Wednesday, May 18, 2016

The evil eye in early modern England

I had always rather casually assumed that Elizabeth Sawyer, in The Witch of Edmonton, could have been seen as a particularly striking example of a witch possessed of an evil eye - through having just the one. The play mentions that she's one-eyed, though rather in passing ("let her curse her t'other eye out"), and it's not necessarily the case that the actor went through with being consistent with this when preparing to go on stage and actually played her while wearing an eye patch.

The play does, on the other hand, seem conscious about eyes, and offers its own version of cruentation when the corpse of the murdered Susan Carter opens an eye to glare accusingly at Frank Thorney. So, in that moment of occult resemblance between the good and bad woman of the play, we understand that a spirit is doing this to Susan's body to bring Frank to justice.

But does the text show any awareness of the evil eye? According to the OED, it should not be thought to do so:

This took me slightly aback. The notion of the evil eye seems so ubiquitous in human cultures. There's a very good Wikipedia entry, giving a sense of how wide-spread the idea was and is:

This said, there's no great mystery as to why the evil eye could not be confined to witches: the English Bible translations had not only Solomon (in Proverbs chapters 23 and 28) but also, and crucially, Jesus using the idiom in a generalised fashion:

In the Parable of the Vineyard (Matthew, 20):

Is it not lawful for me to do what I will with mine own? Is thine eye evil, because I am good?
So the last shall be first, and the first last: for many be called, but few chosen.

And in Mark, 7:

And he said, That which cometh out of the man, that defileth the man.
For from within, out of the heart of men, proceed evil thoughts, adulteries, fornications, murders,
Thefts, covetousness, wickedness, deceit, lasciviousness, an evil eye, blasphemy, pride, foolishness.

Therefore English early modern culture is full of moralised reflections on evil eyes. I particularly enjoyed finding John Sheffeild's The sinfulnesse of evil thoughts, 1650, who attempts a full taxonomy:

1. The Eye of envy, is a very bad and sore Eye
2. There is an evil Eye of disdain
3. The evil Eye of suspicion
4. The Censorious Eye, is another evil eye
5. The Covetous and Greedy Eye, is another evil Eye
6. The Eye of adultery is another evil eye
7. The malicious and revengefull Eye is a devilish evil Eye
8. The Unnaturall and Ungracious Eye of children to their parents

I dragged myself away from all this useful wisdom (you have to imagine that he moralises upon each of his eight categories, in this kind of vein: "The harlots eye-lids are very dangerous").

Is it possible to move an association of evil eyes and witches closer to the date of the play? In some senses, yes, it is. Authors writing about classical witches use the idea.

W. L., Gent, in his 1628 translation of Virgil's Eclogues, says that "Such an Eye the Shepherd in the third Eglogue complaines had looked upon his Lambs: this kind of mischievous looking he calls Fascination: Pliny (out of Cicero,) reports, that there are some women born with Eyes, having duplices papillas, the apples or pupils of their eyes double: & that such doe naturally faescinum circumferre, beare about them this kind of Eyewitchcraft, (as I may term it.)" After various examples of eye power (Basilisks and the like), he concludes that "wee may easily believe the witchcraft, and mischief of an  evil Eye, to be a most true conclusion."

John Gaule, a witch-believer, but a critic of Matthew Hopkins, wrote in his Select cases of conscience touching witches and witchcrafts (1646) about the ways that witches bewitch their victims (this is just the start of his list):

"Let me instance more expressly in a few particulars, 1. Some work their bewitchings only by way of Invocation, or Imprecation. They wish it, or will it; and so it falls out. 2. Some by way of Emissary; sending out their Imps, or Familiars, to cross the way, justle, affront, flash in the Face, bark, howl, bite, scratch, or otherwise infest. 3. Some by Inspecting, or looking on, but to glare, or squint, or peep at with an envious and evil eye."

The respected Scottish divine John Weemes produced (oh dear) A TREATISE OF THE FOURE DEGENERATE SONNES, The ATHEIST, the MAGITIAN, the IDOLATER, and the JEW in 1636. He has a lot to say about evil eyes:

But Weemes would have so much to say, because he was Scottish, and Gaelic cultures seem to have a more extensive repertoire of folklore about the evil eye. In English authors, the term 'eye-biting' is used, and associated with Irish beliefs by the tireless Reginald Scot::

"The Irishmen addict themselves wonderfully to the credit and practise hereof; insomuch as they affirm, that not only their children, but their cattle, are (as they call it) eye-bitten, when they fall suddenly sick, and term one sort of their Witches eye-biters".

Thomas Ady, a sceptic like Scot, describes the bad consequences:

"Master Scot in his Discovery telleth us, That our English people in Ireland, whose posterity were lately barbarously cut off, were much given to this Idolatry in the Queens time, insomuch that there being a Disease amongst their Cattel that grew blind, being a common Disease in that Country, they did commonly execute people for it, calling them eye-biting Witches."

Scot gives a summary of beliefs about how the evil eye operated based on Leonardus Varius, De fascino libri tres. In quibus omnes fascini species et causae optima methodo describuntur, et ex philosophorum ac theologorum sententiis scitè et eleganter explicantur: nec non contra praestigias, imposturas, illusionesque daemonum, cautiones et amuleta praescribuntur: ac denique nugae, quae de iisdem narrari solent, dilucidè confutantur. (Venice, 1589, and Paris, 1583).

Varius gave a whole process for fascination, an account of how it works at the bodily level. Scot reports this account of how a human being, usually female, can focus and intensify natural influences, holding it (as is his manner) at arm's length as an interestingly awful of thinking before moving in to the kill at the end: 

"But I may not omit here the reasons which they bring to prove what bodies. are the more apt and effectual to execute the art of fascination. And that is first they say, the force of celestial bodies, which indifferently communicated their virtues unto Men, Beasts, Trees, Stones, &c. But this gift and natural influence of fascination may be increased in man, Note in marg:  L. Vair. lib. de fascin. 1. c. 12. according to his affections and perturbations, as through anger, fear, love, hate, &c. For by hate (saith Varius) entereth a fiery inflammation into the eye of man, which being violently sent out by beams and streams, &c. infect and bewitch those bodies against whom they are opposed. And therefore he saith (in the favour of women) that is the cause that women are oftener found to be Witches than men. For (saith he) they have an unbridled force of fury and concupiscence naturally, that by no means it is possible for them to temper or moderate the same. So as upon every trifling occasion, they (like brute beast) fix their furious eyes upon the party whom they bewitch.  Note in marg:  Much like the Eye-biting Witches, of whom we have elsewhere spoken. Hereby it cometh to pass, that whereas women having a marvellous fickle nature, what grief soever happeneth unto them, immediately all peaceableness of mind departeth; and they are so troubled with evil humours, that outgo their venemous exhalation, engendered through their ill-favoured diet; and increased by means of their pernicious excrements which they expel. Women are also (saith he) monthly filled full of superfluous humors, and with them the melancholic blood boileth; whereof spring vapours, and are carried up, and conveyed through the nostrils and mouth, &c. to the bewitching of whatsoever it meeteth: For they belch up a certain breath, wherewith they bewitch whomsoever they list.  Note in marg:  Who are most likely to bewitch bewitch and to be bewitched. And of all other women, lean, hollow-eyed, old, beetle-browed women (saith he) are the most infectious. Marry he saith, that hot, subtil, and thin bodies are most subject to be bewitched, if they be moist, and all they generally, whose veins, pipes, and passages of their bodies are open. And finally he saith, that all beautiful things whatsoever, are soon subject to be bewitched; as namely goodly young men, fair women, such as are naturally born to be rich, goodly Beasts, fair Horses, rank Corn, beautiful Trees, &c. Yea a friend of his told him, that he saw one with his eye break a precious stone in pieces. And all this he telleth as soberly, as though it were true. And if it were true, honest women may be Witches, in despite of all Inquisitors: neither can any avoid being a Witch, except she lock herself up in a chamber."

Or we have William Bishop in 1608: "Phisitions tel us of a perilous eye-sore called in Latin Fascinatio, Englished the Eye-biting: it appeareth most, when from a cancered stomach boiling with malice, certain venomous vapours ascend into the eyes, and flowing from them doe infect young and tender things, whereof the Poët [he means Virgil] speaketh: Nescio quis teneros oculus mihi fascinat agnos; 'I wote not what biting eye hath blasted my tender lambs'. This contagious eye-malady, is to our purpose described more properly in the book of Wisdom".

This is Philemon Holland translating Pliny (1634), and talking about apotropaic charms: "We see it is an ordinary thing, that if a stranger come in place where a babe lieth in the cradle, or look upon the said infant whiles it is asleep, the nurse useth to spit thrice: although I am not ignorant that there is a religious opinion of this syllable 'Mu', that it is able to defend such young sucklings; as also of the foolish puppet Fascinus; both which are of power to put back any witchcraft from them, and return the mischief upon the eye-biting witch." 

They were fully aware of the phallic amulets used by the Romans to protect children from the evil eye (image from the Wikipedia 'evil eye' entry, the phallus of the dwarfish figure swings behind him):

So, did 'witches' in England have the evil eye? I think, not till the mid 17th century. John Gaule seems to be the first secure instance I have found (1646). That's a 150 year OED antedating. Yet they seem to have some repertoire of charms against the evil eye, and were willing to hang Irish 'eye-biters'.

This is William Hooke, in his New Englands teares for old Englands feares (1640): "it is commonly observed, that men and women who have turned Witches, and been in league with the devil, thereby to doe mischief, are never given over so to doe, till they begin to have an evil eye, which grieveth at the Prosperity, and rejoyceth at the misery of others. Hence Witchcraft is described by an evil eye." 

He's talking about witches, but envisages a process in which pacted witches acquire an evil eye after the moralised and generalised fashion given in Solomon and in the gospels.

Yet eyes do crop up witchcraft accusations. This was Goodcole's really strange note about Elizabeth Sawyer. He's asking about how she came to be deprived of an eye, because he must have heard that one of her parents had suffered similarly (his syntax in the marginal note is muddled). His question seems to be connected to his next question, which is about whether she actually touched as well as saw the devil - there was nothing wrong with her eye, the devil was also there to be touched:

In 1612, Thomas Potts wrote this about Janet Device: "This odious Witch was branded with a preposterous mark in Nature, even from her birth, which was her left eye, standing lower then the other; the one looking down, the other looking up, so strangely deformed, as the best that were present in that Honorable Assembly, and great Audience, did affirm, they had not often seen the like."

It looks to me as though Jesus using 'evil eye' (as something any self-seeking or malignant person might have) kept the notion of a witch's evil eye in the background in the bible-fixated culture of early modern England. The witch fitted well enough to the idea, though, as a conduit for intensified 'influence'. The notion that you could simply be born with the evil eye (seventh daughter of a seventh daughter type of category) and only use it by accident, or even spend your life carefully NOT looking at things you might inadvertently kill is also around, especially in Ireland. A witch acquires an evil eye from the devil, and means to use it.

Wikipedia explains that evil eyes are blue. (But we all knew that.)

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