Academic journal article Journal for Early Modern Cultural Studies

Wax Magic and the Duchess of Malfi

Academic journal article Journal for Early Modern Cultural Studies

Wax Magic and the Duchess of Malfi

Article excerpt

In 1578, three wax figures representing Elizabeth and her councilors were found buried in a stable outside of London. These figures were seen as the means to launch a magical attack on the queen's person, and they provoked an outcry at court. Bernardino de Mendoza, the Spanish Ambassador in En- gland, described the event in a letter sent back to Spain:

A very curious thing has happened here lately. A countryman has found, buried in a stable, three wax figures, two spans high and proportionately broad; the centre figure had the word Elizabeth written the forehead and the side figures were dressed like her councillors [sic], and were covered over with a great variety of different signs, the left side of the images being transfixed with a large quantity of pig's bristles as if it were some sort of witchcraft. When it reached the queen's ears she was disturbed, as it was looked upon as an augury, and great inquiries have been set on foot about it, although hitherto nothing has been discovered. (de Mendoza 611)

From the details de Mendoza relays, we can begin to understand how this attack on the queen's person was intended to work: the figures were supposed to not only represent the queen and her councilors, but also work harm on them as we can deduce from both the "large quantity of pig's bristles" stuck in the images and de Mendoza's suggestion that the figures may have been intended as "some sort of witchcraft." While he does not specify the "sort of witchcraft" under consider- ation, it must have been a form of sympathetic magic since he suggests that its efficacy depends on likenesses and affinities between objects and subjects.

Sympathetic magic includes any magical act that uses an object to impact a subject across a distance on the basis of shared qualities or characteristics. Un- derlying the practice of sympathetic magic is a belief in a certain neo-Platonic oneness of the universe that transcends any particularity.1 At the same time, for such an act to be effective, a practitioner of sympathetic magic must be able to differentiate the attack so that a particular object effects a particular subject, and various kinds of sympathetic magic use various strategies of differentia- tion. Thus sympathetic magic encompasses a wide range of practices, from the seventeenth-century use of sympathy powders to cure wounds by treating the responsible weapons, to various kinds of image magic that use visual images to manipulate a subject.2 The attack on the queen belongs, at least in part, to this latter class of sympathetic magic since the artful figures connect to the political figures through a likeness of forms. De Mendoza's account does not comment on the verisimilitude of the representations; yet from the details he does pro- vide we can surmise that their crafter attempted to depict the queen and her councilors with some degree of accuracy. He mentions the proportionality of the figures together with details about their costuming, arrangement, and in- scription. These details suggest that the artful figures represented the political persons in every register that the crafter could mobilize. At stake in these prac- tices of representation is the efficacy of the magic itself. If the figures do not adequately represent their targets, they will fail to work on them, and in this case fail to harm them.

While not all magic (or all image magic) is necessarily ill-intentioned, sev- eral details of de Mendoza's account make it clear that this event should be understood as an attack, including most obviously de Mendoza's naming the act "some sort of witchcraft." Magic was understood as witchcraft in the period when used to bring about harm or attached to diabolical practices, as seems true here.3 The pig's bristles that pierce the figures suggest the hoped for out- come of the magic: a physical, psychological, or spiritual wounding of the queen and her councilors. Their placement on the left side of the figures sug- gests an alliance with the devil, since the left connotes sinister possibilities. …

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