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.
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.
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
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.
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
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.
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. 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.
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.
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’. Daneaus’s Theophilus is obsessed with the
sorcerer as an infective, pestilential, poisoning agent. 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.
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’. 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’.
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).
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.
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.
In Book 10, Chapter 8, Scot gives the recipe for the purported flying ointment
out of ‘Johannes Baptista Neapolitanus’. It is a mixture of lurid but extraneous
material (bat’s blood, and such),
along with indisputable plant-derived hallucinogens. 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).
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.).
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.
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’. 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.
By then this was possibly as ludic in nature as the other debate, which was
about whether dogs can form syllogisms.
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’. 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. 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’. 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.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
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.
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. 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
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. Alien abduction experiences reported during
the UFO years, prompted by similar anxieties, seem to have replicated many
of the basic conditions and beliefs.
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’). 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.’A Pleasant Treatise of Witches (1673) reports stories of witch flight
as blandly as that title suggests it might.
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.
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
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. 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.
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
Stadlin. Here’s a rich evening, Hecate. Hecate. Ay, is’t not,
To take a journey of five thousand mile? Hoppo. Ours will be more tonight. Hecate. O, 'twill
Have you your ointments? Stadlin. All. Hecate. Prepare to
(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’. 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
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).
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.
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.
The Late Lancashire Witches (1634) was co-written by a dramatist
who read, credited, and recycled ideas from continental demonologists. 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.
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
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.
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. 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.
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. 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.
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). But Inigo
Jones went beyond all Heywood’s prior experience. 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
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. 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.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.
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. 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…
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)
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’). 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.
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. The professional theatres could not have
financed the large numbers of carpenters, and complex machinery Jones’s stage
required. 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.’ 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.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’. 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’.
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’. 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.
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
No Play without a new Machine will do,
Shortly, Your Miss must act with Engine to[o]
What were seen as the misplaced priorities of the Restoration stage were routinely
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
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).
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(?)
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.
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
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.
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,
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.
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---
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.
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.
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. (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
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.
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
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. 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.
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!
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’.
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.
 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.
 Carlo Ginzburg, Storia Notturna (1989),
translated by Raymond Rosenthal as Ecstasies: Deciphering the Witches’ Sabbath
(London: Penguin Books, 1992).
 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.
 Broedel, op. cit., p. 113, citing
the Malleus Maleficarum pt. 2, qu. 1, ch. 3.
 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.
 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.
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.’
 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.
 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.
 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.’
 ‘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.
 Reginald Scot, The Discoverie of Witchcraft,
ed. Montague Summers, Book 1, Chapter 1, p. 1 (New York: Dover Publications,
 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.
 This seems to be Johann Baptista Theatinus,
Adversus artem magicum at striges (c. 1510).
 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.
 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.
 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.
 King James, Daemonologie ed. G.
B. Harrison (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 1966). Chapter cited, p.
38, quotation, p. 40.
 Richard Corbett, ‘A Certaine Poeme’ in
Poetica Stomata (1648), p. 35. The poem relates events during King James’s
visit of March, 1615.
 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).
 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
 See Lily B. Campbell, Scenes and Machines
on the English Stage During the Renaissance (Cambridge: Cambridge University
Press, 1923), p. 87.
 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).
 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).
Strange and dreadful news from the town
of Deptford (1685), p. 2.
 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).
 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).
 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.
 Margaret Cavendish, The Lives of William,
Duke of Newcastle, ed. Mark Lower (London: John Russell Smith, 1872), pp.
 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.
 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).
 John Webster, The Duchess of Malfi,
II i, and The Devil’s Law-Case, V i.
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
 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.
 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.
 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).
A briefe description of the notorious
life of John Lambe otherwise called Doctor Lambe (1628), pp. 9-10.
 For details of this case, see J. A. Sharpe,
Instruments of Darkness: Witchcraft in England 1550-1750 (Harmondsworth:
 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).
 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,
 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.
 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.,
 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?
 Arthur M. Clark, Thomas Heywood: Playwright
and Miscellanist (Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1931), p. 131, footnote 1.
 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).
 Charles Cotton, Scarronides; or, Virgile
Travestie (1664), pp. 44-5.
The Works of Sir William Davenant (1673),
second pagination, p. 73.
 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.
 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
 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.
 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.
Chloridia (1631), in Orgel and Strong,
ed cit., II p.422, and Tempe Restored (1632), ibid., p.
 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
 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.
 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.
 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).
 ‘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).
 Epilogue to Thomas Duffett’s The Spanish
 Thomas Rawlins, Prologue to Tunbridge
 John Oldham, ‘Horace his Art of Poetry,
imitated in English' (Works, 1684), l. 545-8.
 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
 John Skinner, A strange and wonderful
relation of Margaret Gurr of Tunbridge, in Kent (1681).
A briefe description of the notorious life of John Lambe otherwise called
Doctor Lambe (1628).
A Pleasant Treatise of Witches (1673).
Astington, John H., ‘Descent Machinery in the Playhouses’, Medieval
and Renaissance Drama in Europe, 2 (1985).
Aubrey, John, Brief Lives, ed. Oliver Lawson Dick (London: Secker
and Warburg, 1949).
B. G., 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.
Bower, Edmond, Dr Lamb Revived, or Witchcraft Condemned, or A Narration
of the Tryal of Anne Bodenham (1653).
Broedel, Hans Peter, The Malleus Maleficarum and the Construction of
Witchcraft (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2003).
Bunyan, John, The Life and Times of Mr Badman (1680).
Campbell, Lily B., Scenes and Machines on the English Stage During the
Renaissance (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1923).
Cavendish, Margaret, The Lives of William, Duke of Newcastle, ed.
Mark Lower (London: John Russell Smith, 1872).
Clark, Arthur M., Thomas Heywood: Playwright and Miscellanist (Oxford:
Basil Blackwell, 1931).