The wonderful world of Puritan insults, maladies, and enchanted ovens
One is often struck with the remarkable vividness of everyday Puritan language. Their voluminous court proceedings record disagreements and unacceptable behavior in colloquial terms that ring with life down the centuries. It’s only right to share a few of them here, if only to combat the persistent notion that Puritans of 1600s New England were dour and colorless. We hope to prove that listening to the Puritans speak is a constant source of pleasure and sometimes open laughter. There is a direct quality to the language that is somehow sympathetic, although the topics described are often unsympathetic, and even when the problem being described remains unclear, the language of the complaint stays with you. We are indebted for all our examples here to the critical, indispensable study Entertaining Satan: Witchcraft and the Culture of Early New England, by John Demos.
Insults: “You laughed and jeered at me, and I went crying away”
Rachel Clinton called one of her neighbors a “whoremasterly rogue”. She herself was accused by people in her church of “hunching them with her elbow” as they passed her in her pew. (One tries to imagine what exactly this was.) Hugh Parsons threatened someone who owed him money that if it was not repaid, the sum would become a liability; specifically, “as a moth in your clothes.” During a fight, Jane Collins called her husband a “girly-gutted devil”. Matthew Farrington told Thomas Wheeler that Wheeler “was the devil’s packhorse, to do the devil’s drudgery.” And when Goody Cole was asked by her neighbor why she was looking at the neighbor’s cattle, Goody Cole replied “What is it to you, sawsbox?” (We have to preserve the original spelling here, as “sawsbox” is a terrific version of “saucebox”, to describe a “saucy” or impertinent person.) Thus we can thank the Puritans for the evergreen retort “What’s it to you?”
Descriptions of illnesses: “It put her in a dropping sweat”
The Puritans often refer to the “bloody flux” (dysentery); like all of their names for diseases or illnesses, this one is disastrously literal, conjuring up an all-too-clear mental image of the problem. Some are more tantalizingly unclear: one woman complained of “a general smiting in the lower parts”. A minister in Barnstable noted with concern that “sundry of our poor flock underwent a smiting in their intellectuals, in a strange and unusual manner”. One could either suffer smiting in their intellectuals or become “bemoidered in their understanding”.
Descriptions of supernatural activities: “She bewitched my heifer”
There were the usual claims of someone causing humans or livestock to suddenly experience fits and/or die, but sometimes people had more mystifying complaints: Thomas Burnham of Springfield claimed that he had heard about “strange doings”, including the “cutting of puddings in the night”. Another pudding “thought to be enchanted” was thrown in a fire to neutralize its evil doings. Witches were accused of enchanting a horse’s bridle, and a Goody Cole was said to have “enchanted our oven” so that the bread the oppressed family made in the oven “would stink and prove loathsome.”
Witches were believed to be able to take on many forms, animal and human and even furniture, and to appear and disappear—often appearing just long enough to insult someone: “a woman with a white cap passed by and struck me on the forehead”; “[the accused witch] came into the house on a moonshining night and took [the victim] by the hand and struck her face as she was in bed with her husband”.
Animal familiars: “I noticed on my right a great turtle that moved as fast as my [horse] rode”
What one realizes fairly quickly about the Puritans’ stories of dangerous animal familiars—witches or evil spirits or even the devil taking the form of animals—is that the stories are often about unfamiliar animals. The Puritans encountered many animals that were new to them in the woods of North America, and they were scared of them. Many Puritans related their experiences of walking home through the woods and encountering strange animals, and their first reaction was one of fear. They might justify that primal reaction later by saying the animal was clearly a witch (for example, if it appeared and disappeared or spoke to them), but it seems clear that fear of wild animals was the real problem.
Cats were familiar animals, but they had been persecuted as spirit familiars for centuries in Europe, so they were bad news if one ran into them in the gathering darkness. White cats, not black, were feared in particular: when Jonathan Woodman “met a white thing like a cat, which did play at my legs”, his reaction to this cute animal was “kicking it hard against a fence, where it stopped with a loud cry.” This childish fear of a white cat was justified on the basis of its connection to a woman suspected of witchcraft, but in general when a Puritan met a cat in the woods he didn’t have to ask himself if it was really a cat or an evil spirit: he knew it was an evil spirit.
Killing a cat is, of course, not charming or endearing, but one man’s hapless, panicky description of encountering a cat is: the unnamed man claimed that a “great white cat” one day “was a-coming up on my left side, and came between my legs, so I could not well go forward”. Anyone who has gotten tripped up by a cat will identify with the experience, if not the claims of witchcraft it provoked.
Furniture attacks: “I saw an andiron leap into the pot and dance and leap about”
Some people reported bewitching of furniture and household items. William Morse claimed that he went to write something, “while I was writing one ear of corn hit me in the face, and firesticks and stones were thrown at me”. Morse kept on, but when “my spectacles were thrown from the table almost into the fire [I]was forced to forebear writing any more for I was so disturbed with so many things constantly thrown at me.” —a superb example of understatement.
Animal afflictions: “There was a great alteration in my cattle”
Often witches were accused of interfering with livestock, most often cattle, hogs, or sheep. Henry Palmer testified that after a run-in with witch John Godfrey all of Palmer’s cattle “vanished quite away”. Mary Johnson claimed that when she was sent to drive hogs out of a field, “a devil would scour the hogs away” by “fazing” them. William Meaker sued for defamation when he was accused of bewitching Thomas Mullener’s hogs. Henry Robie “lost a cow and a sheep very strangely”—too strangely to risk describing. A thirsty mare aroused suspicion: “Seeing a mare drinking a long time” John Long “swore, ‘by God, I think the devil is in that mare.”
We’ll leave the Puritans now to their restless complaints and nagging fears, and their wonderfully expressive language, with one last example which defies any single categorization: John Fosket’s insult/medical description/accusation of witchcraft against Goodwife Mousall: Fosket told her husband “that all that [Mousall] had was the devil’s for he stood by his bedside and caused his members to rise.”