Witchcraft, flight and the early modern English stage

Roy Booth
Royal Holloway University of London

Roy Booth. "Witchcraft, flight and the early modern English stage". Early Modern Literary Studies 13.1 (May, 2007) 3.1-37<URL: http://purl.oclc.org/emls/13-1/bootwitc.htm>.

  1. This is a discussion of something that never happened, in relation to a form of theatre that was only minimally capable of representing that factually non-existent event. That witches physically flew was insistently argued by some demonologists, and as this was a seductive fantasy, the theatres (those places where time and distance can be made to obey the dictates of imagination) often suggested, and sometimes tried to represent, manifestations of the witches’ aerial power. The proper term for the flight of witches is transvection. The readers for the OED overlooked this word’s first appearance in English, which is in Thomas Heywood.[1]

  2. From the earliest surviving medieval images of witches, the witch is commonly depicted in flight, suitably exultant when on her way to a sabbath, and sometimes in a state of terror, as the devil finally bears her off to hell. Carlo Ginzburg’s Ecstasies investigated the origins of this strange imputation, drawing together what he interprets as the evidence for a trans-European cult, whose followers believed that they traveled by night to join a horde led by Diana, Herodias or Holda.[2] Hans Peter Broedel is more sceptical about the existence of any unitary cult, but also gives many instances of churchmen confronting, either in person or in print, those who believed that they were night-travellers who joined the wild hunt.[3]   Ginzburg surmises that in shamanistic practice, the trance-state (experienced as flying) was probably the shaman’s way of meeting the dead. His most striking documentation came from Inquisitors incredulously interrogating the benandanti, Friulian peasants who believed they fought the malandanti in nocturnal aerial battles that ensured the fertility of the crops. Broedel shows how Institoris and Sprenger sloughed off from their account of pact witchcraft both the male benandanti, and any suggestion that the (mixed gender) night fliers went out to combat with evil, and so made aerial activity part of their all too persuasive stereotype of the malignant female witch. To fly, they asserted, the witch made an ointment from (amongst other things) slaughtered children, and smeared it on any suitable piece of wood: an invisible devil would then bear her away.[4]

  3. Flight, and related forms of supernatural transportation, formed an important part of the demonologists’ narrative of witchcraft. Flight provided spectacular anecdotes, and, because of its prehistory in folk beliefs, featured in the strategically important repertoire of unforced confessions. Accounts of aerial abductions and inadvertent flying also provided, from various purportedly reliable witnesses, equally useful corroborating accounts of the witches’ sabbath, by those who represented themselves as non-participants. English dramatists who dealt with witchcraft were aware of these stories about demon-assisted flight, and made some effort to suggest or incorporate it in their plays. The notion of flight having an undeniable imaginative force, they responded to it by making the speech about flying into something of a literary set-piece, or worked closely with the theatre company’s musicians to make stage flight as arresting as possible in performance, even if the stage technology was limited.[5] As the seventeenth century theatre developed, incorporating devices from both masques and fairground aerialists, witch flight might have been more impressively achieved as a stage effect. But in practice, adequate technology only arrived when belief was waning, and in the Restoration theatre witch flight was always seen as an absurdity. As such, it was either indulged for the sake of fun, or repudiated by purists as mere crowd-pleasing. This discussion will look at the type of thinking about transvection available to English dramatists, how they incorporated it in their plays, and the way in which performance flourished as belief dwindled.

  4. Lambert Daneaus’s A Dialogue of Witches (an English translation was published in 1575) makes it clear just how important the controversy was about whether witches actually flew, or were merely deluded by the devil into thinking that they did. Daneaus’s text, like several demonological works, is a dialogue between a younger man, whose impulses are sceptical, and a wiser believer. King James imitated it, and borrowed from it.[6] The protagonists are Antony (inclined to scepticism), and Theophilus, his learned instructor in proper and pious credulity about sorcerers. The precarious structures of demonological belief were threatened whenever the idea of mental delusion is invoked; but even Theophilus (in the third chapter or section) discounts the idea of the sorcerer changing into animal form, despite Augustine’s reports of just that thing happening, as ‘false fancies and imaginations’ [F1v]. The danger for any demonologist is that a concession of this nature opens the door to a wide-scale assertion, like Reginald Scot’s, that it is all delusion.[7]

  5. The fourth section, when it discusses flight, presents another departure from St. Augustine by Theophilus as the advocate of belief. He opens this section, discoursing with horror on the revolting practices of witches, but then Antony is permitted to bring out his big argument for limiting what can be believed of deluded old women. He refers to the Canon Episcopi, and St Augustine’s argument that night-flying is a product of ‘vayne showes, mere toyes, and illusions of the mind’ [G4 v], citing Augustine’s account of how ‘certen foolish women turning after Satan, being seduced by fantasies and illusions of Diuels, doo beleeue and professe, how in the night tyme they ryde abroade with Diana the Goddesse of the Pagans, or els with Herodias and Minerua, and other multitudes of women innumerable (G5). Even prophets in the Bible, Antony further objects, ‘saw visions in the spirit, and not in the body’ [G5v]. Theophilus initially concedes: ‘I deny not but that this matter hath bin in great controuersie, Anthony, seeming vnto some altogither incredible’ [G4v]. At issue here is, first, the delicate matter of differing again from St Augustine. And, secondly, if Daneaus, via his overall use of a dialogic form, was negotiating a lingering uncertainty in his own mind about witches, here he must face a central difficulty: and so his main mouthpiece, Theophilus, has to counter. He offers the alternative explanation that the bodies witnesses have seen left behind by witches (who would later emerge from their trance state to affirm that they had been bodily flying), were in fact counterfeit bodies produced by Satan (G8v). Sprenger and Kramer had a more sexualised version of the same assumption, with the devil occupying the place in the marital bed while the wife is away. Thomas Heywood, who was a reader of the Malleus Maleficarum, has his character Generous realize with horror that his marriage to an undiscovered witch has seen him ‘lie so often and so long / With a devil in my bosom?’ In these lines, Generous doesn’t mean ‘devil’ as a synonym for ‘witch’, but that in his wife’s absences he was left with a substitute.[8]

  6. Danaeus’ mounthpiece Theophilus ends up trying to square what he asserts of witches with biblical instances of aerial transportation. As the Gospel of Luke had Christ himself carried to a pinnacle in the wilderness by Satan, how much easier for the devil to transport the bodies of those who have given themselves into his power [Sig H1v]. Antony objects that if the devil has such powers, then the witches’ ointments have no credible function [H5v]. Again Theophilus counters: the ointments serve not for flight itself, but to numb the pain and assuage the terror of any less than completely committed witch when being transported. The ointments also serve as a blasphemous version of a sacrament; thus they are important for other reasons [H6]. Such attempts to reason sensibly about wildly irrational beliefs are typical of the genre. But there were other reasons why a discourse of aeriality could be persuasive. The Bible called the devil ‘prince of the air’.[9] Daneaus’s Theophilus is obsessed with the sorcerer as an infective, pestilential, poisoning agent.[10] In an age accustomed to think that the air itself was the major vector for the plague, perhaps a more rational fear pushes the ‘Theophilus’ side of Danaeus’s latent self-dialogue to insist that evil can indeed fly. ‘Infected be the air whereon they ride’: Macbeth’s curse directs itself at the witches, but also at the whole world: that they should spread everywhere the diabolical pestilence to which he is a victim.[11]

  7. Danaeus’s dialogues reflect the preoccupations of continental demonologists, but their translation shows the availability of these ideas and this controversy in England. George Gifford, in his Dialogue concerning Witches and Witchcraftes (1593) associates witches who believe that they fly with ‘Germany and other countries’.[12] Nine years after the translation of Danaeus was published, Reginald Scot confronted the ‘witch-mongers’ (as he called them) with scorn and revulsion. Scot opens his Discoverie of Witchcraft with one of his main religious arguments, the view that few people - in times when a persuasion of witchcraft has taken hold - can abide the correction sent by God with any patience, but hastily decide that witchcraft must have been responsible for any loss they have suffered. They then erroneously set out to identify and eliminate the witch. The illustration he gives of this impatience is to do with the skies: no sooner, he says, is a clap of thunder heard, or the sound of a rising wind, than people ring church bells (to counteract the airborne witches), or start setting fire to consecrated objects, ‘to drive the divell out of the aire’.[13] Scot clearly wants as grotesque an example as possible, and this particular folly sounds more Catholic than English. Scot knows from his sources about the night flyers who claimed to meet a female deity their interrogators identified as Diana or Minerva, but his little introductory sketch might just for a moment suggest that there were nominally Christian populations who (in some corner of their minds) needed the benandanti riding out at night to protect the crops, and, in the suppression of that older cult, were susceptible to a belief that the aerial power of evil went uncontested. Scot goes on to cite Brentius to the effect that the law of the Holy Roman Empire does indeed condemn to death those who ‘trouble and infect the aire’, and then, with approval, he cites Brentius’s tough-minded follow-up, which is a warning that in fact only God has this power (p. 2).

  8. Scot was never afraid to put a case in the most extreme terms: if witches can assume powers that were held formerly to be limited to the deity, and ‘ride and flie in the aire … then will I worship them as gods’ (p. 19). But his assertion is that we cannot alter the divine disposition of things: it is ‘absolutelie against the ordinance of God … that I should flie like a bird’ (p. 57). No human can fly, God has ordained otherwise. That the Devil may have transported Christ to a pinnacle provides no precedent for Scot, who observes that no demonologist would dare to follow through their habit of extrapolating from this episode in the Gospels to make a logically complete equation with witchcraft. No-one would dare to deduce that Christ must have anointed himself with ointment for this flight, or had a pact with the devil (p. 58). Scot also alludes three or four times to a confounding legal issue which would follow on from accepting that witches can fly: once this is credited, no alibi can stand: if a sorcerer could pass in a flash from Berwick to Canterbury, no witness testifying that an accused person was somewhere else would be sufficient to clear a man’s name.

  9. Scot’s more extended discussions of flight follow his usual process of a paraphrase intended to expose the preposterousness of the demonologists’ beliefs. In Book 3 Chapter 3, he summarises assertions about ‘How witches are summoned to appeere before the divell, of their riding in the aire, … &c’, reporting that ‘Danaeus saith, the divell oftentimes in the likenes of a sumner, meeteth them at markets and faires, and warneth them to appeere in their assemblies, at a certaine houre in the night, that he may understand whom they have slaine, and how they have profited. If they be lame, he saith the devill delivereth them a staffe, to conveie them thither invisiblie through the aire’ (p. 25). In the fifth chapter of the same book Scot retells a story from the Malleus Maleficarum (which he notes is also repeated by Jean Bodin), of a man who observed his lover get up in the night, anoint herself and promptly disappear. Having seen this, the man finds the ointment pot, anoints himself, and is, to his horror, transported to a sabbath. Scot merely comments in his usual laconic way about this lover proving himself ‘a verie honest man’, ‘that he accused his true lover for a witch, and caused hir to be burned.’ Neither in the Malleus Maleficarum, nor in Bodin, Scot notes, is the man criticized for any part of his actions.[14]

  10. In Book 10, Chapter 8, Scot gives the recipe for the purported flying ointment out of ‘Johannes Baptista Neapolitanus’.[15] It is a mixture of lurid but extraneous material (bat’s blood, and such[16]), along with indisputable plant-derived hallucinogens.[17] The fat used to transfuse the drugs into the body through the skin is, as ever, a product of infanticide; the pores of the skin are opened by vigorous rubbing before the ointment is applied. The author of the same source went on to testify that he had a witch delivered into his custody, who offered to prove that she could fly by fetching her captors something from a distant country (a little like Faustus purveying out-of-season grapes for the Duchess of Vanholt).[18] She was observed (through a chink in her cell door) to strip, to anoint herself, and fall into a trance. They try to beat her awake, but to no avail: when she finally awakes of her own accord, she ‘began to speake manie vaine and doting words, affirming that she had passed over both seas and mountaines; delivering to us manie untrue and false reports: we earnestlie denied them, she impudentlie affirmed them’ (p. 105). She claimed to have been physically flying, but her captors knew that she has not left the cell. Scot uses this account to discredit the Malleus and Bodin, as it is the story that ‘greatlie overthroweth the opinion of M. Mal. Bodin, and such other, as write so absolutelie in maintenance of witches transportations’ (ibid.).

  11. The anecdote accords with Scot’s view of witchcraft as products of disordered states of mind, though he seems curiously uninterested in the likely effects of the drugs, rather opting to present, as he always does, the action confessed to as the product of the witch’s own imagination: ‘whereas they are naturallie prone to beleeve anie thing; so doo they receive such impressions and stedfast imaginations into their minds, as even their spirits are altered thereby; not thinking upon anie thing else, either by daie or by night. And this helpeth them forward in their imaginations, that their usuall food is none other commonlie but beets, rootes, nuts, beanes, peaze, &c’ (ibid.). Scot’s sturdy rationalism is more inclined to deduce that poor women who eat mainly windy food will have these delusions, than remark that powerful plant-derived poisons will disorder the mind. His witches are delusive, and so he tends to minimize all external causes.

  12. King James’ Daemonologie (1597) was always anxious to prove its own stringency by a display of independent, even sceptical thought (though he only rehearses the parade of open-minded judiciousness he had seen in Danaeus, and, like his model, concedes on animal transformation the better to stick to an assertion of literal flight). The second book, chapter four, discusses ‘What are the waies possible, wherby the witches may transport themselves to places far distant. And what ar impossible & mere illusiones of Sathan’. On transvection, the King had what seems to have been his own canny line: the witch can indeed fly, but only for as long as she can hold her breath. The King’s argument is that, were normal breathing practised, the diabolical velocity would drive the breath out of the body. As proof, he asserts that those who fall from high places asphyxiate before hitting the ground. At the end of the chapter, Philomathes is allowed to speak out of his naïve character, and on behalf of the author: on all such matters relating to witchcraft, we have to sail between the Charybdis of disbelief and the Scylla of crediting what are called ‘old wives trattles’.[19] As a complete denial of witch flight might threaten a dangerous denial of the power of evil, James has insinuated a saving touch of rational limitation into this reckless opinion. It is well known that the King seems to have become more open to scepticism once in England, and he maybe was on this matter too. On his various visits to the Universities, James seems to have enjoyed pro et contra debates staged about issues that interested him. According to a poem by Richard Corbett, for a visit to Cambridge in 1615, the King had set his own topic for disputation. It seems likely to have been about whether witches can literally fly:
    Now passe wee to the Civill Law,
    And eke the Doctors of the Spaw
    Who all perform’d their parts soe well:
    Sr. Edward Ratcliff bore the bell,
    Who was, by the Kings owne appointment,
    To speake of Spells, and Magick Ointment.[20]
    By then this was possibly as ludic in nature as the other debate, which was about whether dogs can form syllogisms.

  13. Sixteenth and early seventeenth century English witchcraft pamphlets reporting cases of imputed witchcraft are, in general, very earthbound: in the absence of a wide-spread belief in the mass meetings of witches, the English witch had nowhere to fly to: no mountain top, and no sabbath. There was less impetus to imagine any supernatural form of mass travel. In the mid-seventeenth century, Anne Bodenham did ask Anne Styles (fleeing from Sarum in Wiltshire after her fellow servants have realized just how incriminating their consultations about poison might sound) ‘whether she would goe to London High or Low. To which she replyed, what do you mean by that? She answered, If you will goe on High, you shall be carried to London in the Air, and be there in two hours’.[21] This approximates to something perhaps more characteristic in England, the account of involuntary flight induced by witchcraft. These events are to transvection what possession is to diabolism, as in the account of Richard Burt, his unrelinquished piece of apple pie still in his hand, soaring over his master ploughing in his fields near Pinner, and then over the church at Harrow, sped on his way to an unauthorized four-day bender by Mother Atkin’s supernatural budget airline.[22] Spirit-powered aerial transport of a working person carrying food actually seems to be a regular motif. John Dee’s almost too spectacular effects for the Cambridge production of Aristophanes’ Pax in 1546 featured a scarab beetle which flew up to Jupiter’s palace carrying a man and his basket of foodstuffs ‘whereat was great wondering, and many vain reports spread abroad of the means how it was effected’.[23] Robert Greene’s Friar Bacon and Friar Bungay dramatises a rather similar abduction of a hostess carrying a joint of meat from Henley to Oxford.[24] Newes from Scotland (1591) sets off by denouncing as false a report that the witches were first exposed by a pedler transported suddenly from a Scottish town to a wine-cellar in Bordeaux. It is easy to imagine that a wine cellar might be a place you woke up in with no recollection of how you got there, and with reason to invent an elaborate story to account for your unauthorised presence.

  14. Another variant which sometimes appears is diabolic punishment by an aerial abduction, as in Terrible and wonderful news from Scotland (1674), where a usurer from John O’Groats is swept into the air for telling his money on the Sabbath, ‘and the Devil appeared visible a vast Height in the Air, in several monstrous shapes one after another’. The devil and his victim tour the region, dropping money bags on the homes of those who had suffered from the usurer’s extortion, before the devil tears him up and scatters pieces of the body (p. 4-5). Bunyan retells a similar moral yarn in The Life and Times of Mr Badman:
    Also at Oster in the Dutchy of Magalapole, (saith Mr. Clark) a wicked Woman, used in her cursing to give her self body and soul to the Devil, and being reproved for it, still continued the same; till (being at a Wedding-Feast) the Devil came in person, and carried her up into the Air, with most horrible outcries and roarings: And in that sort carried her round about the Town, that the Inhabitants were ready to dye for fear: And by and by he tore her in four pieces, leaving her four quarters in four several high-wayes; and then brought her Bowels to the Marriage-feast, and threw them upon the Table.[25]
    Or there was the experience of Ann Arthur, a cheesecake maker confronted by the devil (‘Certain it is, that the Devil who is Prince of the Air’, begins the account) when on her way back to Deptford. Having refused the money offered by the devil for her soul, she ‘was taken up, together with her Basket, a considerable Heighth, and carried, piteously crying out for Help, for the space of a Quarter of a Furlong’, before being dropped in some bushes.[26] Rather shaken by the experience, she confesses to her regular use of blasphemous oaths, but persists in them nevertheless. One of the correspondents contributing to George Sinclair’s Satan’s Invisible World Discovered (Edinburgh, 1685) tells a tale from his student days, when he went to see a witch (Helen Elliot) burned. She had to be carried to the place of execution with broken legs: the Devil had flown her out of captivity in the ‘Steeple of Culros’, but in her terror, she had exclaimed ‘O GOD wither are you taking me!’ At this untimely mention of God, the devil had dropped her, at a distance from the steeple which confirmed that their flight had started (and was not just a suicidal leap): ‘I saw the impression and dimple of her heels, as many thousands did, which continued for six or seven years upon which place no Grass would ever grow’.[27]

  15.  To these aerial abductions might be connected the whole array of Strange News pamphlets about apparitions seen in the sky, usually of serpents or of armies fighting, which seem to become hysterically frequent in the Civil War and Interregnum years: the sky was a frightening supernatural realm, where the devil ruled as Prince of the Air.[28] Alien abduction experiences reported during the UFO years, prompted by similar anxieties, seem to have replicated many of the basic conditions and beliefs.[29]

  16. It is just possible that a slight piece of evidence reveals a growing interest in transvection, which could possibly be related to a broader awareness of continental ideas about and depictions of witches: the title page of Scot’s Discovery of Witchcraft (1584) was altered for the 1651 edition, to announce a discussion of flight which, though present in the text (as has been detailed), does not really amount to being one of Scot’s major concerns. The new phrasing runs ‘proving the common opinions of witches contracting with devils, spirits, or familiars; and their power to kill…their flying in the air, &c To be but imaginary erroneous conceptions and novelties’. Robert Herrick wrote a poem which includes the ‘greased’ staff which facilitated flight (‘The Hagg’). Margaret Cavendish, Duchess of Newcastle claimed that her husband discussed witch flight with Hobbes, arguing that it was delusion (‘they imagine that their Dreams are real exterior actions’).[30] John Aubrey reported that Sir James Long, an MP, naturalist and F.R.S., hanged at Salisbury ‘7 or 8 old women …There were odd things sworne of them … of flying in the Air on a staffe, etc. These examinations, &c. Sr. James hath fairly written in a Book, which He promised to give to the Royall Society.’[31] A Pleasant Treatise of Witches (1673) reports stories of witch flight as blandly as that title suggests it might.

  17. The skies in European witch paintings and woodcuts were crowded with witches astride flying goats, pitchforks, cowlstaffs and besoms: witchcraft was projected as a very aerial phenomenon. Paintings by David Teniers (the younger) recurrently depict the witch in preparation for flight, being anointed with the flying ointment, and about to be pushed off up the chimney, naked. Hans Baldung Grien’s engravings have naked witches born aloft on goats among billows of thick vapour, ‘hovering through the fog and filthy air’. Squadrons of witches and aerial devils fly into Jacob van Oostsanen’s ‘Saul and the Witch of Endor’ (1526); the motif appears irregularly in the engravings of Jacques Van Gheyn II.

  18. The English stage gradually moved between the two modes of typical representation offered by the home-produced witchcraft pamphlets and continental witchcraft art. In the theatre, the witch tended to have her feet firmly on the ground (as in the documentary sources); but the stage was to a certain (and perhaps increasing) extent equipped to make witchcraft spectacular, as in the fantasy version of witchcraft indulged by, for example, Teniers. With this development came scenes that approximated to flight, in which a lifting machine was used. The remainder of this discussion will look at some of these scenes of aerial witchcraft.

  19. In what has to be considered the most important early ‘witchcraft’ play (being a text that through its memorable narrative and many performances had incalculable influence on the spread in England of the notion of pact witchcraft), Dr Faustus, Marlowe and the various dramatists involved in the text’s stage history accommodated source text fantasies to the limitations imposed by stage conditions. The devil does not appear first to Faustus as a burning man descending from a fiery globe, and Faustus’s dragon-powered flight is narrated, with no attempt to stage it.[32] The aerial potential of such scenes was automatically written out of the text. The ‘dragon’ that emerges during Faustus’s first conjuration in the ‘B’ text (I iii 246) apparently came out of the stage trapdoor (as seen in the various versions of the famous woodcut). This ‘dragon’ might have been an aerial phenomenon (as the first diabolic manifestation is in the Faustbook: ‘suddenly over his head hanged hovering in the air a mighty dragon’), but it has been shifted underground, and the devil enters from below. What does appear in the text(s) hints at a simple lifting technology: the Old Man’s exit in the ‘A’ text, assailed by the demons, ‘hence I flie unto my God’ (line 1386) may represent a residue of an exit on a lifting machine; the ‘B’ text departure of the Good Angel probably utilized the resplendent heavenly throne Faustus can no longer hope to occupy (l. 2015). The stage direction in the ‘B’ text, ‘Music while the Throne descends’ (l. 2006) hints at the slow operation of the lifting machine. In general, the stage of Dr Faustus conforms to a moral schema of heaven above and hell below, the devil ‘that rules in the air’ (in John Webster’s biblically-derived adage) not being presented.[33]

  20. The most elaborately aerial witches in the drama of the period appeared in Thomas Middleton’s The Witch (date uncertain – 1615?) and when they get airborne - after much anticipation and preparation - takeoff is done with song. The witches function as Ravenna flying club: that is what they are organized to do (of course, this being a Middleton play, their flying has a ‘mile high club’ sexual element). We see them consulted by various characters, but what they do for themselves concerns flight. In Act I scene ii a dead baby is being processed for flying ointment. Instructing her sisters, Hecate expands on the joys of flying:
    Boil it well; preserve the fat.
    You know 'tis precious to transfer
    Our 'nointed flesh into the air,
    In moonlight nights o’er steeple-tops,
    Mountains and pine-trees, then like pricks or stops
    Seem to our height; high towers and roofs of princes
    Like wrinkles in the earth. Whole provinces
    Appear to our sight then even leek
    A russet mole upon some lady’s cheek,
    When hundred leagues in air we feast and sing,
    Dance, kiss and coll, use everything. (I ii 19ff)
    Central to the play is Act III scene iii, which starts with anticipation and pre-flight checks:
    Stadlin. Here’s a rich evening, Hecate.
    Hecate.                                                Ay, is’t not, wenches,
       To take a journey of five thousand mile?
    Hoppo. Ours will be more tonight.
    Hecate.                                                O, 'twill be precious!...
                                                                    Are you furnished?
      Have you your ointments?
    Stadlin.                                    All.
    Hecate.                                                Prepare to flight then.
                                                      (III iii 2-4; 11-2)
    Hecate’s son Firestone interjects his usual mordant commentary, with a joke about fowls that fly by day, and ‘foul sluts’ that will fly in the night, spreading the plague: ‘if we have not mortality after it, I’ll be hanged, for they are able to putrefy it, to infect a whole region’ (15-7). Hecate bids him farewell (‘I am for aloft’, 32), and music is heard from above: ‘hark, hark, mother! They are above the steeple already, flying over your head with a noise of musicians’ (35-6). The song is the ‘Come away, come away, / Hecate’ familiar from Middleton’s insertion of it into the text of Macbeth. The voices of the other witches invite Hecate into the air; she sings her reply from the ground, and gets confirmation that Stadlin and Puckle are airborne. ‘We lack but you’, sing the voices, but Hecate has still to anoint herself with flying ointment. This is a process that takes her the rest of the dialogue song. The witches in witchcraft paintings of David Teniers are typically naked, astride their reversed besoms, and have their flying ointment rubbed onto their buttocks by a more senior adept. Heywood tells a story from Bodin of an ‘Extasist’ witch applying her unguent ‘from the crowne to the heele naked’.[34] Hecate clearly has to rub ointment into her skin, so Middleton’s scene might have been suggestively performed. For Hecate’s actual flying exit, a rope isn’t lowered for the performer to attach to a harness, but her cat-familiar, Malkin, descends in the lifting machine, and, if he does ‘claim his dues’ in the form of ‘A kiss, a coll, a sip of blood’ (50), there is further boarding delay (and more access to Hecate’s aged and unnatural body). Finally she announces herself to be ‘furnished for the flight’, and the two ascend together:
    Now I go, now I fly,
    Malkin, my sweet spirit, and I.
    O, what a dainty pleasure 'tis
          To ride in the air
          When the moon shines fair.
    And sing and dance and toy and kiss;
    Over woods, high rocks, and mountains,
    Over seas, our mistress’ fountains,
    Over steeples, towers and turrets
    We fly by night, 'mongst troops of spirits;
    No ring of bells to our ears sounds,
    No howls of wolves, no yelps of hounds.
    No, not the noise of water’s breach
    Or canon’s throat our height can reach.
                                                                (III iii 62-75)
  21. The poetry is adequate for song. ‘Canon’ in the last line quoted ought surely to be ‘cannon’. Flying witches were sometimes shot at (Heywood includes such a story in his Gynaikeion).[35] They are also out of range of the more spiritual ordnance, the church bells that might be rung to chase them from the skies. ‘Our mistress’ fountains’ is a facile rhyme, but might be taken to imply the Goddess who leads this wild horde: Diana, Venus, Herodias, Holda, Abundia: she was given many names. As the demonologists had it, so here in the play, any benign followers of the Goddess are made indistinguishable from child-slaughtering lamiae like Hecate and her fellow witches.

  22. The Witch of Edmonton (1621), as the most sober of the witchcraft plays, keeps Elizabeth Sawyer’s feet firmly on the ground (the only sign that she can do any more than hobble comes at her immediate manifestation when the handful of straw from her thatched roof is burned). Tom, her familiar, is a devil in the form of a dog, but her longing fantasies in his absence make him an aerial being:
    Thou art my raven on whose coal-black wings
    Revenge comes flying to me… Come then, my darling.
    If in the air thou hover’st, fall upon me
    In some dark cloud; and as I oft have seen
    Dragons and serpents in the elements,
    Appear thou now so to me
                                        (V. i 8-9; 12-5)
    The lines are at once properly eldritch (her devil could indeed be anywhere, in any element) and familiar – the dragons and serpents in the elements connect to that quite commonly reported seventeenth century experience of the ‘supernatural’, apparitions in the sky. In the source pamphlet, Elizabeth Sawyer makes besoms as a way of wheedling money from her neighbours: that Dekker chose not to carry over any mention of these possibly incriminating items perhaps shows how much he wants us to listen to Mother Sawyer as an individual, not watch her as a cliché.

  23. The Late Lancashire Witches (1634) was co-written by a dramatist who read, credited, and recycled ideas from continental demonologists.[36] Heywood’s Hierarchy of the Blessed Angels (1634, in verse; see Book 8, ‘The Arch-Angell’) and Gynaikeion (1624, in prose) betray his primary interest in the sexual allegations about witches, but also in stories that illustrate their power of flight. A chapter in Gynaikeion tells ‘Of Witches transported from one place to another by the Devill’ (p. 406); and he appended a briefer discussion of ‘another kind of Witches that are called Extasists’ (p. 417). Heywood’s ‘another kind’ avoids the issue of whether such women should be distinguished from those accused of being bodily transported by the devil. Rather than admit the possibility of their claims showing them to be delusive, Heywood prejudges them as simply another type of witch, flying in spirit if not in body. Heywood retells incriminatory stories of these ‘Extasists’ from sources like Bodin: after their trances, their accurate accounts of distant events (though they could not have not been bodily present at them) prove that there is more than delusion operating. As for stories of physically flying witches, Heywood recounts one of an old woman shot down from a cloud at Brill (p. 408-9, see footnote 34), and a story that he claims was told him by a long-time woman friend, of a witch raising a tempest, and appearing on top of a ship’s main mast, when she tried to leave Amsterdam taking an old woman’s unredeemed pawn (a kettle) with her (p. 415). Throwing the kettle overboard caused the witch to disappear, and the storm to abate.

  24. The Witches in The Late Lancashire Witches are first shown in their human form at the start of Act 2, when they are planning further disruption to the hunting seen at the opening of the play. Here, two of the most contested powers imputed to witches appear together: transformation into animal form and flight. Members of the coven decide which animal form they will take (hares or greyhounds), or where to watch the resultant chaos: ‘But where will Mawd bestow herself today? / O’th’steeple-top I’ll sit and see you play’ (II i 71-2). The dramatist opts to imply that magical flight is either just about to happen (the lines quoted end that scene), or has just happened:
    Mistress Generous. Where’s Jug?
    Moll. On horseback yet.
    Now lighting from her broomstaff.
                                                    (V ii 18-9)
    Moll reports on the off-stage action, the performer can then enter carrying the broom.[37] When Gammer Dickinson abducts the boy Edmund Robinson, her lines prompt him to testify to a transformational magic way beyond the capacities of any stage to represent: ‘Now look and tell me what’s the lad become?’ (II v 50). The boy looks off-stage, and sees that the demon boy has just turned into a white horse. The witch confirms this:
    And that’s the horse we must bestride
    On which both thou and I must ride,
    Thou, boy, before and I behind,
    The earth we tread not, but the wind.
    For we must progress through the air,
    And I will bring thee to such fare
    As thou ne’er sawst, up and away,
    For now no longer can we stay.
    Boy. Help! Help!
                She catches him up, and turning round, exit.                                    (II v 53-61)
    The stage action suggested here seems to have been for the performer to hold the child-actor under the arms, and spin round and round - as parents do children - while moving off-stage; a simple means to convey the supernatural whirlwind carrying off a victim of witchcraft. Another element in Heywood’s play is the supernatural procurement of foodstuffs from unfeasible distances. Robin is supposed to gallop with Mal Spencer from Lancashire to London and back in a night, bringing back authentic Mitre Tavern wine (III ii). Witch magic really seems to be at its most benign in these fantasy moments when it conquers the frustrations of distance. Doctor Lamb, imprisoned in Worcester castle, reportedly had a spirit boy in green fetch him wine from London’s Globe tavern.[38] In the play, spirits convey the bridal banquet to the barn where the witches meet, where it descends on ropes when the witches pull. The scene is very like the testimonies of Anne Armstrong, in Northumberland, in 1673.[39] A mill features in the action of Heywood’s play, and the lifting machinery run off the main drive-trains of mills must have provided an imaginative model for large amounts of foodstuffs being hoisted and lowered with unseen and smooth power.

  25. Later on in the same year as The Late Lancashire Witches, Heywood enjoyed another success with Loves Mistress, a short play telling the story of Cupid and Psyche. This had its first performance (though this might have been a form of preview or advanced rehearsal) at the Phoenix theatre in Drury Lane, and then it transferred to Court as ‘The Queen’s Masque’ for King Charles’s birthday (November 19th). It was successful enough to prompt a third performance. Heywood’s text features a mixture of serious and comic mythology. The Phoenix theatre clearly allowed Cupid to descend in a cloud to speak the prologue which is specific to that production, but the text must really have been put together with performance at court in mind.[40] Inigo Jones’s scenery and stage effects would have been a long time in preparation, and could not have been improvised when the play was thought suitable for court performance. Heywood was apparently overwhelmed when he saw his text realised with the full resources of the designer’s art:
    who to every Act, nay almost to every Sceane, by his excellent Inventions gave such an extraordinary Luster; upon every occasion changing the stage, to the admiration of all the Spectators: that, as I most Ingeniously confesse, It was above my apprehension to conceive.
                         ‘To the READER’ [A3]
    This is interesting, as Heywood had written in The Silver Age and The Brazen Age what were probably the most elaborately spectacular plays the public theatre had staged.[41] These plays had repeatedly called on the lifting device, and had featured a spectacular aerial sorceress when Medea ‘with strange fiery-workes, hangs above in the Aire in the strange habite of a Conjuresse’ (The Brazen Age, ed. cit., p. 217).[42] But Inigo Jones went beyond all Heywood’s prior experience.[43] On the court stage Jones could have presented the rock Psyche ascends to await her frightening and unknown husband-to-be. Then, when Zephirus ‘takes Psiche from the Rock, and Exit[s] with her in his arms’, his flying machinery could display the descent, as Psyche herself describes it: ‘through the cheerful air hither I have been brought, on unseen wings’ [B4v]. After her fatal curiosity about her husband’s appearance has dissolved the marriage, Cupid again descends to reproach Psyche, and re-ascends [E2v]. There are further suggestions of stage machinery being used. It is worth noting just how often Heywood actually thinks about witchcraft as he writes a play based on classical mythology. After her invisibly-assisted flight from top of the rock, a banquet magically appears, but Psyche refuses to drink ‘this inchanted wine’. She says that she would rise, if she dared, from ‘this / Magick circle’ (Sig. C). Part of her punishment is to be transformed into a ‘hagg’ (E2), and Venus, angry that Psyche is accomplishing the impossible tasks she is set, alleges that she is achieving them ‘by sorcery … thy heart is wedded to such hellish Sorcery’ (F2). The final ordeal is to journey to hell to fetch cosmetics from Proserpina, and no doubt Inigo Jones did another of his hell designs for the scene in the underworld.

  26. It seems likely that Heywood would have seen in this November production the kinds of spectacle and aerial action that his Globe theatre play of the supernatural in the summer could only suggest.[44] Arthur M. Clark has speculated that when the play went back to the Phoenix theatre, ‘some of the scenery and machinery probably went with it’, so perhaps some of the effects seen at court were reproduced for a paying audience.[45] Loves Mistress, a text somewhere between a play and a masque, deploying enchantments as its theme, and centred upon a young female protagonist, resembles Milton’s ‘Comus’. Altogether, the Lancashire Witches, supernaturally themed masques, and English travelers going to Loudon to witness the sensational exorcisms there, made 1634 a year when performance of the supernatural seems to have been competing for attention with allegedly real diabolic events.

  27. The possible re-deployment of some scenery and effects from court to public stage perhaps suggests that the professional theatre companies might have come to operate under some pressure of expectation generated by Inigo Jones’s effects for court masques.[46] But such expectations might also have been created by other popular performance forms, as there are suggestions that early aerialist-performers were operating outside the theatres proper, using their specific acrobatic and rope-work skills in fairground sideshows:
    This Merc'ry you must understand Sir
    Had formerly been a Rope-Dancer:
    A nimble Rascal, and a Dapper,
    Full deftly could he cut a Caper,
    Dance, run, and leap, frisk, and curvett,
    Tumble, and do the Sommerset:
    And fly with Artificial Wings
    Ty'd to his head, and heels, with strings:
    'Twas he first taught to fly i'th Aire,
    As we have seen at Bartle-Faire…[47]
    These lines come from a burlesque poem of 1664, but the allusion in the last line quoted to entertainments at London’s Bartholomew Fair does suggest that everyone will have seen this kind of performance at some time or other. In William Davenant’s Play House to be Let (1660), the keepers of a playhouse in the long summer vacation are overwhelmed with offers to hire the auditorium:
    All the dry old Fools of Bartholomew Fair
    Are come to hire our house … the old Gentlewoman
    That professes the Galliard on the Rope;
    Another rare Turke that flies without wings.       (Act I)[48]
    But in the main, it was court performances that displayed Inigo Jones’s clever stage machinery (and of course the professional players would have witnessed it working when they were employed to take speaking parts in the masques). A semi-courtly entertainment (given by Robert Cecil in 1608, no script survives) maybe hints at a combination of the two rival forms of stage spectacle. The entertainment featured a Conjurer and 8 spirits, and involved witch-related scenery (a surviving design is inscribed ‘termes heccate Connono Grupo de Serpente supra li spali’ – ‘a term of Hecate with a group of serpents above the shoulders’).[49] For the performance, a large amount of ‘Flaming powder’ was bought, and six ells of white sarsenet was procured to make two long scarves for ‘the Flying Boye’. The flying boy might have been an aerialist trained for a fairground side-show. The long scarves were obviously there to heighten his visual impact; they might also suggest proper lateral flight (a mere vertical descent or ascent would hardly make the scarves trail behind him). He presumably played one of the conjurer’s spirits.[50]
  28. When Inigo Jones compliments himself on having overcome unprecedented difficulties of engineering, he is drawing attention to an expertise and resourcefulness professional theatres could not emulate.[51] The professional theatres could not have financed the large numbers of carpenters, and complex machinery Jones’s stage required.[52] But the professional actors who participated in masques must sometimes have envied some of the less ponderous effects Jones contrived: ‘Fame begins to mount, and moving her wings, flieth singing up to heaven’, or ‘Cupid from another part of the heaven comes flying forth, and having passed the scene, turns soaring about like a bird.[53] However, it is nowhere apparent that lateral stage-flying, even at a basic fairground level of a rope to support and a rope to pull across was ever performed on the early public theatre stages. The closest possibility comes from Heywood himself: ‘Mercury flies from above’ in The Silver Age.[54] Lack of anywhere out-of-sight at the side of the stage would curb any ambitions to incorporate such an effect: the performer had no place to perch or land, while the stage was roofed (the ‘heavens’, with a small aperture) rather than being an open structure which would accommodate a winch traversing on rails. A gratified observer at the masque Hymenaei in 1606 saw two clouds carrying eight ladies moving not ‘after the stale downright perpendicular fashion, like a bucket in a well; but came gently sloping down’.[55] What John Pory witnessed was lateral and controlled flight using a travelling winch, not a rattling descent and laborious ascent all too similar to labour at the village well, and familiar from the public theatres with their ‘creaking throne’.[56]

  30. Apparently confined, then, to a simple and slow lifting machine, these theatres seem to have compensated for an absence of visual thrills by recourse to music:
    Some music, then, i’th’air
    Whilst thus by pair and pair
    We nimbly foot it. Strike! (Music)
               Late Lancashire Witches (IV i 102-4).
    Music was regularly used to denote and heighten a supernatural moment, either aerial or subterranean. It perhaps also helped cover the slow operation, and, to an extent, the noise of that ‘creaking throne’.[57] In the commercial theatres, unseen musicians might be placed above the stage to suggest sounds produced by spirits, as in the lines just quoted from The Late Lancashire Witches. Syphax hears ‘enforced spirits sing’ ‘A short song to soft music above’ (John Marston, Sophonisba, IV i, s.d. after 208; 209). Music calling witches into the air does appear in demonological sources. The indefatigable Scot objects that no-one else hears or sees what witches are induced to describe.[58]

  31. Moving forward to Restoration theatre, William Davenant’s Playhouse to be Let (1660) is a hodge-podge of various entertainments, and an unwitting prediction of how the theatres of late seventeenth-century London would operate - under conditions of fierce competition, with anything attempted that would bring in the paying public. One area of competition would be in stage machinery, which seems to have vied as a way to fill the house with the innovation of women performers:
    No Play without a new Machine will do,
    Shortly, Your Miss must act with Engine to[o][59]
    What were seen as the misplaced priorities of the Restoration stage were routinely deplored:
    Th' Old English Stage, confin'd to Plot and Sense,
    Did hold abroad but small intelligence,
    But since th' invasion of the forreign Scene,
    Jack pudding Farce, and thundering Machine,
    Painted to your grave Ancestours unknown,
    (Who never disliked wit because their own)
    There's not a Player but is turned a scout,
    And every Scribler sends his Envoys out
    To fetch from Paris, Venice, or from Rome,
    Fantastick fopperies to please at home.
    And that each act may rise to your desire,
    Devils and Witches must each Scene inspire

    There seems to have been no interim phase of seriousness: flying witches and aerial devils were pantomimic effects from the very start. Translating the ‘Art of Poetry’, John Oldham recruited Horace’s voice to admonish the contemporary dramatist:
    Do not improbabilities conceive,
    And hope to ram them into my belief:
    Ne're make a Witch upon the Stage appear,
    Riding enchanted Broomstick through the Air (544-8).[61]
    In Thomas Duffet’s The Mock-Tempest (1675), Ariel (rather amusingly) has to keep Prospero up to speed on theatrical innovations for magical effects:
    Prospero. Well, Ariel go let a Table be brought to them furnish'd with most sumptuous Cates, but when they try to eat, let two great Babboons be let down with ropes to snatch it away.
    Ari.O Sir Punchanello did that at the Play-house.
    Pros. Did he so(?)
                                                    (p. 32)
    That Duffet’s farce was put on as a ‘spoiler’ to draw crowds away from the rival house’s production of the Davenant and Dryden Tempest (or The Enchanted Island), is half-acknowledged in these lines, with their cheeky claim to priority:
    Pros.Then do as I commanded, but make hast least the Conjurers of to'ther House steal the Invention --- thou know'st they snatch at all Ingenious tricks.
    Ari. I fly most potent Sir.
    Exit Ariel flying.
                                        (pp. 32-3)
  32. At the end of Duffett’s The Empress of Morocco: a farce (1674), the burlesque of Elkanah Settle’s play shifts to a parody of William Davenant’s Macbeth in ‘AN EPILOGUE Spoken by Heccate and three WITCHES, According To the Famous Mode of MACBETH’ (p. 29). Davenant had added such highly extraneous witch scenes to the Macbeth that he was never going to blench at retaining Middleton’s Hecate riding upwards in the lifting machine, which she duly did. Duffett hits off absurdity in Davenant’s Macbeth, and the stage’s version of the supernatural in general. The first theatrical cliché Duffett parodies is that of aerial music. Here the tune is chosen to sound as inappropriate as possible:
    The most renowned and melodious Song of John Dory, being heard as it were in the Air sung in parts by Spirits, to raise the expectation, and charm the audience with thoughts sublime, and worthy of that Heroick Scene which follows.
                                                               (p. 29)
    A parodic stage-direction then captures the disparity between the pretensions of the stage effects, and the actual means available to theatres:
    The Scene opens.
    Thunder and lightning is discover'd, not behind Painted Tiffany to blind and amuse the Senses, but openly, by the most excellent way of Mustard-bowl, and Salt-Peter.
    Three Witches fly over the Pit Riding upon Beesomes.
    Heccate descends over the Stage in a Glorious Charriot, adorn'd with Pictures of Hell and Devils, and made of a large Wicker Basket.

                                                                (p. 30)
    A wicker basket, however luridly painted, is still only a wicker-basket. But for the witches flying over the pit, Duffett required proper lateral stage flight (here apparently outside the proscenium arch). Hecate too ‘descends over the stage’. Even while the aerial feats in this farcical endpiece mocked themselves, they were also state-of-the-art. When the parody was published, the title page boasted that it was ‘a new Fancy after the old, and most surprising way OF MACBETH, Perform'd with new and costly MACHINES. Which were invented and managed by the most ingenious Operator Mr. Henry VVright.’ After all the clichés of witchcraft scenes have been played out, Hecate finally hears the ‘Come away’ cue, and gets back into her basket (with Duffett accurately catching the predictability of the rhymes in such scenes):

    Within Singing.
    Heccate! Heccate! Come away.

    Heark I am call'd---

    She Sings. I come; I come; Alack and well a-day.
       Alack and well a-day.

    Within. The Pot boyls over while you stay---

    Heccate.   Vanish---
    In Basket Chariot I will mount,
    'Tis time I know it by my count.

    [Thunder and Lightning: while they are flying up Heccate Sings.

    The Goose and the Gander went over the Green,
    They flew in the Corn that they could not be seen.

    Chorus. They flew, &c.
                                                    (pp. 36-8)

  33. As usual, the lifting machine operates to music, in this case absurd snatches of ballads or nursery rhymes, and Duffett again makes the joke about the disparity between the witch’s purported power, and the most un-mysterious means of its representation in theatres. His theatre (The King’s Company) was mocking the Duke’s Company and its success with their spectacular productions at the new Dorset Garden theatre, but simultaneously demonstrating that they were more than catching up technically.

  34. Thomas Shadwell’s The Lancashire Witches (1682) displays the final collapse of the witchcraft play into the moral and intellectual incoherence which had always threatened it. Shadwell announced his effective disbelief in witches in the preliminary matter to his published text, but had filled the stage action with all of the activities imputed to witchcraft. The admirable characters in the play are skeptics, yet the pranks of the witches go on above and below them; and one of the other qualities that establish those ‘sceptical’ characters as admirable proves to be a firm belief in the reality of the Popish plot. The play seems to want to imply that only Catholic priests and peasants would credit absurdities about ‘witchcraft’, but incorporates them all anyway. In the printed text, Shadwell annotated all these activities from the demonologists.[62] (He had time to do this because the virulence of this play’s anti-Catholicism had led to the suspension of his theatre career.) Every possible motif of witchcraft appeared. Clod (a more farcical version of Robin in The Late Lancashire Witches) shoots Mal Spencer out of a cloud, she falls down onto the stage, and he puts her into the transforming bridle while she is still stunned from the fall. Clod is, earlier in the action, magically flown into a tree-top. A song celebrating the power of flight is performed:

    We Sail in Egg-shells on rough Seas,
    And see strange Countries when we please
    Or on our Beesoms we can fly,
    And nimbly mounting to the Sky,
    We leave the swiftest Birds behind,
    And when we please outstrip the Wind:
    Then we feast and we revel after long flight,
    Or with a Lov'd Incubus sport all the night.

    When we're on Wing, we sport and play,
    Mankind, like Emmets, we survey;
    With Lightening blast with Thunder Kill.
    Cause barrenneß where e're we will.
    Of full revenge we have the power;
    And Heaven it self can have no more.
    Heres a health to our Master the Prince of the Flies,
    Who commands from Center all up to the Skies.

                                              (p. 26)

  35. It would have been more consistent if Shadwell had followed the dramatist he claimed to admire so much, Ben Jonson, in presenting the occult as charlatanry and imposition. But he seems to have been distracted by the way witchcraft could be exploited to abuse Catholicism (as it is throughout Titus Oates’s own rabid and repetitious publication, The Witch of Endor, 1679). Two years later, Edward Ravenscroft’s Dame Dobson, or The Cunning Woman (1684) concerned a straight duel of wits between an entirely fraudulent practitioner of ‘magic’ and a man determined to expose her. The comedy Ravenscroft wrote might be said to recapitulate the tension involved in all this type of theatrical magic: Dame Dobson wants to terrify and convince (and to this end, she uses the essentially theatrical means of impersonation of devils by accomplices); on the other hand, the piece exposes all her sleights, and is never more than a farce.

  36. When did these beliefs die out? Diane Purkiss might say that a theatrical culture that enjoyed witch-flight as a pantomimic absurdity would also be a culture in which experiences of being snatched away into the sky by a devil ceased to be reported. In the same year as Ravenscroft’s comedy in which the skeptic triumphs, Dr John Skinner’s account of Margaret Gurr represents a fascinating moment of transition.[63] Gurr told of devils and a witch entering into her, and of at least two episodes of the devil bearing her off into the sky. But the narrative Skinner elicited from her was not the narrative that had formerly been coaxed out, by which an ill and confused woman would gradually incriminate herself as a witch. What Dr John Skinner wanted from Margaret Gurr was a testimonial: the pamphlet dresses itself up as a witchcraft account to attract readers, but it is actually an advertisement for Skinner’s services. He intends to make money out of her by his own incredible tale of the exorcism he performed, his cure of her scurvy and gout, and her sudden attainment of pious literacy (largely credited to heaven, but heaven does seem to be very kind to Dr Skinner’s clients). His next cure delivered a seventeen year old from another type of mad fantasy of travel: the devil had appeared and told the boy that he must go to Virginia: Skinner cures that bizarre aberration as well. Medicine, and capitalism, are taking over the business of dealing with the aberrant from the demonologists.

  37. Finally, going back to the beliefs underlying the formation of witchcraft, it might be asked if anything like a peasant cult of nocturnal flight appears in plays of the English Renaissance. Plays like The Witch only imitate its demonological derivative. If anything older survived, it operated under deep cover in Shakespeare’s imagination. Queen Mab has power over the sleeper, in Romeo and Juliet. A Midsummer Night’s Dream has, among Shakespeare’s plays, roots that reach deepest into folklore. It is a play of abductions, applied ointments, and flight in the senses of both escape and (in Puck’s speed) aeriality. Yet events seem to befall preposterously: it is a fairy queen that, in a herb-induced trance of misplaced adoration, gets to kiss a hairy Bottom, and not a nocturnally traveling mortal participating in Satan’s obscene rites. The rude mechanicals are citizens, not countrymen, and as such seem deracinated from the very old dreams of an ancient culture: Bottom emerges from his ecstatic experience, and decides immediately that it was a dream. All’s Well that Ends Well flirts with the supernatural: Helena performs a miraculous cure, can insinuate herself into the bed of the man she fancies, and seems able to be in Compostela and Florence simultaneously; with the Countess and Diana, she makes up a trio of women who determine the hero’s fate. King Lear, through Edgar’s miming of a possession that seems, in the anguish of ‘Poor Tom’, to express something far deeper than a convenient disguise, also exhumes fragments:
    Swithun footed thrice the 'old;
    He met the nightmare and her ninefold;
    Bid her alight
    And her troth plight,
    And aroint thee witch, aroint thee![64]
  38. This was a magical encounter with a female night-ruler and her followers: she is mounted on something, and must promise a different fealty before that mysterious word of her banishment, ‘aroint’, is pronounced. If the strange old beliefs can be apprehended in the Shakespearean text, it is in the act of vanishing, just as the ‘weird sisters’ in Macbeth, ‘posters of the sea and land’, disappear into thin air: ‘what seem’d corporal melted / As breath into the wind’.[65] But there once had been a cult, and a set of real practices behind and beyond ‘witchcraft’. With a sense of this actuality, John Mann, the historian of pharmacology, began his study Murder, Magic and Medicine (1992) with the cauldron speech from Macbeth, and the pointed question, ‘but did it work?’ (p. 2). His survey of the toxins that can be derived from plants and reptiles leaves no doubt that concoctions like this, rubbed into the skin, would make the user believe that she (or he) was flying. It was a delirium the demonologists never understood, and theatre could never capture.

[1] The word is first recorded in the OED for specifically supernatural flight from Henry More in 1680, but it was used by Thomas Heywood in his discussion of the flight of witches in his Gynaikeion (1624), Book 8, p. 408. Latterly, it seems to have become part of the special lexicon favoured by ‘Wiccans’; nevertheless it has usefully specific meaning.

[2] Carlo Ginzburg, Storia Notturna (1989), translated by Raymond Rosenthal as Ecstasies: Deciphering the Witches’ Sabbath (London: Penguin Books, 1992).

[3] Hans Peter Broedel, The Malleus Maleficarum and the Construction of Witchcraft (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2003). See Chapter 5, ‘Witchcraft: the formation of belief’, especially pp. 101-13.

[4] Broedel, op. cit., p. 113, citing the Malleus Maleficarum pt. 2, qu. 1, ch. 3.

[5] Scholarship on stage flying includes Lily B. Campbell, Scenes and Machines on the English Stage During the Renaissance (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1923), and John H. Astington, ‘Descent Machinery in the Playhouses’, Medieval and Renaissance Drama in Europe, 2 (1985). Astington takes issue with the assumptions of Glynne Wickham and C. Walter Hodges. A very useful book resource is Alan C. Dessen and Leslie Thomson, A Dictionary of Stage Directions in English Drama 1580-1642 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999). The Chadwyck-Healey LION database can conduct a search limited to stage directions.

[6] King James, Daemonologie (1597). Other dialogic works of demonology include Nider’s Formicarious, written for a Duke left bewildered by the witchhunting of Sprenger and Kramer in his domain. George Giffard cast his A Dialogue concerning Witches and Witchcraftes (1593) as mainly taking place between Samuel, who has served on juries that have condemned witches to hang, and Daniel, who advises caution founded on the many ways Satan deludes men. Matthew Hopkins cast his self-justification (The Discovery of Witches, 1647) in the precarious form of answers to a series of cogent objections to his own actions.

[7] William Perkins goes over the same debate:

But for the further ratifying of their assertion, they proceede, and vse this argument: They which confesse of themselues things false, and impossible, must needs be parties deluded, … as that they can raise tempests, that they are caried through the aire in a moment, from place to place, … lastly, that they are brought into farre countries, to meete with Herodias, Diana, and the Deuill, and such like; all which are mere fables, and things impossible.

Ans[wer]. We must make a difference of Witches in regard of time … When they first beginne to grow in confederacie with the deuill, they are sober, and their vnderstanding sound. But after they be once in the league, and haue beene intangled in compact with the deuill … the case may be otherwise … Thus becomming his vassalls, they are deluded, and so intoxicated by him, that they wil run into thousands of fantasticall imaginations, holding themselues to be transformed into the shapes of other creatures, to be transported in the ayre into other countries, yea to do many strange things, which in truth they doe not.’

William Perkins, A discourse of the damned art of witchcraft (1610), p. 194-5. Robert Burton, in his Anatomy of Melancholy, discussing causes of melancholy, comes finally to old age as a cause (Sect 2 memb 1 subs. V). Discussing witches, he lists Baptista Porta along with Weyer as skeptics, inclined to ‘refer all that witches do, to imagination alone, and this humour of melancholy’. Without taking a position himself, Burton notes that ‘it is controverted, whether they can bewitch cattle to death, ride in the air upon a cowl-staff out of a chimney-top, transform themselves into cats, dogs, &c., translate bodies from place to place, meet in companies, and dance, as they do, or have carnal copulation with the devil.’

[8] See Heywood’s references to the Malleus in his The Hierarchie of the Blessed Angells (Book 8, lines 9877ff, especially 9893 ‘In their large stories it is likewise read’. Play reference, Thomas Heywood and Richard Brome, The Witches of Lancashire ed. Gabriel Egan (London: Nick Hern Books, 2002), IV. ii. 152-3.

[9] In Ephesians 2, 1 ‘And you hath he quickened, who were dead in trespasses and sins;  2 Wherein in time past ye walked according to the course of this world, according to the prince of the power of the air, the spirit that now worketh in the children of disobedience.’ This chapter goes on with the announcements that ‘by grace are ye saved by faith; and that not of yourselves’ (verse 8): a crucial Bible passage for Protestants.

[10] For instance, his seven divisions of his text include: ‘3 Vpon vvhat kinde of thinges Sorcerers can exercise their poisoning, to hurt them’, ‘4 By what meanes, and after what sort Sorcerers doe intoxicate’, ‘7 How a man may beware of the hurting, and poysoning of Sorcerers.’

[11] Macbeth, IV i 153.

[12] ‘You must consider that the devil doth many waies delude witches, and make them beleeve things which are nothing so. In Germany and other countries, the devilles have so deluded the witches, as to make them believe … that sometimes they flie or ride in the ayre, which thinges indeed are nothing so, but they strongly delude the fantasies of the witches’ (George Giffard, A Dialogue concerning Witches and Witchcraftes. In which is laide open how craftely the Diuell deceiueth not onely the Witches but many other and so leadeth them awrie into many great errours (1593), Sig K3.

[13] Reginald Scot, The Discoverie of Witchcraft, ed. Montague Summers, Book 1, Chapter 1, p. 1 (New York: Dover Publications, 1972).

[14] The story about the man who discovers his partner flies off in the night, and who tries her ointment on himself, and who interrupts the Sabbath to which he is transported, is one that circulates from source to source, its status varying from evidence to incredible yarn. A Pleasant Treatise of Witches (Anon, 1673) gives a late version.

[15] This seems to be Johann Baptista Theatinus, Adversus artem magicum at striges (c. 1510).

[16] Bat’s blood might be thought suitable to flight. But it was regularly included in quite ordinary  preparations, like those to prevent hair growth in John Jeams Wecker, Cosmeticks, or the beautifying part of physick (1660), pp. 70, 71.

[17] See John Mann, Murder, Magic and Medicine (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1992), especially Part 2, ‘Magic’, for a discussion of the psychoactive tropane alkaloids derived from Atropa belladonna (Deadly nightshade), Hyoscymus niger (henbane) and Aconitum napellus (wolfsbane, devil’s trumpet). Combined with fats or oils, compounds from these plants could penetrate the skin, via the sweat ducts or body orifices (p. 76) and get into the bloodstream and brain. (Ingested normally , they would quickly poison the consumer.) Transfused into the body, they would produce trances, palpitations, delirium, etc. Mann cites the discovery in 1324 of Dame Alice Kyteler’s ‘pipe of ointment, wherewith she greased a staff, upon which she ambled and galloped through thick and thin’, and Jordanes de Bergamo reporting how ‘the vulgar believe, and the witches confess, that on certain days and nights they anoint a staff and ride on it to the appointed place or anoint themselves under the arm and in other hairy places’ (citations, Mann, p. 78). Mann comments that ‘These ‘pleasures and delights’ usually involved vivid episodes of flyings and orgiastic adventures’ (p. 80).  (He is quoting the reproachful words of a hangman’s wife, an insomniac, on being awoken from a 36 hour trance induced by the physician of Pope Julius III anointing her with witches’ ointment.) Hyoscine intoxication also involves hallucinations involving animals: the user thinks that they are turning into an animal alongside their experiences of flying and frenzied dancing (p. 82). Thanks from the author to his pharmacist friend, Simon Brophy, for this invaluable reference.

[18] W. W. Greg (ed.), Marlowe’s Doctor Faustus 1604-1616 (Oxford: Clarendon press, 1950), ‘A’ text s.d. at l. 1244, ‘B’ text, l. 1660.

[19] King James, Daemonologie ed. G. B. Harrison (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 1966). Chapter cited, p. 38, quotation, p. 40.

[20] Richard Corbett, ‘A Certaine Poeme’ in Poetica Stomata (1648), p. 35. The poem relates events during King James’s visit of March, 1615.

[21] Edmond Bower, Dr Lamb Revived, or Witchcraft Condemned, or A Narration of the Tryal of Anne Bodenham (1653), p. 9. The down-market plagiary of his book, Doctor Lambs Darling (1653) added the detail that the witch could ‘send either man or woman 40 miles an hour in the Ayr’ (p. 7).

[22] In A most vvicked worke of a wretched witch …Wrought on the person of one Richard Burt …Latelie committed in March last, An. 1592 and newly recognised according to the truth. by G.B. maister of Arts.

[23] See Lily B. Campbell, Scenes and Machines on the English Stage During the Renaissance (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1923), p. 87.

[24] Robert Greene, The Honorable Historie of frier Bacon, and frier Bongay (1594), B3, ‘Enter a woman with a shoulder of mutton on a Spit, and a Devill.’ She explains that she is hostess of the Bell at Henley: seized with an impulse to look out into the yard, then ‘straight a whirlwind hoisted me from thence, / And mounted me aloft unto the cloudes: / As in a trance I thought nor feared nought’ (Sig. B3v).

[25] John Bunyan, Mr Badman (1680), pp. 295-6. ‘Mr Clark’ is Samuel Clark, and his compilation, A mirrour or looking-glass both for saints and sinners held forth in some thousands of examples (1646). Clark includes more of these stories, for instance, the atheist who, denying that any man has a soul, sells his to a companion for a glass of wine. The devil enters the room in the form of a man, repurchases the soul from the recent buyer, ‘laid hold on this Soul-Seller, and carried him away through the air’, never to be seen again (p. 268).

[26] Strange and dreadful news from the town of Deptford (1685), p. 2.

[27] George Sinclair, Satan’s Invisible World Discovered (Edinburgh, 1685), p. 208. A further bizarre story about diabolic flight occurs later in this strange compilation. The witches of the Swedish town of ‘Mohra’ avow that they were sure of ‘real Personal Transportation’, with the devil leaving some kind of effigy in place after their flight. They can fly up chimneys with the devil’s assistance, who considerately removes ‘all that might hinder them in their flight’ (p. 174), and:

For their journey, they said they made use of all sorts of Instruments, of Beasts, of Men of Spits and Posts, according as they had opportunity: if they do ride upon Goats, and have many Children with them, that all may have room, they stick a Spit into the Back-side of the Goat, and are then anointed with the aforesaid Ointment. What the manner of their journey is, GOD alone knows (p. 176).

[28] Examples would include Severall apparitions seen in the ayre (1646), More warnings yet (1654), The five strange wonders (1659), Strange apparitions (1650) (by Ellis Bradshaw), The Worlds Wonder (1659), Strange News from the West (1661), The Flying Serpent (1669), Strange News from Berkshire (1679).

[29] See John A. Saliba, ‘The Psychology of UFO Phenomena’ in Christopher Partridge (ed.), UFO Religions (London: Routledge, 2003). Alien abductees do not emerge from psychological scrutiny as particularly fantasy-prone. Their expression of powerlessness and horror at their ordeals is often combined with urgent warnings about a general peril to society. One conspicuous area of difference is that the 20th century tales of being snatched into the sky are often highly medicalised, pointing to areas of anxiety unavailable to the earlier century.

[30] Margaret Cavendish, The Lives of William, Duke of Newcastle, ed. Mark Lower (London: John Russell Smith, 1872), pp. 184-5.

[31] John Aubrey, Brief Lives ed. Oliver Lawson Dick (London: Secker and Warburg, 1949), p. lxv. Long’s account does not seem to have survived, which is a pity, for an account of flying witches written for the Royal Society would indeed have brought together two intellectual worlds. Further notice may appear in Robert Hooke’s minutes of the Royal Society, so recently found and saved for the nation.

[32] W. W. Greg (ed.), Marlowe’s Doctor Faustus 1604-1616 (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1950). Faustus’s dragon-borne flight is narrated in the ‘A’ text Chorus before scene vi (lines 810ff), and in an elaborated version in the ‘B’ text before Act III. It corresponds to the Faustbook’s Chapter 21, ‘How Doctor Faustus was carried through the air up to the heavens to see the world’ (in John Henry Jones (ed.), The English Faust Book (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1994).

[33] John Webster, The Duchess of Malfi, II i, and The Devil’s Law-Case, V i.

[34] Gynaikeion (1624), p. 418. The witch had told the witness to her powers of reporting what she had seen when traveling in spirit form that she could not enter her trance while imprisoned: he procured her release from prison, and she demonstrated her powers (Heywood reports from Bodin).

[35] Heywood’s story is of a sentinel on guard at Brill, who hears ‘a great noise of tatling gossips’ coming from ‘a duskie cloud’. He fires his gun at the cloud, his fellow soldiers, disturbed, find his story incredible until his oaths convince them to go out and investigate: he has brought down an old woman, with a wound in her buttocks. Thomas Heywood, Gynaikeion: or, Nine Bookes of Various History (1624), pp. 408-9.

[36] W. Todd Furniss, in his ‘The Annotation of Ben Jonson’s Masque of Queenes’, Review of English Studies, 5 (1954) usefully analysed Ben Jonson’s reading in continental demonology. In the annotations added to the presentation copy of his masque, Jonson refers to sixteen different demonologists, but actually uses just Del Rio, Agrippa, Bodin, Godelman, Remy and de Spina (with, of course, King James). All Jonson’s other references come from quotations in this group of sources: demonology was, like parts of academia since, prone to chains of citation. Middleton’s editors point out his exploitation of Scot in The Witch. Direct knowledge of the Malleus seems to mark out Heywood’s particular interest and credulity.

[37] A Lancashire witch inevitably has a broomstick in the quip made in Shadwell’s The Squire of Alsatia (1688): ‘I have enjoy'd a Lady; but I had as lieve have had a Lancashire Witch, just after she had alighted from a Broom-staff’ (IV i).

[38] A briefe description of the notorious life of John Lambe otherwise called Doctor Lambe (1628), pp. 9-10.

[39] For details of this case, see J. A. Sharpe, Instruments of Darkness: Witchcraft in England 1550-1750 (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1997).

[40] From Elizabethan theatre onwards, deities descended to speak prologues, or ascended after delivering epilogues, moments when the bustle of a play opening, or the applause at a play’s ending, covered their slow departure. Robert Greene had Venus descend to deliver the prologue to Alphonsus, King of Arragon. The stage direction at the end of the play has often been quoted: ‘Exit Venus; Or if you can conveniently, let a chaire come downe from the top of the Stage and draw her up’. The Plays and Poems of Robert Greene, ed. J. Churton Collins (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1905), vol. I, p.135 (s.d. after l. 1937).

[41] At the Red Bull Theatre: stage directions in The Silver Age include ‘Thunder and lightning. Jupiter discends in a cloude’, ‘Juno and Iris descend from the heavens’, ‘Enter Juno and Isis above in a cloud’, ‘Mercury flies from above’, ‘Jupiter ascends in his cloud … descends in his majesty’ (pp. 98, 121, 130, 138, 154 and 155) in Thomas Heywood, Dramatic Works, III (London: John Pearson, 1874).

[42] The sparks and smoke of fireworks do suggest one way to enhance the use of the lifting machine and make it, as Heywood repeats, ‘strange’. Something like the turbid skies of Hans Baldung Grien’s engravings might have been possible. ‘Flaming powder’ was bought for Robert Cecil’s 1608 entertainment, which featured an aerialist.

[43] Maybe Heywood was being dutifully impressed, or what he says about Jones, when set against his earlier attempts at spectacular plays for the public theatre, tends to contradict John H. Astington’s view that Inigo Jones did not add much sophistication to descent machinery (op. cit., p. 129).

[44] Perhaps with a suggestion that the Globe was not willing to undertake as much spectacle as the Red Bull had done for Heywood’s sequence of mythological plays?

[45] Arthur M. Clark, Thomas Heywood: Playwright and Miscellanist (Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1931), p. 131, footnote 1.

[46] John H. Astington agrees: ‘As far as theatre owners and actors were able, they would want to share the spectacular tradition of English civic, academic, and royal entertainments’ (op. cit., p. 119).

[47] Charles Cotton, Scarronides; or, Virgile Travestie (1664), pp. 44-5.

[48] The Works of Sir William Davenant (1673), second pagination, p. 73.

[49] Hecate was perhaps modelled in her tri-form shape, as in classical representations, for this ‘term’. Surviving documents related to this entertainment are in Stephen Orgel and Roy Strong, Inigo Jones The Theatre of the Stuart Court, 2 vols (London: Sotheby Parke Bernet Publications), 1973, Vol. 1 pp. 122-7; the term of Hecate, plate 13, p. 125.

[50] Jonson and Jones kept the witches earth-bound in The Masque of Queens (though they are supplied with ‘ointment pots at their girdles’ (Stephen Orgel and Roy Strong, Inigo Jones The Theatre of the Stuart Court, I, p.132, ll. 30-1). Neither do the ‘4 witches’ and ‘1 devil in the shape of a goat’ in Luminalia (ibid., II, p. 708, ll. 213-4) seem to have partaken in any of that masque’s very elaborate aerial action.

[51] See the concluding paragraph describing Luminalia (1638), in Stephen Orgel and Roy Strong, Inigo Jones The Theatre of the Stuart Court, Vol. 2, p. 709.

[52] See Orgel and Strong, ed. cit., II, pp. 694-5 for what might be over a hundred men at work on scenery for Britannia Triumphans. The ground plans and diagrams for Salmacida Spolia (ibid, pp. 736-41) are highly elaborate. But John H. Astington tends to disagree, and argues that the flying machinery was cheap and basic in nature, pointing to the under-engineered looking windlasses in those same designs. To press this argument, he represents Henslowe’s spending of £7 2/- on ‘the throne in the hevenes’ (Diary, June 4th 1595) as the retro-fitting of general purpose above-stage machines to the Rose theatre, rather than costs for a specific play.

[53] Chloridia (1631), in Orgel and Strong, ed cit., II p.422, and Tempe Restored (1632), ibid., p. 482.

[54] Thomas Heywood, Dramatic Work, III (London: John Pearson, 1874), p. 138. Henslowe’s inventory included wings for Mercury. The problem of representing Mercury with his attributes made that God the most important classical figure as far as the development of stage flight was concerned.

[55] Orgel and Strong, ed. cit., Vol. 1, p. 106. C. Walter Hodges, The Globe Restored (London: Oxford University Press, 1966) reproduces as plate 60 the type of fully configured flying machinery (from a Venetian theatre) Inigo Jones would have devised or imitated, with a laterally flying, counterweighted Mercury, a simpler, laterally ascending, counterweighted, Cupid, and a vertically ascending throne.

[56] Ben Jonson, Every Man in His Humour (Folio version), Prologue line 16: ‘Nor creaking throne comes down, the boyes to please’: in the public theatre, a puerile expedient – this from the man who wrote more words to accompany masques with their aerial machines than any other poet of the period.

[57] Inigo Jones’s refinements perhaps included attention to the silent, smooth and slow operation of his stage machines. Notes on the designs for court masques stress the careful preparation of the various lifting engines: the machinery should neither betray its own operations, nor squeak or rumble over the sung or instrumental music.‘Lard and soape for Engins and motions’ are listed in the accounts for Salmacida Spolia (Orgel and Strong, ed. cit., II, p. 729).

[58] ‘But to this last, frier Bartholomaeus saith, that the witches themselves, before they annoint themselves, do heare in the night time a great noise of minstrels, which flie over them, with the ladie of the fairies, and then they addresse themselves to their journie. But then I marvell againe, that no bodie else heareth nor seeth this troope of minstrels, especiallie riding in a moone light night’ (Scot, ed. cit.,p. 106).

[59] Epilogue to Thomas Duffett’s The Spanish Rogue (1674).

[60] Thomas Rawlins, Prologue to Tunbridge Wells (1678).

[61] John Oldham, ‘Horace his Art of Poetry, imitated in English' (Works, 1684), l. 545-8.

[62] Shadwell said this in partial extenuation of his play:

For the Magical part, I had no hopes of equalling Shakespear in fancy, who created his Witchcraft for the most part out of his own imagination (in which faculty no man ever excell'd him) and therefore I resolved to take mine from Authority. And to that end, there is not one action in the Play, nay scarce a word concerning it, but is borrowed from some antient, or Modern Witchmonger’,
‘To the Reader’, (Sig A3).
Shadwell seems to have known Ben Jonson’s The Masque of Queenes. (The resemblance between his song for the witches in Act I (pp. 10-1) and the song at 75-86 in the masque is too close to be coincidence. More puzzlingly, he seems to have seen the masque in manuscript form, for some of the notes on witchcraft follow Jonson’s sequence and phrasing (compare Jonson’s notes on the cited lines with Shadwell’s on his).

[63] John Skinner, A strange and wonderful relation of Margaret Gurr of Tunbridge, in Kent (1681).

[64] King Lear, III iv 118-22.

[65] Macbeth, I iii 33; 81-2.


Works cited:

Responses to this piece intended for the Readers' Forum may be sent to the Editor at M.Steggle@shu.ac.uk.
© 2007-, Matthew Steggle (Editor, EMLS).