The Restoration Era in Britain was truly a golden age of misogyny. The culturally ingrained fear of and contempt for women is evident in the literature and drama of the period. My personal favourite historical offensive name for single women comes from Restoration literature, in which spinsters are referred to, charmingly, as “ape leaders”.
The most potent and horrifying manifestation of Restoration misogyny is the witch trials of the period, in which women were made the scapegoats of a society in state of political and social upheaval. There was a sustained period of unrest following the execution of Charles I in 1649, and the instalment of Charles II as monarch in 1660. In addition to political disquiet, there were several years of poor harvests during this era. The resulting widespread panic and hysteria is considered to have influenced the Great Scottish Witch Hunt of 1960-1962, in which hundreds of women were tortured and executed for supposed diabolism.
One of the most famous of their number was Isobel Gowdie, a farm labourer’s wife from Auldearn, a village near Nairn, whose detailed confessions while on trial in 1660 remain the subject of scholarly fascination to this day.
Gowdie’s elaborate testimony comprised of four separate confessions given over a period of six weeks, which were reported to have been procured without the use of torture. With undeniable creative flair, Gowdie describes her pact with the devil and the various activities of her thirteen-strong coven, including the spoiling of crops, thieving corn, breaking into the homes of wealthy neighbours, flying on enchanted horses, fraternising with fairies, participating in diabolical orgies, and casting perilous spells on notable members of the local community.
Over the centuries, various theories have been explored regarding why Gowdie was willing to make such vivid and colourful confessions. It has been suggested that she suffered from psychosis, or hallucinations caused by the effects of ergotism. Some historians have noted that, although torture of suspected witches had been outlawed by the Privy Council, it could still be sanctioned by local authorities, so this cannot be ruled out as an explanation.
From a present-day, feminist perspective, what is striking about so much of the content of Gowdie’s confessions is how modern, progressive and subversive some of her ideas are. It feels as though, in contrast to being merely the disorganised ramblings of someone speaking under extreme duress, or experiencing psychosis, Gowdie is confronting her oppressors with a feminist counter-narrative that redresses the balance of power in her society.
Gowdie was illiterate and lived in extreme poverty. Although she could neither read nor write, she was a compelling orator with a lively imagination. The story she presents in her testimony demonstrates a keenly-felt sense of injustice about her own disenfranchisement in the real world and a desire to create a new, empowered identity for herself in the imaginative realm.
In particular, Gowdie’s candid descriptions of her sexual encounters with the devil seem to predict many of the principles third wave feminism. She is sex positive, and imbues herself with a sexual subjectivity in her invented narrative that would’ve been denied to her in 17th century Scotland. She criticises the men in her community for being lazy, inconsiderate lovers and compares them unfavourably with Satan, praising him for his sexual prowess and describing him terms of idealised fantasy. In her third confession, she describes: “His memberis exceeding great and long; no man’s memberis ar so long and big as they are”. She says the women in her coven took “veerie great pleasure in their carnall cowpulation with him… yea, much more than with their awin husbandis.” She states that, unlike her husband, the Devil encouraged her to embrace her sexuality and renounce any sense of shame. She rebelliously indulges him in this by engaging in sexual activity with him in grounds of her local church.
It is also noteworthy that the people she claims to have but curses on are, in the main, male authority figures who she feels have personally victimised her, or in some way abused their power in the community. Her landlord, the Laird of Park, is thought to have sexually harassed and assaulted Gowdie, and responded to her rejection of him by slandering her and refusing to carry out repairs on her farm. Gowdie’s retort to this in her testimony is to assert that she has put a curse on him and any male children he might produce.
Similarly, she claims to have put a spell on Harry Forbes, the local church minister, described by contemporaries as a fanatical and austere authoritarian, who disapproved of and had publicly shamed Gowdie. She performed for her interrogators a rendition of the chant she claimed to have used to make the Minister unwell and render him bedridden. This seems carefully chosen in the context of Forbes’ notorious, profound fear of witches.
As well as a direct and personal response to a particular patriarchal figure within the Church, Gowdie’s testimony, with its return to pagan and folklorist ideas, is itself a rebellious rejection of the oppressive hegemony of the Presbyterian Church. Seventeenth century Presbyterianism grew out of Calvinism, and as such was particularly punitive, puritanical and inflexible.
In these ways, Gowdie’s narrative seems to pre-empt the Suffrage movement in the latter half of the 19th century, championed by the likes of Victoria Woodhull, which was directly related to the rise of spiritualism. For the women of the spiritualist movement, as for Isobel Gowdie, invoking ideas about the paranormal that countered the dated religious ideas that persisted around them was a means of redistributing power, granting marginalised people some agency, and asserting a sense of equality on an unfair and unaccommodating cultural and religious landscape.
It is assumed that Isobel Gowdie was executed in 1660, although there is no official record of this. While her legacy has inspired various pieces of literature and music, such as JW Brodie Innes’ The Devil’s Mistress and James MacMillan’s symphony Requiem The Confession of Isobel Gowdie, her place in the history of feminism has yet to be fully acknowledged. By leaving such a detailed testimony, Gowdie created a voice and an empowering counter-narrative not just for herself, but for all of the victimised, powerless and maligned women of her era.
Kirsty McGrory is a writer and teacher from Edinburgh. Her writing has appeared on bust.com (https://bust.com/arts/194585-gwen-john-artist.html) and The Wee Review (http://theweereview.com/preview/stref/).