We are pleased to introduce the latest post in the Postgraduate and Early Career Takeover, by Daniel Gettings. Daniel is a doctoral researcher at the University of Warwick whose work focuses on the relationship between water, religion and everyday life in early modern England.
There is perhaps no witchcraft practice more famous today and portrayed better in popular media than that of ‘ducking’ a witch. Appearing in TV shows as diverse as Doctor Who, Criminal Minds and The Simpsons, the strength of this idea in popular consciousness seems to stem from how perfectly it’s bizarre logic chimes with modern feelings towards belief in witches. Sinking implied innocence and floating denoted guilt. While this appears ridiculous, so does the entire concept of witchcraft to the modern mind and so the strong association between the two makes a strange sort of sense.
However, the logic that upheld this belief in the seventeenth century was clearly convincing to figures of that time, most notably James I of England and VI of Scotland, and reveals a far more complex association between water and witches with much darker implications than modern understandings would suggest.
Title Page, Witches Apprehended, Examined and Executed…, Anonymous, 1613. Wellcome Collection. Attribution 4.0 International (CC BY 4.0).
The next post in our Postgraduate and Early Career Takeover is by Dr Robert W. Daniel of the University of Warwick. Robert is a Post-Doctorate Researcher and General Secretary of the International John Bunyan Society. Follow him at @BunyanSociety. In this post, he offers us insights into the petitions and diaries of women who lost their children as a direct result of religious persecution.
CONTENT WARNING: This post contains accounts of miscarriage and stillbirth.
Women who did not conform to the Established Church of seventeenth-century England – labelled ‘puritans’, ‘fanatics’, ‘nonconformists’, ‘plotters’, or ‘dissenters’, paid a heavy, if not the heaviest price, in their fight for religious equality. They resisted religious uniformity by courageously, often peacefully, contesting pecuniary laws prohibiting alternative forms of worship, unjust imprisonments and the distrainment of goods, and the law making weekly parish church services compulsory. In researching the history of this struggle, I was struck at how frequently these women, as mothers, suffered child loss as a direct result of State sponsored religious persecution. Through their diaries, petitions and pamphlets, women depicted the trauma of stillbirths, miscarriages and neo-natal deaths as one of the tragic consequences of their struggle for religious freedom during a period of intense religious intolerance.
In this blog post I want to examine some examples of maternal suffering that need to be re-incorporated into our reading of the history of English religious nonconformity. Doing so will reveal not only the horrific (and underexamined) effects of religious persecution during this period, but also the affective discourse and mediums in which a denominationally and politically diverse cross-section of women (Baptists, Presbyterians, Quakers and Levellers) sought to make these known to a broader audience.
The homes of religious dissenters were constantly under siege. Men, women and children were routinely roused in the middle of the night, chivvied and dragged – at times quite literally – to be interrogated or thrown in prison. The result of such upheavals, if a woman was with child, could be miscarriage or a stillbirth. Elizabeth Eaton (fl. 1632–1641) was an active member of the Baptist Lathrop congregation in London who, along with several other women, was questioned by the High Commission court in the early 1630s. In 1641 she wrote a petition to the House of Commons (see Figure 1). Elizabeth explained that she was now a widow having lost her husband, Samuel Eaton (d. 1639) (who was also a Baptist), by his ‘wrongful imprisonment’. On one of several occasions that Samuel was arrested, Elizabeth describes how one John Ragg, Archbishop William Laud’s pursuivant, ‘violently entered his [Samuel’s] house and … haled him to Newgate’. Elizabeth, ‘being then with child’, was ‘assaulted by Flamsteed, a pursuivant to Sir John Lamb’, which ‘caused her to miscarry’. She was not alone in reporting such violence. Other women of the Lathrop congregation said that their own miscarriages were a result of the rough treatment they had received when arrested. Elizabeth’s petition clearly made an impression on the Commons. It was later included amongst papers relating to the trial of Archbishop Laud, as evidence of his excessive cruelty in prosecuting religious sectaries.
CONTENT WARNING: this post contains discussion of suicide.
Self-destruction was interwoven with the roles of both witch and bewitched in early modern Britain. Witches committed spiritual suicide in signing themselves over to the devil, and in turn the devil tempted his imprisoned servants to self-destruction to secure his grip on their souls. The spiritual and actual suicide of witches, like criminals, reinforced their guilt in the contemporary imagination. Witches also tormented their victims with temptation to self-destruction.
Both those afflicted by witchcraft and witches themselves expressed self-destructive temptations. One such admission would produce sympathy, the other scorn. In this post I examine the case of the witchcraft of Anne Bodenham and her victim Anne Styles to show how, by mirroring each other’s self-destructive behaviours, the women negotiated contemporary ideas around innocence, guilt, female nature, and spirituality. One would emerge as an innocent victim, the other an unrepentant sinner.
Anne Bodenham, of Fisherton Anger, near Salisbury, was a reputed cunning woman. It was her ability to locate stolen goods that first brought Anne Styles to her in 1653. Styles, a young woman employed as a maid in the Goddard household, was illiterate and ‘altogether ignorant of the Fundamentall grounds of Religion’ according to the court clerk Edmund Bower. In contrast, the eighty-year-old Bodenham owned ‘a great many notable books’ and claimed to have been taught by the infamous Dr Lambe. Styles made multiple visits to Bodenham, to consult on various issues for the Goddard family, chief among the fear of Styles’ mistress that she was to be poisoned. After several visits, Bodenham offered to take Styles on, ‘to live with her’ and ‘teach her to doe as she did’. However, when Bodenham transformed herself into a cat, Styles was ‘very much affrighted’. Bodenham, seeing that she had misjudged the situation, let Styles go. To ensure that Styles would not ‘discover her’, Bodenham had Styles sign her name in blood in a book, while two conjured spirits looked on.
This week (18-24 May 2020) is ‘Mental Health Awareness Week’ in the UK – May is also US ‘Mental Health Month’, and ‘World Mental Health Day’, in case you were wondering, is a separately-coordinated enterprise, and will be on Saturday 10 October. The fact that we have events such as these in the twenty-first century tells you two things. Explicitly it is evidence that, in general, our society pushes itself to recognise the importance of mental health, the prevalence of mental illness, and that signposting the various specialist treatments and resources that are available for people struggling with any number of specific conditions is an urgent priority. The implicit message, though, is that mental health and mental illness have long been neglected in our broader political, social and medical public discourse. While there are valuable and life-saving public health campaigns around specific physical conditions such as various forms of cancer, strokes, heart disease, etc., there is palpably no need for a special day or week or month to remind people that physical illness is, in fact, a ‘thing’.
My motivation for writing this post comes from two sources – firstly, from the project I am working on on the relationship between mental health and the English reformation, and secondly from my own experience of suffering from and receiving treatment for anxiety over the past few years. By accident rather than design(!), it just so happened during the autumn of 2019 that I read a lot of brilliant work about early modern mental health, mental illness, and the history of the early modern emotions, at the same time as I was working on my own mental health during a course of therapy. In this context I could not help but reflect upon the concordances and divergences between how we and our early modern forebears understood the workings of the human mind. In this post I want to offer some broad reflections on the similarities and differences between early modern and twenty-first century conceptions of mental illness, based largely on secondary literature. In subsequent posts (for I see this post by way of introduction) I plan to delve more deeply into the specific relationship between religious beliefs and mental illness, using evidence drawn from early modern letters.
Gustave Dore, The Legend of the Wandering Jew: A Series of 12 Designs, c. 1857, V&A Collections.
A month or so ago I read Sarah Perry’s wonderful third novel Melmoth. Central to the book is the myth of Melmotka, a woman who witnessed Jesus’ resurrection, but who later denied that she had seen him. Since that time Melmotka has wandered the earth without home or respite, bearing witness to all humanity’s violence and cruelty, as she will do until Christ comes again.
The Stories of Story 1
In modern day Prague Helen Franklin traces the history of Melmotka through a collection of texts that speak of a wraith-like figure who appears at moments of great sorrow. The narratives found in these documents – a seventeenth-century letter, a contemporary manuscript, a twentieth-century journal – put flesh on the bones of Melmotka, a shadow that leaves bloody scarlet footprints where she treads, who is clad in some thin black billowy stuff, who stares with eyes that are like ink dropped into water… Continue reading →
Sarah Henry Savage (1664-c.1751) had a very hard time making friends. A middling-sort Nonconformist from Cheshire at the turn of the eighteenth century, she lived at the edges and borders of early modern life: financially, spiritually, socially, and geographically, Sarah Savage didn’t – and sometimes, deliberately chose not to – fit into the traditions and standards which governed her society.
But Savage had one great friend: Jane Ward Hunt. Hunt and Savage shared a social network, a common faith, a sense of family by fostering children at one another’s homes, and perhaps most importantly, their time: in Savage’s papers, she recorded that the women exchanged visits, walks, sermon-notes, meetings, and countless letters over the course of their friendship. Savage and Hunt shared what I have termed a ‘queer intimacy’: a relationship which distorted traditional gender roles and gendered writing practices, and which was imbued with love, longing, and same-sex desire, with its many nuances, silences, and degrees of feeling. Savage’s and Hunt’s bond was particularly and peculiarly shaped by spiritual strangeness: religious dissent, and its concomitant refusal to conform, its celebration of difference.
When Jane Hunt died unexpectedly in early middle age, Savage was utterly bereft. She wept constantly. She suffered from insomnia and, when she did manage to sleep, endured troubled dreams about Hunt and their lost alliance. She wrote guiltily in her diary that she felt she was mourning excessively, but could not control her emotions; although she believed that she ‘should lay aside every Weight that would hinder my joy’, Savage noted sadly, this was an impossible task, for ‘well may this world be stiled a vale of Tears’.
This spring I had the good fortune to visit Kingsbridge, a small market town in South Devon. The town sits on a steep hill overlooking the many-branched estuary, and it is home to The Shambles (or market arcade) with five Elizabethan granite piers, and a seventeenth-century grammar school (now an excellent little museum).
Of course I popped into the church – St Edmund King and Martyr on Fore Street was largely rebuilt in 1414, then restored and extended in 1849 and 1896. What caught my eye there was an inscription on a tablet just outside one of the doors of the church, which inspired a twitter thread which in turn has become the basis of this post.
What does this rather colourful epitaph mean, and what can it tell us about the early modern world? Continue reading →
[In our mini-series ‘A Page in the Life’, each post briefly introduces a new writer and a single page from their manuscript.]
The Leeds antiquarian and pious diarist Ralph Thoresby (1658-1725) wrote a lot. An awful lot. Between the ages of nineteen and sixty-seven he kept a diary, often recording entries on most days of the week. Seven volumes of Thoresby’s life-writing survive, and at approximately 500 pages per volume that’s 3,500 pages of text. The page transcribed below is fairly typical at 550 words, so that makes close to two millionwords of Thoresby’s self-reflection out there. You don’t have to read them all though, because this page below provides a relatively good sense of the content and scope of Thoresby’s written self:
Brotherton Library, Yorkshire Archaeological Society MS 24.
afternoon Mr Pollard from 19 Math:28 proceeded to the Evidences & signs that we are followers of Christ in the Regeneration, 1 hatred of sin is a good signe of a renewed Soul, so 2 a fear to Sin, 3 carefulness to avoid all occasions and temptations to Sin 4 vigorous sinsere & resolute opposition of the whole man against Sin, & particularly 1 against sins of a spiritual nature, 2 Sins of the heart and tho’ts, & 3 Sins of Constitution & Custome, 5 inward love to God & Religion, & 6 due performance of secret Spiritual dutys, Application: 1 to the Regenerate, as they have rec’d the Grace of God to be truly renewed, so to labour to exceed others in holiness, 2 to the unregenerate, not to delude themselves with false hopes of heaven with out regeneration – afterwards catechised above 30 poor children, heard them the appointed psalms & distributed several Bibles – Read as at noon in Dr. Mantons Sermons in family & observed usual duties
23 morn: read Annotations in family & Mr Henry in secret, writ til 10 at Church, & after transcribing Topography of the Town til 4 at Church, after surprized with a visit from my Lord Irwin & some Relations, to see the Collections, Even: read as usually Continue reading →
After a brief mid-term hiatus, in this last post marking the publication last month of my latest monograph, The Reformation of the Decalogue, I want to explore the Tenth Commandment.
Earlier in the series, I talked about the Reformed Protestant renumbering of the Commandments. In brief, Reformers took the traditional Catholic list, made a separate precept out of the injunction not to make or worship graven images, and reduced the number back down to ten by folding the two forms of coveting in the Catholic Ninth and Tenth Commandments (of wives and goods) into a single precept.
Traditionally, historians have seen the changes at the start of the Decalogue as much more significant than the changes at the end of it. The new Reformed Second Commandment spoke to important concerns surrounding idolatry and iconoclasm – the merging of two forms of covetousness into one commandment was just a case of tidying things up and making sure that there were still Ten Commandments. The historian John Bossy, for example, judged that ‘the exposition of the second table was a less controversial matter than that of the first’.Continue reading →
At first glance, the Ninth Commandment, ‘Thou shalt not bear false witness against thy neighbour’, was rather niche compared to the first four precepts of the second table: honouring parents, and not killing, committing adultery with, or stealing from other people. However, as historians such as Alexandra Shepherd and Craig Muldrew have shown, credit and reputation were vital and powerful forces in early modern English society. Honest speech and truthful dealing were therefore essential for the proper functioning of personal and community relationships up and down the land.
This key social role of plain and open speaking was universally recognised by commentators on the Ninth Commandment, as well as humanity’s weakness for using a certain fleshy little member to the detriment of their neighbour. Continue reading →