History is full of obscure figures and fun facts. Sadly, they tend to be disregarded to the benefit of more ‘serious’ material, even though they are equally part of history and should not be ignored for that reason. Dissenters, underground networks, secret societies and utopian experiments offer a wealth of such stories and a different insight into the early modern period. Unsurprisingly, women often stood at the heart of these controversies, as mysticism and spiritualism gave them a voice and placed them in positions of authority over their male brethren.
An extreme, yet little known, example of female authority can be found in the story of Dorothy Harling. This old widow rose to prominence among the French Prophets under the name of Permanent Spring for a short period of time in 1707-08. She became the notorious ‘piss prophetess’.
In the early modern period, the expression ‘piss prophet’ designated those physicians who examined and tasted their patients’ urine like a nice glass of Chardonnay to diagnose their disease. As chemistry gradually changed our knowledge of urine, uromancy became synonymous with imposture along the eighteenth century. Harling faced similar accusations after introducing a new ritual whereby she whipped her followers, both male and female, after hearing their public confessions and peed over their wounds to atone for their sins.
The scriptural foundations for these redemptive golden showers has yet to be found and it wasn’t long before the Prophets excluded Permanent Spring. Nonetheless, she left with a group of her own followers. Maybe one day someone will find out more about her peculiar cult in the archives.
Harling was not the only one to engage in extreme practices and rituals. Only a year earlier, in 1706-1707, an antinomian group performed orgies and flagellation in Norwich. Right around the same time, Eva von Buttlar’s Society in Wittgenstein, Germany, likewise embraced sexual intercourse as a form of mystical communion. As historians begin to pay more attention to these obscure groups, the question of a wider network spontaneously comes to mind. It is a difficult one to answer, but we can still establish that Harling and von Buttlar shared at least Philadelphian affinities.
The Philadelphian Society for the Advancement of Divine Philosophy has until very recently been understood as a mystical, irenic and ecumenical movement that included Oxford-educated members and received foreign diplomatic support. Its leader and matriarch was Jane Lead (1624-1704), a blind widow, one of the most prolific female authors of the early modern period and a prophetess not without honour, save in her own country. Her readership was only to be found in the Netherlands and Germany, and included von Buttlar’s Society.
The latest scholarship challenges the Philadelphians’ moderate and respectable public image. Lead was in reality far more radical than previously thought. Her biography was designed to conceal as much, if not more, than it revealed. For indeed Lead’s family had close antinomian and Parliamentarian connections all the way to the regicide of Charles I.
My own research confirms Lead’s isolation in England and suggests that she was in reality a controversial figure among the London Philadelphians. She was only one of several visionary widows and Harling likely another, as only Philadelphians are known to have submitted to her ritual. This helps explain why the Philadelphians remained likened to the Family of Love after Lead’s death.
There is no evidence that the Camisards ever engaged in either sexual or sadomasochistic rituals. Most of the scandals surrounding the French Prophets actually involved former Philadelphians rather than Camisards. Based on the venue of their assembly in Baldwin’s Gardens, the presence of confirmed Philadelphians –Benjamin Jackson (B), Thomas Dutton (E) and Elisabeth Gray (L)– and likely connections –Richard Bulkeley (D) and John Lacy (F)– I have reached the conclusion that this engraving below does not represent the Camisards, but instead the real face of the Philadelphian Society.
Appearances can be highly deceptive in history. Scholars depend upon extant sources that each had their intended purpose, which was more often defamatory or propagandist than objective in nature. Harling’s case is a precious reminder that we shouldn’t take everything at face value. For by projecting a moderate, respectable image, the Philadelphians have clearly taken the piss out of historians.