URSLEY KEMPE was known in the tiny village of St Osyth, Essex, in the 16th century as a healer and a midwife. She had begun to lean her ancient craft when she fell ill with ‘lameness of the bones’ and was cured with herbal remedies.
She started to experiment with her own herbal mixtures, combining them with ritual and superstition to nurse many of the local people through their illnesses.
Unknown to Ursley, traditional country cures and practices were being outlawed at the time not because they were ineffective, but because the women who practiced them were the victims of changing social relations and power struggles they knew nothing about.
The Catholic Church had been in crisis since the beginning of the sixteenth century. At the same time, the alternative Protestant forms of Christianity were still not fully established. In the struggle for power over the religious beliefs of the nation, it suited all the Christian factions to magnify the innocent superstitions of women like Ursley into the work of the devil. So the Church could assert its role as spokesman for the almighty, and with the power to decide what was ‘good’ they could accuse whoever they liked of ‘evil’.
But the Church was not alone in benefitting from the persecution of witches. The emerging medical profession was also able to steal from women the right to practise midwifery and healing, and so turn medicine into an exclusively male profession. In the name of science, they testified at witch trials that the behaviour of the accused women was evidence of their partnership with the devil.
At the same time, women were being driven out of a number of productive trades. Guilds were developing to protect trades like brewing, printing and carpentry from competition. Excluded from these skilled trades, women lost the status of productive workers and were pushed entirely into the unpaid labour of the home. Many were driven into poverty and dependence on the parish relief.
Magistrates naturally sided with the power of the Church. They accepted the evidence of the self-appointed witch-finders and paid them handsomely for each condemned witch.
When the witch-hunts reached St Osyth, Ursley was promised by Mr Darcy, Lord of the Manor and magistrate, that no harm would come to her if she told him about her healing powers. She confessed that she kept four pets (two cats, a toad and a lamb). She believed the two male pets had the power of evil, and the two females the power to undo evil. She admitted that she used the animals to assist her in her work.
Ursley woke up the following morning in the local gaol, to be assured by Mr Darcy that she would be safe if she told him about other people she knew who had powers. In a short time, fourteen other local people were arrested on charges of witchcraft. Two of them were condemned to death with Ursley. The evidence against them was like that against most witches, of having kept a small pet, of selling an ointment to a neighbour, or of being seen with someone who died shortly afterwards. The accused were always from the most vulnerable sections of society: the poor, the old, the illiterate. Evil was particularly associated with women.
Once accused, the women were forced to confess that they had sold their souls to the devil in return for wealth and power. The male establishment delighted in tales of sexual promiscuity with the devil, eager to report that women enjoyed the sensation of the devil’s icy sperm. They made sport of examining women’s bodies, in court or in the prison cell, searching for ‘devils marks’, pricking warts to see if they would bleed, and were overjoyed if they could identify a blemish on the lips of the vagina.
For many the best defence was to admit to the ‘crimes’ and repent. But Ursley did not know these tricks. She was too angry at being accused of being a whore, and too confused by the evidence of her eight-year-old son, whose wild statements against his mother were accepted by the court. No-one was prepared to protest her innocence to the Church, the magistrate, the medical profession or to the greedy protective guilds.
In 1582, Ursley Kempe was hanged for crimes she did not commit. She was accused of practising witchcraft, but her real crime was that she was part of a strong and skilled sisterhood of women which had to be destroyed to make way for the rise to the early capitalist system, in which men were to dominate every facet of society.
(from Womens Voice, October 1980, issue 45)
With thanks to Sarah Piggott for typing