In seventeenth-century London, thirteen years after the plague and twelve years after the Great Fire, the restoration of King Charles II has dulled the memory of Cromwell’s puritan rule, yet fear and suspicion are rife. Religious turmoil is rarely far from tipping the scales into hysteria.
Elizabeth Cellier, a bold and outspoken midwife, regularly visits Newgate Prison to distribute alms to victims of religious persecution. There she falls in with the charming Captain Willoughby, a debtor, whom she enlists to gather information about crimes against prisoners, so she might involve herself in petitioning the king in their name.
‘Tis a plot, Madam, of the direst sort.’ With these whispered words Willoughby draws Elizabeth unwittingly into the infamous Popish Plot and soon not even the fearful warnings of her husband, Pierre, can loosen her bond with it.
This is the incredible true story of one woman ahead of her time and her fight against prejudice and injustice.
Laughter, the Seventeenth Century Tonic
If you think humour is a modern thing (which I know you don’t), you’d be mistaken. Humour has existed throughout the centuries, and was certainly not dead three hundred years ago: seventeenth century men and women were less likely to pen a knock-knock joke as a whip up a wicked satire, most often in the form of rhyming couplets.
A man entering a coffee house (women were barred) might pick up the latest broadsheet – the most common, single page news sheet – and chuckle over the latest events with fellow coffee drinkers. It wasn’t that the source of discussion wasn’t serious, for it might very well be a hanging or pillorying or some political event depicted. Everything was fair game and might elicit a loud guffaw. None of that dry reporting we have today; no matter the seriousness of the event, much to the reader’s merriment, some writer would likely have reported it with tongue firmly in cheek.
Luckily for us.
For now, three centuries later, we can still glean much precious information about how the events and subjects of the broadsheets might have been perceived by the common man, whether Lord or tradesman. There is nothing like making unpopular people ridiculous to bring them down a peg or two. And, in doing so, very often the reasons they were unpopular, or the events that made them famous, were described with wonderful dry sarcasm and often a lot of detail. Those descriptions can help us piece together such events as seen from those around them, demonstrating real emotional bias rather than the (supposedly) unbiased and straight forward reports we read these days. They were expected to be entertaining as well as informing.
One example of this is a description of Elizabeth Cellier’s pillorying, I first came across as a simple relaying of information in a letter:
This does, in itself, raise a strange image of Cellier being unpleasantly, painfully, and possibly fatally, punished by stoning, yet still taking the time to scour the ground for pebbles thrown at her to put in her pocket. But then there’s the more popular art of the satirical broadsheet description, which gives you an idea how the anti-Catholics saw her actions:
First she is berated for her role in leading the Meal Tub Plot (the pillorying by stones and mud and warlike arms (as far as I know, the missiles were limited to such things as oysters filled with mud, rotten vegetables and eggs etc) The crowd judged her guilty as had the court:
…Poor Cellier! you had better brought to bed
Any thing, than to have a Plot in Triumph led,
And thus to be received into the worlds charms,
By Dirt and Stones, and other warlike Arms.*
The next bit confirms the punishment is the right one, that she should ‘Dine and Sup’ with it for breaking the law. Her time on the pillory would be due to end at noon. In fact, this was wrong. It was to start at noon, when most people had their work lunch break and might be in the market place, especially if they could be entertained by a public chastisement, which often lasted the whole of that lunch hour. Pillorying, like stoning in ancient times, or in some countries even today, would most often cause serious bruising, but occasionally could be fatal, especially if it hit the person in a delicate place such as the eye.
…So you while thus you treated are,
Still you must Dine and Sup with the fame fare,
Until the Law be satisfied, which will be at Noon,
After the punishment is over, it is imagined that she’ll take the stones and ask the Pope to bless these stones and make them into some kind of miracle, to bless them and preserve them. First, this ties her closely with the Pope. Second it implies she raises herself high in the eyes of God. Considering that she was being punished by stoning, it also might imply God was not looking:
And then you may go see the Pope of Rome,
Shew him the Instruments by which you pelted were;
Tell him, there was for you no better fare
…Therefore these Stones and Dirt ought to be relicks high,
And Registred in the present Popes Divinity,
Researching Elizabeth Cellier’s role in the Meal Tub Plot, I found many such satires, not only in the form of broadsheets, but multi-page books too. Each told some ‘truth’, and described in a way to denigrate, but always worth reading for the ‘gossip’ the author couldn’t help slip in. That the populace was already au fait with the contents probably only made it funnier for them.
(*From “The DEVIL pursued OR The right Saddle laid upon the right Mare. A SATYR UPON Madam Celliers standing in the Pillory” London Printed for T. Davies 1680)
About The Author:
Annelisa Christensen was born in Sussex, took a psychology degree at the University of Stirling in Scotland, then returned to the south to partner in a fashion design company with her childhood friend, Julia. They had fun selling to shops and in street markets all over London, but dissolved the business when children came along, both believing in putting their families first. Delighted to be offered the job of laboratory technician in the local secondary school, in which she had herself been Head Girl twenty years earlier, Annelisa simultaneously wrote a magical realism series (as yet unpublished). She wrote The Popish Midwife after falling in love with Elizabeth Cellier in some 300-year-old loose pages of a trial she bought on the internet. The more she discovered about Elizabeth Cellier, the more Annelisa wanted to share this amazing woman’s story. The Popish Midwife is the result of years of research and writing.
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