- Rye Spirits: Faith, Faction and Fairies in a Seventeenth-Century English Town by Annabel Gregory
Keith Thomas might be amused to see some of his ideas about the symbiosis between social history, anthropology, and the study of witchcraft accusations in England recycled more than forty years after their first appearance and published in a highly sophisticated form of samizdat, The book starts with a charming warning on its first page, “the moral right of the author has been asserted.” It may be home-made, but it has been prepared in a state-of-the-art oven and comes replete with eleven color plates, numerous facsimiles of seventeenth-century signatures, and various charts and graphs, including one of recorded visits to Sussex by professional actors between 1460 and 1620 (191). However, its last page (280) reveals that the basic ingredient, a 1985 dissertation in social anthropology at the University of Sussex, is relatively stale.
Gregory’s micro-hisory unfolds in Rye, one of the Cinque Ports. This small, isolated English seaport nonetheless possessed a rare privilege since the Norman era—full rights of criminal justice over all cases except high treason. Moreover, it had no agricultural hinterland but contained a separate church for Huguenot exiles from Dieppe, the French terminal of Rye’s Channel ferry (181–183). As Gregory suggests, Rye’s peculiarities help to explain why its only known witchcraft episode differs from most British cases; for example, its local testimony includes far more information about fairies than do other such trials held south of Scotland. Gregory’s account thus contains inter alia an excursus on Gillyflowers (127, with illustration), as well as one on the peculiar Cinque Ports privilege of withernam (145).
A disarming style helps Gregory to sell her product: “If this were a historical novel, I might have been advised to start differently” (108). “At which point I give up all attempts at interpretation” (132). “I will admit at the outset that I have a problem with Anne Taylor” (her leading protagonist), because of “a cultural prejudice that clouds my vision . . . relating to her Puritanism” (70). Her perplexity with Taylor—a Puritan who seems deeply involved with fairies and treasure hunting—is further complicated by the attempts of Taylor’s neighbor—Susan Swaffer, an illiterate clairvoyant—to frame her after Rye’s magistrates imprisoned her in 1607 for practicing illicit magic. Taylor fled Rye. Forced to return after her well-connected gentleman-businessman husband failed to have [End Page 384] her case transferred to a higher jurisdiction, Taylor then refused to plead before a hostile jury in December 1608 (143–144). Further legal maneuvers delayed Taylor’s trial until July 1609, when a different jury declared her not guilty of both the magical murders charged to her (a maidservant and a former mayor), and its foreman even stood surety for her future good behavior (153–155).
Witchcraft left no tragic consequences in Rye’s records, although Swaffer remained in prison (where she bore a daughter in 1608) until released in 1610 through a general English pardon (199–200). She disappears from Rye’s records after 1612, but her daughter married there in 1633. Taylor’s husband became a freeman of Rye in 1612 and died in 1628; his widow lived until 1644 (200).
Beyond this point, this home-made product becomes less enticing—not merely because my review article published in this journal receives a wry quotation (215).1 Gregory garnishes her account with a rambling essay “in a lighter, more discursive style” (222). This farrago includes a discussion of “Islamic fundamentalism” during the age of French and British colonialism (245–248), introduced by some highly British academic legerdemain: “There are of course broad similarities between 16th century protestant (small p; it’s ours) godliness and early 20th century Islamic (capital I; not ours) reformism” (245).
1. See Monter, “Recontextualizing British Witchcraft,” Journal of Interdisciplinary History, XXV (2004), 105–111.