“A witch! Who is not?”

Demonic contagion, gender, and class in The Witch of Edmonton

Authored by: Mary Floyd-Wilson

Routledge Companion to Women, Sex, and Gender in the Early British Colonial World

Print publication date:  October  2018
Online publication date:  October  2018

Print ISBN: 9781472479945
eBook ISBN: 9781315613772
Adobe ISBN:


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William Rowley, Thomas Dekker, and John Ford’s The Witch of Edmonton portrays an early modern understanding of the physical and spiritual processes of temptation instigated by the Protestant devil. Unlike the predominantly physical Catholic devil, the post-Reformation devil had the capacity to instill thoughts, enter the human body, and generate illnesses. Demonic influence had become more subtle and insidious after the Reformation. Moreover, the rationality of demonic influence in the period resembles the contemporary understanding of sympathetic contagion. A strange component of early modern contagion theory is the contention “that there be some naturall likenesse betweene the thing Agent, and the Pacient.” As Thomas Lodge contends, contagion is “no other thing but a like disposition by a certain hidden consent communicated by touch unto another.” If we look beyond witchcraft discourse and account for a wider range of demonic influences represented in the period, we can see that the Protestant devil not only accommodates his mode of temptation to an individual’s gender and rank, but he is also attracted to the hidden sin or corruption residing in his victims. Although the witch, Elizabeth Sawyer, is scapegoated as a source of contagion in Edmonton, the devil has a hold on sinners who possess greater social power than she can claim. The play warns that the veiled corruption among privileged members of society may spread demonic contagion more effectively, and with greater alacrity, than the marginalized old women persecuted as witches.

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