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Elizabeth Sculthorp and the Embodiments of Unbelief

By Patrick Seamus McGhee

Patrick is an MPhil student in Early Modern History at the University of Cambridge. He is currently researching atheism and unbelief in post-Reformation England.

In 1519, Elizabeth Sculthorp was brought before the church courts in the diocese of Lincoln to explain her faltering religious belief. The court book reports that:

“First she says that since Whitsunday last she has not had perfect nor steadfast belief in God, nor since that time she had no manner good mind to come to the Church nor to serve God, and for the most part she has not come to the Church, and she has not believed in the holy sacrament of the altar, nor in any other sacrament of Holy Church. And since Candlemass last she has betaken herself and all her children to the devil and clearly forsaken God and the Church. She says she had never counsel of no manner hereunto, nor she never saw nor heard no evil spirit unto her. And she says she has not done any great offense to bring her into despair, nor her husband has not evil entreated her, but only this false belief was put into her mind, she knows now how, but only by the devil.”

In many ways, the case of Elizabeth Sculthorp highlights the complex and often uneasy relationship between several different kinds of response to religion, as well as what Alec Ryrie has described as the wider ‘symbiosis’ between various forms of belief and unbelief. There are numerous ways in which this briefly glimpsed, early sixteenth-century episode could be interpreted. We might be tempted to draw parallels between Sculthorp’s absence of belief and the similarly sinister mirage of witchcraft. Both atheists and witches seem to have acted as threatening personifications of fundamental and more elusive concerns within numerous societies. Moreover, the role of the devil in Sculthorp’s experience resonates with cases in which accused witches appealed to the notion of satanic manipulation in order to explain their alleged behaviour. The implication of satanic influence broadly aligns with similar anxieties about the interference of the Devil that emerged in witch trial narratives during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. However, the nature of her religious difficulties might imply another set of priorities that place Sculthorp not among the supernaturally malicious but instead alongside numerous individuals whose belief in God and religion could be frequently tested and reassessed within a religious framework.

What is it that Sculthorp could not believe? Her belief in God itself may not have been ‘perfect nor steadfast’, but this implies spiritual struggle instead of an outright denial of the divine. She had failed to attend church and, thus, was unable to ‘serve God’ within the expected spatial and temporal boundaries. In these respects, Sculthorp’s religious turmoil might have been exacerbated by her inability to engage in communal religion via her physical presence within sacred spaces. Perhaps the most important charge against Sculthorp, however, is that ‘she has not believed in the holy sacrament of the altar, nor in any other sacrament of Holy Church’. It is significant that this is the first, and indeed only, aspect of religion that Sculthorp is accused of having ‘not believed’ outright. While her belief in God appears to have caused her difficulty, it does not seem to have been missing altogether. Her perception of the sacraments, however, is suggested to have amounted to a distinct absence of belief. This might have been because the ‘sacrament of the altar’, the Eucharist, was thought to involve the transformation of bread and wine into the body and blood of Christ, a process that John Arnold argues might have provided individuals with a tangible means to express their innermost concerns and questions about the nature of religion. In turn, this could act as a potential prelude to explicit unbelief. Recent scholarly research by Arnold on late medieval unbelief has focused on precisely this issue, exploring the responses of laypeople to physical space, the sacraments and the materiality of bread in order to illuminate the ways in which individuals could be prompted to question the religious world in which they lived.

Given the focus of this source, it seems that Sculthorp’s experience was one of deep and meaningful religious doubt. While we are confined to speculation given the nature of the evidence before us, the Lincoln court book appears to record the genuine and complex concerns of a spiritually serious woman. Perhaps she became increasingly isolated from her religious community by her own spiritual insecurities, or liberated from the orthodox confines of the church by her ability to consider alternative ways of living and believing. After all, it was only when called before the church courts that Sculthorp was forced to make her case and invoke the influence of the Devil. Moreover, we only come close to hearing her voice via the inevitable mediations of the authorities. Despite the methodological obstacles put in front of us by the nature of the source material, Sculthorp’s case points towards the importance of bodily presences and absences, the many meanings of Christ’s body for believers and the inextricable relationships between body and soul in early modern religious culture.

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