Sunday, June 15, 2008

The double sense of Mary Moore

A long time since I did a witchcraft posting, and one aim for this blog or website is, eventually, to have said something about most of the major pamphlets on British cases.

Mary Moore’s Wonderfull News from the North of 1650 is the one pamphlet about a particular witchcraft accusation written by an early modern English woman. Marion Gibson very understandably therefore selects it in her anthology of photo reprints Women and Witchcraft in Popular Literature. But the editor’s brief introduction to this particular work is curiously indecisive: while the sub-title is ‘Women writing against women’, Gibson does her best to make a partial exoneration of her author: “Moore appears … as a lonely, frightened figure calling for assistance from others … her identity is secondary and relational, and she seems to have no wish to assert herself.’ Gibson concludes “Is the pamphlet more interested in family harmony, economic well being, or the political unity of the divided English nation?”

The editor seems to be unable to shake off a desire to re-make Mary Moore into a woman responding comprehensibly, and not unsympathetically, to problems that she was plunged into by her daughter.

But, counter to Gibson’s claims, Mary Moore was in fact backed by ‘the rest of the parish that feared God’, who gathered in large numbers to witness the latest antics of her murderous little hypocrite of a daughter. When she asked assistance from others, it was in the form of her strident demand to the local JP’s and justices to have her adversary, Dorothy Swinow, hanged as a witch. Her campaign, ruthlessly pushed, divided her own family, seems to have begun in a grievance about an inheritance, and expresses throughout a view of the nation as absolutely divided into the godly and the wicked.

Marion Gibson also seems more minded to emphasise the likelihood that the royalist gentlewoman Dorothy Swinow probably survived, than the sad fact that two other people who died (one by hanging, the other in prison) as a result of an eleven year old girl’s accusations, which were pushed inexorably on by this early modern woman writer.

The case began as these things tended to do: young Margaret Muschamp fell ill. She was one of the many children in two former families brought together by the second marriages of her mother Mary Muschamp and Mary’s husband Edward Moore. It is a household wealthy enough for Margaret to be picking up, secreting, and apparently voiding ‘virginall wires’ (coughed up in her fits along with the more usual small household items and rubbish). The family clearly considered itself as being ‘godly’, but this religiosity yields easily to extraordinary attempts at folk counter-magic. Alongside the assertions of piety, that young Margaret can sing through the words of three psalms gets represented as partial proof of her supernatural godliness: I am not sure that the godliness went all that deep.

Unlike Martha Hatfield of Sheffield , Margaret opted for, or was pushed into, witchcraft as an explanation of her physical woes. She knows the name of a man reputed locally to be, as her mother puts it, “one it was suspected could do more than God allowed of”, a John Hutton, and she also knows the name of the woman her mother blames for deaths and illnesses which apparently affect property rights and the ownership of estates (adversely so, as far as her mother was concerned). How the accusation gets made is revealing: it is important that this matter be presented as being as providentially guided as possible: in one of her fits, the child seems to be making the movements of writing (interesting in itself that she can), so they lay paper on her prone body, and put a pen in her hand, and on this paper she – or rather, heaven speaking through her without her knowing – writes “Jo. Hu. Do. Swo”. Margaret does not miss a trick: the papers on which she repeats this act, she then seems compelled to destroy: burning them in the fire, tearing and chewing them, and finding them if they have been hidden from her with preternatural acuity.

Mary Moore and her niece (who may be daughter of Mary Moore’s recently dead sister) are represented as, later on, coming to a reassuringly simultaneous expression of their interpretation of ‘Jo. Hu. Do. Swo.’, a joint opinion delivered with all due piety: “the lord pardon our thoughts, if we thinke amiss: So revealing our thoughts to one another, and pitch both on Dorothy Swinow”.

Was Mary Moore really the dupe of her own daughter (one of those 17th century children morally warped by a sense of her own righteousness), or might she be seen as driving and coaching Margaret (much a Brian Gunter used his daughter Anne in the South Moreton village feud in 1605)? Mother and daughter worked in a collusion that was either covert, or unconscious. They both profess to believe that Dorothy Swinow will afflict (and finally kill) member after member of the Muschamp-Moore clan unless she is stopped. But to attack her effectively using the law, what would elsewhere be called a ‘confessing witch’ would be useful. John Hutton, referred to contemptuously as ‘the Rogue’ has a larger part scripted for him than he probably realised. “Mistress sayd he my life is in your hand”: he is represented as so obviously guilty of witchcraft that only cooperation might save him. Hutton was probably drawn into this through familiarity with the role of identifying a witch through magical means: but mother and daughter want to implicate him and Swinow together in deaths that apparently have seen Swinow accruing lands and the possibility of further inheritance.

The gambit is bold: Margaret feigns herself to be fighting off invisible assailants; in these daily battles (for through all this two year campaign, she is reported always to have enjoyed a good night’s sleep) she is assisted by her two ‘good objects’, angels she can see “bodyed like Birds, as big as Turkies, and faces like Christians, but the sweetest creatures that ever eyes beheld”.

These imaginary friends tip Margaret off about who is sending the evil spirits, how long it will be before they can appear again to Margaret, and who will be afflicted next among the children, and (of course) all these things come true. They also apparently advise the girl that relief will come if she gets the blood of Hutton or Swinow: just two drops will save her. So her mother and her entourage descend on Hutton. He thinks he knows what they want him to say, so he busily accuses Swinow of the crime, but he gets represented as somehow knowing that the game was up as far as he was concerned: “if you will have my hearts bloud take it, for my life is in your power, none speaking of bloud to him”. Hutton is made in this verbal anticipation to endorse what they aim to do: “She told him the child had wrote two drops of his or her bloud would save her life; and if the Devill had left so much in him, she would (if it pleased the Lord) have it ere they parted.”

This is a variant on ‘scratching’ the suspected witch above the mouth to break his or her hold. The parenthesis about ‘if’ all this pleases the Lord maybe is a small tremor of suppressed recognition: evil familiar spirits came to the witch for blood, after all. The child jabs away at Hutton’s forehead half a dozen times, but no blood appears. Finally, with Mary Moore saying she will have his heart’s blood rather than miss, some is extracted from his arm, and wiped onto the paper where the girl wrote out this requirement. With this they leave in godly triumph, but Hutton raises a tempest against them on their journey back through Sunderland, and they are shadowed by for a couple of miles by two suspiciously diabolic lambs (yes, white lambs).

This expedition ends with the participants lost in moral anarchy, hanging on the words of a dangerously credited child: “Thus for two hours together she continued in a very heavenly religious Discourse with these Angels, rejoicing that she had got two drops of blood; saying, if her Brother had as much, it would save his life also”. The pious retinue duly visit Hutton again later, to the same sanguinary purpose.

Six closely printed pages are taken up with what purport to be Margaret’s words in her ‘extreme fit’ on 2nd February, 1647: self-congratulatory humbug on never having blasphemed in all her torments, and indignation about being denied justice, which simply means the sentence appropriate to Swinow’s monstrous actions: “It is sayd in the word of God, you shall not suffer a witch to live; yet she consults with witches, and consults with their wayes, which by the Law of God deserves death”

There is a notable stylistic feature in Mary Moore’s pamphlet: chronic ambiguity about the preceding direct object of pronouns: “alas, she sayd I have two weeks and two days yet before my Comforters come, which made her enemies thus cruell, that if it were in her power to take their lives she would…” Here Margaret is lamenting that her good angels are away on one of their dramatic but curiously scheduled absences, so her enemies Hutton and Swinow are attacking her: if it were in (Swinow’s) power to kill Margaret and various of her siblings, she would. But the persistent grammatical ambiguity seems expressive of the ambiguity of the situation: Margaret and her mother want the power to take the lives of Swinow and her allies.

Here’s another example, where young Margaret is “In the Chamber, where the Spectators heard her for two houres, most divinely and heavenly discourse with them … praying for her enemy DOROTHY SWINOW, with the teares running downe her face, that if the Lord had mercy in store to grant her it, lamenting the sad condition she had run her soule into, for satisfying her malice to lessen her hope of eternity…” The godly and edified neighbours briefly flicker into the gawping spectators at a show; and Mary Moore’s string of ‘her’ pronouns subverts the pamphlet against Dorothy Swinow into something like the counter-pamphlet that might have come from ‘her enemy’, in which young Margaret is the sorceress whose malice has imperilled her soul.

Despite the accumulated evidence from the children, all the witnesses to their torments, the voided virginal wires and the rest, the magistracy duck and weave about committing Dorothy Swinow, who lives conveniently for them over the county border in Durham. These legal pretexts for inaction leave Margaret and her mother ‘crying for justice’. In another fit, Margaret addresses her good angels in a complaint about how “that Godlesse theife DOROTHY SWINOW, by the instigation of the Divell, had hardned the heart of both Judges and Justices against her, and now at this instant (sayd she) is using meanes to harden her husbands heart against her too (which she knows will be cruellest to her of all”.

Master Moore had clearly had enough of his second wife and step-daughter’s campaign, and we can see Mary Moore putting into her daughter’s mouth her own explanation of this, all of a piece with the rest of her charges: it is Swinow’s doing. In the naming of Swinow as a ‘godless thief’, the original cause of the rancour between the two women resurfaces: property.

Hutton ‘the rogue’ was elderly, and died in prison. In a strange mirror to the main story, a confessing witch called Margaret White testified that she and her sister Jane, and Dorothy Swinow, had all been witches together. In this case, perhaps aware that this Jane Martin was just the sister of an illiterate woman, and backed by no gentry family, the justices did act, and her own sister’s accusation led to Jane Martin being hanged.

Did anything stop Mary and Margaret Moore? If her second husband had come to disapprove, Mary Moore nevertheless burst into print with her vehement pamphlet. My own surmise would be that what she published was her campaign’s nemesis: in her ambiguous prose, an ambiguous tale gets told. It maybe allowed for cool reflection on her expeditions to take drops of blood from Hutton. People were worried about counter-charms as being identical to witchcraft itself; after this, maybe she lost her supporters.

Maybe there’s another clue escapes about what the other side were saying. On page 9, Margaret Moore finally, explicitly names the perpetrator, and touches on motive. The prose is horribly ambiguous, but might be read as saying that while Mary Moore’s sister, Lady Margaret Hambleton, had died (and her estate, settled on her only for life, was lost)

Swinow’s only son had married the daughter of a Mr. Fauset. Fauset also had a son: to secure the Fauset estate to her own family, Swinow used witchcraft to cause this son to suffer ‘unnatural fits’. “But thinking Mr FAUSET would follow her more strictly there, then we could doe here, let him alone, to be more vehement with us, every fit promising me ease, if I would consent to lay it on my mother…”

Could this possibly be Margaret saying that the evil spirits tormenting her, sent by Swinow, professed that they would leave off tormenting Margaret if Margaret would accuse her mother of causing the ‘unnatural fits’ of the younger Fauset by witchcraft? The possibility creeps out into view that as the Muschamp-Moore family lost land, and Swinow gained, Mary Moore saw herself as liable to be charged with envious malefic witchcraft herself. Her accusations of witchcraft against Swinow massively pre-empted this.

Two women were battling for local property and influence. One of them knows a lot about witchcraft, who practiced it locally, its effects, and counter charms, that is, the author of this chronically ambiguous accusatory pamphlet. Its anger, its rancorous hatred allows a trace of self-accusation to escape. Mary Moore abused her own children in her campaign against Swinow, ruthlessly mobilising them to incriminate her enemy. She tells us that for sixteen weeks, her daughter only allowed her lips to be wetted with ‘a little milk and water’, but was not diminished in ‘fatnesse or favour anything at all’. Mary fed Margaret at night, and coached her on what to say in her contests with Swinow’s spirits, when more evidence was needed, supplied her with the props to substantiate the involuntary possession. It’s not just the only witchcraft pamphlet written by an early modern English woman, it is tantamount to being the only pamphlet written by an early modern witch.

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