Saturday, January 17, 2015

Speaking (and Writing) Poniards

I've  let this space lie fallow in recent weeks, because holidays, the ending and beginning of semesters, and Actual Work haven't left much time for blogging. That said, I'm hoping to do a bit better at maintaining this venue as an informal place to share ideas and some random writing, so to that end I’m setting the wayback machine to a time when my work was somewhat (but not entirely) different.

Before starting graduate school, I worked for several years as the public education program manager at a (now sadly defunct) museum of medieval and Renaissance arms and armor. (The running joke is that I moved from the non-profit sector to the no-profit sector: wakka-wakka!) Like any job, there were things and people I loved, some that I hated, and lots of stuff that fell somewhere in the middle. One of the most rewarding parts of the experience was the opportunity to research and develop material for a wide variety of audiences: from special programs on everything from Boudicca and Joan of Arc to beer and corsetry, exhibit openings, annual events, and field trips for K-12 students and beyond, the Higgins Armory Museum education staff did it all, and while it was a great deal of work, it was also a great deal of fun a great deal (if not quite all) of the time.

Unsurprisingly, I wound up learning a lot—indeed, more than I ever expected or wanted to know—about various types of armor and weaponry and the roles they played in ordinary medieval and Renaissance life. Since I’ve always been interested in the intersections of literature, history, and material culture, it was inevitable that Shakespeare would become involved, and thanks to serendipity, I found a co-worker and friend who helped me learn to identify, understand, and interpret the many (and I mean many) ways arms, armor, and weaponry-oriented language and rhetoric inform and play roles in early modern texts. One of the foremost of these is Romeo and Juliet, a play that turns out be all about fencing!

(What? Did you think it was some sappy romance about dopey teenagers in love? Well, think again, bub, and let this be a lesson not to believe everything you hear in high school.)

As I began transitioning from the museum world to academia, I was able to apply much of what I’d learned to things like conference presentations and public talks, and today’s post is the final iteration of a paper that has appeared in a number of forms in various venues and contexts. In recent years, my research has moved away from arms and armor-related topics, and since I’ll be writing about early modern domestic tragedy for the foreseeable future, I’m unlikely to be revisiting the warring factions of Elizabethan rapier fencing any time soon, if ever. And so this is quite possibly the end of the road for a topic that has meant many things to me, not least of which being my first baby-steps on the road to Proper Scholarship. So draw, if ye be men (or not), and if anyone tells you this play is about anything but swords, swordplay, and Renaissance xenophobia, issue your challenge forthwith!

As one of the most popular spectator sports of the early modern period, fencing occupied an important place in the social imagination of Elizabethan and Jacobean England, with prizefights often held in the same theaters that staged plays by Shakespeare and his contemporaries, and entertainments like bear-baiting and Marocco the Dancing Horse (trained - some said bewitched - by his owner, William Bankes, to curtsy at Queen Elizabeth's name, and bare his teeth when Spain's Philip II was mentioned). Andrew Gurr and Mariko Ichikawa have observed that “The Southwark playhouses in particular were popular for such public shows of prowess. [Philip] Henslowe records a debt of forty shillings in 1598 for hiring the Rose for a ‘challenge,’ noting that ‘James Cranwigge the 4 of november 1598 playd his challenge in my howsse & I sholde have had for my part xxxxs which the company hath rd & oweth yt to me.’”[1]

In addition to its appeal as public performance, fencing was a chic, aristocratic pastime, and in the late sixteenth-century an influx of “Englished” swordplay guides by Italian masters contributed to a growing enthusiasm for sophisticated rapier and dagger techniques in some quarters, while fueling xenophobic mistrust of foreign influences in others. The arrival of Italian fencing manuals (and their authors) in Elizabethan London had a transformative effect on civilian combat, and public debate about the practice informed legislative, polemical, and recreational literature.

The rapier—possibly from the Spanish espada ropera (“robe sword”) or from the French raspar (to scratch)—was a gentleman’s weapon, and unlike swords designed for warfare, was designed to be worn with street clothes. The long blade and swept hilt were in sync with increasingly exaggerated fashions for gentlemen, and were eventually targeted by the same sumptuary laws. The antiquarian John Stow inveighed in print against what he regarded as an affected and dangerous vogue:

"He was held the greatest gallant that had the deepest ruff and longest rapier. The offence to the eye of the one, and hurt unto the life of the subject that came by the other—this caused her Majestie to make proclamation against them both, and to place selected grave citizens at every gate, to cut the ruffes and breake the rapiers points of all passengers that exceeded a yeard in length of their rapiers."[2]

The growing interest in rapier fencing eventually spilled over into the works of contemporary playwrights, skeptical historians notwithstanding. Writing in the 1990s, Craig Turner and Tony Soper noted that “Critics and scholars of the Renaissance, who would not hesitate to further investigate almost any word, punctuation, or stage direction in Shakespeare, have been surprisingly mute about such open-ended notations as ‘they fight.”[3] To a large extent this remains true in literary scholarship today, but an appreciation for the contemporary audience’s familiarity with fencing rhetoric and practice provides a valuable glimpse into early modern popular culture, where the line between spectacle and reality could be fascinatingly permeable. In addition to references in letters and diaries, the many theatrical allusions to weapons and swordplay reveal a great deal about the level of civilian violence in an Elizabethan city, along with the simmering economic, nationalist, and cultural anxieties that frequently informed it.

One of the primary objections voiced by critics of the Italian style (after its suspicious continental origins) was its potentially lethal outcome: rapier fencing was a great deal more hazardous than the “good downright blows” of traditional English methods, which might end in cuts or bruises but rarely in death.[4] The same could not be said of rapier bouts, even those fought purely for show; one contemporary example of a sporting event gone terribly awry comes from the 1602 diary of John Manningham, who reports that “in an exhibition at the Swan the professional fencer Dun had been killed by a thrust in the eye.”[5] In an environment where an afternoon’s entertainment could have fatal consequences, it seems likely that playhouse audiences viewed stage combat with particularly keen attention.

Allusions to swordplay and the masters who taught it occur in a great many Renaissance texts, but Joan Ozark Holmer points out that the “earliest accents of rapier fence in Elizabethan drama appear in Shakespeare’s Love’s Labour’s Lost and Romeo and Juliet.”[6] Holmer posits that the English translation of one manual in particular, Vincentio Saviolo his Practice, which appeared in 1595, may account for the sudden appearance of swordplay vernacular in plays of the mid-1590s. She also notes that the subsequent “flourishing of this foreign jargon in the literary works of such Elizabethans as Thomas Lodge, John Marston, and Ben Jonson also post-dates publication of Saviolo’s book and therefore suggests its impact.”[7] Of the two Shakespeare plays mentioned above, Romeo and Juliet is especially striking in its deployment of this language: from Tybalt’s angry “Fetch me my rapier, boy” when he perceives Romeo at the Capulets’ feast, to the “Spanish blades” of Mercutio’s Queen Mab speech, the text is rife with the stylized vocabulary of the formal duel as detailed in contemporary fencing literature (Romeo and Juliet, 1.5.53; 1.4.84). [8]

Along with practical instructions about technique, swordplay manuals contained injunctions as to what constituted a proper cause for a quarrel, along with the appropriate ways of issuing a challenge and pursuing retribution if one’s honor was insulted. The second half of Saviolo’s manual was entitled Of Honor and Honorable Quarrels, and divided into two sections: “A Discourse of Single Combat” and “A Rule and Order Concerning the Challenger and Defender.” Shakespeare burlesques these minutely calibrated standards in the jester Touchstone’s speech about the seven degrees of “giving the lie” in As You Like It (ranging from the Retort Courteous to the Lie Direct), offering a means of avoiding actual engagement without any loss of face. We see an earthier iteration of the same dynamic in the opening scene of Romeo and Juliet, as the Montague servant Samson attempts to pick a fight without risking legal ramifications; asked if he has bitten his thumb at the Capulet servant he has insulted, he ascertains whether or not “the law [is] of our side if I say ‘Ay?’” before responding (1.1.45).

Such references would have resonated with playhouse audience, who had opportunities to witness private as well as professional duels, and to whom the names of famous fencing masters would have been familiar. Holmer writes, “Complementing Saviolo’s foreign fencing rhetoric is his careful articulation of the ethic informing the truly honorable duello, the values of which significantly illuminate the tragic complexity of the duels in Romeo and Juliet.”[9] In the end, Mercutio and Tybalt, pay as high a price for their investment in the notions of honor prescribed by fencing culture as that paid by the play’s feckless, eponymous lovers for their star-cross’d affection.

The widespread success of Saviolo’s manual was partially due to his connections in the fencing world: a native of Padua, Saviolo immigrated to London in 1590 to teach at the “colledge” of Rocco Bonetti in Blackfriars. Bonetti’s students were drawn from the highest echelons of Elizabethan society (Sir Walter Raleigh and Lord Peregrin Willoughby were both patrons), and he enjoyed a reputation for swagger.[10] In 1596, the actor James Burbage—like Shakespeare, a member of the Lord Chamberlain’s Men—took over the lease on Bonetti’s school, planning to incorporate it into the second Blackfriars playhouse, which makes it improbable that Shakespeare was unacquainted with the fencing salon.[11] Moreover, Mercutio’s characterization of Tybalt as “the very butcher of a silk button,” is a direct allusion to Bonetti’s boast that he “could hit any Englishman with a thrust, just upon the button of his doublet” (2.3.64-5).[12]

This story was derided by the conservative English master George Silver—of whom more below—who quotes Bonetti verbatim in his Paradoxes of Defence, writing of a “pretty jest…scarce worth the reading, in commendation of outlandish fight. There was an Italian teacher of Defence in my time…so excellent in his fight, that he would hit any English man with a thrust, just upon any button in his doublet, and this was much spoken of.”[13] After Bonetti’s death, his student—known to history only as “Jeronimo”—took over, and “For the next couple of years Jeronimo and Saviolo exploited the immense English interest in rapier-fight, traveling around the country propagating their ‘foining fence’ and enraging the English Masters” whose livelihoods and reputations suffered as a result of this exotic imported competition.[14]

The conflict between the English and Italian schools played out in print, with public challenges being issued and advertised, and this tension is evident in Romeo and Juliet. While Holmer is correct in identifying Saviolo’s stylish Italian terminology throughout the text, it is important to recognize the presence of an alternate view of current swordplay trends. This contrary attitude is represented by Mercutio (and to a certain extent by Benvolio) in the play, and was wholly embraced by George Silver in real life. Although his Paradoxes of Defence was not published until 1599, Silver was a voluble critic of his continental rivals throughout the 1590s, and on one occasion he and his brother challenged Jeronimo and Saviolo to a public duel, which “The Italians refused, to the public disgrace of the Silvers, who had already printed and distributed posters and handbills advertising the fight,” thereby adding personal insult to professional injury. [15]

The Paradoxes remains the only extant Elizabethan manual written by an Englishman: essentially a nationalist diatribe against the incursion of Italians with their “long Swords, long Rapiers, [and] frog-pricking Poiniards,” it opens with “an admonition to the noble, ancient, victorious, valiant, and most brave nation of Englishmen, to beware of false teachers of defence, and how they forsake their own natural fights.”[16] (It is also worth noting that Silver's book is dedicated to Saviolo’s patron, “the right honorable…singular good lord, Robert, Earle of Essex and Ewe, Earle Marshall of England.”)[17]

Turner and Soper note that as “an historical document…the Paradoxes represents the last gasp of a dying breed: the conservative—even reactionary—voice of a man watching his beloved Englishman’s style receding before waves of enthusiasm for the Italian rapier.”[18] In Romeo and Juliet, Silver’s scornful tone is first heard in the voice of Benvolio, who belittles the duelist’s flashy technique to the angry Prince Escalus, following the play’s opening brawl:

Benvolio: …the fiery Tybalt, with his sword prepar’d,
Which, as he breath’d defiance to my ears
He swung about his head and cut the winds,
Who nothing hurt withal, hiss’d him in scorn.

However, it is Mercutio's character who most forcefully reviles the modish enthusiasm for these “antic, lisping” affectations, in language strikingly similar to Silver’s. Compare the following passages:

Mercutio: The pox of such antic, lisping, affecting phantasimes, these new tuners of accent!...Why, is not this a lamentable thing, grandsire, that we should be thus afflicted with these strange flies, these fashion-mongers, these pardon-me’s, who stand so much on the new form, that they cannot sit at ease on the old bench?’(Romeo and Juliet, 2.3.26-33)

Silver: Fencing (right honorable) in this new fangled age, is like our fashions, every day a change, resembling the chameleon, who alters himself into all colors save white. So fencing changes into all wards save right.
(Preface, Paradoxes of Defence)

In fact, Mercutio uses his dying breath to condemn his nemesis as “a dog, a rat, a mouse, a cat, to scratch a man to death! A braggart, a rogue, a villain, that fights by the book of arithmetic!” (3.1.100-02). Foreign names and settings never quite disguise the fact that Shakespeare’s plays take place in England, and are populated by English characters, and it is interesting that Mercutio’s issue seems to be less with Tybalt’s choice of weapon than the style in which he employs it. Romeo’s admonition—“Gentle Mercutio, put thy rapier up”—makes it clear that both men are armed with similar swords, but Mercutio’s contemptuous, “Come, sir, your passado!” makes it clear that he has little time for his rival’s foppish, imported mannerisms (3.1.82-3).

The most intriguing thing about this scornful language may be the playwright’s choice to place it in the mouth of a young man. It is unsurprising that Old Montague should call querulously for a longsword (his wife’s response, “A crutch, a crutch! Why call you for a sword?” makes it clear that his fencing days are long past), or that the servants are armed with old-fashioned swords and bucklers, associated in Shakespeare’s time with lower-class ruffianism (1.1.72). What invites interrogation is the disparity of opinion about au courant techniques between the aristocratic young men of the Capulet and Montague camps: one embracing the hot new trends, and the other clinging to methods of defense that were becoming woefully outdated.

In his Introduction to the second Arden edition of the play, Brian Gibbons writes of the “widening gap between [Mercutio] and Romeo…Romeo seeks joy and harmony where Mercutio delights in exacerbated conflict, so that Romeo begins to find his friend inflexible, superficial, [and] content with fixed ideas.”[19] This is an arresting point, since the main “fixed idea” in Shakespeare’s Verona is that the Montagues and Capulets hate one another, and their friends must do likewise. Tybalt may be more receptive to innovative styles of swordplay than Mercutio, but he is equally bound to the notion that there can never be peace between these two warring factions. When Romeo (now secretly married to Tybalt’s cousin) tries to deflect the young Capulet’s challenge before the fatal duel in Act Three, the latter responds, “Boy, this shall not excuse the injuries/ That thou hast done me. Therefore turn and draw” (3.1.65-6). Having threatened to make Tybalt “dance” with his “fiddlestick,” Mercutio decries his friend’s conciliatory attitude as “calm, dishonourable, vile submission,” and is soon engaged in a fight which neither he or the “King of Cats” will survive (3.1.47-8; 72; 76).

Considering the stress that has been placed on disparate approaches to personal combat, it is significant that in the play’s pivotal duel neither Mercutio nor Tybalt gains the advantage based on traditional methods or stylish technique. It is only when Romeo steps between the combatants to separate them that Tybalt’s rapier manages a thrust under Romeo’s arm. Like the servants in Act One, Mercutio seems to solicit a fight without expecting a lethal outcome; it is difficult to imagine that he is prepared to sacrifice his life for the pleasure of fighting Tybalt, regardless of their mutual hatred.

Mercutio fails to appreciate that the newer methods play for higher stakes, which was one of the most serious critiques the Italian style met with upon arriving in England. George Silver laments that the foreign masters “teach men to butcher one another here at home in peace, wherewith they cannot hurt their enemies abroad in war,” asserting that “neither the Italians nor any of their best scholars do never fight, but they are most commonly sore hurt, or one or both of them slain.”[20] 

The anxious xenophobia of Silver’s rhetoric seems particularly apposite to a historical moment when England faced an impending succession crisis, with the likely accession of a “foreign” sovereign after the death of the childless Elizabeth. With no direct English heir to succeed the aging queen (and the end of the Tudor dynasty that brought to a close the decades-long civil “wars of the roses” of the previous century), the possibility of cultural colonization loomed large for many Elizabethans. In Silver’s view, if the old ways were abandoned by the younger generation, the English might cease to be English, succumbing to alien influences,

"…like degenerate sons, [who] have forsaken our forefathers virtues with their weapons, and have lusted like men sick of a strange ague, after the strange vices and devices of Italian, French, and Spanish fencers, little remembering, that these apish toys could not free Rome from Brennius' sack, not France from the King Henry the Fifth his conquest.”[21]

Turner and Soper point out that Silver’s allusion to the fourth century Northumbrian victor of the Battle of the Allia may well “hint at the Italian teachers’ common contention that the Romans invented the thrust,” while the reference to Henry V is easily read as jingoistic (and rather desperate) whistling in the dark.[22] Given the (still) ongoing English reputation for insularity and resistance to change—despite the former empire’s continuing and increasingly successful efforts to strike back—Silver’s concerns and their echoes in Shakespeare’s play sound an oddly familiar note. 

By placing Romeo and Juliet against a backdrop of civil unrest and appropriating the public, rhetorical debate about the proper approach to private quarrels, the play sets up a deadly interaction between popular notions of honor and increasingly lethal weapons practices. That these techniques were threatening in both their origins and their application may render their chilly reception by culturally wary Elizabethan “Little Englander” analogues more understandable, but Romeo and Juliet’s theme of unfamiliar, innovative, and/or foreign ideas clashing with established codes of behavior is an idea with relevance for audiences in any century. And you have to admit that it’s a lot more interesting than the orchard scene.


[1] Andrew Gurr and Mariko Ichikawa, Staging in Shakespeare’s Theatres (Oxford:
Oxford University Press, 2000), 65.

[2] John Stow, quoted in Isaac Disraeli and Rufus Wilmot Griswold, Curiosities of Literature: And, the Literary Character Illustrated (London and New York: Frederick Warne and Co., 1859), 59.

[3] Craig Turner and Tony Soper, Methods and Practice of Elizabethan Swordplay (Carbondale and Edwardsville: Southern Illinois University Press, 1990), xiii.

[4] George Silver, Paradoxes of Defence and Bref Instructions Upon My Paradoxes of Defence, in Three Elizabethan Fencing Manuals, ed. James L. Jackson (Delmar, N.Y.: Scholars’ Facsimiles and Reprints, 1972), 493.

[5] Gurr and Ichikawa 66.

[6] Joan Ozark Holmer, “‘Draw, if you be Men’: The Significance of Saviolo for Romeoand Juliet.” Shakespeare Quarterly 45.2 (Summer, 1994): 164.

[7] Ibid.

[8] William Shakespeare, Romeo and Juliet, in The Norton Shakespeare, ed. Stephen Greenblatt, et al (New York: W.W. Norton & Co., Inc., 1997). Hereafter cited parenthetically in the text.

[9] Holmer 163.

[10] Turner and Soper 17.

[11] Holmer 165.

[12] Turner and Soper 16.

[13] Silver 495.

[14] Ibid. 18.

[15] Ibid.

[16] Silver 493.

[17] Ibid.

[18] Turner and Soper 79.

[19] Brian Gibbons, in Romeo and Juliet, The Arden Shakespeare, Second Series, ed. Brian Gibbons (London: A & C Black Publishers, 1980), 68.

[20] Silver 496.

[21] Ibid. 494.

[22] Turner and Soper 80.

Friday, November 14, 2014

The Witch of Edmonton at the RSC

I'm just back from a ridiculously short but wonderful mid-semester trip to England to see a couple of plays, visit the WWI centenary installation at the Tower of London, and generally recharge my early modernist batteries. The English Renaissance seems to be enjoying a theatrical Renaissance right now, and it's encouraging to see so much material outside the Shakespeare canon being staged and attracting audiences. It goes without saying that I love me some Big Willie Shakes, but there's a wealth of contemporary plays available beyond the better-known examples like The Duchess of Malfi, Doctor Faustus, etc., and it's great to see them getting some love. I'm currently writing a dissertation chapter about petty treason (i.e. wives who murder their husbands), so I made sure to catch the RSC's production of Arden of Faversham at the Swan in Stratford this summer, and was excited to see Rowley, Dekker, Ford, "& c."'s genre-bending 1621 play, The Witch of Edmonton scheduled for their fall season. Since The Witch figures in a later chapter (and is rarely staged), I was not about to miss it; Eileen Atkins in the title role sealed the deal.

I love seeing plays at the Swan because it's such an intimate venue; with only 450 seats, none of them could be called even remotely "bad." Since I had the wit to book our tickets back in August, we had front-row seats within yards of the actors: a particular privilege in this instance because Atkins is such a subtle performer. I've been a huge fan for ages, and I honestly don't know where to start in praising her performance. As is true of all my favorite actors, the word that best describes Atkins' approach is intelligent: nuanced, thoughtful, multi-faceted, saying as much with her facial expressions, 
and with what she leaves out, as with her remarkable voice. As Mother Elizabeth Sawyer, an old woman accused of witchcraft because she is "Poor, deformed, and ignorant, / And like a bow buckled and bent together,” Atkins communicates both the pathos and the anger of an outcast so tired of being “a common sink / For all the filth and rubbish of men’s tongues” that she finally does make a deal with the devil: "'Tis all one to be a witch as to be counted one." 

Throughout the play, Atkins' Mother Sawyer manages to evoke our sympathy without pandering to the mawkish sentimentality too often associated with "sensitive" modern attitudes towards the elderly, which frequently reads as more infantilizing and/or dismissive than respectful. (If anyone had called my grandmother - who lived through two world wars, years of rationing, air raids, and 
post-war austerity, and raised three children on a Birmingham council estate - "cute" they'd have been pulling back stumps.) Atkins achieves this balance in large part through her dry, incisive commentary on the hypocritical society that ostracizes and abuses her. In answer to her own rhetorical question, "A witch! Who is not?" she offers numerous examples of people who "[act] sin in fouler shapes that can be wrought" by "any lean old beldam" like herself, including courtesans, "city-witches who can turn / Their husband's wares, whole standing shops of wares, / To sumptuous tables, gardens of stolen sin; / In one year wasting what scarce twenty win," scolding wives, and "The man of law / Whose honeyed hopes the credulous client draw—/ As bees by tinkling basins — to swarm to him / From his own hive to work the wax in his."

These scathing observations hit their mark within the play and with the Swan's audience as well, many of whom were nodding during this speech (worth reading in its entirety; you can find the full text of the play here). This series of questions places "an old woman, / Ill-favoured grown with years" in a similar position to that lamented by Shakespeare's Shylock, who asks, "Hath not a Jew eyes?... If you prick us, do we not bleed? if you tickle us, do we not laugh? if you poison us, do we not die? and if you wrong us, shall we not revenge? If we are like you in the rest, we will resemble you in that." And while Mother Sawyer's speech is ultimately as bootless as Shylock's (she hangs, he is forced to renounce his faith; it's an open question which fate is worse) the fact that she makes it is significant, and keeps her from becoming either a cartoon villain or a mere caricature of a helpless old woman.

The Witch of Edmonton is an odd play, not least because its title character doesn't appear until about thirty minutes into the action, and then occupies only one of three loosely connected plots, which share a demonic dog as their common denominator. In addition to the witchcraft plot, we have Frank Thorney, a young man who has impregnated and married Winnifride, a serving girl fresh from a concurrent, clandestine affair with the local nobleman who employs them both. Knowing his father will never approve of Winnifride, Frank bigamously contracts himself to Susan Carter in hopes of securing his inheritance and her dowry, with which he plans to abscond. We also have Cuddy Banks, a boorish rustic in love with Susan's sister, who provides comic relief and some unexpected pathos.

Mother Sawyer's relationship with "Tom," the canine familiar who answers her plea that "some power, good or bad, / Instruct me which way I might be revenged," is simultaneously disturbing, frightening, and strangely sweet. It's unsurprising that such a friendless person would welcome any companion (even one played as...let's say "less-than-cuddly" by Jay Simpson), and his ability to wreak vengeance on her abusers only sweetens the pot. Sawyer's reaction to Tom's betrayal and abandonment of her in the final act - it is axiomatic that the devil always deals double - is heartbreaking, and it's a testament to the fine acting throughout this production that we believe this lonely woman sees a man wearing black body paint, horns, and a huge codpiece as a beloved canine companion, beyond his power to smite her enemies.

Tom also interacts directly with the play's fool, Cuddy Banks (Daffyd Llyr Thomas). The son of Mother Sawyer's chief antagonist, Cuddy is primarily interested in morris dancing - in the coveted role of hobbyhorse - and one of the most amusing things about this play is the hard time morris dancers were already getting in 1621. When the foppish gallant Warbeck is invited to "grace the nimble-footed youth of Edmonton / That are so kind to call us up today," he replies that “Absurdity's in my opinion ever the best dancer in a morris,” while his companion Somerton "could rather sleep than see 'em." The audience at the performance we attended met the spectacle of six be-ribboned-and-belled men jumping around with sticks (Cuddy brandishing an articulated horse skull on the end of his) with the usual mixture of bemusement and utter confusion, especially when Tom seized the fiddle and the entire company broke into what I can only describe as a "demonic border morris," proving that the more things change, the more they stay the same.

A source of both comedy and tension is Cuddy's boneheaded persistence in addressing the demonic Tom as if he were an ordinary "puppison," despite giveaways like the latter's ability to vanish, talk in complete sentences, and perform acts of malevolent mischief beyond the capacity of "honest" dogs who "swim, fetch, and carry." The specter of the malign Other lurking inside the familiar and the domestic is a pervasive and frightening idea in the early modern period, and 
The Witch of Edmonton exploits it brilliantly. Mother Sawyer wants an ally she can trust and rely on, so the devil answers her plea in the (proverbially loyal) shape of a dog. For most of the play, Cuddy Banks fails to recognize the furry acquaintance whose ears he scratches as an agent of evil whose "delights" are "to kill innocent children, to kill harmless cattle, to 'stroy corn and fruit, etc." and who provokes the play's feckless, bigamous Frank Thorney (played with impressive sensitivity by Ian Bonar, who brings depth and humanity to an unsympathetic character) to murder his second wife in cold blood merely by brushing against him.

On the page, The Witch of Edmonton's strange admixture of English country life, the tensions between the early modern ideal of companionate marriage, filial duty, and the commodification of love and matrimony exemplified by the bigamy plot, and contemporary anxieties about witchcraft and diabolical interference in ordinary daily activities can seem like a bit of a generic mess. This is often put down to the play's collaborative origins, with the three interlocking plots usually attributed to Dekker (Mother Sawyer), Ford (Frank Thorney), Rowley (Cuddy Banks and the rustics), respectively. But on the stage - at least in Gregory Doran's current RSC production - the three strands are woven together by a skilled director and a talented cast to form something (to quote another playwright) that is, if not exactly of great constancy, howsoever strange and admirable.

Tuesday, November 4, 2014

O, Brave New Blog!

I've been thinking (and talking) for awhile about carving out an online space for my academic, literary, historical, folkloric, and/or political interests, and have finally decided to take the plunge. I love my cooking blog, and will continue sharing recipes and culinary adventures there, but in recent months I've felt an increasing urge - dare I say need? - to have somewhere to explore more divergent topics. My hope is that this will be a forum where I can generate prose without the pressures attendant on "real" writing (i.e. conference papers, articles for potential publication, and the dissertation project with which I am increasingly in love), and maybe have some interesting conversations, too.

So welcome! And in the spirit of the current spare, spooky season, I'd like to kick off this enterprise with a paper I wrote a few years ago about witchcraft accusations in the old and "new" iterations of early modern England. (I should mention that unless otherwise specified, whatever I post here - although probably not something I'm planning to publish - is my own. So while I welcome feedback, any uncredited usage and/or quotations may result in unwanted gills, flippers, or worse. Forewarned is forearmed!)

The Devil Made Me Do It:
Accusation, Reception, and Retribution in Old and New England
     Separated by over three thousand miles and nearly a century, the witchcraft charges brought by Anne Gunter, a young woman in Jacobean England, and those of the girls afflicted in the Salem witch craze of 1692 make for a striking comparison of popular and official responses to such claims on either side of the Atlantic. In both instances, the episode began with the sudden, unexplained illness of a young female member of the community, proceeding to allegations of witchcraft against near neighbors, and ultimately leading to the formal arrest and trial of those accused. The reception of these afflictions, the ensuing charges, and their aftermaths illustrate some of the important differences—and the many similarities—between the old and new worlds’ attitudes towards the omnipresent danger of diabolical interference in everyday life.
     Anne Gunter’s story begins in 1604, in the Berkshire village of North Moreton. The youngest daughter of a prosperous yeoman farmer, still living at home with her parents, Anne was about twenty years old when she began to attract public notice. She had first fallen ill around midsummer of that year, but the ailment passed relatively quickly, and was initially attributed to “melancholy,” or “the mother,” a contemporary euphemism roughly equivalent to “female trouble.” It was only in October, when she suffered an apparent relapse (in the form of increasingly violent “fits,” followed by periods of insensibility), that her parents sought serious medical attention for their daughter. At first, it was thought that these seizures might be an indication of “falling sickness,” or epilepsy, a diagnosis later ruled out by physicians. As Anne’s condition worsened through the autumn, it was the opinion of several doctors that the girl was “not sick of any natural cause or infirmity.” As concerns about Anne’s mysterious ailment grew, the community began to fear that darker forces were at work, a fear that would lead to a dramatic externalization of village politics.[1]
     Neither Anne nor her parents had been born in North Moreton. Brian Gunter and his wife, also named Anne, had spent most of their married life in nearby Hungerford, where they enjoyed the status of well-connected minor gentry, leasing an estate called Charlton Manor. Sometime in the mid-1580s, however, they relocated to North Moreton, a move evidently precipitated by an inheritance. As the result of a complex sequence of tenancy disputes, Brian’s brother, Edward, had prevailed in a 1579 lawsuit to be named the rightful resident of North Moreton rectory. This ruling was an important coup in terms of local politics, since the position allowed the resident rights to the tithes associated with that property. This type of “impropriation”—wherein the living or monies formerly due to a religious establishment redounded to the layperson in physical possession of property associated with that institution—was a practice fraught with controversy in early modern English villages, many of which continued to struggle with the changes wrought on their local economies by the dissolution of religious houses during the Reformation.
     Upon his death, Edward Gunter bequeathed these rights to his younger brother, and Brian lost little time in moving his family to North Moreton to enjoy the profits of his new situation, a noteworthy bit of background information in light of the family’s vexed relations with many of their neighbors. Although tithe disputes were a common occurrence in the court rolls of the period, Brian Gunter’s legal history reveals a lifelong involvement with this particular type of quarrel. [2]  Like the Reverend Samuel Parris, who would play a central role in the Salem witchcraft hysteria more than eighty years later, Gunter was regarded in some quarters as a grasping arriviste with influential connections, taking advantage of those in a weaker position for his own personal and financial advancement. Parris, the son of a wealthy merchant and plantation owner, aroused the animosity of many Salem villagers through what they considered his arrogant and greedy demands; Gunter’s proclivity for litigation led to similar bad feeling, and it seems significant that the Gunters continued to be seen as “outsiders” within the community even after living there for nearly twenty years. In both instances, the ill feeling aroused by the family patriarch had a polarizing effect that ultimately forced many members of the community to adopt a position for or against him.
     Both Parris and Gunter had benefited from associations outside of their villages, setting them further apart from their more provincial neighbors. In Gunter’s case these were with Oxford University, most immediately through his son-in-law, Thomas Holland. Holland was married to Anne’s elder sister, and was serving as Regius Professor of Divinity at Exeter College at the time of the younger girl’s affliction; it was due largely to this association that the Gunters were able to elicit the attention and services of prominent medical scholars for their daughter. Several of these learned men were summoned to Anne’s bedside, but no physical cause for her sufferings could be found, despite the liberal application of purgatives, repeated examinations of her urine, bleeding, and other conventional treatments. One particularly eminent physician, Richard Bracegirdle—a fellow of Brasenose College and longtime friend of the Gunter family—was the first to voice the suspicion that Anne’s condition might be diabolical in nature, declaring that even he possessed “no skill to redress it,” and going so far as to suggest that “some cunning men” might be better qualified to help the girl.[3]
     Four such people were eventually called upon. John Wendore of nearby Newbury was the first to visit Anne, but although he concurred that she was indeed “bewitched by some evil neighbour,” his remedies were apparently ineffective. A second man named only as Blackwall examined the girl on a later occasion, and a third, Palliser, was actually consulted about the case by the local vicar, Gilbert Bradshaw. By this time Anne’s neighbor, Alice Kirfoote, had also begun exhibiting symptoms, and through the good offices of yet another neighbor was given a small bag to wear around her neck, and a “little green glass vial” from which she was to drink a spoonful or two each day, courtesy of Goodwife Higgs, a cunning woman from Ashampstead. This liquid was tried on Anne as well, but apparently to no avail. Nevertheless, the relative casualness with which these “good witches” were recommended—and located—is striking, and indicates that they were considered a reasonable option when more conventional approaches failed. Although they operated on the fringes of the community, it seems clear that such “cunning folk” remained a viable resource in early modern England, providing a legitimate—if somewhat esoteric and potentially risky—service for ordinary citizens who found themselves in extraordinary circumstances.[4]
     This accepting attitude is in direct opposition to that found in the Massachusetts Bay Colony less than a century later, where Cotton Mather affirmed in 1689 that although witches were capable of performing “wonders” in the world, they could only do so by virtue of “the help of evil spirits.” Furthermore, the reader is admonished to keep in mind that such people “cannot indeed perform any proper miracles; those are things to be done only by the Favourites and Embassadours of the Lord.” [5] When no medical explanation was found for the afflictions of Betty Parris, Abigail Williams and Ann Putnam, Jr., the next logical step was fasting and prayer before contacting clergymen with more expertise in cases of witchcraft; there was certainly no official talk of trying more unconventional means to relieve apparently supernatural symptoms. The Reverend Parris’ violent reaction to the girls’ childish attempts at divination—based on English folk customs, despite the blame placed on the Caribbean slave Tituba—is further proof of the “zero tolerance” policy towards such practices in the New World. While it is to be expected that an ordained Puritan minister would react with scandalized horror to the presence of such “goings to the devil” in his own house, it seems significant that there is no sign that ordinary adults in Salem Village employed such folk remedies after the debacle caused by Mary Sibley’s baking of a “witch cake” using the urine of the afflicted girls.[6] This provides an interesting contrast with the Reverend Gilbert Bradshaw of North Moreton, who went out of his way to discuss the Gunter case with a known “cunning man.” While it is doubtful that the cunning men and women of the English countryside were considered capable of working “miracles” by their contemporaries, it seems equally unlikely that those who sought their services saw the use of a few homemade charms or herbal infusions as a covenant with the forces of darkness.
     The continued acceptance of cunning men and women by everyday Englishmen is particularly intriguing in light of the increased official censure of witchcraft at the beginning of the seventeenth century. James I had come to the English throne only the year before Anne Gunter’s troubles began, bringing with him a well-established reputation for complete intolerance of witches or witchcraft. As king of Scotland, he had played an active role in the trials at Berwick on Tweed, beginning in 1590, which ended in the execution of a number of people, both men and women. During the examinations—often conducted under torture—James had actually questioned some of the accused himself, since among their alleged crimes were the making of wax images and the raising of tempests in order to harm or kill the king and queen. Furthermore, he had written a book on the subject, Daemonologie. First published in 1597, and reprinted twice in 1603, it was written largely in response to what he feared was the growing skepticism about the reality of diabolical possession, specifically as found in Reginald Scot’s 1584 The Discoverie of Witchcraft. To entertain any doubt that Satan’s snares were a clear and present danger was to risk being “given over in the handes of the Devill that enemie.”[7] James hoped to spare his subjects such a fate by means of tougher legislation. English law had declared witchcraft a felony in 1541, and from 1563 it was a capital offense to participate in “conjuration, witchcraft, enchantment or sorcery,” and one of James’ first acts as king was to have this law revised and extended. As of 1604, a person proven to have any supernatural dealings whatsoever, including communing with evil or familiar spirits, was to be put to death.[8]
     In Anne Gunter’s case, the interventions of physicians, clergy, and cunning men alike proved fruitless, and her condition grew steadily worse. By November 1604 her symptoms had become extreme, adding weight to the theory that her torments were sinister rather than “natural” in origin. The intensity of her fits, bizarre physical contortions, inability to eat and insensibility to pain, even when pricked with needles till she bled, attracted increasing amounts of scholarly and public attention. However, it was the voiding of foreign bodies (iron pins) that definitively tipped the scales in favor of a supernatural diagnosis, and contemporary descriptions of the many visitors who came to see the girl’s “strange agony of quivering and shaking,” make it clear that Anne Gunter had become not merely evidence of Satan’s malevolent presence in Berkshire, but a major local tourist attraction as well. The vomiting, sneezing ,and even “void[ing]…by her water” large quantities of pins provided sufficiently compelling evidence of witchcraft, and it wasn’t long before Anne began to supply the names of her tormentors: Elizabeth Gregory, “Mother Agnes” Pepwell, and her daughter Mary Pepwell.[9]
     All three women were well known in the village, and the Pepwells were particularly obvious targets for this type of vilification. The elderly Agnes appears to have been mentally ill and essentially homeless, and had been previously suspected of witchcraft; she later gave a lurid and detailed “confession” of her supposed dealings with Satan and associated malefic escapades, complete with standard features like a familiar that “would do nothing for her unless he had a drop of her blood.” Although Mother Agnes was not tortured—torture being used very rarely in English cases of witchcraft—her age and apparent instability, combined with the unprecedented attention of her questioners, undoubtedly led her to give them what they wanted. Her daughter, Mary, had been born out of wedlock, the apparent by-blow of an encounter with a “lame vagrant” named only as Heywood, and the two were accorded no standing in the community.[10] Like Sarah Goode, one of the first women accused in Salem, they were women who existed on the fringes of their community, destitute and often reduced to begging for food, which they apparently received with less gratitude than their often grudging benefactors thought appropriate. By the early seventeenth century, the ragged, angry beggar woman muttering curses beneath her breath as she stomps away unsatisfied was already a stock character in suspected cases of witchcraft; these were precisely the sort of indigent, marginalized women against whom such charges were likely to be made. Such unsavory characters were considered more deserving of censure and suspicion than of Christian charity, to be despised rather than pitied, not least because they represented the worst fears of the prosperous: poverty, homelessness and exclusion from respectable society.[11]
     In Agnes and Mary Pepwell’s case, they were only the hapless supporting cast; it was the third woman, Elizabeth Gregory, who was the real target of the North Moreton witch-hunt. Another classic type, Goodwife Gregory was a “scold,” an opinionated, outspoken woman universally disliked, particularly by the women in her community. In fact, she was so unpopular that she was even excluded from such traditionally female-centered events as the childbirths and churchings of her neighbors. Labors and lyings-in played an important role in the social lives of early modern women, providing festive opportunities to get together, drink, gossip and enjoy one another’s company without the demands or intrusion of men. Popular literature of the time is filled with dryly rueful accounts of men coming home to cold hearths, no supper, and a house full of drunken neighbor women, all of whom he suspects are laughing at him. If contemporary representations of these occasions—in addition to the everyday interactions between women and their “gossips” in the marketplace, alehouse and church—as a sort of female subculture are any indication, the specific exclusion of one woman from such gatherings speaks volumes about the degree to which she was ostracized, making her in effect a social outcast among her own sex.[12]
      Elizabeth Gregory’s unpopularity clearly had its roots in her extremely aggressive dealings with others; indeed, she seems to have been incapable of holding her tongue, declaring even after being accused of witchcraft that the whole business was nonsense, and that she “cared not” whether Anne Gunter lived or died. As in the cases of Salem Goodwives Sarah Osborne and Bridget Bishop, outspoken assertiveness in a woman was viewed with great suspicion. Neither Osborne nor Bishop was shy about sharing her opinions, and each had been involved in various legal and property disputes with their neighbors, which inevitably incurred a certain amount of dislike. Furthermore, both women’s means of supporting themselves were viewed with disapproval. The former had manipulated her first husband’s estate—after a scandalous second marriage to her indentured servant—in order to disinherit her own sons, and the latter kept an unlicensed tavern on the outskirts of the village, to the displeasure of many who considered it an unwholesome influence on the community’s young people. That Bishop had been previously accused—although acquitted—of witchcraft, and Osborne, like Gregory, was involved in a longstanding quarrel with the family of at least one of her accusers, only made matters worse in the eyes of their judges.[13]
     In North Moreton, Elizabeth Gregory had worked diligently to earn her reputation as a difficult neighbor. She held a particular grudge against Nicholas and Alice Kirfoote; in fact the latter would become the second woman to accuse her of witchcraft. The two women often “railed at one another” if they chanced to meet in the village, and there are even references to them “falling to blows” on occasion. Gregory appeared only rarely in church, and was denounced by her own vicar as “a scold and an unquiet body amongst her neighbours and a great curser and swearer.”[14] In a society where any woman’s acceptance in her community was predicated on the good opinion of other women, such behavior could only lead to trouble. The many instances of women taking one another to court because their reputations had been sullied by the “slanders and curses” of their neighbors attest to the power of language in the early modern period. Pamela Allen Brown writes that in London alone, “ the number of female plaintiffs grew fivefold in the city between 1572 and 1640, making the principal ecclesiastical jurisdiction…a ‘woman’s court.’” Although this was seen as a frivolous trend in many quarters, widely lampooned in both general discourse and contemporary “books of jest,” it seems rather remarkable that Elizabeth Gregory hadn’t found herself before a magistrate long before she was accused of being a witch.[15]
    As it happened, she had a much more dangerous enemy than Alice Kirfoote in Brian Gunter. The bad blood between the Gregory and Gunter families stemmed from the disastrous outcome of a village football match some six years before Anne Gunter began suffering her fits. Football in this period was viewed as a distinctly dodgy form of entertainment, censured in publication and pulpit by such detractors as the Puritan Philip Stubbes, who decried it as “a bloody and murdering practice,” and King James himself, who deemed it an exercise too “rough and violent” for his own sons.[16] Joseph Strutt’s Sports and Pastimes of the People of England gives the following description:
     "The ball, which is commonly made of a blown bladder and cased in leather, is delivered in the midst of the ground, and the object of each party is to drive it through the goal of their antagonists, which being achieved, the game is won," adding that “[w]hen the exercise becomes exceeding violent, the players kick each other's shins without the least ceremony, and some of them are overthrown at the hazard of their limbs.[17]
     Whether late 16th century matches followed similar rules is unclear, but it is apparent from contemporary references to injuries and even deaths resulting from football that it had earned its reputation as a dangerous pastime. In this particular instance, the repercussions of the game’s violence were serious and far-reaching. In the spring of 1598, Brian Gunter was involved in breaking up an altercation that had begun during a match, before erupting into general chaos. While trying to separate his own son, William, and two male members of the Gregory family, the elder Gunter struck the latter two in the head with the pommel of his dagger. Although Gunter insisted that he had not struck them very hard, or even drawn much blood, John and Richard Gregory later died of their injuries. Following an inquest, at which it was ruled that at least one of the two—Richard—had died as a result of “divine visitation” as opposed to any specific injury, the bereaved family attempted to formally indict and try Brian Gunter for murder. The Gregory family, although long established inhabitants of North Moreton, had considerably less money and influence than Brian Gunter, and in the event their suit received an unfavorable response from the Summer Assizes of Berkshire. Thus the matter was officially dismissed, but the ill feeling between the two families persisted, and resentment towards the “newcomer” residents of the North Moreton rectory may have figured into their ongoing enmity as well. In any case, it is difficult to believe that anyone in the village could have been unaware of the situation, or missed the significance of Anne Gunter’s choice of tormentor, regardless of the accused witch’s reputation as a shrew.[18]
     After she began naming those responsible for her ordeal, news of Anne’s condition continued to spread, prompting various members of the community to come forth and recount instances in which the accused women had spoken and behaved strangely, or—particularly in the case of the irascible Elizabeth Gregory—issued threats. The afflicted girl became even more forthcoming with information, relating how the witches’ spirits would torment her, sending their various familiars to further abuse her. The fact that much of the language and imagery used by Anne to describe her torments was familiar from widely disseminated accounts of witchcraft does not appear to have raised any suspicions among her audience, although the presence of such publications in the Gunter home seems oddly convenient to the modern reader. At the time, however, nothing seemed amiss; narratives of possession and witchcraft, related in lavish detail and often illustrated with lurid woodcut images, were of understandable interest to the general population, and the Gunters were no exception. Like most of their contemporaries, they were familiar with the details of the 1579 witchcraft trials at Windsor (also in Berkshire), which resulted in the condemnation of four women, an episode circulated in the form of a printed pamphlet. Even more widely reported was the sensational “Witches of Warboys” case, which had taken place in Huntingdonshire about ten years earlier and ended in the executions of three people convicted of bewitching an entire family of children.[19]
     In the beginning, the very familiarity of Anne’s symptoms seems to have bolstered her father’s claim that she was bewitched, via the gloss of these pre-existing “authorities.” A similar parallel can be observed in Salem, where previous publications enumerating the signs and symptoms of demonic possession served to reinforce the conviction that witchcraft lay at the root of their troubles. Among these was the English translation of Elaus Skragge’s eyewitness account of the Swedish witch panic of 1668-76, which related the suffering of hundreds of children—mostly young boys—at the hands of witches.[20] Additionally, there were recent occurrences in New England with which the girls themselves must have been familiar, including that of sixteen-year-old Elizabeth Knapp of Groton, and the children of a Boston family named Goodwin, whose torments ceased with the 1688 execution of “the hag” Mary Glover, an elderly, illiterate Irish woman. Both episodes were recounted in great detail in Cotton Mather’s Memorable Providences Relating to Witchcraft and Possessions, published just three years prior to the outbreak of hysteria in Salem Village, and well known to Samuel Parris and the other clergymen who examined the afflicted girls.[21]
     Anne Gunter’s symptoms shared particular similarities with the Witches of Warboys episode mentioned earlier, in which six children of the Huntingdonshire Throckmorton family were so grievously tortured by diabolical forces that nothing could ease their affliction but the execution of three members of the neighboring Samuel family, including an elderly, infirm woman. The Gunter family possessed a printed account of the case, which not only included elaborate descriptions of the children’s suffering, but the means by which the source of their distress was discovered. These included “scratching” the alleged witch, on the theory that by drawing her blood the victim’s sufferings would cease, confirming the guilt of the accused. This proved an effective expedient for the Throckmortons (the accused were later tried, convicted and hanged on this and similar “evidence”), and Brian Gunter is known to have employed this method on Elizabeth Gregory at least once, after which the neck pain he had attributed to her apparently disappeared. It was also believed that the presence of the witch would throw her victim into fits, and that burning some thatch from the roof of the accused, or a bit of her hair, would temporarily alleviate the effects of the witchcraft; in Anne Gunter’s case, as in that of the Throckmorton children, all of these techniques were employed to “prove” the truth of the girl’s allegations.[22]
     In fact, the girls in the Gunter, Throckmorton and Salem cases all exhibited the classic early modern signs of being bewitched. These included, but were not limited to: violent seizures, long spells of unconsciousness, insensibility to stimulation (sometimes in the form of intentionally inflicted pain, as in pricking with pins), “nonsensical” speech, and occasional bouts of unnatural physical strength. They cried out against their tormentors, and claimed to see them—or their familiars—when no one else could. They could also sense when the witches were in the vicinity, and might be “pinched” or otherwise hurt, although no one appeared to be actually touching them; sometimes there would be bruises or scratches in evidence afterwards. The fact that these phenomena obligingly occurred whenever there was an audience present wasn’t deemed particularly remarkable; by the time a girl was accusing her neighbors of witchcraft, her room would be filled with curious visitors at most hours of the day or night, in the hope and/or dread of seeing proof of Satan’s presence in their own community.
     In Salem, as in Huntingdonshire, the accusations ended in the arrest, trial and execution of at least some of the accused; this was certainly the aim of the Gunters’ campaign against the Gregory and Pepwell families. By the end of 1604, Alice Kirfoote was displaying symptoms identical to Anne Gunter’s, and had named the same three women as having bewitched her. With the opinions of a number of respected men, including several Oxford dons, to buttress their claims, the time had come to take legal action, and warrants were duly obtained from the local justice of the peace for the arrest and examination of the accused. Elizabeth Gregory and Mary Pepwell were taken, but “Mother Agnes” Pepwell evaded capture by taking shelter at a house in nearby Abingdon before disappearing. The owner, Margaret Orpewood, later said that she had allowed the old woman a hiding place for fear that her children might be bewitched if she refused. Due to this quick thinking, Agnes Pepwell managed to avoid spending the winter of 1604-05 awaiting trial in Reading Gaol; nor was she in court with her daughter and Gregory when they faced their accusers in March 1605.[23]
     For the most part, the North Moreton case had met with little skepticism up to this point. Demonic possession and witchcraft were considered a serious threat, and most early modern English people were predisposed to believe in such phenomena. The symptoms of the afflicted fit the model of previous victims proven to have been bewitched, and it seemed clear to most who saw them that something supernatural must be causing the strange behavior of Anne Gunter and Alice Kirfoote. This was not a universal attitude, however, and there was some uncertainty afoot in this period, particularly in England, despite King James’ paranoia about the continual threat of demonic forces. Throughout the early modern period, the overall numbers for witch trials and executions in England were much lower than those on the Continent, and one of the first important English books to address the topic of witchcraft was written by an avowed skeptic. In The Discoverie of Witchcraft, published some twenty years earlier, Reginald Scot had categorically denied the existence of witches or witchcraft, arguing that belief in such nonsense was based on the irrational superstitions of the Catholic Church, and fit only for “children, fools, melancholic persons and papists.”[24] Although Scot allowed that strange things did occasionally occur, he insisted that everything had an explanation in nature, and that to give credence to the idea that Satan or his minions could simply roam about doing mischief was to denigrate the power of the Almighty. King James was certainly not the only person to disagree with Scot’s assertions—albeit his refutation may have been among the more widely published—but it is important to realize that neither did everyone share his unwavering faith in the existence of witches. Even among those who did believe, there were many who felt that more evidence than the word of a few hysterical children was needed to convict an accused witch, especially in light of the severity of the penalty.
     There was little if any doubt in North Moreton about Anne Gunter’s bewitchment, as the girl continued to be afflicted even after the accused witches had been taken to prison. During the months leading up to their trial, her sufferings intensified, and had the effect of moving witnesses—even distinguished Oxford academics—to tears. In the midst of all this the Gunters received a visit from a distant relative, Thomas Hinton. Although Hinton lived in Wiltshire, he had heard Anne’s story from friends in Oxford, a detail that illustrates how quickly and far such news could spread. Upon learning that the victim was a kinswoman, he decided to make the trip and see for himself, arriving in February 1605. Hinton was initially persuaded that Anne’s symptoms were genuine, and agreed to help her father in bringing the matter to trial as swiftly as possible, since Brian Gunter was adamant that only the execution of the witches would end his daughter’s ordeal. However, it was not long before Hinton began to suspect that the girl was counterfeiting, and after several days of close observation, he felt certain. To the modern reader of his account, it seems impossible that of all the visiting physicians, scholars and neighbors who had observed Anne’s fits in the previous months, Hinton was the only one to recognize various “proofs” of supernatural influence as mere sleight of hand. In the cold light of day, Anne’s secreting of iron pins in her cheeks in order to “vomit” them forth at the right moment, hiding in dark corners to emerge with her garters cut and her stockings “mysteriously” full of knots, and habit of screwing her eyes up to appear closed while she was in fact squinting (which explained her remarkable ability to describe what everyone in the room had been wearing during her apparent insensibility) are rather crude parlor tricks, and yet many witnesses accepted them as incontrovertible evidence of witchcraft. This is a remarkable illustration of how deeply entrenched these beliefs were: people quite literally saw what they expected to, and conveniently ignored what didn’t fit.
     Hinton only mentioned his doubts to Anne’s father and several other family members a few days before Elizabeth Gregory and Mary Pepwell went to trial. At this time the family was staying at Oxford, and Brian Gunter called upon scholars associated with the case to persuade his kinsman that he was in error, but Hinton remained unconvinced. His primary concern was that the accused were facing a large number of witnesses, most of them “men of credit” in Oxford. Hinton was loath to see the women wrongly executed, but he also wished to spare their accusers “the guilt of innocent blood;” after some consideration, he decided to attend the trial and speak for the women. This willingness to go against public opinion is interesting when considering the diverse ways such matters were handled in England compared to Massachusetts. The majority of North Moreton—and a significant faction at Oxford—accepted that Anne Gunter was bewitched, since no physical cause had been discovered for her suffering. By asserting his belief that the girl was playacting, Hinton knowingly placed himself in opposition to his own relations while running the risk of being seen as a champion of witches should they be found guilty; nonetheless, he opted to follow his conscience.[25]
     In Salem Village, members of the community quickly learned that to express skepticism about the afflicted girls’ symptoms was to place themselves and their families in jeopardy. Those who spoke up against the mounting number of accusations often found the finger of suspicion pointed in their own direction. In the early stages of the panic, both Deodat Lawson and Samuel Parris preached sermons emphasizing the devil’s constant and threatening presence, a fact the congregation imperiled their very souls by questioning. While this is in line with James I’s thinking on the subject nearly a century earlier, the fact remains that a Jacobean citizen like Thomas Hinton was not afraid to voice his suspicions, whereas John Proctor’s skepticism and anger at his maidservant’s involvement in the Salem trials was instrumental in his own conviction and execution. Nor were influential connections necessarily of any help. Friends and relatives of the elderly Rebecca Nurse—initially found “not guilty” before the jury foreman reversed the decision—presented the court with a petition signed by thirty-nine respected people, including many church members and one of her accusers, but this was insufficient to save her from the gallows. It seems that the New England courts of law and of public opinion took a harder line in matters of suspected witchcraft than those of the Old, and allowed far less room for doubt or speculation.[26]
     Thomas Hinton consulted with a local justice of the peace, Alexander Chocke, about his suspicion that Anne Gunter “did but counterfeit.” He was sensible of the fact that he was acting contrary to the interests of a family member, and confessed that he would not have willingly “been a source of disgrace to his kinsman” if any other means could be found to protect the accused women. With Chocke’s assistance, he went on to make a statement to the judges in the case, enumerating the tricks he had seen Anne employ during her fits. He went so far as suggesting that they go and question the girl at her lodgings, where they found her surrounded by supporters. When questioned, Anne gave inconsistent, evasive answers, and an apparently poor performance, and the judges went away unimpressed, with serious doubts about the truth of her allegations. By arranging this—admittedly unethical—pre-trial encounter, Hinton played an important role in its outcome, and was instrumental in saving the lives of two innocent women.[27] In examining Thomas Hinton’s apparent confidence in airing his doubts, as opposed to the general atmosphere of paranoia found at Salem, it seems significant that Anne had focused her accusations on the same few women; there was never any suggestion that others might be implicated. There was no general panic in North Moreton. Brian Gunter had a particular agenda and he stuck to it; given his “outsider” status in North Moreton, it is interesting to speculate on how far the matter would have proceeded had his targets not been extremely unpopular members of the community whom no one was likely to defend.
     On March 1, 1605, Elizabeth Gregory and Mary Pepwell  appeared at the Court of the Assizes at Abingdon for trial. In England, witchcraft’s status as a felony meant that such cases were tried in the secular courts, and presided over by experienced, senior judges. Expert witnesses for both sides were called from the College of Physicians in London, and a great many medical opinions were heard during the daylong proceedings. Brian Gunter found himself out of his depth, particularly in light of the judges’ prior knowledge of Hinton’s observations. He insisted that Anne be brought into court, where he duly put her through her paces for the benefit of the assembly. The judges were again unimpressed by her performance, and—perhaps sensing that he was losing ground—Gunter overplayed his hand. Drawing upon the Throckmorton case one more time, he demanded that Elizabeth Gregory read a “certain charm” aloud. This was clearly a reference to the Warboys trial, in which an accused witch, “Mother Samuel,” was compelled to read what was essentially a confession that she had bewitched one of the Throckmorton daughters, whereupon the afflicted girl’s torments immediately ceased. This had been considered damning evidence in 1593, and was instrumental in sending the old woman to her execution. Unfortunately for Brian Gunter’s purposes, he caused a commotion, objecting that Gregory “saith it not right” and that it must be read again; at the court’s refusal, he became incensed that “he had not the justice Mr. Throckmorton had.” This proved a prophetic statement, since after eight hours the judges ruled that Gregory and Pepwell were innocent, and they were duly acquitted of all charges. [28]
     This should have put an end to the matter, but Anne Gunter’s symptoms persisted. In Salem, the ongoing affliction of the girls even after the witches had been convicted and hanged led to more accusations and executions. In England, without any new allegations, the ecclesiastical authorities became involved. Henry Cotton, bishop of Salisbury, had heard of the case and went to examine the girl, after which Anne was taken to stay at his residence, where she was kept under close observation. Away from home, Anne’s fits were apparently less convincing, and several members of the bishop’s household believed she was counterfeiting. Two female servants observed her hiding pins so that she might “by some sleight or other with her finger” manage to vomit or sneeze them out for witnesses, and when directly confronted she broke down and confessed that she had been acting all along. Anne told the women that her father coerced her into claiming that Elizabeth Gregory had bewitched her, because of the “variances and great trouble” between their families. When urged to take her story to the bishop, however, Anne demurred, fearing that by doing so she would cause her father to lose his lands and reputation and “so be undone.”
     In the event, Brian Gunter proved his own worst enemy. In the summer of 1605, King James stopped at Oxford on a royal progress, and Gunter arranged an interview for his “afflicted” daughter. Presumably he meant to elicit sympathy from the witch-hunting sovereign, possibly in the hope of receiving compensation, or even reopening the case against Pepwell and Gregory. Additionally, a royal audience might go some way towards rehabilitating his standing in a community where he had been made to look rather foolish. Whatever Brian Gunter’s motivation, presenting Anne at court was a serious misstep, especially when she had aroused so many suspicions and even—although unbeknownst to her father—admitted her deception to at least two people. While James I was a firm believer in witchcraft, he had no patience for false accusations or trickery in these matters, feeling that such trickery distracted attention from the real dangers. At the time of his visit to Oxford he was in a skeptical mood, having recently dealt with a fraudulent cleric who claimed to be able to preach divinely inspired sermons in his sleep, despite being pinched by demons all the while. [29]
     The details of Anne’s first meeting with James are not recorded, but soon afterwards she was placed in the care of the archbishop of Canterbury, Richard Bancroft, and his chaplain, Samuel Harsnett, who were instructed to investigate further. Both were known to be skeptical of such claims, and under questioning Anne reiterated her earlier confession, adding lurid details of threats and even violence used against her during her ordeal, including the administration of “sack and sallet oil” to make her vomit, and doses of “green water” (probably the same green glass vial given to Alice Kirfoote by the local cunning woman) which provoked “great rages” followed by a loss of consciousness.[30] She insisted that she had wished to stop the pretence, but that her father would by no means allow it, and claimed that she had been deeply depressed and even suicidal by the time she left for Salisbury. Upon these reports, the king sent for her in the autumn of 1605, at which point she revealed the whole business, but only when assured of his “making up what damages should accrue from this discovery.” It is impressive that a young woman in Anne’s position would negotiate with her sovereign in such a way, and illustrates her deeply ingrained sense of duty to her father, despite terrible abuse at his hands. Admittedly, filial respect was often mingled with fear in this period, but one would imagine that fear of her king would be rather greater, especially in the circumstances.[31]
     By the time the Salem witch trials came to an end, twenty people had been executed and over one hundred and fifty arrested, a number of whom—including the outspoken and quick-tempered Sarah Osborne—died during their imprisonment. Even after the general pardon of May 1693, many remained behind bars due to the inability to pay their prison fees. Some of those falsely accused made supplications to the court, for the rehabilitation of their reputations in the community as often as for financial reimbursement, which was extremely long in coming. For the most part, the judges who had sent those convicted to their deaths issued only regretful excuses: they had suffered “mysterious delusions of the powers of darkness,” which caused them to “ignorantly and unwittingly…bring upon [themselves]…the guilt of innocent blood.” A fast was declared on January 14, 1697, as an official show of penitence for the sins of the Massachusetts Bay Colony, including “the late tragedy raised among us by Satan and his instruments.” On the same day, one of the trial judges, Samuel Sewall, issued a formal apology, which appeared to be motivated at least in part by the fear of divine retribution by having his sin “visit[ed]…upon himself or any of his.” [32]
     As for the girls who had brought the accusations, they incurred no official penalties. Whatever qualms of conscience they suffered privately, once the furor had died down the majority of them resumed their ordinary lives. Many for whom records survive eventually married and moved away from Salem. The only one of the accusers to offer an actual apology was Anne Putnam, Jr., one of the few who lived her whole life in Salem Village. Upon being officially received into the church in 1706, Putnam asked Joseph Green, the minister who had replaced Samuel Parris, to read a statement in which she confessed to being “instrumental, with others, though ignorantly and unwittingly, to bring upon myself and this land the guilt of innocent blood.” This recurring theme of the unwitting shedding of “innocent blood” is a compelling bit of moral buck-passing. Even when fatally mistaken, Puritan New Englanders seem to have been incapable of admitting personal responsibility for simple wrongdoing; in a similar vein, Putnam makes the point that the whole misunderstanding was due to “a great delusion of Satan.”[33]
     This evasion of personal responsibility—to say nothing of the absence of legal ramifications—is fascinating, especially when contrasted with the repercussions for Brian Gunter in the wake of Anne’s confession. False witchcraft accusations were not taken lightly in Jacobean England, and the king had taken a particular interest in this case. In February 1606, Brian Gunter found himself before the Star Chamber at Westminster, with his daughter as the crown’s prime witness against him. Despite Anne’s by now numerous confessions, Gunter clung to his story that Elizabeth Gregory had bewitched the girl, and over sixty witnesses—including prominent physicians who had examined her—testified on his behalf. Rather surprisingly, many of the hitherto unpopular man’s supporters were from North Moreton. It would appear that either the village had taken a sudden liking to Brian Gunter or—alas, more likely—Goodwife Gregory’s temperament was unimproved by a winter in prison, and given a choice between one unpleasant neighbor and another, Gunter was the lesser of two evils.[34]
     As so often with the stories of “ordinary” people in this period, the Gunters’ adventures ended with a question mark: the verdict in Brian Gunter’s case is either lost or undiscovered. In light of his daughter’s influential supporters and detailed confession, it seems likely that a guilty verdict was returned, in which case he would likely have been given some financial penalty. Since records show that he returned to North Moreton, where he remained until his death—continuing to pursue occasional minor litigation—we can assume that any punishment he may have received was not especially severe. His daughter’s fortunes are uncertain. While in the custody of the archbishop, Anne had met and fallen in love with one of his servants, named only as Asheley, whom she apparently hoped to marry, and there are references to the king approving the match and providing a dowry. Whether this happened is never confirmed; Anne Gunter had her brief hour upon the stage and then was heard no more. The great irony of this case is that one man’s concerted effort to use the beliefs of his time to pursue a personal vendetta was subverted by the very legal system he sought to manipulate for his purposes. Furthermore, that system not only prevented the original injustice (the executions of the accused witches), but went on to hold the would-be perpetrator accountable after the fact. Although Anne Gunter was—at least at first—a willing accomplice to this plan, she escaped official censure by admitting her part in the deception. Contrast this with Salem Village’s habit of sparing the lives of those confessing to crimes they had not committed while convicting those who maintained their innocence, and it is clear that there were very different views about what constituted “justice” or even “truth” on either side of the Atlantic.
     To what factors can we attribute these perceptible differences in procedure in the old England versus the new? Especially striking is the relative “modernity” of the English proceedings weighed against those in Salem, despite the fact that they occurred almost a century earlier. To be sure, Jacobean England had the benefit of a strong, centralized government and well-established legal structure, whereas late seventeenth-century Massachusetts was dealing with the far-reaching administrative repercussions of the “Glorious Revolution,” including the deposition of their governor, revocation of their charter, and suspension of many normal legislative functions until the arrival of the new governor.[35] But something more elemental than issues of government seems at play here. The religious convictions of many New England settlers were so rigid as to make them unwilling or unable to coexist peacefully alongside those with differing beliefs. Those early colonists who left England for Holland—where they couldn’t get along with Anabaptists and the like—before turning to America did so in response to what they considered the excessively permissive attitude towards religion in their native country. These feelings of disapproval must have carried over to the treatment of supernatural matters, attitudes that were surely strengthened by the immense geographical distance between Massachusetts and England. Seen in this light, what appears a reasonably rational spirit of inquiry and doubt in the prosecution of suspected witches to a modern reader would have seemed dangerously lenient to a second or even third generation resident of Puritan New England. Whereas the majority of early modern English people seem to have accepted the existence of Satan and the associated risks to the Christian soul as part of the human experience, the Puritans of Salem Village placed him at the center of it, with disastrous and far-reaching consequences.

[1] James Sharpe, The Bewitching of Anne Gunter: A Horrible and True Story of Deception, Witchcraft, Murder and the King of England (Routledge: New York, NY, 2001) 44.
[2] Sharpe 34-5.
[3] Sharpe 46.
[4] Witchcraft and Magic in Medieval Europe: The Period of the Witch Trials, Bengt Ankarloo and Stuart Clark, ed. (University of Pennsylvania Press: Philadelphia, 2002) 102.
[5] Cotton Mather, “A Discourse on Witches,” Witchcraft in Europe 1400-1700: A Documentary History, ed. Alan Charles Kors and Edward Peters (University of Pennsylvania Press: Philadelphia, 2001) 368.
[6] Frances Hill, A Delusion of Satan (New York: Doubleday, 1995) 25.
[7] James VI, Daemonologie, in “King James VI and I: Selected Writings,” Neil Rhodes, Jennifer Richards, Joseph Marshall ed.(Aldershot, England: Ashgate 2003) 159.
[8] Sharpe 116.
[9] Sharpe 45.
[10] Sharpe 87.
[11] Joseph Klaits, Servants of Satan: The Age of the Witch Hunts (Indiana University Press: Bloomington, 1985) 90.
[12] Pamela Allen Brown, Better A Shrew Than a Sheep: Women, Drama, and the Culture of Jest in Early Modern England (Cornell University Press: Ithaca and London, 2003) 60.
[13] Paul Boyer and Stephen Nissenbaum, Salem Possessed: the Social Origins of Witchcraft (Harvard University Press: Cambridge, Massachusetts; London, England), 192-4.
[14] Sharpe 53.
[15] Brown 40.
[16] Sharpe 16.
[17] Joseph Stutt, Sports and Pastimes of the People of England, 2nd Edition (London: Methuen & Co.1903) 94
[18] Sharpe 18.
[19] Sharpe 78.
[20] Ankarloo and Clark, 94.
[21] Hill 19-20.
[22] Sharpe 60.
[23] Sharpe 127.
[24] Ankarloo and Clark 126.
[25] Sharpe 113-14.
[26] Hill 100.
[27] Sharpe 113-14.
[28] Sharpe 135.
[29] Sharpe 173.
[30] Sharpe 9.
[31] Sharpe 185.
[32] Hill 207.
[33] Hill 215.
[34] Sharpe 192.
[35] Boyer and Nissenbaum 61.