IMG_3134362J James FISHER and [Martha HATFIELD].

The wise virgin: or, A wonderfull narration of the various dispensations of God towards a childe of eleven years of age; wherein as his severity hath appeared in afflicting, so also his goodness both in enabling her (when stricken dumb, deaf, and blind, through the prevalency of her disease) at several times to utter many glorious truths concerning Christ, faith, and other subjects; and also in recovering her without the use of any external means, lest the glory should be given to any other. To the wonderment of many that came far and neer to see and hear her. With some observations in the fourth year since her recovery. She is the daughter of Mr. Anthony Hatfield gentleman, in Laughton in York-shire; her name is Martha Hatfield. The third edition enlarged, with some passages of her gracious conversation now in the time of health. By James Fisher, servant of Christ, and minister of the Gospel in Sheffield.


LONDON: Printed for John Rothwell, at the Fountain, in Cheap-side. 1656.      $3,600

Octavo, 143 x 97 x 23 mm (binding), 139 x 94 x 18 mm (text block).    A-M8, N3. Lacks A1, most likely blank or portrait? [26], 170 pp.

This copy is bound in contemporary calf, upper board reattached, somewhat later marbled and blank ends. Leather rubbed with minor loss to extremities. Interior: Title stained, leaves soiled, gathering N browned, long vertical tear to E2 without loss, tail fore-corner of F8 torn away, with loss of a letter, side notes of B2v trimmed.

This is a remarkable survival of the third edition of the popular interregnum account of Sheffield Presbyterian minister James Fisher’s 11-year-old niece Martha Hatfield’s prophetic dialogues following her recovery from a devastating catalepsy that had left her “dumb, deaf, and blind.”

The title says a lot, but there is a lot more.

Martha’s disease, which defies modern retro-diagnostics, was at the time characterized as “spleenwinde,” a term even the Oxford English Dictionary has overlooked. Her sufferings were as variable as they were extraordinary the young girl at one point endured a 17-day fugue state during which her eyes remained open and fixed and she gnashed her teeth to the breaking point. In counterpoise to the horrors of her infirmity, her utterances in periods of remission and upon recovery were of great purity and sweetness; it is this stark contrast that was, and is, the persistent allure of this little book.

HATFIELD, MARTHA (fl. 1652), ‘the wise virgin,’ the daughter of Anthony Hatfield, by his wife Faith Westley, was born at Leighton, Yorkshire, 27 Sept. 1640. The Hatfields were puritans. In April 1652 Martha was seized with an illness which the physicians were unable to define, but which seems to have been a form of catalepsy. For seventeen days she lay stiff and was unable to speak, and it was said that she could neither see nor hear. When she recovered her voice she uttered rambling recollections of pious discourses abounding in quotations of Scripture. Her friends regarded her ravings as a new revelation, and her words were taken down, generally by the two sons of Sir Edward Rhodes and by John Cromwell. From 8 Sept. 1652 till 7 Dec. Martha was again speechless, but after her recovery gave no further proof of exceptional powers. The circumstances of Martha Hatfield’s illness impressed her friends, and her uncle, James Fisher, the founder of the first presbyterian congregation in Sheffield, published the story of her case and her reported sayings. The book was called ‘The Wise Virgin, or a Wonderfull Narration of the hand of God, wherein his severity and goodness hath appeared in afflicting a Childe of 11 years of age when stricken Dumb, Deaf, and Blind …,’ 1653. It gained great popularity among the credulous, and was several times reprinted. The fifth edition (1664) has a curious portrait of Martha Hatfield prefixed. Contemptuous reference is made to Hatfield’s vision in ‘A New Song on the strange and wonderful groaning board,’ London, 1682 (cf. Notes and Queries, 1st ser. viii. 310). DNB

[The Wise Virgin; Hunter’s Hallamshire, ed. Gatty, p. 288.]





The Wise Virgin appeared five times between 1653 and 1665; some editions have a portrait frontispiece, and it is entirely possible that the present third edition should have one at A1v, though the copy scanned by Early English Books Online does not. Copies located at Yale, and at Oxford (from which the EEBO copy was made). ONLY Wing F1006.


see. RECENT STUDIES IN WOMEN WRITERS OF THE SEVENTEENTH CENTURY, 1604—1674 (199O—mid-1993) SARA JAYNE STEEN English Literary Renaissance. Vol. 24, No. 1, Women in the Renaissance III: Studies in Honor of Ruth Mortimer (WINTER 1994), pp. 243-274 (32 pages)