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“What glorious Rooms are then mine Eyeholes made” [1] : Two Antinomian monsters: visual piety and bodily iconoclasm in early New England Puritanism
Erin Guy

It is essential to take into account deviations for which nature–even if they are most often determined to be against nature–is incontestably responsible. - Georges Bataille [2]

I. “The Visible Stillness of Death” [3]

The Infant born, in'ts Cradle dorment lay. / As Dead, yet Capable of Ery Form. / A jumbled Lump of all things ery Way / Not any Single birth of it's yet born, / But when this Lump enjoy'd a Vitall Heate / All Kinds of things did from its belly leape. – Edward Taylor, Preparatory Meditations, Second Series [4]

The wake of the Antinomian Crisis [1634 - 1638] bore a host of foul omens: two of which emerged from the wombs of two women who adhered to the “covenant of grace” theological framework–as opposed to that of the “covenant of works” held by their more conservative Puritan community members. The first was born in Boston to Mary Dyer and the second in Portsmouth, Rhode Island to Anne Hutchinson. These stillborn monsters were described by five male contemporaries, which we would be wise to visit now.

This first is John Winthrop’s [5] account of Mary Dyer's monster, originally recorded in his journal and later published anonymously with his editorial comments in London in 1644. It was reissued with a different title--A Short Story of the Rise, reign, and ruine of the Antinomians, Familists & Libertines, that infected the Churches of New England--and preface by Thomas Weld twice in the same year and again in 1692. John Winthrop was living across the path from Anne Hutchinson, who at the time had been hosting unsanctioned religious meetings, at which Mary Dyer was regularly present.

At Boston in New England, upon the 17. day of October 1637, the wife of one William Dyer, sometime a Citizen and Millener of London, a very proper and comely young woman, was delivered of a large woman childe, it was stillborn, about two monthes before her time, the childe having life a few houres before the delivery, but so monstrous and misshapen, as like hath scarce been heard of: it had not head but a face, which stood so low upon the brest, as the eares (which were like an Apes) grew upon the shoulders.

The eyes stood farre out, so did the mouth, the nose was hooking upward, the brest and back was full of sharp prickles, like a Thornback, the navell and all the belly with the distinction of the sex, were, where the lower part of the back and hips should have been, and those back parts were on the side the face stood.

The arms and hands, with the thighs and legges, were as other childrens, but in stead of toes, it had upon each foot three claws, with talons like a young fowle.
Upon the back above the belly it had two great holes, like mouthes, and in each of them stuck out a piece of flesh.

It had no forehead, but in place thereof, above the eyes, foure hornes, whereof two were above an inch long, hard, and sharpe, the other two were somewhat shorter.

Under John Cotton’s [7] advice, the birth of this twisted creature was not entered into the public register; Winthrop was informed of this by Hutchinson. Proceeding to interrogate Jane Hawkins, the midwife, and then threatening to dig up the fetus, Winthrop convinced Hawkins to describe the monster in full, which led to his written description seen above. Winthrop then interrogated Cotton, who defended his advice to conceal the snarling messenger by expressing belief that the birth of such a monster is a warning addressed to the unfortunate family alone.

For one predisposed to divining these types of messages or signs, that this lifeless chimaera revealed itself in the midst of Anne Hutchinson's trial may have clear other-worldly implications. For the eschatological Puritan imagination, such a monster operates not only as a trace or index of past sins, but as a prophetic forewarning of the consequently tragic post mortem existence. In other words, such a sign appears to those who are not only afflicted by Satanic energies, but who are also necessarily hell-bound.

We remind ourselves that during her first, civil trial, Anne Hutchinson publicly invoked the power of Jehovah to curse the elders of this freshly formed ‘edenic paradise’:

You have no power over my body, neither can you do me any harm–for I am in the hands of the eternal Jehovah, my Saviour, I am at his appointment, the bounds of my habitation are cast in heaven, no further do I esteem of any mortal man than creatures of his hand, I fear none but the great Jehovah, which hath foretold me of these things, and I do verily believe that he will deliver me out of your hands. Therefore take heed how you proceed against me–for I know that, for this you go about to do to me, God will ruin you and your posterity and this whole state. [8]

She is subsequently imprisoned, subjected to a church trial, and then banished. She and her family, along with William Coddington and several other supporters then sign the Portsmouth Compact, forming a Bodie Politick, elect Coddington as their governor and settle on Aquidneck Island in the Narra-gansett Bay. After inhabiting Portsmouth for a spell, Hutchinson herself experiences a very different miscarriage:

Mistris Hutchinson being big with child, and growing towards the time of her labour, as other women doe, she brought forth not one, (as mistris Dier did) but (what was more strange to amazement) 30, monstrous births or thereabouts, at once; some of them bigger, some lesser, some of one shape, some of another, few of any perfect shape, noneat all of them (as farre as I could ever learne) of humane shape. [9]

It is worth noting that modern medical-scientific phenomena have of late been employed as explanations for these stillbirths. Apparently Hutchinson’s yolk sac cluster of tiny spiderlings was actually what is now referred to as a datidiform mole, and Dyer's Thornback was anencephalic, likely with spina bifida and other abnormalities. But these creatures emerged amidst a broader intellectual landscape in which the presence of monsters and prodigies on earth was more or less undisputed. Some contemporaries sought natural causes, and some continued to see them as divinely or demonically ordained miracles without physical explanation.

Within the Puritan theological framework more narrowly, a dense emphasis is placed on the doctrine of Providence, which “pre-supposed an orderly, comprehensible universe, and . . . involved meticulous attempts to correlate the natural causes of events with their moral significance. Explanations in terms of providence, in fact, were often more ‘scientific’ than the folkloric appeals to spirits or ‘fortune’ with which they competed.”10 As it is fairly easy to anticipate how conservative Puritan ministers and politicians may have read these timely stillbirths [and indeed we have plenty of written documentation], we are at present more interested in the Puritan visual or aesthetic apparatus and iconoclastic tend-encies relative to this mechanism by which they interpret signs, see bodies, and visualize the invisible hereafter.

II. BACK, DROP; A Scape of Land

[Evil] is not given to man to create, so it is a bad attempt to imitate God.

Not to recognize and accept this impossibility of creating is the source of many an error. We are obliged to imitate the act of creation, and there are two possible imitations–the one real and the other apparent–preserving and destroying.
- Simone Weil, “Evil” [11]

The ‘iconoclastic’ procedures of early American Puritans were far from aesthetically motivated--or were, perhaps, entirely aesthetically motivated. [12] In fact, the recorded violent acts of iconoclasm committed by English Puritans prior to the main exodus across the Atlantic in the early 17th century were generated out of a tangible and radiating fear of images and imitative material in general. For Puritans, religious images and objects wield a condensed power that risks eclipsing not only the agency of humans relative to God but also the power of God Himself. The European precursors for American Puritanism, these bodily practices of iconoclasm--for, we must remember, the smashing of idols is a habitual gesture that engages and trains a whole bodily-visual apparatus [13]--share with influential theologian and Protestant pastor John Calvin his anxiety over the "power" of images.

Calvin felt threatened by religious statues and paintings exactly because he feared the power of a visual figure to enthrall, contain, or constrain his own concept of the deity. It was not that a ‘resemblance’ of ‘God's majesty’ in ‘corporeal matter’ was incredible, or that he found it ludicrous to worship an image. Rather, it was precisely because such a visual image was plausible that the sheer presence of visual forms in Catholic religion became so threatening, became perceptible as inducements to worship the image itself as the figura of the deity's presence in the world. [14]

We step back. Figura: a dynamic material shape, usually a living corporeal shape. Examples: statue, image, portrait, model, copy, dream image, simulacrum, figment, style, imprint of a seal, geometric form, architect-ural plan, rhetorical figures, occupation, the acoustic images of speech... “shapes of speech, icons, and the shapes of people.” For Puritans, “the concept of figura was a means of interpreting the human shape, whether as artistic image or as living form, and it comprehended both nonviolent and violent interpretations of human beings ... the configuration or shape was simply there, and its defining property was the dynamic materiality of its form.” [15]

This sense obliged Protestants to deface images specifically because their working power needed to be weakened or broken. "Despite their strident claims that it was the Catholics who worshipped ‘dead matter,’ the iconoclasts needed to kill these images by disfiguring them to guarantee that they were dead." The images would need to be rendered impotent and visually un-recognizable, so a common tactic for Protestants was to-- demonstrating a classic [con]fusion--deface or decapitate the heads of statues.

But in order to properly understand the Puritan approach to the stillborn monsters of Anne Hutchinson and Mary Dyer we must inhabit this particular way of seeing: where bodies become carapaces animated by the divine or demonic forces festering within.

III. “Bodilie Eyes” [16]

The headstone was the headboard of the grave, the bed in which the deceased would sleep until the Second Coming. Much of the symbolic language of gravemarkers actually was taken from the decorated head-board. . . . The great bed . . . was located in the parlor of the house. Serving both as the master bedroom and as a space of religious ritual, the parlor was the normal place for the sacraments of baptism and marriage, and of the ceremonies that pertained to death. The great bed, constructed like an open box, had a solid roof of oak supported by two carved posts at the foot. Curtains could be closed around the perimeter to protect the occupants from the vapors of the night. The flat surfaces and the posts were commonly decorated with carved or painted symbols. These would have gleamed in the candle light, the carvings or the painted forms enhanced by a glaze of linseed oil. [17]

Humans are creators. They sew, carve, paint, forge–they make habitats. For a community wrought by a rigid discomfort with illusion-istic representation, the crafts of hearth and home bleed to the fore and determine the primary visual forms and tendencies used to articulate the surroundings. Beyond the common vegetal ornamentation derived primarily from Biblical or other literary passages, for example Milton's description of the “Bower of Adam” in Paradise Lost, one encounters eerily childish forms such as the death's head and the cherub. It is hardly worth making the comparison between the basic geometry of Mary Dyer's stillborn monster and that of the death’s head.

These images provide concrete, visible form to that which is otherwise [and ultimately] immeasurable and invisible. “During life Puritans were encouraged to ‘see’ with eyes of faith what would be revealed to ‘bodilie eyes’ during the Resurrection; such imaginings during life were not in vain, since they anticipate an apocalyptic reality.”18 In other words, these visualizations of the invisible realm were sanctioned in part because they openly displayed their own descriptive inadequacy. Speech that is dense and sticky with images becomes the express mode for crystallizing the hereafter, and the ability to wield this type of speech is a highly unusual gift used mainly by pastors when delivering sermons. "Bodilie eyes" are also

the centerpiece of an epistemology which defines man's ability to perceive divine things. Puritans believed that fallen humans see through a glass darkly, since language is only able to express in part the glory of heaven, but the elect were assured that a real, perceptible world would exist after the Resurrection, to be perceived with 'bodilie eyes' as the substance of what language shadowed forth on earth. [19]

Furthermore, the Coming of Christ and the revelation of God's face would mark a celebration of the human body, in particular its faculty of sight and all its bodilie filters. Here an individual's personal material continuity would freeze and become expansive, impervious and radiant--yet [w]ho[l]ly flesh.

IV. “Tissue of Light” [20]

Two forces rule the universe: light and gravity . . . Grace is the law of the descending movement. To lower oneself is to rise in the domain of moral gravity. Moral gravity makes us fall towards the heights. [21]

For Anne Hutchinson's Puritan community members, the “dead hovered in the very air above and slept in the earth below the community, ready to return in judgment and triumph.” [22] This explains, then, why it was imperative that John Winthrop and a few of his followers exhume the moist and fanged lumps of stillborn tissue from the local earth–if they had been left to dissolve into the soil, these fetuses would have cursed or poisoned the stage upon which the Second Coming was expected to take place. The initial ideological implications of the formation of the Massachusetts Bay Colony involved the reinstantiation of an earthly eden and, through the cultivation of this revived garden, the invocation of Christ himself. Men would assume the form of Adam's perfect likeness before the Fall, a process requiring flawless bodily posturing of all individuals within the larger social organism.

The necessary regurgitative act of digging up and more thoroughly destroying the Dyer and Hutchinson stillbirths signals at once that potent Puritan fear of the fleshly, and simultaneously reinforces that intense pre-occupation with cultivating and preserving a pure, edenic flesh form. Hutchinson's notion of a luminous, bodiless soul is incompatible and furthermore absent from popular Puritan doctrine, and the monster which exceeded the bounds of her body furthermore ruptured that seamless social machine, like beads of mercury squirming through the veins of a still-pliable bedrock pebble--transforming its constitution entirely. The opposing radiant material bodies visualized by the Puritans dangle by threads that weave all the way back to the early utopian vision consummated in England. Aberrant bodily forms cannot physically or visually be incorporated into this perfect image. Those bodies are violently purged. [23]

“Anne Hutchinson believed that the soul was nothing but light, and her Moralist heresy of denying the immortality of the soul and the resurrection of the body horrified her inquisitors.” [24] In his “examination” of Anne Hutchinson and his description of her civil trial, John Winthrop, speaking of her “misshapen ideas,” remarks

But when she had thus prepared the way by such wholesome truths, then she begins to set forth her own stuff . . . that opinion of the indwelling of the person of the Holy Ghost, and of union with Christ, and justification before faith, and a denying of any gifts or graces, or inherent qualifications, and that Christ was all, did all, and that the soul remained always as a dead organ . . . [25]

[1] Fig. 1: Line drawings adapted from rubbings of common motifs displayed on Puritan gravestones and headboards alike–death's head, cherub, and willow tree. See Dethlefsen, Edwin, and Deetz, James, “Death's Heads, Cherubs, and Willow Trees: Experimental Archaeology in Colonial Cemeteries,” American Antiquity, vol. 31, no. 4 (Apr. 1966), pp. 502-510. Society for American Archaeology.
Title from Taylor, Edward, God's Determinations and Preparatory Meditations, ed. Daniel Patterson. Kent, Ohio: Kent State University Press: 2003

[2] Bataille, Georges,“Deviations of Nature,” Visions of Excess: Selected Writings, 1927-1939, trans. Allan Stoekl. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota: 1985 p. 55

[3] Caillois, Roger, “The Image in the Stone,” The Writing of Stones, trans. Barbara Bray, Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1985, p. 3

[4] Taylor, Edward, God's Determinations and Preparatory Meditations, ed. Patterson, p. 369

[5] John Winthrop was an English Puritan who led the first cluster of migrants to New England in 1630 and was instrumental in the formation of the Massachusetts Bay Colony. Preferred authoritarian rule and observed highly conservative Puritan religious ideology. He served as governor a number of times, and wrote a great deal.

[6] Winthrop, John, A Short Story of the Rise, reign, and ruine of the Antinomians, reprinted in “'Such Monstrous Births': A Neglected Aspect of the Antinomian Controversy” by Anne Jacobson Schutte. Renaissance Quarterly, vol. 38, no. 1, Spring: 1985. pp 85-106

[7] Reverend John Cotton had been Anne Hutchinson's preferred minister in England, thus she followed him to Boston. Cotton was an Antinomian and close counselor to the Hutchinsons and the Dyers until the end of Hutchinson's church trial, when he betrayed her.

[8] Anne Hutchinson at trial, reproduced in Adams, Charles Francis (1894). Antinomianism in the Colony of Massachusetts Bay, 1636-1638. The Prince Society. p. 175

[9] The account of Dr. John Clarke, reproduced in“'Such Monstrous Births': A Neglected Aspect of the Antinomian Controversy” by Anne Jacobson Schutte. Renaissance Quarterly, vol. 38, no. 1, Spring: 1985. pp 85-106

[10] Schutte, p. 95

[11] Weil, Simone, “Evil,” Gravity and Grace, pp. 69-70

[12] According to the principle of an inherent aesthetic tendency of nature: “'Nature is not a miser'” Roger Caillois. Something like that.

[13] This phrase: cred to EOS, 2011

[14] Kibbey, Anne, The Interpretation of Material Shapes in Puritanism: A Study of Rhetoric, Prejudice, and Violence. Cambridge University Press: 1986 p. 47

[15] Ibid., p. 3

[16] Cotton Mather

[17] Kettlewell, James K., “Themes of Love and Death in a Reading of the Carved Ornament of a Puritan Headboard,” So Rich a Tapestry: The Sister Arts and Cultural Studies, ed. Ann Hurley and Kate Greenspan, Lewisburg: Bucknell University Press. 1995 p. 317

[18] Watters, David H., “With Bodilie Eyes,” Eschatological Themes in Puritan Literature and Gravestone Art, Ann Arbor: UMI Research Press, 1981. p. 2

[19] Watters.

[20] Caillois, Roger, “Limestones from Tuscany,” The Writing of Stones, p. 88

[21] Weil, “Gravity and Grace,” pp. 1-4

[22] Watters, p. 11

[23] We see this same way of relating to unfit bodily forms during the Pequot War and the later Salem Witch Trials.

[24] Watters, p. 7

[25] Winthrop and Weld, A Short Story of the Rise, reign, and ruine of the Antinomians, p. 214

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