry Goodcole, the Chaplain of Newgate, who hastily wrote up his account of her conviction and the confession he finally got from her  ("though with great labour it was extorted from her"), shaped up and framed her story as a caution for all against blaspheming. He concludes: 

"Deare Christians, lay this to heart, namely the cause, and first time, that the Divell came unto her, then, even then when she was cursing, swearing, and blaspheming ... Stand on your guard and watch with sobrietie to resist him, the Divell your adversary, who waiteth on you continually, to subvert you that so you, that doe detest her abhominable wordes, and wayes, may never taste of the cup nor wages of shame and destruction, of which she did in this life..."

Her blasphemies seem to have caught everybody's attention. These days, we are fascinated by familiars, but plenty of witches had plenty of familiars in animal form without getting a play written about them. You can see their interest: Goodcole has her say:

"The first time that the Divell came unto me was, when I was cursing, swearing and blaspheming; he then rushed in upon me ... the first words that hee spake unto me were these: 'Oh! have I now found you cursing, swearing, and blaspheming? now you are mine.'"

And he adds a side note, reporting a spectator's extraordinary interest - he can't seem to get over it:

"A Gentleman by name Mr. Maddox standing by, and hearing of her say the word blaspheming, did aske of her, three or foure times, whether the Divell sayd 'Have I found you blaspheming?', and shee confidently sayd', 'Ay'."

Mr Maddox then disappears. He ought properly to appear among the list of names who attest to the truth that what is recorded was her confession. Goodcole promises this a couple of times in his text, but the names never got added. Doubtless Goodcole ran out of time.

Blasphemy as the moment of diabolic access went directly into the play Dekker, Ford and Rowley wrote about her.

But enough: almost 400 years later, that play has featured largely in my professional life as a university teacher. I think I know just about everything one can know, through the strange refractions of the pamphlet and the play. It is like peering into a fog, in which you can just about hear a voice, angry and lost.

Saturday, April 16, 2016

Meditation VIII: 'Upon a crumb going down the wrong way', 1666.

Meditation VIII. Upon a Crum going the wrong way.

What more mean and contemptible thing can there be then a single Crum, either in regard of its doing the least hurt, or effecting the least good; and yet, like the Tongue, which St. James saith, is a little Member, ex ollit sese, it boasteth great Matters: in the Mouth (it is true) it hath scarce substance enough to be felt; but, in the Throat, it is such as can hardly be endured. If it descend into the Stomach, it can contribute nothing to the support of Life; but, if it miss the due passage to it, how often doth it threaten Death? and sometimes also effect it: O, how frail and mutable is the Life of Man; which is not only Jeopardised by Instruments of War and Slaughter, which are made to destroy, but by an Hair, a Raisin Stone, a Feather, a Crum, and a thousand such inconsiderable things, which have a power to extinguish Life, but none to preserve it? How necessary then is it to get Grace into the Heart, when the Life that we have hangs thus continually in suspence before us? and, how circumspect should we be of small sins, which create as great dangers to the Soul, as the other things can to the Body? They that live in the Pale of the Church perish more by silent and Whispering Sins, then by Crying and Loud Sins, in which, though there be less Infamie, there is ofttimes the greater danger, in regard they are most easily fallen into, and most hardly repented of; like knots in fine Silk, which are sooner made then in a Cord or Cable, but with far more difficulty are unloosed again. Let us therefore (who often say that a Man may live of a little) think also of how much less a Man may Die, and miscarry, not in his Body only but in his Soul also.

From the Preface:

William Spurstow, who as he lived beloved of his friends, so he died of all his friends much lamented

First, His profound, and real humility, and that is a root-grace that hath many in it; and this is the true ascension of the soul:

…especially in that humbleness of mind he shewed after any large receits, or performances, wherein he shewed himself like Moses, though his face shone he knew it not.

Secondly, His Charity both in giving and forgiving, the latter of which, as it is most noble, so it is the most difficult, and that which is peculiar to Christ Disciples. …

Thirdly, To this may be added his Meekness, and Patience, the natural result of Humility, in which graces he was eminent, being seldom or never transported by passion, or if at any time those passions which do repugn that grace did arise, they soon had a counterbuff from the divine principle was in him. He alwaies had an innocent, and grateful chearfulness in his Converse, that rendred it very acceptable, being very free from that morosity of spirit which many times is like a cloud in a Diamond, and like a Curtain before a Picture. And yet as the sweetest Rose hath its prickles, and the industrious Bee (that makes the healing and mollifying Honey and Wax) her sting: So he had a sting of holy Zeal, which wisdom had the conduct of, that it was not put forth upon every trivial provocation;he knew when, and where, and how far to shew it; and in Gods Cause his Zeal was better tempered, than, like a brittle blade, to fly in shivers, and wound by-standers; but it was true mettal, and would cut deep, so as to leave impressions behind it ...

Fourthly, Add to this his peaceable disposition,

But I remember I am to write a Preface, not a Narrative of his life. He was a lover of goodmen. Loving and faithful in his Relations; a good Child, a good Father, a good Husband, a good Brother, a good Master, a good neighbour, a good Friend, a good Governor, a good Subject, a good minister: and all because he was a good Christian...

(But not, I would venture, a very good writer.)

There are more in his posthumous volume:

Sunday, April 03, 2016

Spirited away, early modern style

The passage above is taken from the incorrigible Joseph Glanvill's work, A Blow at Modern Sadducism (1668) - a work whose boundless conviction somehow failed to extend to its own rather underwhelming title, which hardly lives up to the 'Beacon Lit'/'The Beacon Quenched' style of ding-dong that was so characteristic of the age. But that by the way.

Glanvill has just surmised that "The Laws and affairs of the other world ... are vastly differing from those of our Regions". Forgetting what he's just said, he goes on to make one of his frequent close analogies: he cannot conceive of Hell except as a place with differing social classes, and laws applicable to all the fallen spirits.

He has been puzzling at the motivations of those fallen angels who become familiar spirits. One surmise he makes is that such beings are in fact spirits of the malignant dead. Or then, they might be conceived of, he suggests, as the socially most lowly demons, spirits of a working class kind, who alone would tolerate the probably painful business of inhabiting the body of a small animal. Glanvill then arrives at a surmise that apparently satisfies him as his final suggestion, based on property rights: perhaps these demonic lowest-of-the-low are prepared to give so much effort to winning witches, soul and body, because they thereby acquire property rights over them, after the completion of pact, in Hell.

Glanvill makes analogies with the right of the successful hunter to the dead body of his animal quarry, slave-owners to slaves, and if these things were not chilling enough reflections on the non-diabolic state of things, he suddenly sees these low and deceiving devils as being like "the seducing fellows we call Spirits, who inveigle Children by their false and flattering promises, and carry them away to the Plantations of America, to be servilly employed there".

This was a new form of early modern moral awfulness to me. The OED recognises the usage, under its entry for 'spirit':

The first quotation from Bulstrode Whitlocke actually records a Parliamentary ordinance passed in 1645. This is the full passage:

"May, 1645: 9. An  Ordinance against such who are called Spirits, and use to steal away, and take up children,  and bereave their Parents of them, and convey them away. And they ordered another Ordinance to be brought in to make this Offence Felony."

Despite attempts to regulate, the professional child abductor was a long-lived evil. The OED's 1690 quotation comes from this passage, which appears to be arguing that such abductions were in the end a lesser evil:

"Virginia and Barbadoes were first peopled by a sort of loose vagrant People, vicious and destitute of means to live at home (being either unfit for labour, or such as could find none to employ themselves about, or had so misbehaved themselves by Whoring, Thieving, or other Debauchery, that none would set them on work) which Merchants and Masters of Ships by their Agents (or  Spirits, as they were called) gathered up about the Streets of London, and other places, clothed and transported, to be employed upon Plantations; and these I say were such, as had there been no English foreign Plantation in the World, could probably never have lived at home to do Service for their Country, but must have come to be hanged or starved, or dyed untimely of some of those miserable Diseases, that proceed from want and Vice; or else have sold themselves for Soldiers, to be knocked on the Head or starved in the Quarrels of our Neighbours, as many thousands of brave English men were in the low Countries, as also in the Wars of Germany, France, and Sweden, &c. or else if they could, by begging, or otherwise, arrive to the Stock of 2s.6d. to waft them over to Holland, become Servants to the Dutch, who refuse none."

This was the text of the Restoration attempt at regulation of this trade in minors in 1685. Interestingly, the bias of the legislation is to create legal protections for the 'Merchants and Planters', who have been taken to law by people who had taken the money, and then complained of abduction by 'spirits'.

[A transcript of the ordinance]:

"Whereas it has been Represented to His Majesty, That by reason of the frequent Abuses of a  lewd sort of People, called Spirits, in Seducing many of His Majesties Subjects to go on Shipboard, where they have been seized, and carried by force to His Majesties Plantations in America; and that many idle Persons who have Listed themselves Voluntarily to be Transported thither, and have received Money upon their Entering into Service for that purpose, have afterwards pretended they were betrayed, and carried away against their Wills, and procured their Friends to Prosecute the Merchants who Transported them, or in whose Service they are, by Indictments, or Informations in the Crown Office in His Majesties Name, which is a great Discouragement to them, and an Hindrance to the Management of the Trade of the said Plantations, and Navigation of this Kingdom; And several Merchants and Planters having made humble Applications to His Majesty, That he would be Graciously pleased to Direct such Methods for their Retaining of Servants to Serve in His Majesties Plantations, as in His Royal Wisdom he should think meet, whereby His Majesty may be so satisfied of their Fair Dealing, as to take off all Prosecutions against them at His Majesties Suit; And also that the Scandal that now lies upon them in general, by reason of such Evil-disposed persons, may not remain upon such as shall for the future follow such Methods as His Majesty shall think fit to be pursued.

His Majesty taking into His Royal Consideration the said Request, is Graciously pleased to Declare, That such Merchants, Factors, Masters of Ships, or other Persons that shall use the Method hereafter following, in the Hiring of Servants for His Majesties Plantations, shall not be Disquieted by any Suit on His Majesties behalf, but upon Certificate thereof, that He will cause all such Suits to be stopped, to the end they may receive no further Molestation thereby.

I. Such Servants as are to be taken by Indenture, to be Executed by the Servant, in the presence of the Magistrate, or Magistrates hereafter appointed; One part thereof Signed by such Servant, and also Underwritten, or Endorsed with the Name and Hand-writing of such Magistrate, which is to remain with the Clerk of the Peace, to be Returned to the next Sessions, there to be Filed upon a distinct File, and Numbered, and kept with the Records.

II. The Clerk of the Peace is to keep a Fair Book, wherein the Name of the Person so Bound, and the Magistrates Name before whom the same was done, and the time and place of doing thereof, and the Number of the File shall be Entered: And for the more easy finding the same, the Entries are to be made Alphabetically, according to the first Letter of the Surname.

III. All Persons above the Age of One and twenty years, or who shall, upon View and Examination, appear to be so in the Judgment of the Magistrate, may be Bound in the presence of One Justice of the Peace, or of the Mayor, or Chief Magistrate of the Place where they shall go on Shipboard; who is to be fully satisfied from him, of his free and voluntary Agreement, to enter into the said Service.

IV. If any Person be under the Age of One and Twenty years, or shall appear so to be, he shall be Bound in the presence of the Lord Mayor of London, or One of the Judges, or an Alderman of London, being a Justice of Peace, or the Recorder, or Two Justices of the Peace of any other County, or Place, who shall carefully Examine whether the Person so to be Bound, have any Parents, or Masters; And if he be not Free, they are not to take such Indenture, unless the Parents, or Masters give their Consents, and some Person that knows the said Servant to be of the Name, and Addition mentioned in the Indenture, is to Attest his said knowledge upon the said Indenture.

V. If the Person be under the Age of Fourteen years, unless his Parents shall be present, and Consent, he is not to be carried on Shipboard, till a Fortnight at least, after he becomes Bound, to the intent that if there be any Abuse, it may be discovered before he be Transported. And where his Parents do not appear before the Magistrate, Notice is to be sent to them; or where they cannot be found, to the Church-Wardens, or Overseers of the Parish where he was last Settled, in such manner as the said Magistrates shall think fit, and Direct.

And because Clerks of the Peace may conceive this not to be any part of the Duty of their Office, and may therefore exact unreasonable Rewards for their trouble and pains therein, His Majesty doth Declare, That if any Merchants, or other Persons shall be aggrieved thereby, and upon Complaint to the Justices cannot obtain Relief, His Majesty will take such further care for their ease herein, as in His Royal Wisdom He shall think meet. And His Majesties further Pleasure is, That this Order be Printed and Published, to the end all Persons whom it may concern, may take Notice thereof, and govern themselves accordingly."

This all seems quite sensible, whether such provisions were observed is another matter. The legislation is all reasonable carrot and no stick; the last paragraph rather ominously anticipates the recalcitrance of some of the state officials for whom all this was a new area of duty.

Behind the terminology, 'spirits', for those who inveigled minors and other to go as servants and workers to New England was an equation, utterly pessimistic about America as a prospect, with those supernatural spirits who'd try to induce you to go to hell. The same equation is lurking too in the robust response that those who end up in New England were going to hell anyway, being idlers and good-for-nothings. Promoters of the plantations had tried to represent North America as a new Eden, a paradise on earth, not a new hell (for example William Bullock's VIRGINIA Impartially examined, 1649, or Samuel Clarke's A true and faithful account of the four chiefest plantations of the English in America to wit, of Virginia, New-England, Bermudus, Barbados (1670), while others were vehement to dispel any such notion (for instance, George Gardyner, A description of the new world (1651).

The better informed, not young people deluded by 'spirits', do seem to have been wary of the risks. I've always been struck by Old Seeley, returned to his sense at the end of The Late Lancashire Witches, threatening his whole family with deportation to the colony unless they behave themselves better in future: "I’ll ship you all for New England else."