Department of English
Mount Vernon, IA 52314
The Injurious Speech of Early Quaker Women
In the eyes of most of their contemporaries, early Quakers undermined the precarious social order of mid-seventeenth century England through preaching in highly public areas--in streets, in marketplaces, churches, fields, prisons. From the New England colonies to the Mediterranean island of Malta, public and religious authorities who sparred verbally with the Quaker female traveling ministers accused the latter of witchcraft. Thus in 1656 Mary Fisher and Anne Austin were searched for witches' marks in Boston; in 1661 Elizabeth Hooton and Joan Broksup were called witches by the Governor of Massachusetts Endicott; in 1662 Katherine Evans and Sarah Chevers were charged with demonic possession by the Italian Inquisition in Malta; Quaker sermons were repeatedly labeled as "diabolical raptures" in the latter part of the century. Royalist pamphleteers, Puritan and Catholic theocrats, members of other English radical sects, and even some of the emerging Quaker leaders concurred in ascribing material power to the discursive performances of traveling ministers, especially of female ones. For these figures of authority, I propose, Quaker discourse evoked cultural memories of the injurious speech associated with the collective subject of witchcraft.
This study will focus on the highly ritualized and rhythmic cadences of early Quaker women ministers recorded in polemical tracts written about them, and in their own letters and travel narratives. I will also reflect on the theatrical means they used to augment acoustic effect through flamboyant public gestures: symbolic signs, ecstatic trembling, strategic showcasing of scantily clad female bodies, which often bore the marks of whipping or malnutrition due to imprisonment. Quakers, of course, never considered themselves engaging in malediction, yet they employed discursive patterns quite similar to those of late Elizabethan witches.