This is the story of a middle class woman from 1607. Her name was Anna Taylor. She was the wife of a brewer called George; she could read (as could her mother) and she might well have been a doctor. Not a ‘wise woman’ or local healer – a doctor. She made chemical medicines and astrologically charged distilled potions. She tested people’s urine to find out why they were sick, and she could tell you the progression of an illness. She also might have had magical books and attempted spells that would summon the fairies.
In all honesty, this is probably the shakiest thing I’ve written on this blog. Although I publish fiction, I’ve never written fiction here. I say this because I want to make it clear that aside from presenting you with an actual short story this week, this blog post is probably the least sound piece of history I’ve written in recent months.
This is, in large, because it’s based on supposition, and because it’s close to my heart. My process contains far too many cases of ‘if this, then maybe that’ in this piece of work, but I still can’t shake a feeling in my gut that there’s something here, and I’ve stumbled across the tale of a truly remarkable woman.
Anna Taylor, ‘Empirick’ Healer and Visionary
When we first meet Anna in the aptly numbered Rye 13, she appears to be in trouble over a visionary quest for treasure shared with her neighbour, Susanna Swapper.
We know that Mrs. Taylor’s mother, Anna Bennett, had been a local healer. The deposition of a local Yeoman’s wife, Mary Carpenter, states that “a year past or thereaboutes, being greavously troubled with the toohe ache, and hearing that Widowe Bennett of Rye… had good knowledge to helpe the toothache, she… went unto her and prayed her to helpe her…”
Eventually Mrs. Carpenter paid Anna Bennett half a crown and some nail pairings, resulting in a cure that sadly didn’t work.
According to Susanna Swapper, the Taylors’ delirious, sickly, devious and possibly delusional tenant/neighbour, Anna Taylor, while a young girl, seems to have been of a visionary bent:
“Mrs. Tayler did then tell her that when she was a mayde she was grown greatly in debte and theine appeare unto her in the nighte tyme when she would abed a man to her thinckinge clothed all in black velvet who speake unto her and said that yf she would goe with him her debtes should be paid by all Hollandtide, whereyppon she made her mother acquainted therewith and she would have gone with him, but her mother would not let her.”
There are other examples of the Taylors claiming to experience preternatural visions. When the gossipy local woman Margery Convers – the wife of town Recorder Robert Covners – was questioned she described visiting Mrs. Taylor to see the ‘wonders’ visible in the glass window of Mrs. Taylor’s neighbour’s house. In another interrogation, the third of Susanna Swapper’s increasingly fantastical efforts, she describes Anna Taylor – whether in reality or not – proclaiming that she knew what was happening in not only the mayor’s house, but any house she pleased in Rye if she pleased.
Some of this evidence brings the suggestion that Mrs. Taylor was an ‘Empirick’ medic: a craft unlicensed by the Royal College of Physicians and composed of chancers, experimental scientific daredevils, bright working class men, women and Jews. These ‘Empirick’ medics went against Galenic teaching that every disease was not only different, but sprang from imbalances in the body, and held that all diseases would be curable with a series of distilled medical cures.
Distilled cures from a single source were a staple from Galen, known as simples, but Empiricks went a step further: they compounded chemical distillates together to create cures that went far beyond the power of any simple (and which were thought even by ‘respectable’ chemical physicians to be a blasphemy against God’s bounty of natural cures).
One of the strongest signs of Anna Taylor as an ‘Empirick’ chemical physician comes from the third interrogation of Susana Swapper, where Susanna describes Anna Taylor talking to her about the Mayor’s illness while spooning milky liquid into a bottle – calling it her ‘planet water’ and offering it up to the fairies, where she had set up some sort of shrine in an attic room above her neighbour Susanna’s hallway.
The other interesting sign of Mrs. Taylor’s possible prowess as a physician comes from the deposition of Margery Convers. She describes looking in on Anna Taylor’s son as he lay ill (he would eventually die) and Anna Taylor flying into a rage when she had suggested a remedy for the boy’s sickness. This in and of itself might not sound noteworthy, but Mrs. Taylor’s rebuttal gives us pause:
“Also this deponent saithe that Mrs. Tayler… amongst her other speaches… div’se and sundry tymes. And that they spend her dayly a great deal of water.”
Spending a great deal of water might sound like something from a German fetish site, but it gives us a clue to one of the cornerstones of the Early Modern medic – both licensed and unlicensed. Uroscopy, the study of urine – was critical to the diagnosis of disease. Even in the modern day there are a number of illnesses best diagnosed by urine testing.
Uroscopy was also a way for clients to use an unlicensed physician without incriminating themselves… or revealing their identities when seeking treatment for an embarrassing illness. In London, the unlicensed physician Doctor Simon Forman often received his patients’ urine by messenger, offered treatment, took his fee and gave a diagnosis – all without being in the room with the patient.
We cannot know for sure whether Anna Taylor was an ‘Emprick’ physician, or even a visionary outside Susanna Swapper’s depositions. The few scraps we see might be leading to a history-based version of Pareidolia, allowing us to see what we most wish.
There is, however, a definite possibility that Mrs. Taylor had access to the sort of magical books that learned practitioners would have been using – which leads us to one ‘Zacharias of Hastings’.
Zacharias and the Magic of Mrs. Taylor
In a set of questions to be put to the widow Elizabeth Bishop, we see a question that leads us to another one of the region’s magical practitioners:
“Item: doe you knowe or have you heard of any Bookes of one Sacarias of Hastings wch were in ye custody of Mr Bracegirdle Prescott last vicar of Rye deceased. Accounted concerning books that came to the hands and possession of the said Anna Taylor or her mother Anna Bennet, wedowe, or any of them, ye or noe?”
A little over ten years earlier Elizabeth Drinkwater, a widow of the parish, had testified to the Mayoralty of Robert Bett that she had visited Zacharias while he’d been staying in Rye, at the lodgings of one Goodman Coombes. When Elizabeth had asked if a ‘Mother Rogers’ had bewitched her child, Zacharias had responded that she should rectify the problem by:
“fetch blodd of her in takeinge a knife and to thrust it in her buttocke, but she took another corse for she pricked her in the hande and thereupon presently her child tooke rest…”
That Zacharias was a local Cunning Man – a sort of magical practitioner who cured illnesses and found stolen goods – is almost certain. That he had books suggests not only that he might have been in possession of chemical recipes such as those in the books of Raymond Lull’s Ars Operativa Medica, which gave lists of medicinal waters and how they might be used for curing different illnesses. He might also have had some of a number of magical books used for ritually summoning the fairies.
In the eMus 137, held at the Bodlean Library there are set of directions for summoning “Oberion” into a crystal using Latin invocations and the names of God. The manuscript also contains the spell Experimentum Optimum Verissimum for the Fairies, a folk-magic-esque method of conjuring the fairies that recommends setting a clean bucket by a chimney in a house where “The Fairy Maids” frequent, and over the course of two nights first gathering a sort of waste product the fairies will leave in the bucket, before plying them the next night with a series of recommended offerings.
The Experimentum Optimum is a spell that it would be easy to imagine either Anna Taylor or Susanna using, although there were certainly others that would have been attractive to a conjurer of a more astrological bent (as someone who distilled ‘Planet Water’ might be). In Ashmole 1406 we find a fairy spell that would explain a reason (beyond gardening) for Mrs. Taylor and Susanna Swapper to thrust a spitt of wood into the ground:
“An Excellent way to get a Fayrie… First get a broad square christall or Venus glasse in length and breadth 3 inches, then lay that glasse or christall in the bloud of a white henne 3 Wednesdays or 3 Fridayes: then take it out and wash it with holy aqua and fumigate it: then take 3 hazel sticks or wands of an yeare growth, pill them fayre and white, and make soe long as you write the spirits name, or fayries name, which you call 3 times, on every sticke being made flatt one side, then bury them under some kill whereas you suppose fayries haunt, the Wednesday before you call her, and the Friday following take them uppe and call hir at 8 or 3 but when you call be in cleane Life and turn thy face towards the east when you have her bind her to that stone or Glasse.”
Educated working men could easily get their hands on books of magic, if they had the will. 1593 Nancy resident Noël le Bragard was arrested for magic. He was a magical healer and said that he had been a cobbler and soldier until one day he had become jealous of the town gatekeeper, who had a book of magical spells to bring love and find lost objects.
The gatekeeper had refused to sell him the book, but Noël had been unperturbed. He first tried a soldier who had a magical book, but also failed to secure a loan, finally getting a number of books from a chest belonging to a widow, which he copied and sold on.
So we see that books of magic moved in and out of the hands of women. We cannot know that Anna Taylor performed ritual magic in the way I am suggesting. The fact remains that many ritual magic texts would have excluded her for her gender alone – practitioners were prohibited from touching women, let alone being them, but a woman of sufficient will might have ignored such injunctions and felt that her work was getting results nonetheless.
We cannot know based on the current evidence, but with women like Elizabeth Walker and Avisa Allen practising chemical medicine in London, it is far from impossible that one women in a town on the English coast tried to claim a man’s magical role for herself.
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