During my first two or three months of teaching I showed my year twelve English class McLibel, a documentary about two anarchists who sued McDonalds for misleading advertising. One boy threatened that if the movie made him feel guilty the next time he ate fast food, “I’ll tell everyone that you molested me!” His threat was premised on the idea that teenagers are uniquely vulnerable to sexual predators and need to be defended by society whenever they speak out. When it comes to child molesters, in the twenty first century a child’s voice is finally more powerful and more authoritative than an adult’s. In Children of Wrath (2015), Anna French points out that while early modern English men and women weren’t particularly anxious about child molesters, they were very concerned about demonic possession. And children were able to turn this to their advantage. Historians struggle to find the voices of children in sixteenth and seventeenth century sources, but the one place they do survive is in accounts of children who were thought to be either possessed by demons or channeling the Holy Spirit.
Quite understandably, French finds some of the stories about child possession hard to believe. So did people in early modern England. Just because you believe that some children can be possessed by demons doesn’t mean you believe every child who claims Lucifer is speaking through him or her. She gives the example of five sisters in the Throckmorton family in the late sixteenth century who refused to listen to anyone pray or preach to them. One pamphlet says that when a visitor tried praying near them, “no sooner had he uttered the first word, but even at one instant of time all the children fell into their fits, with such terrible scriches … so wonderfully tormented, as though they should have beene torne in peeces.” One of the daughters didn’t like sitting still at dinner time, and “sometimes shee hath merry fits … whereat shee would sometimes smile, and sometimes laugh exceedingly.” French notes that claiming to be possessed actually let the girls get away with quite a lot. “Such instances of misbehaviour,” she writes, “due to the demonic illness that afflicted the girls, attracted not punishment, but rather indulgence and attention.” Another boy, John Starkie, got away with the most extraordinary temper tantrums just because he was possessed: “Being in bed he leapt out on a suddaine with such a terrible outcry, that amazed them all, being tossed and tumbled a long time, being exceedingly fierce and strong like a mad man, or rather like a madd dogge … snatching at and biting euery body that laide holde on him, not sparing in that fitt his owne mother: smiting furiously all that came neare him, hurling the bed staues at their heads, and throwing the pillowes into the fire.”
French argues that early modern English men and women were so worried about child possession because the Reformation had done away with infant baptism. No longer certain that their unbaptized children would go to heaven when they died, people became more and more anxious about the spiritual states of their kids. In 1536 John Calvin taught that “even infants bear their condemnation with them from their mother’s womb; for though they have not yet brought forth the fruits of their own iniquity, they have the seed enclosed within themselves,” and in 1651 Henry Ainsworth wrote that “all infants for their native sin, and all man for their actuall sinnes deserve damnation.” Parenting manuals abounded with advice about how to raise Christian children, and on anonymous tract from 1616 said that “by reason of Adam’s transgression, there is no man nor child but is naturally giuen to euil, and euill education doth make them ten times more euill. Therefore as young impes must be warily looked vnto in their planting, grafting, growing, and bearing of fruit, so are the children of youth: they doe most necessarily require verie great care, ouer-sight, and guiding, least they be vtterly spoyled, and come to confusion.” If a child went astray it was obviously the parents’ fault, and beliefs about the vulnerability of children turned easily into the conviction that some children might be possessed.
Children could easily pretend to be possessed because they had clear cultural models of what it looked like. Knowing that demons were a surefire way to get attention, often it wasn’t too hard to put on a good show. In the early 1570s, for example, Rachell Pynder had demonic fits in which “she woulde swell, and heave her body marveylously, and that she dyd avoyde at her mouth, in her traunces, beare, a blacke stike threede, and a feather.” On hearing about Rachell’s problems, another girl by the name of Agnes Briggs started having fits in which she vomited up “a little peece of lace,” “a crooked pynne” and “two nayles” that she had swallowed earlier in order to “miraculously” produce them from her mouth. Why someone would want to do this sort of thing is beyond me. In 1573, for example, Alexander Nydge’s possession became obvious because he had a “swelling or uariable lumpe … swiftly running up and downe between the flesh and the skin.” The demon would throw him “head-long upon the ground … drawing them his lips away, gnashing with his teeth, wallowing and foming, and the Spirit would vexe him monstrously and transforme his body … by many violences.” If this kid wasn’t possessed then he certainly had some issues that needed working out.
The flip side of children being impressionable is that while some kids were possessed by demons, others became prophets and saints. “Children,” French writes, “the most innocent members of society, were often seen to be mirrors of God’s word, and their special spiritual insight could provide instructions for dealing with imminent disaster.” In 1580 the 11-year old William Withers fell into a trance at Christmas time and did not speak or eat for ten days. When he snapped out of it, he began prophesying “that without spedie repentance the day of our destruction” was at hand because “pittie is made an outcast, conscience is drowned, compassion is buried.” When he walked down the street he was heartbroken because “gaye garmentes of purple collour, are euery where, [but] needie brethren, which want of foode are oft times readie to perish in the streets.” Another girl came back from the grave for five days to preach a message of repentance and forgiveness to her mother and the wider world. “Beloued Christians,” she told them, “wonder not that I haue been a short time from you: but be thankfull to God, that he hath certified you by sundry signes, how the ende of the world is at hand, and the day of rest comming to reioyce vs…” Whatever you make of stories like this, they are a timely reminder that it matters what sorts of values we instill in our children, what things we show them that we care about, and what lengths they have to go to to get us to listen to them.