Upon the Arraignment, Condemnation, and Execution of Elizabeth Stile, 1579

Kate Bolton Bonnici //

Elizabeth Stile was executed in England for witchcraft in February 1579. In what follows, I consider an anonymous “news of the day” pamphlet about her case, using critical poetry as scholarly method. (This pamphlet is part of a larger genre of 16th/17th-century writing on witchcraft trials.) I concentrate on the description of her precarious physical deterioration after confession and incarceration. According to the pamphlet, Mother Stile, a widow of the age of lxv. yeres, or there aboute, went from being so well in healthe of bodie and limmes that she walked the 12 miles to jail to a state of utter abjection—the vse of all her limmes and senses, were taken quite from her, and her Toes did rotte of her feete.1

I respond to the story of Stile’s spiral into sickness through philosopher Giorgio Agamben’s 21st-century contemplations on the vortex. Agamben considers the vortex to be the pulse of water, language, and becoming. The vortex (or spiral or helix or whirlpool) has movement, shape, direction, and rhythm. It is both historical origin and the present into which we fall. Like the turning-returning eddy that occurs “[w]hen the water flowing in a river encounters an obstacle,”2 we can perceive that the erasures and occlusions of historical documents demand multiple contact points. This is especially true where they have been written by those with authority (religious, medical, political, etc.) to portray those without it (here, an elderly, ill, impoverished woman).

The form of this response, which draws upon a feminist archival poetics, echoes the vortex. In doing so, I seek revolving and evolving exchanges across source-texts, scholarship, and art. “A poet is the one who plunges into this vortex,” Agamben writes, “. . . to take back signifying words from the flow of discourse and throw them into the whirlpool.”3 Such a plunge is my hope.

The left-sided text, to which I have added line breaks but maintained original spelling, comes from the pamphlet titled A Rehearsall both straung and true, of hainous and horrible actes committed by Elizabeth Stile, Alias Rockingham, Mother Dutten, Mother Deuell, Mother Margaret, Fower notorious Witches, apprehended at winsore in the Countie of Barks. and at Abbington arraigned, condemned, and executed, on the 26 daye of Februarie laste Anno. 1579.4 The right-sided text, with line breaks also added, comes from Agamben’s chapter on “Vortexes” in The Fire and the Tale (62). The middle words are mine. 

Also this is not to be forgotten, 
that the said mother Stile,

still, reader, remember the said and picture her

no longer one of four but a lone life, alone even.

Even in the course of our life,
the vortex of the origin remains present

preserving through inclination how the singular

self or body comes to the fore as a bright being,

beeyng at the tyme of her apprehension,
so well in healthe of bodie and limmes, 

limned by shadows, molecular chains not wearing 

forgetting until touched, in-breaths, swearing still

                   until the end and silently accompanies
our existence at every moment.

Momentous old mother, stride, out-bounding,

cover ground like seven-league boots, like that,

that she was able, and did goe on foote,
from Windsor vnto Readyng vnto the Gaile, 

this jail, the gaoler’s grail (iambic thus drunk 

from), if not now then, yes, at another time.

                                                            At times it gets closer; at other
times it distances itself

from healing: hell’s helix—why confession when

communion marks the turn from need to known,

whiche are twelue miles 
distaunt. 

Too far to touch or taste these travailed miles,

too far to hear what’s coming, to see so much,

            so much that we are no longer
able to glimpse it 

(in-between: turned milk, village untwinings,

solar storms radiating, palpable and unread).

Shortly after that she had made 
the aforesaied confession, the other Witches 

elsewhere accused of sending dogs, toads. 

If one sends bees, one wonders how to see 

                                                            or to perceive its hushed swarming.
     But, at decisive moments, it seizes us

through seizure or trance or dreamspeak, or our

wanting mouths were seized or our seizing wants

were apprehended, and were brought 
to the said Gaile, the said Mother Deuell 

(the said-devil brought back to mother- 

form, which remains our present origin

                                                               and drags us inside it;
we then suddenly realize that we are

not alone still turning and we long only to be 

still again or to forget what our longings did)

did so bewitche her and others 
(as she confessed vnto the Iailer) 

as she wished unto the confessor, can you assemble

bits, pieces, what’s become of these our portions?—

                                                ourselves nothing other than a fragment
of the beginning that continues to spin 

the threads we tell, which I imagine 

medical, empirical, blood-withered

with her Enchauntmentes, that the vse of all 
her limmes and senses, were taken quite 

quiet. How to hear the last breath?

How to care without a last curing

                                                                 in the whirlpool from which
our life derives,

desire, derivative, drawn late and lonely, desire 

the been-widowed, age-scratched, alms-bound:

from her, and her Toes did rotte of her feete, 
and she was laied vppon a Barrowe, 

barren or barely outlasting what turbulence 

comes from crowd, from commotionfull too,

                                                    to swirl in it until
 it reaches the point of infinite 

(which is not a point and which crumbles under

the crowds) crowing, the body’s failing finitude

as a moste vglie creature to beholde, 
and so brought before the Iudges, 

once book, then door, the threshold is not absence

but a before-presence, there at the missing, builds

                                                negative pressure
 and disappears—

disappears as a body in a barrow, on the bier,

toes, alms, love, and luck lost, even curses lost

at suche tyme as she was arraigned.

Rain spit down like time spit down

unless chance spits it out again.

  1. A Rehearsall both straung and true, of hainous and horrible actes committed by Elizabeth Stile, Alias Rockingham, Mother Dutten, Mother Deuell, Mother Margaret, Fower notorious Witches, apprehended at winsore in the Countie of Barks. and at Abbington arraigned, condemned, and executed, on the 26 daye of Februarie laste Anno. 1579.
  2. Giorgio Agamben, The Fire and the Tale, translated by Lorenzo Chiesa, Stanford University Press, 2017 (57).
  3. Agamben 62.
  4. The quoted pamphlet, which was “[i]mprinted at London for Edward White at the little North-doore of Paules, at the signe of the Gun, and are there to be sold,” is held by the British Library and resides in digital form on Early English Books Online. I have silently changed the long s.