The representation of the relationship between Witchcraft and Social Class

“The definition of social class should depend upon the purposes that the researchers had in mind”[1]

In society, a prestige over authority, power, wealth and material possessions are embraced by the minority who have the potential to have the most influence in a contemporary environment. Most of us do not think much about this statement, the fact that a minority can have such influence, and the dire disasters it can have and in the Witch of Edmonton by William Rowley and Thomas Dekker and The Witch by Thomas Middleton (in collaboration with other playwrights) I believe we are shown what the results of their influence can be. Critic Meg E. Pearson also comments on the affects of pressures and expectations of the social class “The Witch of Edmonton’s witchcraft tale is, at first glance, a comic sub plot within a larger domestic tragedy of bigamy and murder. Both the main plot and the witch plot, however, revolve around ‘social coercion’ and the terrible choices that result from these pressures, which in this play create a particularly amenable atmosphere for the devil.”[2] A culminating archetype on the affects of social class and the relationship between the elite class to the “inferior” class is shown by the actions of James I who ascended to the throne in 1603. It was he who, following his coronation as King, his first acts were to enact very strict laws against witchcraft and even personally attended the execution of women who were deemed to be witches. His theory was that where there was one witch, there had to be a coven of them close by who made pacts with the Devil and this led to the theory of “white” and “black” witches being one in the same as James I believed that they were both involved with the devil if they could heal/save good or bad things, and so this lead to the persecution of any person believed to be involved in these acts.[3] These unjust beliefs by someone in a higher standing class have led to the execution of innocence; I will now carry on discussing the influences and therefore relationships between social classes and Witchcraft in the two mentioned plays and essays.

Barbe Mallebarbe was a woman who was burned at the stake on the accusations of being a witch in 1596 in the small town of Charmes in Lorraine[4]. Similarly to Elizabeth Sawyer in Henry Goodcole’s essay as well as in Rowley’s, Dekker’s and Ford’s play the Witch of Edmonton, they were accused of witchcraft and murder. These women all experience extremely similar accusations but also confess to very similar things. Barbe Mallebarbe and the non-fictitious Elizabeth Sawyer confess to some of their wrong doings as well as their connection with the Devil. It is understandable that society is not going to take kindly to those dealing with the devil because of the negative connotations concerned with him. And so out of fear, society relegates what they do not understand and feel threatened by. This is all understandable, but torturing someone and murdering them for their lack of understanding is certainly not commendable. While Robert Briggs also emphasises on social context, he also states the importance of cultural context which in a strongly Christian community at the time of Elizabeth Sawyer and Barbe’s execution, the fear of the Devil would have been stronger than ever and so the relationship between witches and the social class would have been very negative.

In the Witch of Edmonton, Mother Sawyer is a notably sympathetic character. Her actions are a result of the poor, neglectful treatment from society;

Mother Sawyer. And why on me? Why should the envious world

Throw all their scandalous malice upon me?

‘Cause I am poor, deformed, and ignorant,

And like a bow buckled and bent together,

By some more strong in mischiefs than myself,

Must I for that be made a common sink

For all the filth and rubbish of men’s tongues

To fall and run into?[5]

The discrimination she receives because of her appearance and her misfortune is indefensible, it is quite natural and understandable for her to lash out at her suppressors which she does regretfully when Old Banks beats her for attempting to take a few rotten sticks for her warmth. Old Banks crime goes unpunished too, most likely because of his social stance. He has a much authority in the class system unlike Sawyer and therefore being able to get away with abuse is easy. Here Dekker’s portrays the relationship between the witch and social class (as I see it) as supportive towards witchcraft.

Mother Sawyer: None but base curs so bark at me; I’m none:
Or would I were! if every poor old woman
Be trod on thus by slaves, reviled, kicked, beaten,
As I am daily, she to be revenged
Had need turn witch.[6]

Of course the stigma that came with witches was the appearance and Old Banks made his judgment before she had ever wished or “cast” any sort of harm and it is this terrible assumption that drove Elizabeth Sawyer to commit the supposed crimes that she or more accurately Satan in the form of a dog made happen. Briggs also explains this from other almost identical situations:

“It was the small group of sceptical writers on witchcraft, notably Johann Weyer and Scot, who picked on the fact that many of the accused were pathetic old women whom their neighbours found obnoxious. Their aim was to ridicule the extravagant claims made for their secret resistance movement recruited by the Devil, whose chief accomplishment was apparently to kill a few cows and impended the making of butter and beer. There is good reason to think that this line of argument proved very effective among their educated contemporaries but believers in witchcraft saw the matter differently”[7]

Dekker does not however completely dismiss Elizabeth Sawyer of being dark and “bad” as is portrayed by the comparison of the relationship between Young Cuddy Banks and magic or witchcraft. Dekker shows that you must have some sort of “evil” inside you to be able to be possessed as no matter how the Devil/dog tries to posses Young Cuddy Banks, his innocence does not allow corruption.

Lastly, I shall see the relationship between the justice system and witchcraft. It starts rather justifiable but in conclusion it is clear that the justice system favours people such as Frank, from a respectable class unlike Mother Sawyer. At the end of both of their executions, mother Sawyer is quickly forgotten and dismissed of “Away with her, away!”[8] and again for crimes, (if she did commit them) were petty whereas Frank is a murderer. But he is respected even after his death, respected and mourned by almost all despite his crimes. Again the relationship between the social classes and witchcraft comes to the conclusion of being completely separate. They will have nothing to do with each other and are offended by the idea of associating with such a lower rank.

On the other hand, there comes plays such as Thomas Middleton’s The Witch which has a very different relationship context between witches/witchcraft and social class. Unlike Dekker, Middleton has their relationship portrayed as very much on par and they are even respected. He also relishes in the slapstick stereotypes of witches; the incredible fascination with potions made in great cauldrons and evil acts such as the acts of boiling children and babies. However similarly to every other play or witch account from this essay, these witches also have the same reasons for their turn to such evil:

Hecate: And three months’ sickness sucks up life in ‘em

They denied me often flour, barm, and milk,

Goose grease, and tar, when I ne’er hurt their churnings,

Their brew locks, nor their batches, now forespoke

Any of their breeding. Now I’ll be meet with ‘em.

Seven of their young pigs I have bewitch’ already[9]

Once again, it is the faults and flaws of society that has brought such people to what they feel is their only choice to survive. Hecate, the chief Witch has been through this,  through her bitter relationship with society and how the social class has treated her, she creates a coven of witches, some of which might have been through similar ordeals and some of which like her son Firestone would have been born and bred into it. But it is interesting, unlike Elizabeth Sawyer who gains no respect, these witches are successful through their dealings mostly with the rich social class such as Sebastian and Almachildes who enter Hecate’s cave for a request of a potion. Hecate asks for a portion for Antonio to be impotent so that his love interest Isabella will not be able to fornicate with him and Almachildes asks for a love potion for Amoretta. The ingredients needed for these potions are horrific but they are hardly wavered, their concern remains in the results of their satisfaction. Furthermore there are many sorts of relationships between witches and the social class, Hecate even confesses to lusting after Armachildes, stating that she has “had him thrice in incubus already”[10]. The message about witches that Middleton conveys in The Witch is very negative, again unlike Dekker, even though they were wronged by society, they go beyond revenge by killing crops or some animals, they become rapists and malevolent murderers.

On the other hand, the social class must keep a good and steady relationship with Hecate and her three witches as they know of their power and being on their wrong side would be foolish as while it would be a threat, they would also have nobody to go to in their aid. They are in a way far worse than the witches too, the witches act like sorts of doctors (not quite white witches), they know about the murderous intentions of their clients but do not say, they merely advise and supply with means of how they can go about their plans such as poisons and spells.

To conclude, it is clear that the idea of witches and witchcraft by the social class was certainly a judgemental one. It was a topic that society was very frightened of and so through fear acted upon it viciously with the attitude that they do not like change and therefore it is something to be rejected. Of course this attitude has been the despairing cause of these witches to fall into the, dare I say “career” in witchcraft, like Elizabeth Sawyer, who had been beaten into selling her soul for revenge, (something she so clearly had regretted). Her relationship between what she essentially became after much accusation was as a result of the rejection of the social class. The lead witch in The Witch Hecate reasons for turning to witchcraft was that of the same of Elizabeth Sawyer, but she has no regrets of where it has taken her as through Middleton, those social classes now have more respect for her, she is of use to them and is essentially an independent business woman. All in all, Middleton’s play is deeply fantastical, dealing with surreal images and exuberant relationships and social lives of the higher class whereas Dekker tends to be much more realistic in the sense that his characters are flawed but he does not pander to the expectations of the public and present the witch in a discoloured light of pure evil. He presents the relationship between witches/witchcraft and the social class in a justifiable way with Sawyer as a victim rather than perpetrator.

[1] Vijai, P. Singh, Caste, Class and Democracy, changes in a stratification system, Schenkman Publishing Company, 2009, p14

[2] Meg E. Pearson- A Dog, A Witch, a Play: The Witch of Edmonton. University of West Georgia, 2008 Volume 11, Issue 2, p 89

[3] Rosemary Ellen Guiley, The encyclopaedia of Witches, Witchcraft and Wicca, 3rd Edition, Visionary Living, 2008, pp 183-185

[4] Robin Briggs, Witches and Neighbours, penguin Books, 1996, pp 1-5

[5] Willam Rowley, Thomas Dekker & John Ford, The Witch of Edmonton, Ed. Peter Corbin & Douglas Sedge. 1999, Act 2, Lines 1-7

[6] Willam Rowley, Thomas Dekker & John Ford, The Witch of Edmonton, Ed. Peter Corbin & Douglas Sedge. 1999, Act 2, lines 85-89

[7] Robin Briggs, Witches and Neighbours: the Social and Cultural context of European Witchcraft, Second Edition, Harper Collins, 2002 p-16

[8] Willam Rowley, Thomas Dekker & John Ford, The Witch of Edmonton, Ed. Peter Corbin & Douglas Sedge. 1999, Act 5, Line 53

[9] Thomas Middleton, The Witch, Ed. Elizabeth Schafer, A&C Black, 1994, Act 2, Scene 2, lines 50-55

[10] Thomas Middleton, The Witch, Ed. Elizabeth Schafer, A&C Black, 1994, Act 2, Scene 2, line 197

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