Mitchell Carroll.

Woman: in all ages and in all countries online

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it was, I did not hear it repeated to the Jury, which, as I
have been informed, is usual in such cases. However,
I forgive all the world, and therein all those that have
done me wrong." Another victim of the same "Bloody
Assize " of Jeffreys, Mrs. Gaunt, of Wapping, pathetically
says: "I did but relieve an unworthy, poor, distressed
family, and lo, I must die!"

The age was the legatee of a spirit of venom and bigotry
which expressed itself in deeds of violence more distressing
than those incident to the religious wars. Deeds of blood,
when connected with the defence of convictions, have about
them something of the heroic, but there is absolutely no
ray of glory to fall upon and lighten the dreary records of
the war upon defenceless women charged with being
witches, which broke out with fresh virulence with the
increase of religious fervor under the Commonwealth.
The charges were many and specious, but a very common
form centred about the compassionate functions of women
as the ameliorators of human distress.

The history of witchcraft is so intimately associated
with that of medicine, that to write an account of the one
involves a recital of the other. The utter lack of knowl-
edge of the anatomy of the human body and its functions,
which continued down to quite recent times, accounts for
the mystery and magic which surrounded the whole sub-
ject of medicine, not only earlier than and during the
period of which we are speaking, but long subsequent
to it. The one who could successfully treat disease was



WOMEN OF THE COMMONWEALTH PERIOD 265

regarded as in league with tlie powers of darkness. Until
the practice of medicine came to be established upon scien-
tific principles, the care of the sick largely devolved upon
women. Had it been men instead of women who per-
formed the crude but often sincere service of nurse and
physician, they would have come under the same ban
with the effects of which the practitioners of the other sex
were visited. It is not probable, however, that the public
odium would have gone to such lengths of violence in its
expression.

Among savage peoples, as the primitive tribes of Africa
and the American aborigines, the man who can dispel dis-
ease by a fetich — the great medicine-man of a tribe — has
always been regarded with a feeling of combined jealousy,
suspicion, and fear; but, because of the occult powers he
is supposed to control, fear predominates and passes into
a form of reverence. Not so, however, in the case of
woman, of whom we write; she was looked upon as having
forfeited, to an extent, her claims upon humanity by her
original alliance with Satan, and, being outside of the pale
of God's grace, or sustaining only a permissive relation-
ship to it, it was deemed a pious, a safe, and a creditable
thing to mete out to her the divine dispensation of wrath.
Thus again, amid numerous instances of woman's suffer-
ing as a penalty for her sex, we have the occurrence of
woman being persecuted unto death because of her com-
passion. It was not regarded as despicable for the very
person who had been succored by her in the hour of sick-
ness to turn informant and declare that he or she had been
healed by diabolical agency, and, whether under the influ-
ence of an honest hallucination, or simply actuated by a
malicious propensity, to declare that evil spirits had actu-
ally been conjured up in human form and been seen by
the eyes of the sufferer.



266 WOMAN

Women were not blameless in the matter of their repu-
tation for possessing occult knowledge and having diabol-
ical relations; for there were many women who, being
morally not beyond reproach, separated themselves from
society as they grew older, and resorted to medicinal
knowledge and magic for a living and to maintain in the
public eye the position of unenviable notoriety of which
they had become morbidly fond. It gratified such natures
to be reputed to possess the power — which even philoso-
phers ascribed to them — of, at certain seasons, turning
milk sour, making dogs rabid, and producing other such
freakish manifestations. They were considered to be able
not only to heal sickness, but to cause it; and the pres-
ence in one's clothing of a pin whose irritant end was
pointed in the wrong direction was sufificient to make the
person believe that he was under a spell of witchcraft. If
a cow or a horse fell lame, it was the village witch who
did it; if a child developed as an imbecile, or anyone be-
came bereft of reason, it was laid at the door of the witch;
the failure of crops, a drought, — anything that interfered
with the comfort or convenience of a person or a commu-
nity, — was due to some such representative of Satan.

As the number of happenings of this sort increased, or
there occurred an epidemic of disease, or a flood or famine
of especial virulence, the number of alleged witches cor-
respondingly increased; and so the persecution swelled in
volume, each wave of malevolence receding only to rise
in larger aspect on the next occasion of its arousing. Not
until the reign of Henry VIII. were there any enactments
against witchcraft in England; prior to the passage of these
acts, the persecution of a sorceress followed only upon an
accusation of poisoning. During some parts of the Middle
Ages the crime of poisoning was extensive, and certain
women were adepts in making the deadly potions. To such



WOMEN OF THE COMMONWEALTH PERIOD 267

abandoned characters resorted persons of state who desired
to make away with hated rivals, or the men and women of
the nobility who sought to hide or to further their intrigues
by the death of someone who stood in their way. As the
women who practised the arts of the poisoner were also
devotees of sorcery, the crime and the superstition came
to be thought of together. One reason for the detestation
of witches was the subtlety they displayed in concoct-
ing poisons which slowly sapped the vitality of a person,
as if by a wasting illness. In 1541, conjuring, sorcery,
and witchcraft were placed in the list of capital offences.
Similar statutes were enacted during the succeeding reigns
of Elizabeth and James I.

The curious matter of demoniacal possession called forth
a great many books and pamphlets treating of its nature,
history, methods of repression, and the dispossession of
those under witches' spells. John Wier, a physician,
wrote a treatise, in the last half of the sixteenth century,
in which he described witches as but exaggerated types of
the perversity which is found in women generally. In the
easy subjection of the sex to malign influences he saw a
proof of its greater moral weakness.

The seventeenth century was as prolific of cases of
persecution of women for demon possession as any of
those of the less enlightened period of mediasvalism. In
1568, in a sermon before Queen Elizabeth, Bishop Jewell
said: "It may please your Grace to understand that
witches and sorcerers within these few last years are
marvellously increased within your Grace's realm. Your
Grace's subjects pine away even unto the death, their
colour fadeth, their flesh rotteth, their speech is benumbed,
their knees are bereft. I pray God they never practise
further than upon the subjects." The Bull of Inno-
cent VIII., in 1484, did not do more for the furtherance



268 WOMAN

of persecution of the unfortunates who came under suspi-
cion of using magic than did the declaration of Luther:
"I should have no compassion on these witches; I would
burn all of them." As upon the continent, so in England
reformers took up the persecution of witches with keen
zest, as a contest with the powers of darkness working
for the destruction of the peace and health of humanity
in an open and flagrant manner. The same spirit of
espionage which was one of the baleful effects of the
outbreaks of persecution during the Middle Ages attended
the persecution of witchcraft in England during the seven-
teenth century. To save themselves from suspicion, per-
sons informed against others, and even members of a
household would give evidence leading to the trial of those
of their own kin. When an unfortunate fell under suspi-
cion, — which too frequently meant the animosity of an
evil-disposed person, — the minister would denounce her
by name from the pulpit, prohibit his parishioners from
harboring her or in any way giving her succor, and exhort
them to give evidence against her. The Puritans had
conned well the story of the Witch of Endor, and, with
their tendency to reproduce the Old Testament spirit, felt
that the existence of witches was an abomination in the
sight of the Lord, which would bring divine wrath upon
the community that sheltered them unless the sin were
purged from it by their death. In this they were but the
inheritors of the faith of the Church from the early ages,
and are liable to no more serious censure for their per-
secution of witches than that which they merit for the
vindictive and splenetic spirit and the satisfaction in
barbarities and cruelty which too often they evinced.

The persecutions attendant upon witchcraft are charge-
able to no one division of the Church more than to another,
for Protestant as well as Catholic, Puritan as well as



WOMEN OF THE COMMONWEALTH PERIOD 269

Prelatist, felt that in this work he was fulfilling the will
of God and safeguarding society. King James I., in his
Demonology, asks: "What can be the cause that there are
twentie women given to that craft where there is only one
man?" He gives as his reason for the disparity in num-
bers the greater frailty of women, which he easily and
satisfactorily proves by reference to the fall of Eve, as
marking the beginning of Satan's dominance of the sex.

In entering upon a crusade of persecution of witches,
the Puritans were in harmony with the enactments of the
sovereigns before the Commonwealth, and were in con-
formity with the temper of the times and the universally
prevailing belief of the country. The austerity they as-
sumed toward the sex in general made it easy for them to
believe that particular characters, given over to vagabond-
age, were by reason of their moral turpitude especial sub-
jects of Satan for the temptation of men. With them, the
persecution of witches was not solely a matter of super-
stition, but of public morals as well. They were often
actuated by a sincere desire to raise the standard of moral-
ity, and to preserve order and decency. That the women
rather than the men should have suffered for evil courses
was due, of course, to the conception that moral reproba-
tion is to be visited upon the weaker sex.

In the second half of the seventeenth century the witch-
craft superstition became a veritable epidemic, and per-
secution broke out in different sections of the country.
Hardly had the stories of the execution of witches in one
place ceased to be a nine days' wonder, when the tongues
of the people were busy with stories of similar occurrences
somewhere else. An angry sailor threw a stone at a boy;
and the boy's mother roundly cursed the assailant of her
offspring, and added the hope that his fingers would rot off.
When, two years later, something of the sort actually



270 WOMAN

did happen, her imprecation was remembered against her,
and there was also brought to light the fact that a neigh-
bor with whom she was at odds had been seized with
severe pains and felt her bed rocking up and down. The
evidence was conclusive, the woman must be a witch;
such was the verdict, and death was her sentence. Two
women who lived alone, and, probably partly because of
their solitary existence, had developed irascible tempers
and demeanors which enlisted the hearty dislike of the
inhabitants of the fishing hamlet near by, were subjected
to the petty persecutions in which children instigated by
their parents are such adepts; finding existence too miser-
able to care very much for their reputations, they en-
dangered their security by their attitude toward their
tormentors. At last, nobody would even sell them fish,
and their cursing and prophecies of evil for their enemies
became increasingly violent. In the order of nature, some
children were seized with fits, and, under the inspiration
of their elders, declared that they saw the two women
coming to torment them. After being eight years under
accusation, the women were brought to trial, and Sir Mat-
thew Hale, the presiding judge, after expressing his belief
that the Scriptures proved the reality of witchcraft, decided
against the unhappy women and condemned them to be
hanged. This occurred in 1664, and constituted the cele-
brated witch trial of Bury St. Edmunds.

These instances serve to illustrate the fate of a vast
number of hapless women during the seventeenth cen-
tury; it is said that during the sittings of the Long Parlia-
ment alone, as many as three thousand persons were
executed on charges of witchcraft. Besides these unhappy
wretches, a great many more suffered the terrible fate
of mob violence. The frenzied populace were often
too impatient to await legal procedure, and stoned the



WOMEN OF THE COMMONWEALTH PERIOD 2^\

miserable women to death. In the minds of the great
majority of the people, such women were not human
beings at all, and so there was no cruelty in treating them
with the greatest violence possible. Indeed, such earnest-
ness of purpose against the adversaries of God could but
redound, they thought, to their eternal advantage. After
all, was it not a devil, who for the time being assumed
human form, that they were treating with such violence.?
to-morrow, the same demon might be found in a dog or in
some other animal, or perhaps afflicting with cholera the
swine of some peasant, to his severe loss. A description
of a witch in the first half of the seventeenth century says:
" The devil's otter-hound, living both on land and sea, and
doing mischief in either; she kills more beasts than a
licensed butcher in Lent, yet is ne'er the fatter; she's but
a dry nurse in the flesh, yet gives such to the spirit. A
witch rides many times post on hellish business, yet if a
ladder do but stop her, she will be hanged ere she goes
any further." The penal statutes against witchcraft were
not formally repealed until 175 1, when there was closed
for England one of the saddest chapters in the history of
human mistakes. The last judicial executions for witch-
craft in England were in 1716.

In pleasing contrast to the unhappy creatures who were
the victims of fanatical persecutions during the Com-
monwealth period — the women executed for witchcraft —
stand the noble women who were developed by the stern
conditions of the Civil War — the heroines of internecine
strife. The domestic incidents of the Civil War form an
interesting commentary upon the character of the English
woman, as they reveal her in brave defence of castle or
homestead, patient in hardship, courageous in danger, and
fertile in resources to avert misfortune. Every important
family was ranged on one side or the other, and the line



2/2 WOMAN

of division often passed through households. To all other
issues which aroused human passion, or touched the
springs of human character and brought forth the reserve
heroism of human life, was added that issue which stirs
deepest the human heart, — the issue of religion. The
contest was not merely between king and people: it was
a contest as well between the people themselves as to the
form of religion they desired as the expression of their
faith.

Under such conditions women could not be kept out of
the turmoil and the strife; perhaps one of the important
ends which this distressful period brought about was the
crystallizing of the convictions of many women, who
otherwise would not have thought or felt deeply upon that
subject which is fundamental to the welfare of a nation
and the character of its people, — the subject of religion.
Royalists and Puritans, the women were arrayed on each
side. They followed the issues with an earnest alertness
born of an intelligent understanding of the causes involved
and their own vital relation to the contest in its results.

One of the Puritan women who literally entered into
the fray was Mrs. Hutchinson. Her father. Sir Allen
Apsley, was governor of the Tower during Sir Walter
Raleigh's incarceration. It is probable that Mrs. Hutchin-
son had some knowledge of medicine, because during the
siege of Nottingham she was actively engaged in dressing
the soldiers' wounds and furnishing them with drugs and
lotions suitable to their cases, and met with great success
in her rSle of physician even in the cases of those of some
who were dangerously wounded. But it was not solely in
the character of nurse and physician that she was so
active, for, in conjunction with the other women of the
town, after the departure of the Royalist forces, she aided
in districting the city for patrols of fifty, the courageous



WOMEN OF THE COMMONWEALTH PERIOD 273

women thus taking an active share in the arduous duties
of the town's defence. This intrepid woman later appeared
in the character of peacemaker. The elections of 1660
were of a violent character, on account of the ill feeling
between the Royalists of the town and the soldiers of the
Commonwealth. At the critical moment, Mrs. Hutchin-
son arrived, and, being acquainted with the captains,
persuaded them to countenance no tumultuous methods,
whatever might be the provocation, but to make complaint
in regular form to the general and let him assume the
work of preserving the peace. This they consented to do;
and the townsmen were equally amenable to her wise
counsel, and contracted to restrain their children and ser-
vants from endangering the peace of the people.

Courage and initiative were not limited to the women
on one side of the contest, as is well illustrated by the
conduct of the Countess of Derby, who, in 1643, made a
remarkable defence of Latham House; the countess was of
French birth and had in her veins the indomitable spirit
of the Dutch, for she was a descendant of Count William
of Nassau. She was called upon either to yield up her
home or to subscribe to the propositions of Parliament,
and, upon her refusal to do either, was besieged in her
castle and kept in confinement within its walls, with no
larger range of liberty than the castle yard. Her estate
was sequestered, and she was daily affronted with mocking
and contemptuous language. When she was requested by
Sir Thomas Fairfax to yield up the castle, she replied with
quiet dignity that she wondered how he could exact such
a thing of her, when she had done nothing in the way of
offence to Parliament, and she requested that, as the
matter affected both her religion and her life, besides her
loyalty to her sovereign and to her lord, she might have a
week's consideration of the demand. She declined the



274 WOMAN

proposition of Sir Thomas Fairfax to meet him at a certain
house a quarter of a mile distant from the castle for pur-
poses of conference, saying that it was more knightly that
he should wait upon her than she upon him. After further
parleyings failed of conclusion, she finally sent a message
that brought on a renewal of the siege. She said that she
refused all the propositions of the Parliamentarians, and
was happy that they had refused hers, and that she would
hazard her life before again making any overtures: " That
though a woman and a stranger, divorced from her friends
and robbed of her estate, she was ready to receive their
utmost violence, trusting in God for deliverance and
protection."

The siege dragged on wearily for six or seven weeks, at
the end of which time Sir Thomas Fairfax resigned his
post to Colonel Rigby. The castle forces amounted to
three hundred soldiers, while the besieging force numbered
between two and three thousand men. In the contest five
hundred of these were killed, while the countess lost but
six of her soldiers, who were killed through their own
negligence. The colonel manufactured a number of grena-
does, and then sent an ultimatum to the countess, who
tore up the paper and returned answer by the messenger
to "that insolent" [Rigby] that he should have neither
her person, goods, nor house; and as to his grenadoes, she
would find a more merciful fire, and, if the providence of
God did not order otherwise, that her house, her goods,
her children, and her soldiers would perish in flames of
their own lighting, and so she and her family and defenders
would seal their religion and loyalty. The next morning
the countess caused a sally of her forces to be made, in
which they got possession of the ditch and rampart and a
very destructive mortar which had been used to bombard
the besieged. Rigby wrote to his superiors, begging



WOMEN OF THE COMMONWEALTH PERIOD 275

assistance and saying that the length of the siege and the
hard duties it entailed had wearied all his soldiers, and that
he himself was completely worn out. In the meanwhile,
the Earl of Derby and Prince Rupert made their appear-
ance, and Rigby made a hurried retreat; in his endeavor
to escape the Royalist forces, he fell into an ambush and
received a severe punishment before he reached the town
of Bolton. Such were the deeds of women of spirit upon
each side of the civil conflict; and because of their ele-
ments of character and loyalty to conviction, the women
of the better classes of England, irrespective of their afifilia-
tions, mark a high point of progress in the sex toward the
goal of independence and individuality which the civil
strife aided them to secure.

The Society of Friends, or Quakers, was one of the
religious communities of the Commonwealth, whose mem-
bers suffered grievously on account of their religion . To the
lot of their women fell an abundant share of persecutions
and martyrdoms; they were scourged, and ill treated in
every conceivable way. Their lives, inoffensive and pure,
were a constant rebuke to those of the loose livers about
them. Although Charles II. had promised, on coming to
the throne, that he would befriend them, their miseries
were not greatly abated. The persecution of Quaker
women had continued from the middle of the sixteenth
century, when, in the west of England, Barbara Blangdon
was imprisoned for preaching, and other Quakeresses
were placed in the stocks by the Mayor of Evansham,
and also treated with other indignities. Throughout the
seventeenth century, cruel persecutions of women of the
Quaker persuasion were often repeated.

With the Friends, the idea of the ministry of the Gospel
was broadened so as to include in its preachers and
teachers those who possessed the necessary gift, without



2/6 WOMAN

regard to sex. Whatever may be individual opinion as to
woman's prerogative in this respect, there can be no
manner of doubt but that the advance in the status of
woman which was marked by the Society of Friends was
a real contribution to the times and a gift of permanent
value to the English women in general. Those women
who claimed the right to preach were as ready to suffer in
behalf of their ministry. They were scourged, and ill
treated in every possible way; Bridewell Prison opened t&
receive many within its gloomy interior; but they re'
mained steadfast to the cardinal articles of their belief,
declaring: "As we dare not encourage any ministry but
that which we believe to spring from the influence of the
Holy Spirit, so neither dare we to attempt to restrain this
ministry to persons of any condition in life, or to the male
sex alone; but as male and female are one in Christ, we
hold it proper that such of the female sex as we be-
lieve to be imbued with a right qualification of the ministry
should exercise their gifts for the general edification of the
Church."

Having considered the conditions which existed during
the period of the Commonwealth in England, and particu-
larly the rise of the Puritan spirit and its dominance, as
related to the women of the times, it now remains to bring
this period into connection with that of the Restoration,
which offers to it such a strong contrast. It is not con-
ceivable that, if the Puritan leaven had so thoroughly per-
meated the mass of the English people as appeared to be
the case upon the surface of English society, there would
have been so sudden and radical a reaction upon the re-
turn of Charles II. from his long sojourn abroad. That so
many who cried " crucify him " should now be found with
"all hail " upon their lips, that women who had assumed
the Puritan twang and pious demeanor should throw off



Online LibraryMitchell CarrollWoman: in all ages and in all countries → online text (page 19 of 30)