Academic journal article Early Modern Literary Studies

Early Modern Almanacs and the Witch of Edmonton

Academic journal article Early Modern Literary Studies

Early Modern Almanacs and the Witch of Edmonton

Article excerpt

Drenched and duped, Young Cuddy Banks returns from offstage and exclaims, 'This was an ill night to go a-wooing in; I find it now in Pond's almanac' (III.1.96-97).1 In Thomas Dekker, John Ford and William Rowley's The Witch of Edmonton (c. 1621), the naïve and yet affable Cuddy retroactively wishes to have consulted one of the serial almanacs by Edward Pond before pursuing an unattainable Kate, having done so under the directives of the town witch Elizabeth Sawyer.2 Throughout the play, Cuddy's numerous references to almanacs and his ability to interact harmlessly with the demonic after his fall signal his growing recognition that astrological and preternatural influences must be actively withstood. Early modern almanacs describe a world replete with dire astrological conjunctions, planetary influences upon the body's passions, and beings such as the demonic familiar, Dog. At stake, as Sawyer's fate painfully demonstrates, is not only the physical wholeness of the self, but also the potential for eternal damnation. Nonetheless, Cuddy is the only character in the play whose contact with Dog is ultimately benign, and Cuddy's almanac reading informs his singular relationship to the demonic familiar. Despite the apparent fruitless and unavoidable evil that affects everyone in Edmonton-including the innocent Susan or the somewhat complicit Winifred-I argue that we discover the clown's reading of almanacs provides a model for how many early moderns coexisted with the demonic in an animate cosmos.

My discussion of Cuddy as perceptive almanac-reader departs from social and historical criticism of the play, which focuses primarily on the figure of Sawyer. As I argue below, an important historical and textual lens has yet to be brought into conversation with early modern drama-how almanacs provide a window into understanding the motives and actions of characters who live in a cosmos in which external influences act upon the self. These ephemeral texts articulate a narrative of human experience more interactive than that typically recognised by early modern scholars of the body and environment.3 In the period, the environment-including the heavens-consisted of invisible influences, or agents within the environment who could act upon human bodies. These agents were part of preternature, which, as Lorraine Daston explains, comprised that which was 'beyond nature,' and thus early modern philosophers 'introduced new kinds of causes-astral influences, plastic virtues, the imagination, sympathies and antipathies-to meet the challenge of their new explananda'.4 Within early modern demonology, Stuart Clark observes, inquiry into the influences and properties of the Devil and his agents took on a 'form of natural philosophy specializing in preternatural phenomena'.5 The demonic figure of Dog, in this case, is closely associated with the preternatural environment of the play. This calls for a reevaluation of the concept of nature itself, for Dekker, Ford, and Rowley's drama indicates that the natural world and the body's passions are not shut offfrom preternatural influences: preternature is part of the 'natural' or normative condition of experience. Critics have discussed at length the devil and witchcraftin The Witch of Edmonton but have not attended to the intertextuality with prognostic texts in this drama and, consequently, what this engagement with almanacs might reveal about a world in which the sense of touch or the sight of an apparition can almost inexplicably lead to murder, demonic pacts, or confession.6 Ultimately, I show that early modern almanacs reveal much more about the drama and other fictional texts of the period than previous criticism has acknowledged. We discover how characters navigate an animistic cosmos in which preternature operates upon both individuals and social structures like the village of Edmonton.

Scholarship on early modern almanacs focuses primarily on their circulation and medical content, indicating that literary studies has yet to explore how prognostications and ephemeral texts influence our understanding of the early modern notion of the environment. …

Search by... Author
Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed

Oops!

An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.