- Dramatizing Deviance:Sociological Theory and The Witch of Edmonton
[A] community's decision to bring deviant sanctions against one of its members is not a simple act of censure. It is an intricate rite of transition, at once moving the individual out of his ordinary place in society and transferring him to a special deviant position. The ceremonies which mark this change of status, generally, have a number of related phases. They supply a formal stage on which the deviant and his community can confront one another (as in the criminal trial); they make an announcement about the nature of his deviancy (a verdict or diagnosis, for example); and they place him in a particular role which is thought to neutralize the harmful effects of his misconduct (like the role of prisoner or patient). These commitment ceremonies tend to be occasions of wide public interest and ordinarily take place in a highly dramatic setting.—Kai T. Erikson, Wayward Puritans: A Study in the Sociology of Deviance
The 1621 witch trial of Edmonton resident Elizabeth Sawyer is in many respects an unremarkable case. In fact, as I will explain in greater detail below, her trial might serve as a paradigm for the study of witch trials in early modern England. This particular trial, however, stands out in relief from the historical record in part because Sawyer's fate was taken up by a trio of London playwrights—Thomas Dekker, John Ford, and Thomas Rowley—and immediately translated to the stage in a 1621 play titled The Witch of Edmonton. While these dramatists were not alone in recognizing the commercial appeal of witch trials for theatrical adaptation, the play's compassionate depiction of Sawyer—largely Dekker's handiwork—is singular on a number of counts.1 Although hardly an exonerating portrait of the accused woman, the play nonetheless strives to inspire some sympathy for women like Sawyer who had been accused of witchcraft. Rather than focusing solely on the crimes attributed to such women, the [End Page 327] playwrights draw our attention to the circumstances of social alienation or even abuse toward suspects that often laid the foundation for suspicions of criminal conduct. This sympathy in itself is noteworthy, given the censorious climate for any form of skepticism about witch crimes, especially during the reign of King James I. What is particularly compelling about this play, however, is not simply the nature of its dissenting sentiments but the complexity of the social interactions it rehearses—the ways in which, as I will argue, it appears to be theorizing those social relations as much as representing them.
This basic proposition, that a seventeenth-century play might serve as an early manifestation of sociological discourse, follows from a strong tradition of interdisciplinary scholarship in witchcraft studies. During the early 1970s Keith Thomas's Religion and the Decline of Magic and Alan Macfarlane's Witchcraft in Tudor and Stuart England imported interpretive methodologies from social anthropology into historical study and fundamentally transformed academic approaches to the study of witchcraft.2 Sociological historian Christina Larner, author of the most important studies on Scottish witch trials, further enhanced interdisciplinary insights about witchcraft through her nuanced analysis of the core gender questions raised by such trials. Larner's work is also important for its critique of the "bottom-up" theories about English witchcraft as represented in the work of historians such as Thomas and Macfarlane.3 More recent cultural studies scholars of early modern witchcraft (Frances E. Dolan, Gail Kern Paster, Diane Purkiss, Deborah Willis) have brought greater attention to literary representations and contemporary critical theory, formulating interpretations about witchcraft discourse through various theories of subjectivity, including feminist, psychoanalytic, and post-structuralist.4 Reflecting a broader shift in historical studies from macro-level to micro-level analyses of witch trials, these latter scholars have focused their attention on increasingly local and confined spaces—examining the social interactions of village communities, relations between neighbors, and the dynamics of the household. This narrower frame of social and cultural analysis is one that has clearly benefited from the hybrid interpretive methodologies of anthropology, sociology, history, and literary theory.
However, an important dimension of sociological thought has yet to...