Tuesday, April 19, 2011

The case of the pewter flying saucers, 1645

The John Rylands library has put up a set of page images from Nehemiah Wallington’s Great marcys continued, or yet God is good to Israel (1645), a compilation by the devout but despair-prone Wallington of a year’s worth of 52 signal mercies extended by God to England.

Wallington seems to have assembled his various collections for biblio-therapeutic purposes, to help him fight off his thoughts of suicide (these were brought on, poor man, by a mixture of doubt about whether he was among the elect, and deaths among his children). The ODNB life by P. S. Seaver, who was also author of Wallington’s world: a puritan artisan in seventeenth-century London (1985) indicates that Wallington would purchase (and transcribe) newsletters in his continued effort to find reassurance in a troubled life.


I was interested in those pages of the Great Marcys (and the John Rylands web-pages can be narrowed to the relevant nine images by a search confined to pages about witchcraft, http://enriqueta.man.ac.uk:8180/luna/servlet/view/search?q==witchcraft%20LIMIT:Manchester~91~1&sort=Reference_Number,Image_Sequence_Number,Page,Title )

in which Wallington transcribes his copy of A true relation of the araignment of thirty witches at Che[lm]sford in Essex, before Judge Conyers, fourteene whereof were hanged on Friday last, July 25. 1645. there being at this time a hundred more in severall prisons in Suffolke and Essex. Setting forth the confessions of the principall of them. Also shewing how the divell had carnall copulation with Rebecca West, a young maid, daughter to one Ann West. And how they bewitched men, women, children, and cattell to death: with many other strange things, the like was never heard of before (1645). This brief pamphlet is actually not on EEBO (yet), but a transcript of sorts can be found on the internet. It does not seem as though Wallington accessed H. F’s more authoritative A true and exact relation of the severall informations, examinations, and confessions of the late witches, arraigned and executed in the county of Essex; I suppose that he gave his limited further context to his transcription from newsletters.

The unknown author of Wallington’s source was not reliable (his “great mistake” in naming a minister’s wife as among the executed women was denounced in another pamphlet). After giving what information he could about Rebecca West, the ‘confessing witch’ among the Chelmsford accused, then about the failed attack by demonic imps upon the minister Master Long (“the power of God was above the devil”), he finally launched into a strange pair of stories. I give them in Wallington’s transcript, with the printed text reading added in square brackets when Wallington varied from his source:

“When these witches came first into ye Gaole at Colchester the Gailer lost his meat often & mistrusted that the witches had got it upon a time bought a [good] shoulder of Mutton & said he would look to the dressing of it himself, but when it was ready the witches [had got it, and all the while the witches] were at supper with it the Gaoler instead of Mutton was eating Hogwash.

After this the Gaoler desiered [desirous to see more of their feats intreated some of] them to show him a little of their cunning thinking to make himself merry for the losse of his meat Whereupon one of the witches bid him goe fetch her foure pewter dishes wherein never water came straitaway went ye gailer to a pewterer and got 4 new dishes and before he brought them to the witch he wet one of them, contrary to the witches direction nevertheless as soon as the witch had them she put her hands & her feet into the foure dishes and upon an Instant was lifted into the ayre with three 3 dishes that were dry, the fo[u]rth falling off was found in a meadow about half a mille off and brought back to prison.”

The interest here in these page-filling yarns is in the first place the suggestion of a witchcraft report veering off (as so often) in the direction of entertainment. The story of the jailer’s shoulder of mutton being magically pilfered, and consumed by the witches while he eats hogwash (without noticing?) sounds very close to the wedding banquet stolen away by magic in The Late Lancashire Witches of 1634. Then, like the conspiratorial Robin, or Doughty, frustrated by the loss of his sirloin in that play, the jailer is willing to see what the witches can do to entertain him by way of recompense for his losses: he is game to test them, maybe try to outwit them.

This transfer of what I take to be a tale of the magical transfer and exchange of food possibly remotely derived from the play into the pamphlet, reminds us that the play had pointedly dramatized the witches’ total loss of the power to cast enchantments after their arrest. But in Essex and Suffolk in 1645 and 1646, Hopkins and Sterne believed that that the women they had arrested (and were torturing) still had dangerous powers, and claimed to witness their threatening ‘imps’.

When I wrote by EMLS piece about transvection, I had not read this pamphlet, it being well off my not exactly infallible radar by not being available on EEBO. This method of flight using early modern flying saucers (well, pewter dishes), was quite new to me. Wallington avidly transcribes it all without considering for a moment the wild unlikelihood: a jailer providing the means for a captive to take flight (literally), and her act of levitation supposedly successful enough to see one of her engines of flight drop off half a mile away. Wasn’t she by then far enough away to disappear? Couldn’t Wallington pause and take stock?

Witches were supposed to sail on water in sieves, eggshells and the like, so to fly through the air on 17th century lead-heavy pewter makes a kind of analogy, being magically held up by something utterly unlikely. Witches and water don’t go together, and hence, I suppose, the demand that the set of flying dishes be brand new and unwashed, and failure of the one rinsed lifting-unit.

Pewter was quite a political commodity and being talked about at the time. King Charles had obliged its use on all innkeepers, and for all measures, to protect the Cornish tin mines when report came of tin deposits being found in ‘Barbary’ in 1640. The solid royalism of the south-west had then kept tin from out of parliament’s hands throughout the civil war. A rumoured tax based on every householder’s pewterware was indignantly denied by parliament in 1642; aggressive selling abroad of tin by 1646 led ‘I. S. A desirer of his Countries Freedomes’ to declare on behalf of pewter-makers that “not in any City or Towne in England out of Cornewall is one block of Tinne to be bought for any Money”, and complain of the metal being “at this great price”. None of this illuminates its use in witchcraft: I suspect that pewter was just being talked about, and temporarily rare, and thus part of the fun of the story.

Wallington’s ready credulity exhibits a 17th century witchcraft reader swallowing any unlikely story. That’s interesting in itself, for the pamphlets and other reports about the Essex and Suffolk witches were markedly anxious about what could be believed.

As James Sharpe notes, one of the few (surviving) newsletters to report the 1645 trials (and August executions), The moderate intelligencer for 4th-11th September 1645 takes an ‘equivocal stance’. It’s actually more striking than his quotation makes it sound, asking the pointed questions about just what game the devil can be up to: ‘whence is it that Devils should choose to be conversant with silly Women that know not their right hands from their left, is a great wonder … If the Devil be so wise, and wise to do evil, why should he not choose to deale with wise Men, and great Men? That were the way to make the world his, by which he may do most mischief. Assist a Prince or a Generall in a Cause against True Religion, and the True Professors of Jesus Christ, were a wiser way then to attend old women, and kill hens, Geese, Pigs, Hogs, Calves, and little Children.”

Typically, this anxiety, this perturbed response perhaps prompted by the sheer number of those condemned, is then set aside in the face of the ‘evidence’ - whatever the devil’s motive is, it all happens: “But let it not be disputed, Experience is above all: They will meddle with none but poor old Women: as appears by what we received this day from Bury [St Edmunds], 100 Indictments against such … Divers are condemned, and some executed, and more like to be”. Sharpe quotes the final comment by the London editor (John Dillingham): “Life is precious, and there’s need of great inquisition before it be taken away.”

The tone by Dillingham is exactly like the preface to H. F.’s A true and exact relation pamphlet, eloquent about how the devil has “insnared and drawne these poore silly creatures into these horrid and detestable practices … yet now when the light of the Gospel shineth so gloriously, that such a generation of poore deluded soules (and to such anumber as hath of late been discovered) should be found amongst us, is much more a matter of admiration and astonishment. I doubt not but these things may seem as incredible unto some, as they are matter of admiration unto others”.

There’s clear evidence that H. F. was worried by the witchfinding: he urges that “reasonable men be perswaded not too much (as is usuall) to swell with indignation, or to be puffed with impatience … but soberly, modestly and discreetly, so far forth be contented to pursue the triall and just way of their discoverie.”

H. F. finally comes to the question of transvection (and perhaps) bodily metamorphosis:

“The greatest doubt and question will be, whether it be in the power of the Devill to perform such asportation and locall translation of the bodies of the Witches; it seemeth in reason a thing whereunto the Devill is unable.” (‘Asportation’ means ‘carrying off’.) As usual, the Bible is cited, and Satan carrying Christ to the pinnacle; H. F. sagely concludes that all apparent instances of flight and transformation are “but seeming and juggling transmutations of the Devill”.

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