Saturday, 14 November 2015

The Strange and wonderful history of Mother Shipton

I am afraid I have been very unwell and ended up in hospital this week, so the post on flying witches hasn’t been finished. So in the interest of getting a post up on time (while also getting my prescribed rest) I am instead posting a small piece of analysis which was originally part of my doctoral thesis. Although interesting in and of itself, it did not in the end drive home my thesis’ main argument, and was therefore taken out of my thesis earlier this year. But I hope you may find this short exploration of The Strange and wonderful history of Mother Shipton, by Richard Head, moderately interesting. Apologies for the change of plans, but the flying witches will be here next year,  in February. 

I have argued throughout this thesis that there is an interaction between elite debates and popular representations of witchcraft. Though the details of the Restoration debates on witchcraft are beyond the scope of this thesis, the sense of their scope and some of their key ideas can be found in popular texts and trials. One of the most frequently re-published was The Strange and wonderful history of Mother Shipton, by Richard Head, which was first published in 1677 – the same year as John Webster’s assault[1] on Glanvill’s defence of witchcraft beliefs and trials.[2]

Head’s narrative centres on a young Mother Shipton who had ‘made a Hellish Contract’ with the Devil.[3] The ‘Strange and wonderful history’ Head relates has many features which accord with the ‘unusual’ demonology of the East Anglia trials, and also illustrates the confusion and contention over what witches and the Devil could and could not do.

Head’s The Life and death of Mother Shipton claims that Mother Shipton’s ‘hellish contract’ was a form of marriage, and that following her agreement theirs was a wedding ceremony between the witch and the Devil. This work recalled Henry More’s Antidote against Atheism and its rationalisation of the Devil’s cold body.[4] This 1653 commentary on the feeling of the Devil when he physically interacted with witches was also discussed in Head’s The life and deth of Mother Shipton, where Shipton reports to her midwife that the Devil was ‘cold as ice’.[5]

Head’s account of Mother Shipton continues on from their wedding night to discuss how Shipton’s liaison with the Devil was uncovered when she became pregnant to him. She was ‘discovered by the great swelling of her Belly, to be with Child’.[6] Head reports that ‘The people could not tell what to think, or who should be the Father, concluding that none would be so vile and wicked, as to have Copulation with a Devil incarnate; neither could they believe a Spirit had either desire or power, to generate with any humane Creature’.[7]

Although Shipton, in the narrative, admits her child was begotten ‘by no mortal Wight’, she is not believed. As she cannot provide bail two ‘Gentlemen as they appeared by their habits’ arrive to free her, but as soon as their bail is accepted and Mother Shipton is set free, they vanish.[8]

It is easy to see in this narrative a reflection of the demonological debates of the era, especially in terms of the questions people had about whether the Devil did or did not have copulation with witches, and his ability to take physical form. Head’s discussion of the contestation of witch beliefs therefore reflected the debate playing out in demonological and theological works in the late seventeenth-century.[9]

[1] John Webster, The displaying of supposed witchcraft wherein is affirmed that there are many sorts of deceivers and impostors and divers persons under a passive delusion of melancholy and fancy, but that there is a corporeal league made betwixt the Devil and the witch ... is utterly denied and disproved, (1677).

[2] See Joseph Glanvill, A philosophical endeavour towards the defence of the being of vvitches and apparitions. In a letter to the much honoured, Robert Hunt, esq; by a member of the Royal Society, (1666) [later re-pblished in several editions, including as Saducismus triumphatus, or, Full and plain evidence concerning witches and apparitions in two parts: the first treating of their possibility, the second of their real existence (1681)].

[3] Note, Mother Shipton was widely discussed in this period. Not only were there several publications on her during the Civil War, but she was also a matter of discussion, according to the diary of Samue Pepys, in the Royal Family and was of particular import during and after the Great Fire of London. See Samuel Pepys, Samuel Pepys Diary “Entry for Saturday 20 October 1666”. See also ‘Mother Shipton’ [Anon], A true coppy of Mother Shiptons last prophesies as they were taken from one Joane Waller in the year of our Lord 1625 who died in March last, 1641 being ninety foure yeares of age of whom Mother Shipton had prophesided that she should live to heare of wars within this kingdome but not to see them, also predicting other wonderfull events that should befall in the clymate in these times, with two other strange prophesies threunto annexed, all which were never published before, (1642); [Anon], Fourteene strange prophesies: besides Mother Shiptons, and Mr. Salmarsh, predicting wonderfull events to betide these yeares of calamity, in this climate, whereof divers are already come to passe, worthy of observation, (1648); Head, The life and death of Mother Shipton.

[4] M2639 Henry More, An antidote against atheisme, or, An appeal to the natural faculties of the minde of man, whether there be not a God, (London: Prnted by Roger Daniel, 1653): p.138

[5] Head, The Life and death of Mother Shipton,  p. 3.

[6] Head, The Life and death of Mother Shipton,  p. 9.

[7] Head, The Life and death of Mother Shipton,  p. 9.

[8] Head, The Life and death of Mother Shipton,  p. 9.

[9] See Jonathan Barry, Witchcraft and Demonology in South-West England, 1640-1789 (2011); and  Ian Bostridge, Witchcraft and Its Transformations, c.1650-1750, (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1997).

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