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The Striking World of the Seventeenth-Century Witchcraft

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Caryl Churchill

Caryl Churchill in 1972

A socialist-feminist playwright, the author of more than forty plays states in a 1988 interview with Linda Fitzsimmons,

“Women are traditionally expected not to initiate action, and plays are action, in a way that words are not. So perhaps that’s one reason why comparatively few women have written plays” (1237).  

Churchill reaches audiences across the political spectrum and ordinary playgoers because of her realistic and sometimes satiric themes. In 1976 she wrote Vinegar Tom to examine how a “community’s misogyny caused its members to label outspoken women as troublemakers, and how these women’s social marginalization led them to be condemned and executed as witches” (1238). As I read the play many topics seemed to interest me and spark my attention. Topics such as the treatment of women, beliefs of witches and sexual and economic tensions which moved the women to turn to one another. The various songs throughout the play were intriguing and allowed the reader to understand the voice of women along with their struggles and frusterations towards womanhood, life tasks and marriage. Women were often accused of being witches because they could reproduce, leaving men to believe they had a lot of power instead of understanding the reality of pregnancy and birth.

Who are Witches?

Witches were believed to be people with an ability to harm by mystical means, who were often motivated by hatred or malice and who might have been charged with a variety of offenses. Within the play, various women are accused of black magic; however, the audience knows that their only crime is having courageous social norms. “Witches could be blamed for a variety of illnesses, such as rheumatism, arthritis, and stroke. No specific illness or disease was always blamed on witchcraft, although strange, unidentifiable and inexplicable diseases were particularly likely to be attributed to witches. Strokes and epilepsy, and unusual illnesses in animals, for example” (Sanders 1). There was no form of knowledge such as bad bacteria or other infections, people just assumed that the witches were at fault for their cows and animals randomly dying. Margery says to Jack, “What you think of those calves then? Nothing to be done is there? What can we do? Nothing. Nothing to be done. Can’t do nothing” (1250).


Witches and ‘Familiars’

Familiars are another form of how a witch can carry out their actions and powers. These usually took an animal form and were given names that showed the personal nature of the relationship between the witch and familiar. Within Vinegar Tom, the ‘familiars’ were considered the tom cat and the rat. Margery states in anger towards Mother Noakes, “And while we were talking we thought of her great cat that’s always in my dairy, stinking it up and stealing cream. That’s her familiar sent her by Satan” (1254). Jack replies by mentioning what the rat is responsible for as well, “I’ve seen a rat run out of her yard into ours and I went for it with a pitchfork and the spikes were turned aside and nearly went in my own foot by her foul magic. And that rat’s another of her imps” (1254). The tom cat and rat were seen as a nuisance and were supposably sent by the witch to cause harm and disruptiveness to their every day lives.

The “Witches Mark”

The witch fed her familiar on her blood through some place on her body which then left what is known as the “witches mark.”  Others who were looking for evidence looked for this to show proof. If a mark was absent, it was known that a witch might have removed it, or it might just come and go. As we read Vinegar Tom, Churchill mentioned several times about interrogators speculating for a “mark” to declare who the witch is. Within the text, Packer searches for the “spot” on Alice. “Have I the spot though? Which is the spot? There. There. There. No, I haven’t the spot. Oh. It’s tiring work. Set this one aside. Maybe there’s others will speak against her and let us know more clearly what she is” (1260).

Overall, witchcraft within Vinegar Tom plays an important role on the plot and is an interesting topic to look into because people believed in witches and trickery for many many years. The men in the play automatically assume women have a stronger power than them and are determined to stop such powerful actions provided by the witches.

To watch a clip from a performance of Vinegar Tom click here and follow along with the lyrics that help explain how all women were portrayed as being a witch:

If You Float
If you float you’re a witch.
If you scream you’re a witch
If you sink, then you’re dead anyway.
If you cure you’re a witch
Or impure you’re a witch
Whatever you do, you must pay.
Fingers are pointed, a knock at the door,
You may be a mother, a child or a whore.
If you complain you’re a witch
Or you’re lame you’re a witch
Any marks or deviations count for more.
Got big tits you’re a witch
Fall to bits you’re a witch
He likes them young, concupiscent and poor.
Finers are pointed, a knock at the door,
They’re coming to get you, do you know what for?
So don’t drop a stitch
My poor little bitch
If you’re making a spell
Do it well
Deny it you’re bad
Admit it you’re mad
Say nothing at all

They’ll damn you to hell.                                                                                              

Author: Molly Greene

Molly is a contributing writer covering home, moving and storage topics for the Life Storage blog.

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