A Ventriloquist Act?

Recent studies show the benefits and limitations of giving voice to the thoughts of our predecessors. 

A ‘witch’ is punished by being ‘dipped’ in the mill-stream. Woodcut, English, 17th century. Alamy.

The 14th-century Bishop Richard de Bury wrote, according to Mary Wellesley’s wonderful new book, Hidden Hands (riverrun), that ‘in books I find the dead as if they were alive’. The role of the historian is to do this, too – to perform a form of necromancy and bring the dead to life. From the manuscripts of history, we attempt to reconstruct past lives, while recognising that we will never be able to do so perfectly. This involves resolving partial, confusing and often contradictory evidence into a story. It demands both empiricism and imagination – but in what measures?

One of the strangest phenomena in the early modern playbook is the prosecution of people under law for covenanting with the devil. Such trials produced depositions that historians can deploy to recreate what Peter Laslett called ‘the world we have lost’. But two recent investigations of 17th-century witchcraft have left me pondering the line between historical reconstruction and our own constructions. 

Malcolm Gaskill’s new study, The Ruin of All Witches: Life and Death in the New World (Allen Lane) explores a case of witchcraft that took place in Springfield, Massachusetts in 1651 among the first generation of Puritan settlers. Gaskill has artfully used witness statements to piece together a chronological narrative. In so doing, he also recreates the daily realities of early colonial life. Accused witch Hugh Parsons was a brickmaker, so Gaskill details the arduous and fraught process of making bricks, from digging glacial, sticky clay from the riverbank through to the days of opening vents, closing shutters and adding wood to create as even a firing as possible – and the inevitability of disappointment. His wife, Mary, faced a similarly impossible task in trying to keep the house and its contents clean, with brooms made from bound lengths of birch or bedlinen washed in ‘boiling kettles of brook water and soft soap’. These are as vivid as any portrayal of early modern life I have ever read. Gaskill recreates the activities of their lives, from which we can deduce their frustrations and tears.

In The Last Witches of England (Bloomsbury) John Carrow painstakingly reconstructs the lives of three beggar women accused of witchcraft in Bideford, Devon in 1682 by trawling administrative records, parish registers and dole lists. It is a remarkable piece of scholarship. Carrow also recreates encounters between the women and their accusers, including in 1679 when accused witch Temperance Lloyd was selling apples and had one stolen from her by a child. Lloyd approached the child’s mother, Anne Fellow, demanding payment, but Fellow walked away, ignoring her. Carrow goes on: ‘For her the incident was funny: a childish foible acted out at the expense of a foolish old woman.’ He concludes that the incident points to the growing gulf between the rich and poor of Bideford society and that ‘the young mother could not conceive of hunger and want, finding the old woman’s predicament a source of amusement’. A similar construction is also used to describe another accused witch, Susanna Edwards, who was, he says, ‘so used to want, and to not receiving that which she desired, even in her imagination she could not conceive of attaining plenty’. 

So much of Carrow’s reconstruction is astute and thoughtful, but here I wonder, if by the tiniest of margins, he has crossed the line. I have not read the manuscript sources and do not know whether they record that Fellow laughed or Edwards described her expectation of scarcity; perhaps they do. But if they do not, can we really know that Fellow thought Lloyd’s anguish funny? Can we be sure that Fellow could not conceive of hunger and that Edwards, in turn, could not imagine abundance? The line between plausible empathetic interpretations of the historical record and ventriloquising the thoughts and feelings of people in the past is so very fine, and yet so very important: it is the line between recreating the past and creating it. And we must tread so very softly when we tread on their dreams.


Suzannah Lipscomb is author of The Voices of Nîmes: Women, Sex and Marriage in Early Modern Languedoc (Oxford University Press, 2019), host of the Not Just the Tudors podcast and Professor Emerita at the University of Roehampton.