Tuesday, 10 November 2015

Distance and Sabbats in early modern English ‘witch plays’

This week’s post will be short and sweet, and be my first return to the early modern period in four weeks.
In her book Witchcraft and Society in England and America, 1550-1750, Marion Gibson pointed out that Thomas Middleton distanced the sabbat led by Hecate in his play The Witch, by placing the narrative in a foreign, Catholic location.[1] Geographic displacement is a trait shared by two other plays from the seventeenth-century which featured a witches’ meeting or ‘sabbat’. A multitude of authors on witchcraft in early modern England, from the very first writers like C. L’Estrange Ewen, Wallace Notestein, and G.L. Kitteridge, to more recent works by James Sharpe have argued that the sabbat as it was conceptualised on the continent (as a black mass, a diabolic inversion of Roman Catholic ceremony) never truly made it into popular beliefs in England.
More recently James Sharpe has argued that meetings did develop in a small number of isolated cases in the seventeenth century and cited some of the more extraordinary cases. The earliest recorded gatherings in witch trials of large groups of witches, or of suspected associations of witches occurred in the 1570s and 1580s. Witches’ sabbats also appeared both in print and on stage.  
What is interesting about the majority of sabbats in print on stage and in print is that they were, as Gibson pointed out in relation to Middleton’s The Witch, were geographically distant. In plays they are in places that are distant from London, in Scotland, Italy and Lancashire. Not all witch plays were distanced, some were far closer geographically, but those didn’t 
I have written here before about Macbeth, a play which opens with three women who may be fairies, goddesses, fates, or witches. In 1618 several more direct witchcraft references in Macbeth were added from Middleton’s The Witch, suggesting that contemporaries therefore chose the last option and interpreted the weird sisters as witches.
I would suggest that the same distancing takes place at the beginning of The Late Lancashire Witches in 1634:
Corrantoes failing, and no foot post
Possessing us with Newe; of forraine State,
No accidents abroad worthy Relation
Arriving here, we are forc'd from our owne Nation
To ground the Scene that's now in agitation.
The Project unto many here well knowne;
Those Witches the fat Iaylor brought to Towne,
An Argument so thin, persons so low
Can neither yeeld much matter, nor great show.
Expect no more than can from such be rais'd,
So may the Scene passe pardon’d, though not prais'd.
This distancing suggests that these incidences of witchcraft are alien to the audience watching the play, and that Lancashire is as much a strange and foreign place as Italy or Scotland. Since no news has come from a foreign state which is strange enough to entertain.
These three places are interesting sites to place a sabbat. In Italy witches sabbats had long been described in trials; Scotland likewise had a longer history of large trials featuring groups of witches who met together to plan acts of maleficium. Lancashire, with its population of recusants, and distance from the London audience, must have seemed (and sometimes still does, depending on who you are talking to) a strange and foreign land, almost as alien as medieval Scotland or Roman Catholic Italy.
Richard Wilson has suggested that the representation of a satanic conspiracy would have been both frighteningly alien and strangely familiar to Shakespeare’s London audience in 1604. [2] A year later the Gunpowder Plot would have made it even more disturbingly familiar.
Wilson goes on to argue that the appearance of witches meeting late at night in strange and distant lands would influence not only a whole generation of ‘witch plays’ (including The Witch  and The Late Lancashire Witches).[3]
Witches who meet on stage or in real life in England have too often been dismissed as foreign aberrations, and the distancing of locales in witches might meet on stage seems to mirror that.  Yet sabbats were often depicted in the same manner across Europe. Yet some people Matthew Hopkins, believed he lived next to the site of a witches’ meeting:
he had some seven or eight of that horrible sect of Witches living in the Towne where he lived, a Towne in Essex called Maningtree, with divers other adjacent Witches of other towns, who every six weeks in the night (being alwayes on the Friday night) had their meeting close by his house, and had their severall solemne sacrifices there offered to the Devill, one of which this discoverer heard speaking to her Imps one night[.]
So to return to my three examples: the courtly intrigues presented in both Macbeth and The Witch needed to be distanced from the English courts where in Macbeth’s case, the new Scottish King ruled (and had a sideline as the only ruler to both take a personal hand in discovering witches, and writing his own guide to finding witches); and in The Late Lancashire Witches, the distance is emphasised as not actually a foreign place, but the strangest and most exotic story the playwrights could come up with, given the lack of exciting news from foreign lands.

Witches meetings have been on my mind this week as I edit the chapters of my thesis that deal with them. The problem of distance is tied up in the consensus that they are an English idea at all, and were imported from the continent. I suppose in the end i am agreeing that there reasons for distance in all three cases. But there is also something in the hypothesis that full fledged black masses were very unusual (if not downright alien) to English witch beliefs.
In these theatrical examples there are certainly ideas which can be seen as continental intruders, and next week I intend to continue with this exploration of distance, foreign ideas and plays, by examining flying witches in England. From Macbeth to a Civil War battleground, witches who flew were even rarer than their compatriots who met at distant locales to feast, exchange familiars, and worship the Devil.

[1] Gibson, Witchcraft and Society in England and America, 1550-1750, pp. 97-98.
[2]  Richard Wilson, “The. pilot's. thumb: Macbeth and. the. Jesuits”, in The Lancashire Witches: Histories and Stories, p. 127.
[3]  Wilson, “The pilot’s thumb”, p. 127.

No comments:

Post a Comment