Witches at Night: Creative Responses to Early Modern Witch Trials

Actors explore the performance dimensions of, and respond creatively to, early modern witch trial pamphlets at a workshop I organised at Northern Stage. Photo: Simon Veit-Wilson.

In the 1613 pamphlet Witches Apprehended, Examined and Executed, a servant gossips about a local woman he believes to be a witch. As he speaks, he is struck by a beetle on the breast, and falls into a magical sickness. That night, he is visited by the witch’s daughter:

[H]e being in his distraction both of body and mind, yet in bed and awake, espied Mary Sutton, (the daughter) in a Moonshine night come in at a window in her accustomed and personal habit, and shape, with her knitting work in her hands, and sitting down at his beds feet, sometimes working, and knitting with her needles, and sometimes gazing and staring him in the face, as his grief was thereby redoubled and increased. Not long after she drew nearer unto him, and sat by his bedside (yet all this while he had neither power to stir or speak) and told him if he would consent she should come to bed to him, he should be restored to his former health and prosperity…

The servant is given divine assistance, and is able to refuse Mary’s offer. The next day, his master brings her by force to the servant’s bedside, and the servant lets her blood, and finds himself cured.

In another pamphlet, A Most Wicked Work of a Wretched Witch (1592), a man sees a hare that his dog will not chase. The hare leads him to the house of Mother Atkin, whom he believes to be a witch. He tells her so, and the next day, when eating his lunch in a barn, he sees a monstrous black cat cavorting in hay, and hears a spirit calling him to leave his food and come outside. Carrying his apple pie with him, the man steps outside the barn, and is dragged through bush and briar to a place of hellish heat and darkness. He is thirsty, and looks about for an alehouse where he can spend the penny in his pocket, but cannot find one. When he is magically returned from this strange land, his tongue is tied and he cannot speak, until a parson unties it, and then he cries out, ‘Mother Atkin’.

In another, A True and Just Recorde, of the Information, Examination and Confession of all the Witches, taken at S. Oses (1582), two young children testify against their mothers. One tells how his mother feeds household pets – cats, a lamb, and a toad – with bread and milk by day, and blood from her body at night. Another confesses her mother keeps miniature horses in a ‘little low earthen pot’ in her chamber – but has forbidden her to tell.

Stories like these seem to belong to the world of the nightmare. They follow a kind of dream logic, in which the tastes and textures of the everyday – apple pie, knitting needles, alehouses, pots, and pets – are transformed into the realm of the uncanny. They are obsessed with the power of naming the witch (and the nature of retaliation it can provoke), and with the magical potential of the witch’s blood, to feed a demonic familiar – or to break a spell.

In a workshop at Northern Stage on 31 May, I worked with a director (Asia Osborne) and four actors (Beth Eyre, Joe Eyre, Maryam Grace, and Hilary Tones) to explore the strangeness – and the familiarity – of these texts, the ways that they represent uncanny, dreamlike versions of the everyday. We wanted to experiment with a range of theatrical approaches to these witchcrafts narratives: we used ‘verbatim theatre’ to stage witch trials – speaking in the voices of the ‘witches’ and their ‘victims’ and accusers – and physical theatre to enact victim’s accounts in cheap print, with the actors embodying the eerie animals, subversive women, and bewildered men that populate these texts.

Photos: Simon Veit-Wilson.

We also explored the ways in which the dream logic of these accounts resonates with that of contemporary nightmares, by staging elements of the dreams of two of the workshop participants: a dream of escaping from persecution through animal transformation; and an account of sleep paralysis. We then incorporated aspects of these dreams into our performances of witchcraft.

At the opening of the workshop, I asked participants to take an object from a pile of theatrical props (or a personal object of their own), and hide it somewhere in the theatre space, riffing on the hidden objects that have been discovered near windows, doorways, and fireplaces of early modern homes, concealed to confer a kind of magical protection. I also asked participants to join me in reciting the spell recited before King James by the condemned witch Geillis Duncane at the North Berwick witch trials (as reported in the 1592 pamphlet news pamphlet Newes from Scotland):

Commer go ye before, commer go ye
If ye will not go before, commer let me.

In requesting workshop participants to engage in two forms of communal counter-magic, I wanted us to inhabit two mind-sets simultaneously – the sceptical approach we take today, through which witchcraft accounts are understood in terms of misogyny and communal fantasy, and the approaches of the original readers of these stories, who may have shared some of our scepticism (and that of writers like Reginald Scot) in relation to specific narratives, but who nonetheless existed in a world where uncanny events could be understood in relation to magical, demonic, and providential interference. Moving between these mind-sets enabled us to encounter the strangeness of these stories as at once past and contemporary, estranged and familiar.

Photos: Simon Veit-Wilson.

This opening was followed by talks from my Newcastle colleagues: Kate de Rycker on her adaptation of Thomas Nashe’s nightmare text Terrors of the Night; Ruth Connelly and Margaret Wilkinson on Margaret’s verbatim play The Newcastle Witches and its roots in the Newcastle witch trials of 1650; Zoe Cooper on her perspective on the economic implications of working with historical texts as a female playwright; and Alison Atkinson-Phillips on the approach she brings to these texts as an oral and cultural historian. We were also joined by visiting speaker Lucy Munro (King’s College London), who spoke about her edition of The Witch of Edmonton, its relationship with Henry Goodcole’s pamphlet The Wonderfull Discoverie of Elizabeth Sawyer a Witch, Late of Edmonton (1621), and her own work on early modern verbatim theatre.

Situating these witchcraft narratives in relation to this range of disciplinary approaches was helpful in thinking about what questions to ask of these texts in performance. I’ve written about some of these texts, and how they relate to Shakespeare’s undomestic witches in Macbeth, in my book Shakespeare’s Domestic Tragedies, but I wanted to use this workshop to explore them from a different perspective: as performance texts that we can engage in close reading collaboratively through a theatrical event. I also wanted to explore the possibilities of early modern cheap print as a prompt to the creativity of contemporary directors and playwrights.

In staging the scenes, participants explored questions of uneasy laughter and its relationship with genre; of the danger of flattening the strangeness of these texts by attempting to create a single interpretation; of the desire to interpret that these texts invite; and to moments of dissonance between the wider cultural narratives with which these texts are engaging, and the particularities of each account (which often call into question the relationship between the fears and desires of the accusers, and the nature of the ‘guilt’ of the witch). We discussed these texts in relation to transgression – the women accused of witchcraft are doing the wrong things, at the wrong times, in the wrong places, crossing temporal and spatial boundaries – and as expressive (like the contemporary dreams we staged alongside them) of both cultural and personal anxieties.

This workshop has informed the way I close read these plays as an academic, and opened up new ways of imagining these texts in my work as a playwright. I’m currently working on a new play, Bonfire of Flowers, which is inspired by the true story of the Belvoir Castle witches, Joan, Margaret, and Philip Flower, as represented in a pamphlet – The Wonderfull Discoverie of the Witchcrafts of Margaret and Phillip Flower (1619) – and a ballad – Damnable Practises of three Lincolneshire Witches (1620). The accounts of these women’s ‘crimes’ share many of the concerns of the texts explored in this workshop: they engage in a wide range of magical and non-magical transgressive behaviour, from cursing and seducing to nighttime walking and murderous magic. As I revise the play, I want to incorporate some of the uncanny strangeness explored in these workshop; I’m seeking to ventriloquise the voices of the accused women, even as I stage the nightmares of their accusers.

The London Shakespeare Centre presented a staged reading of Bonfire of Flowers on 17 July at the Anatomy Museum, King’s College London. Both the workshop and the reading were supported by Newcastle University Humanities Research Institute and the Leverhulme Trust.

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