James Fisher’s The wise virgin, or, A wonderfull narration of the hand of God wherein his severity and goodnesse hath appeared in afflicting a childe of eleven years of age, when stricken dumb, deaf and blinde through the prevalence of her disease, yet upon her wonderfull recovery was heard at severall times to utter many glorious truths concerning Christ, faith, and other subjects: to the wonderment of many that came far and neer to see and hear her (1653) is partly a narrative of the illness endured by Martha Hatfield of Leighton, Yorkshire, from April 1652 through to December of that year (the child turned 12 years old during her illness). The greater part of the work, however, consists of a journal of the edifying things said by this extraordinarily devout child (“piously principled even from her Cradle, the Spirit blossoming in her in the very Spring of her age) in various stages of her afflictions. When she was able to, Martha fell into a pattern for her utterance of the things she had been thinking about on her sickbed: “she continued speaking from May the 19, until June the 21, 1652: beginning usually about eight of the clock at night, and so continued with some little intermission between every sentence to speak for two houres or more, and then ceased until the next night about the same time”.
But she was undoubtedly ill, and was mute for long spells (June 21st till July 29th, then till August 11th). Martha’s words were carefully recorded, and Fisher annotated them with references to the Bible passages to which she was apparently alluding (I give a page image above). At her most ecstatic, Martha sounds like Thomas Traherne at his woosiest. Like Traherne, she tends to repeat favoured formulae, as Fisher himself notes: “the next thing she spake (after such frowning fits) was alwayes something against Satan that roaring lurking lion”, and he has her delivering almost forty variations on “Christ hath pulled back Satan that roaring lurking lion, that would destroy my poor soul”.
Here’s a sample passage, but one where I have intervened in the text with some modernizing (mainly of punctuation). It shows the child under some strain, perhaps in delivering a more spontaneous thought in a suitable form:
“Oh let us suck sweetness from Jesus Christ, as the childe sucks milk from the mother’s breast; the harder we draw, the more we shall get; the childe wrangles and wrangles till the mother give it the pap in the mouth, and then it’s quiet and satisfied: so…” and there she stayed a good space, going oft over with the word “so” before she could get any more words; at last, she said, “so a poor soul seeks, and knows not what it wants, and wrangles, and wrangles till it get Christ; all the world will not satisfy it, but -” (and then she lifted up her self, and struck with her hand upon her thighs with much fervour of spirit) “- when it gets Christ, then it is satisfied” (and then using the same actions again, said) “when it gets Christ, then it’s abundantly satisfied; all the world will not satisfy him, but Christ will give him full satisfaction.”
I’d really like a medical practitioner to read this pamphlet for a verdict on the symptomology. I think she was suffering from tetanus. The diagnosis in Fisher is of “Spleen-wind”. When they were able to feed her at the start of the illness, poor Martha vomits up food (“and that which she vomited was like gall or soot, and bloud”), she would lie with her head, leg or arm at an odd angle, and her limbs would remain in whatever position they are placed. By September, she had the full symptoms of what seems to be lockjaw: “September the 8th.This day a Physician came to visit her, being sent for by her parents; they desiring to use what means could be procured for her: and it pleased God (whilest the Physician was there with her) to shut up her mouth, her teeth being set in her head, so as they could not open them; her upper teeth were drawn somewhat over her nether teeth; and so they continued (save onely that the workings of the Convulsions opened them sometimes, & drew her tongue out of her mouth. I say, so they continued) until the seventh of December following”.
The next bit of the quotation reminds me of the Throckmorton children (one of whom could only be fed through a straw through the gap a merciful providence had contrived by ordaining her to have lost a tooth): “all which time she lived with the least quantity of food that could be for they put milk into her lips, and how any should go into her stomack we know not except some of it passed at each side of her mouth, where one tooth was wanting, and yet in this time she grew very fat, and her flesh very firm and solid, and she did look very fair and fresh.”
17th century medicine being what it was (Martha herself, embracing her imminent arrival in Christ’s company, brushes off the physician as irrelevant), we get the full details of her excrement: “Whereas you might rather apprehend that she was a lean, dried, and withered Anatomy; and yet we conceiv’d, she did take down something; though before the setting of her teeth, we could not perceive that she took any thing down, but spurted it out presently; onely by the effects, we gathered that she did receive some nourishment, because she had the benefit of nature; but her stools were such, as all that behold them admire: they are round, of the quantity of a Nutmeg, very hard, and like a piece of earth rolled in lime, and they have no smell.”
But I am writing about this case very much in the context indicated by my reference to the Throckmorton children. What is remarkable in Martha’s case is that she did not account for her condition by reference to witchcraft (as the Throckmorton children so fatally did - surrounded by equally helpless adults, 17th century children did sometimes seem to have to come to their own diagnoses). It was touch-and-go, and Fisher is anxious about this other possible interpretation: “6 These wonderfull providentiall allurances some have sinisterously interpreted surmizing, nay, some speaking that she was bewitched, possessed, &c. and that Satan did speak in her, and that it was not her voice, but a voice in her…”
Martha herself, even in her illness, is acute enough to head off any suggestion that she is a demoniac: “when some rashly affirmed, that she was acted by Satan, they judging according to carnall reason; at the next extasie which was the onely time of her speaking) she uttered thus, I am not in the hands of Satan, but in the hands of my God: when some pretenders to Revelations, (as these times are full of such) visited her, at that very time, she was carried out to say, Take heed you sowe not tares; for if you sowe tares, you shall reap tares”. Fisher, defending his little heroine, also turns on those who imputed her plight to diabolic possession: “to whom God shall give an answer from Heaven in his late dealings and gracious dispensations towards her … this childe never spake of her temptations, or uttered any of Satans language in those her times of speaking, but all her speeches were sweet and gracious, much of Christ and Faith, and against Satan; and against many Errours of the present times, both in judgement and practice, but nothing that might tend to promote Satans Kingdome, and I cannot think that Satan would have bin a mid-wife to help to the birth so many masculine sentences, and high-born truths, as this childe hath uttered…”
As always in pamphlets like this, the response of the community to the sick child in their midst is interesting. The 9th of November was “a Day was fixed to be set apart for Humiliation, of which many precious servants of God had notice”. In this, people were behaving in a way not unlike the days of general prayer at the bedside that served as Anglicanism’s substitute for exorcism.
Those that had been close to death were expected to come back with details of what they had seen and, better still, deliver prophesies. One thing that makes Fisher’s account so persuasive is his insistence that Martha simply didn’t utter any such prophecies either during her illness or after her recovery:
“Some have said, that she prophesied, and no such passages are here related; to which I answer, there is no ground for such a report: there is one passage related in one of her Speeches, October the 19th. (in the end of page 107, and beginning of page 108.) about, Raising of the Maid; unlesse they fancie this to be a Prophetick foretelling of her Recovery, I know not any thing uttered by her, nor could upon enquiry hear of any thing that might give ground for such a report; but the truth is, such Reporters (I hear) do some of them expect to have the gift of Miracles, and it may be of prophesying, and seemed to be much taken with Gods dispensations to this Childe, hoping it would have conduced something to the promoting of their cause, but are disappointed; for God hath opened the mouth of a dumb childe to confute their follies. It may be they prophesied that she would prophesie, and so have proved themselves to be false prophets.”
Finally, on the 7th of December, Martha’s jaw was released from spasm, and she yawned. She ate, and recognized her little sister and her mother. A fortnight later, her lower limbs are clearing, and she is able to stand: “21th. of December, which day she being in bed about 9 a clock at night, her Father being in the room, she told him, she felt strength come into her legs: he asked her, How? she said, It trickled down, and came into her thighs, knees, and ancles, like warm water, and so continued a quarter of an hour: and after that working was past, her Sister Hannah took her up, and set her upon her feet, and she stood by her self without holding, which she had not done for three quarters of a year before.”
One final detail about this self-consciously pious child. We have seen that she had no truck with those who wanted to account her a demoniac. That role may have suited the spiteful Throckmorton girls, but she distanced herself from it firmly. But she also knows that she has been speaking when the spirit moved her, and she is equally keen not to be co-opted by the Quakers: “One night when they were undressing of her, one told her, she had no shoes, (for they had given all her clothes and wearing things to some poor children, not expecting her life) and her Father said, there was a Shoe-maker in the Town, but he was a Quaker; she asked, what that was? it was answered, he was one that sleights Ministers, and Gods Ordinances: She replied, she would have no Quakers Shoes then … Another hearing of this discourse, did ask her why she would have no Quakers shoes, did she think there was any errours sewed up in the seames of the shoes? she answered, No, but (saith she) they say I am a Quaker, and to convince them, that I am not, I will have no dealings with them.”