Those Witches the fat Iaylor brought to Towne,
An Argument so thin, persons so low
Can neither yeeld much matter, nor great show.
Despite Thomas Heywood’s and Richard Brome’s claim that their subject matter is not fit for ‘great show’, The Late Lancashire Witches (1634) details a number of extraordinary supernatural events, alongside a number of extraordinary human ones. Inverting the early modern household entirely, the play stages several powerful women and feats of impossibility – Mistress Generous rides from Lancashire to London and back in one evening, replenishing her husband’s barrels with his favourite drink – ‘pure liquor / We drunke last Terme in London at the Myter /In Fleet-street, thou remembrest it; me thought /It was the very spirit of the Grape’ – causing him to remark: ‘I will rather beleeve that Lancaster affords this Wine, which I thought impossible till I tasted it, then that thou coo’dst in one night fetch it from London’. There is also a failure to consummate a marriage on a wedding night, caused, naturally, by the most fitting of horror-comedy devices: a bewitched codpiece.
All the amusement of witchery is brought to a head when they are finally discovered and examined in the final scenes. The courtroom demands verbal testimony from the accusers, stating their claims about the accused women – central to English common law. The witches themselves, however, do not offer a confession, but equivocally state, ‘I will say nothing, but what you know you know, / And as the law shall finde me let it take me’.
The question of ‘what you know’ and whether ‘you know’ was, in fact, central to such court proceedings throughout early modern England. Historians and literary critics have argued for the importance of the law in the growth of scepticism and doubt. How do you know what you know, and how do you prove to a court that what you know truly happened? Witch trials, as the critic Malcolm Gaskill has suggested (‘Witchcraft and Evidence in Early Modern England’, 2008), can be placed at the centre of this crisis of knowledge, and are partly responsible for the shift towards tangible, credible evidence in court, as opposed to hearsay, gossip, and rumour – previously, even under Elizabeth, sufficient conditions for guilt.
Heywood and Brome admit the necessity of legal thoroughness in the Epilogue, a weak attempt to make the audience step back and re-address the witches:
Now while the Witches must expect their due
By lawfull Iustice, we appeale to you
For favourable censure; what their crime
May bring upon’em, ripenes yet of time
Has not reveal’d. Perhaps great Mercy may
After just condemnation give them day
Of longer life.
Even so, their deference to the court falls short, and they insist that their characters represent ‘as much / As they have done, before Lawes hand did touch / Vpon their guilt’.
Law’s hand, it seems, possesses some of the scepticism of Reginald Scot’s The Discoverie of Witchcraft (1584), in which he seeks to prove that instances of witchcraft ‘are but Erroneous Novelties and Imaginary Conceptions’. Scot mislikes ‘the extream cruelty used against some of these silly souls (whom a simple Advocate having Audience and Justice, might deliver out of the hands of the Inquisitors themselves’, acknowledging the importance of a proper trial in establishing the credibility (or incredibility) of witchcraft. The Discoverie also lists the fallacious reasoning in medieval and contemporary treatises about ‘evidence’ for witchcraft, but amusingly, it serves likewise as an encyclopaedic reference for numerous thoughts about witches and compiles huge numbers of superstitions, beliefs, and writings that allow an insight into the period’s mixed attitudes toward the occult.
The contradiction between scepticism and sensational sorcery, of level-headed legality and local popular superstition, is fully present in Jeanette Winterson’s latest novel, The Daylight Gate (published this week by a partnership between the legendary film producers Hammer Horror and Arrow Books). If Heywood’s and Brome’s The Late Lancashire Witches concerns the trials of 1633, a sequel to the Pendle Witch Case of 1612, The Daylight Gate returns to the origins, continuing our current fascination with the Pendle Witches – now the subject of a number of literary and documentary efforts.
Winterson’s novel is a treat for a horror fan; much like a rotting corpse itself, it is swollen with gore and teasingly mysterious occultism, but behind those suppurating limbs lie the solemnity of death, the sobering fear of the grave, and the inexorability of love.
The Daylight Gate follows the narrative of the Pendle Witch Trails, focussing chiefly on the gentlewoman Alice Nutter, and her involvement with the families who attempted a satanic ritual at Malkin Tower, her loves, and her own mysterious past. Fully Jacobean in style and sensation as well as setting, Winterson’s prose is at its blunt best, perhaps surprisingly, in service of Hammer Horror’s staple Kensington gore. Rivalling The Revenger’s Tragedy or Antonio’s Revenge in its grotesque and unflinching tableaux, Lancashire is rife with potted babies and smashed skulls:
‘At another grave the ground had been re-dug but the body it held had not yet rotted to the bones and the mouldering flesh was exposed, with its busy colony of worms. The corpse had been mutilated. The head was gone, leaving only the black stump of the neck’.
The swollen tongues and talking heads are chilling indeed, but the novel retains a sense of mystery regarding Lancashire witchcraft throughout, blurring reality and imagination, psychological and physiological, and creating impressive moments of suspense. Its setting at Pendle Hill captures these tensions, and surely the exciting prose was produced, in part, from Winterson’s own memories. She spent time at Pendle Hill in her childhood and was brought up nearby; memories of her youth appear in the semi-autobiographical Oranges Are Not The Only Fruit, a novel divided between emotional agony and tender humour. In The Daylight Gate, certainly, ‘The North is the dark place’ and we learn through the mythologising narrator, who at times speaks in folktale, that ‘the Forest of Pendle used to be a hunting ground, but some say that the hill is the hunter – alive in its black-and-green coat cropped like an animal pelt’. This is less an angry than a brooding novel, less horror than terror.
Winterson, true to form, is also playful – most playful with history. Hammer itself does not appear to be taking historical accuracy seriously in its promotion material (‘Set in the early 16th century when Elizabeth I was still on the throne’) as David Grylls wryly noted in The Sunday Times. The novel itself, thankfully, has more historical authenticity, though it retains a similar fun-with-the-facts kitsch to the 2011 ‘Shakespeare-conspiracy’ film Anonymous. Shakespeare even appears – here! in a horror novel, among ‘witches’ and ‘Catholics’, in Lancashire, in Hoghton Hall. The novel’s protagonist, Alice Nutter, dines with him. They watch a private performance of The Tempest. In one instance, he even speaks in quotations. Breathless excitement. Aside from Shakespeare’s brief cameo, though, the rest of the story is more familiar, and is based, like most modern references to the 1612 Pendle Witch Trials, on the first lengthy account of a witch trial: Thomas Potts’s The Wonderfull Discoverie of Witches in the Countie of Lancashire. The author appears in the book himself. Naturally, in a novel concerned with ‘real historical events’, some play with the ur-text is to be expected. Creating stories and histories for the accused, Winterson paints a sympathetic if unforgiving account of early modern rural poverty, child abuse, and injustice.
Further amusement, however, comes from the presence of John Dee – the Renaissance conjurer, scientist, scholar, and alchemist. A number of biographies have been written about John Dee (oddly, Damon Albarn has written a concept album about him, Dr Dee, possibly one of the strangest aspects of a much-discussed life). In truth, we know that John Dee was truly a man of the Renaissance – a jack of all humanist trades. He wrote plays, performed spectacles, studied alchemy, and made mirrors. For a truly historical experience, you can see your very own ‘historical’ reflection in Dee’s famous mirror, as it is currently part of the British Museum’s superb exhibition, Shakespeare: Staging the World. These mirrors are a central property of The Daylight Gate, and so is Dr John Dee. He loses none of his mystery in the novel, and we learn little about him, but his contemporaries would be unsurprised at his dark and unworldly presence throughout the book – fitting for a man whom many early modern writers thought a ‘nigromancer’ and a ‘caller of diuels’.
Law is also central to The Daylight Gate and we are drawn to sympathise with the magistrate Roger Nowell, a man torn between his compassion, his own shaken beliefs, and his service to politics and the nation – represented by the stuffy, Dickensian figure of Potts. Sadly, King James too gets a bad rap – ‘King Scottish Jimmy’ – clearly a divisive figure, but hardly the witch-hunting, papist-hating monomaniac inferred by the frequent recourse to his writings on demonology. James’s reign is generally seen as a more humanising and secularising period for the law, with fewer senseless convictions of witches and a high number of acquittals. Even so, the law plays its role and Winterson is neither condemnatory nor flattering of it, and this ‘equivocation’, to borrow from Macbeth, lends the novel its real interest. A brilliant conception of ‘horror’ writing, The Daylight Gate is neither sceptical nor superstitious, neither Dr Faustus nor Scooby Doo, and, echoing the drama of The Late Lancashire Witches and the writings of Reginald Scot, both credulous and incredulous. The essence of a novel that divides suspense with consummation, love with hatred, and humanity with inhumanity is perhaps captured in its title: ‘It was not yet dark, but it was not light: the Daylight Gate’.