Friday, March 26, 2010

"Revenge! Revenge! Sweet is Revenge!"

When I compiled my exam reading lists, one of the things that made both my friends and my committee members cringe was the overwhelming presence of somewhat obscure religious—mostly Puritan—texts. Thankfully, I never shared that sentiment (I chose these texts, after all). This may seem strange to most, but I was actually excited by the prospect of making fire-and-brimstone sermons part of my daily required reading. Furthermore, the Puritan section of my lists includes captivity/conversion narratives, apocalyptic poetry, and some of the documents used to justify the Salem witch trials. Scoff if you like, but I love that stuff.

What people often forget (or don't realize) about these texts is that although they were primarily dour religious, political, and didactic treatises, they were also popular entertainment (as were, unfortunately, the executions they sometimes inspired); and they were often written much like the pulp fiction and horror novels that were their cultural descendants. So although these works can only lead one to the conclusion that the individual Puritan's existence must have been a gloomy one indeed, they've left us an incredibly entertaining legacy if you only know where to look.

I'm currently reading Increase Mather's Remarkable Providences, which makes the case for interpreting natural events as signs of God's displeasure. It was written in 1684, eight years before the good people of Salem, in part based on Mather's formulation of Satan's methods, went completely bonkers. His Puritan rock star son, Cotton Mather, later wrote Wonders of the Invisible World to defend the use of "spectral evidence" in the Salem witch trials.

Whereas Cotton's book (written after the fact) attempts an erudite defense of his controversial methods, Increase is still trying to diagnose the problem based on anecdotal evidence. The result is basically a collection of crazy ghost stories with scenes like the following, found near the end of a twelve page-long catalog of "Providences" that bring to mind either that dinner scene from Disney's Beauty and the Beast, or Marx's introduction to commodity fetishism. There are no dancing candlesticks or acrobatic tables in this sampling of Providences, but it does make me wish someone in the past had thought to make a record of Vincent Price reading Puritan witch stories.
    All this while the Devil did not use to appear in any visible shape, only they would think they had hold of the Hand that sometimes scratched them; but it would give them the slip. And once the Man was discernably beaten by a Fist, and an Hand got hold of his Wrist which he saw, but could not catch; and the likeness of a Blackmore Child did appear from under the Rugg and Blanket, where the Man lay, and it would rise up, fall down, nod and slip under the clothes when they endeavoured to clasp it, never speaking any thing.

    Neither were there many Words spoken by Satan all this time, only once having put out their Light, they heard a scraping on the Boards, and then a Piping and Drumming on them, which was followed with a Voice, singing, Revenge! Revenge! Sweet is Revenge! And they being well terrified with it, called upon God; the issue of which was, that suddenly with a mournful Note, there were six times over uttered such expressions as, Mas! Mas! me knock no more! me knock no more! and now all ceased.   
image: The Rev. Increase Mather, oil portrait by John van der Spriett, 1688.

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