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.”

When did “Puritan New England” die out?

It’s always interesting to me how long a lifespan people assign to “Puritan New England”. Of course, there are two kinds of “Puritan” being described: the days of the Puritan colonies and a set of behaviors that people who were not Puritans describe as “puritanism”. People tend to describe New England society as Puritan from 1620 to about 1950—a much longer span than is warranted by fact. The real lifespan of Puritan New England is 1630 to about 1720.

We say 1630 because the Pilgrims who arrived in North America in 1620 were not Puritans (see here for more on that); it was the group who arrived in 1630 who began Puritan colonization. The colonies founded by these Puritans were based on the religious practice of Congregationalism, and this meant three things that are the main characteristics of Puritan New England: 1) the colonies thrived on and required religious homogeneity; 2) a proto-democratic political system was necessary to protect the unique society created in America; and thus 3) the colonists devoted themselves to evading direct rule from England in order to maintain that political system. For as long as these three characteristics were unchallenged, Puritan New England existed.

How long was that? Not very long. The aftermath of King Philip’s War (1675-6) brought political discord between the Puritan colonies, which brought on direct rule from England, first in the form of the Dominion of New England (1686-9), during which time the Puritan colonies of Massachusetts, Vermont, New Hampshire, Connecticut, and Rhode Island were restructured into one mega-colony (along with New York and East and West Jersey). It’s important that during the Dominion the Puritans were enraged not just by the promotion of Anglicanism over Congregationalism but also by the destruction of the Puritan legal and political system: legislatures were no longer popularly elected, land titles were revoked, and a royal court with no jury was set up in Boston to enforce the Navigation Acts.

The Dominion was overthrown after the death of King James II, but English direct rule did not end. The Puritans who had overthrown the Dominion immediately pledged their loyalty to the new king and queen, William and Mary, and William opened the Puritan colonies to outsiders. Non-Puritans began settling in New England in large numbers, and their religious practices were protected. By 1691, when the Massachusetts Bay Colony’s charter was overthrown and it became a royal colony with a royally appointed governer, true Congregationalism was rapidly becoming a blast from the past. Its dominance was certainly at an end, as it became simply one religion amongst many others.

Of course, it took decades to completely unseat the old religious ways. But an important shift was occurring after 1689: much of the fervor originally associated primarily with religion in Puritan New England was being gradually but steadily extended to politics. Note that the Dominion and the charter revocation dealt a fatal blow to pure Congregational practice but strengthened the old Puritan political dogma. What the people of New England held on to was proto-democracy: a popularly elected legislature, juries made up of local citizens, and the right of towns to hold their political town meetings.

So by roughly 1720-30 the shift was fairly complete. New England was no longer Puritan, it was polyglot with a Puritan past and a powerful Puritan legacy that newcomers and non-Puritans were very aware of. Congregationalism remained the majority religion, and people in the Congregational church were very committed to its original principles as codified in 1649. But politics began to supersede religion as the defining characteristic of the region, and New England would lead the way into the age of Revolution.

The echoes of the old way, the true Puritan New England that only existed from 1630-1686, were heard long after the fact, of course, and it may be the very brevity of the actual Puritan moment that made it so powerful an image for later writers, religious leaders, politicians, and historians. But any reference to “Puritan New England” after 1730 at the latest, and 1720 more likely, is mostly inaccurate.