L.P. Hartley wasn’t wrong when he said ‘The past is a foreign country: they do things differently there’; he was just woefully understating the case. When you first encounter many aspects of early modern culture and belief systems it can sometimes be as disorienting and disturbing as passing through the looking glass, going down the rabbit hole, or being carried off by a tornado. Like Alice and her adventures in Wonderland, the unwary traveller through a topic like witchcraft and diabolism in early modern England can encounter strange new ideas and images that don’t quite make sense at first – and sometimes never do.
Coming to grips with witchcraft and demonology is one thing, understanding the double entendres, in-jokes, and colloquialisms found in my source material is quite another. It leads to a multitude of baffling questions, some of which are simply unanswerable. For example, why would Prince Rupert potentially be mortally offended by a the title of a pamphlet called An exact description of Prince Ruperts malignant she-monkey (1643)? And while we are on Prince Rupert, what, if any, is the connection between kissing and dog-training methods? Why would referencing a crayfish possibly be a crude joke? Is there something in the frequent references to lavish food in the major Lancashire witch trials of the early seventeenth century?
Of course, often we don’t even know there is a question to be asked, unless a reference to a colloquialism – or crudity – is so out-of-place as to cause your curiosity to be piqued. Or if we have already familiarised ourselves with the detail of early modern colloquialisms, ballads, plays, letters and assorted other cultural reference points – a task which could occupy a lifetime
But some of these questions can be answered. In the case of Prince Rupert and his ‘she-monkey’ the hard work was done by others. In my paper at the Monsters and the Monstrous conference in 2014, I described this aspect of Prince Rupert’s ‘montrousness’ thus:
An exact description of Prince Ruperts malignant she-monkey describes how the she-monkey ‘Clap[s] her hand on her buttock and scratch it as if it were troubled with the lustfull itch’ and her name is ‘Sunt with a C’. John Taylor, the apparent author of this ribald discussion, drives home his double entendre on the monkey and the meaning of its name with ‘sunt written in that manner being often called a Monkey […] thus you sée what prince Ruperts Monkey doth nominally and figuratiuely signifye, she being in all her postures the picture of a loose wanton, who is often figuratively called a Monkey’. The suggestion, as Mark Stoyle pointed out, is that Rupert is himself figuratively a woman, and was in possession of a ‘Sunt with a C’.
And Mark Stoyle’s work on the use of the term ‘monkey’ as slang in early modern England thankfully answered a question I hadn’t even asked yet (and put to an end my wondering if Rupert had had some sort of strange menagerie that he was carting around with him…)
And that isn’t even the end of the strange animal-related adventures the Prince Rupert pamphlets have lead me down. In 2012, when I had just begun my thesis and was still bright eyed and bushy-tailed without caffeine, I went to a conference at the University of Southern Queensland on the ‘British World’, where I discussed the massacre of women at Farndon field. In relation to this massacre I mentioned how a woman who became known as the Witch of Newbury had followed the example of Prince Rupert’s dogs when she
caught the bullets in her hands and chew’d them.
I also pointed out that Prince Rupert’s dog was also accused of being:
[…] loose and Strumpet-like. For hee salues and kisses the Prince, as close as any Christian woman would[...]
Which led Associate Professor Laurie Johnson to ask if the Prince was kissing his dog as part of inducing loyalty during puppy training? … Of course that question led to several entertaining days lost in the realm of book chapters on spit, saliva, and bodily fluid in early modern England – diverting, sure, necessary to my thesis?[vi] Sadly, probably not.
Although that question didn’t really go anywhere for my research, other encounters with slang have caused even greater amusement and consternations. For example, in chapter three of my thesis, I originally included an extensive footnote discussing whether a crabfish is a lobster or a crayfish? And what this might mean for any potential sexual connotations, since a doctor in the 1620s, John Cotta, wrote in his tract that the teats left by the familiar’s suckling: ‘are most commonly found in the priuie parts’. Which raises questions when Elizabeth Southerne confesses that:
her mother Priscilla Collit had sent the Devil to her in the shape of a crabfish which came into the bed to her and nipt her & fetcht blod &c., and afterwards spake to her & demanded of [her] to seale a covenant’.
In the final version I decided to cut it down to the brief:
This may mean a lobster or a crayfish, it is unclear. A popular seventeenth-century song related a ‘crabfish’ biting a woman in the private parts after her husband secretly places the ‘crabfish’ in their Chamber pot. See ‘The Crabfish Song’, Thomas Percy, Frederick James Furnivall, John Wesley Hales, Bishop Percy's Folio Manuscript: Loose and Humorous Songs 99-100.
But I still wonder about whether or not there were connotations of drunkenness or black humour in the idea of the crabfish ‘nipping’ Elizabeth Southerne in her bed.
I hope this post has suggested just a little of the humorous, unusual, and sometimes pointless research avenues one goes up in the course of writing a doctoral thesis on witchcraft in early modern England.
[vi] See for example Brett D. Hirsch “The Taming of the Jew: Spit and the Civilising Process in The Merchant of Venice”, in Rory Loughane and Edel Semple (eds), Staged Transgression in Shakespeare's England: pp. 136-52.