by Jeremy Geragotelis
In 1978, the journal Quaker History published historian Kenneth L. Carroll’s article “Early Quakers and ‘Going Naked as a Sign’” – one of the only pieces of scholarship written about the phenomenon of 17th century Quakers in England and America stripping off their clothing and walking naked in public settings as a means of protest against religious persecution. In the article, he makes a single allusion to Lydia Wardel and names her as the first American woman to execute this protest-performance:
It was in this same year, 1661, that the phenomenon apparently made its first appearance in New England across the Atlantic – when Lydia Wardel of Hamptom, and wife of Eliakim, went naked as a sign in the church at Newbury, testifying against the ‘ignorance’ and ‘persecution’ which marked that church. (Carroll, p. 82)
Carroll cites two sources in his notes that document Wardel’s act: Rufus M. Jones’ The Quakers in the American Colonies (1911) and George Bishop’s New England Judged, by the Spirit of the Lord (1703). Neither source directly dates Wardel’s performance as occurring in 1661. Jones’ makes reference to an act of protests by Catherine Cattam in 1661 in the paragraph prior to his description of Wardel. Bishop – from which many historians, including Jones, draw accounts of 17th century Quaker protest – does not date the event at all. He places it in the second volume of his book, meaning it occurred simultaneous to or after the initial publication of the first volume in 1661. He begins his second volume with a close narrative account of William Leddra’s execution in 1661. However, the subsequent narrative material is largely undated, aligning it with an almost folkloric construction: a few pages about this event of Quaker persecution in New England, a brief transition to redirect our geographic configuration, and then a few pages about a new event of Quaker persecution in New England. We, as readers of Bishop’s text, move freely between small communities, connected by cultural phenomena, methods of protest-performance, and brutal descriptions of state-sanctioned violence against supposed religious irregularities. We do not move through a linear, documentarian temporal design.
Court records date Wardel’s sentencing for her protest-performance to May 5, 1663: “Wardell was ordered to be severely whipped and to pay costs to the marshal of Hampton upon her presentment for going naked into Newbury meeting house” (Salisbury Quarterly Court, p. 61). This source makes no allusion to the date of performance. Other sources – The Quaker Invasion of Massachusetts (1883) by Richard P. Hallolwell and Ould Newbury: Historical and Biographical Sketches by John J. Currier (1896) – suggest that Wardel “Going Naked as a Sign” occurred in 1663. However, these sources use the court record as a means of dating the event. Still, Carroll’s scholarship seems trustworthy and his dating of Wardel’s performance-protest to 1661 coincides with a number of similar Quaker protest-performances in the Atlantic world.
In trying to unearth the sequence of events surrounding this peculiar piece of Early American history, my boyfriend asked me: “Does the date matter?” At first, I responded that it didn’t, but quickly reconsidered. Newbury constructed a new meetinghouse in 1661. Did Lydia Wardel walk into a freshly christened church, the wood not yet greyed by rain, frost, and cold? Did Lydia Wardel wait two years to receive sentencing for her act of “Going Naked as a Sign”? In that time, did she walk proudly through the town square, pretending not to hear her neighbors whispering about her? Did she have to barter with the farrier in town, a man who a few weeks ago had seen her bare breasts? The date is all important in configuring the critical imaginary around Lydia Wardel, reading the implications of her performance, addressing the syncopative discourse that echoes through history and ties her body – across bounds of identity – to other acts of spiritual protest in America.
The mystery of the progression of these historical events becomes central. Upon deeper thought, maybe the date of Lydia Wardel’s performance-protest doesn’t matter and maybe our unknowing of it is the object of interest. The mystery that exists in these parenthetical years (1661 – 1663) winks at the disjunctive character of this event within our cultural conception of Early America. Wardel seeks to even destabilize the historical record of her performance-protest, aligning this event more as performance than protest, as the perhaps-ness of her timeline makes the event reverberate through the centuries to meet us, meet me, today. We never solve the best mysteries – we have no means to. And so, the critical response that I can offer Lydia Wardel is similar to the codex she offer(s)(ed) – performance-protest concerned with the corporeal, its instability as a echoing thing, and the curious spiritual knowing we are gifted in being a body.