Monthly Archives: September 2014

John Dee & Ursula Kemp

By: Erik P.
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My semester long research project was focused on the question of witchcraft and what laws and social polices were made against them. But while researching witches, I also encountered a man named John Dee (1527-1608-9), who was a natural philosopher, occultist, and a widely respected scholar who was called “The Queens Conjuror” (Ankarloo 153). Well known for his book Monas Heiroglyphica, he worked for many years  to speak the language of God (Peterson). In his text, he claims event to have been at the peak of a twelve day mystical state that would revolutionize “astronomy, alchemy, mathematics, [and] linguistics” among many others topics (Peterson).
How did such a man, who performed occult magic literally in an attempt to speak with Angels and learn the language of God, avoid the persecution and accusations of witchcraft that women performing the  same magic experienced (Ankarloo 153)? This question drew me  to contextualize this disparity using the case of a woman who was executed because she was accused of being a witch. Ursula Kemp of St. Osyth was hung in 1582 (Serpell 57) and, according to James Serpell, the accusations against her included “a malicious tongue, loose morals and a harmless friendship with two cats” (57). This was sufficient to justify Ursula’s death; yet Dee, who publicly documented and discussed his efforts, was spared from such punishment.
In order to understand why this occurred, we can look at the time period’s social norms. John Dee was a man; he was very well educated and respected. His work was centered around Heinrich Cornelius Agrippa and his book De Occulta Philosophia Libri Tres, or, Three Books on Occult Philosophy (Ankarloo 150). For Agrippa, the occult was meant to perfect knowledge and philosophy by understanding the first cause of existence, which is beyond human comprehension (Ankarloo 148). Dee sought this aim and believed that the world was ending (Ankarloo 153). To save mankind, Dee’s work, including the Monas Heiroglyphica, attempted to bridge the “terrestrial and super celestial and ascend true wisdom by means of divine revelations from angelic intermediaries and messengers” (Ankarloo 153).
There were religious objections to this kind of work. Augustine and Aquinas were unequivocally against it occult magic (Clark 219). What Dee, and others like him, did to justify this work was to say that their magic is aimed at Angels and not at demonic power; but Dee and his peers were aware they were skirting a line (Clark 219-20). What Dee and his peers had to protect them were wealthy patrons who supported their work (Ankarloo 153).
As for Ursula Kemp, she was a victim of her community’s suspicion of older, lonely women who took care of cats. As Serpell points out, anyone in possession of a cat, or seen taking care of one, was in danger of being labeled a witch; these animals could be ‘familiars’ or animals with the spirit of a demon (57-8). As for wealthy people owning pets, such as cats or dogs, Serpell says, “they were quite literally above suspicion” because of their ranks (58). These communities targeted older, impoverished women; and what makes it harder to accept this cruelty is that these women were alone and took care of these animals to ease their solitude (Serpell 58).
During this research, I often found that women like Ursula and men like John Dee were separated as two different topics. It is of interest to me, and possibly others, to bring to light what made John Dee so valuable and women like Ursula Kemp as an easy target. By bringing these two people together, we can further quantify how Early Modern culture functioned within law and social practices.
Images Cited: “Frontispiece” in John Dee’s Monas Hieroglyphica (Antwerp, 1564). Reproduced at Esoteric Archives,
Ankarloo, Bengt, Stuart Clark, and William Monter. Witchcraft and Magic in Europe: The period of the Witch Trials. Philadelphia, Pa.: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2002. Print.
Clark, Stuart. Thinking with Demons: The Idea of Witchcraft in Early Modern Europe. Oxford, England: Clarendon Press, 1997. Print.
Peterson, Joseph H. “John Dee: MONAS HIEROGLYPHICA (‘THE HIEROGLYPHIC MONAD’).” Esoteric Archives. Web.
Serpell, James. In the Company of Animals: A Study of Human-Animal Relationships. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996. Print.

Sodomy Then & Now: “Unnatural” Sexual Practices

Screen Shot 2014-05-03 at 6.40.49 PMBy Kali E.

What was sodomy in Early Modern England, and how does it relate to homosexuality today? In order to understand the laws and social policies regarding sodomy in in the past, we must first understand the difference between definitions of sodomy then and sodomy now. Sodomy today, as critic Bruce Smith describes it, is “a precise bio-legal term that denotes one particular sexual act” (3). However, in Early Modern England, the term sodomy meant much more than just same-sex sexual acts. According to critic Katherine Crawford, it included “masturbation, several forms of same-sex sexual behavior, bestiality, non-procreative sex (oral or anal most commonly) between a man and a woman, or any form of sex in which conception was impossible” (4). It was more broadly used as a religious offence, a category covering a wide range of transgressive acts including any activity that challenged the “nature” of the church-state authority. Sodomy came under secular state control through the Buggery Act of 1533. This act sentenced anyone found guilty of sodomy—particularly men—to death. The laws against sodomy and other forms of sexual deviance during this time emphasized that those who acted outside the “prescribed” social standards were less human and more animal-like than those who obeyed. For example, in his book, Smith details a journal entry from a man, Henry Hawkes, who traveled to Mexico in the sixteenth century. The journal entry relates some of the sexual practices of the Mexican natives, with Hawkes reporting that the natives “‘are soone drunke, and given to much beastlines, and void of all goodness. In their drunkenness, they use and commit sodomie'” (3). Hawkes believed that what he saw the nativeswas a crime, referring to it as “beastlines” and equating sodomy with the actions of animals.
According to Smith, “For us, sexual activity is a psychological and sociological phenomenon. […] the Renaissance was a period of transition, a time when sex as a moral preoccupation was changing into sex as a subject for self-reflection and intellectual analysis” (10). We have to understand that sexuality for them was much different than it is for us. No one in that time would refer to himself as a “homosexual,” “gay,” or “straight.” Those identities of sexuality simply did not exist. Critic Alan Bray notes that “To talk of an individual in this period as being or not being ‘a homosexual’ is an anachronism and ruinously misleading. The temptation to debauchery, from which homosexuality was not clearly distinguished, was accepted under the common lot, be it ever so abhorred” (16-17).
Essentially, people during the Early Modern era were fearful of what they didn’t understand. They thought any kind of sexual act outside of the social “norm” to be unnatural and bestial; any kind of sex that wasn’t specifically for procreation, did not fall within that social “norm.” Critic William Naphy states that “in practice even procreative sex could be considered unnatural if it was any position other than the missionary (face-to-face, man on top, woman on her back)” (103-104).
Bruce Smith also brings up the argument that “we need to investigate not just what was prohibited but what was actively homoeroticized” (13). He argues that there is a “disparity” between the punishments of law and the apparent “tolerance” displayed in the visual arts and literature. The picture displayed is an engraving from 1506 by Marcantonio Raimondi. Smith comments on the piece in his book. “What are we to make of a culture that could consume popular prints of Apollo Embracing Hayacinth and yet could order hanging for men who acted on the very feelings that inspired that embrace?” (13-14).
Kali is a Senior Creative Writing major at Ball State University. Her specific interest is creative nonfiction writing. She also served two years as the Secretary of Spectrum, Ball State’s LGBTQSA.
Image: Raimondi, Marcantonio. Apollo and Hyacinth. 1506. Engraving. Achenbach Foundation for Graphic Arts. Legion of Honor. Web. 29 April 2014. <;.
Bray, Alan. Homosexuality in Renaissance England. London: Gay Men’s Press, 1982. Print.
Crawford, Katherine. The Sexual Culture of the French Renaissance. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2010. Print.
Naphy, William. Sex Crimes: from Renaissance to Enlightenment. Tempus Publishing, 2004. Print.
Smith, Bruce. Homosexual Desire in Shakespeare’s England. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1991. Print.

Public Law & Perceptions of Bestiality

By Emily C.

Prior to the Buggery Act of 1533, the church and its courts handled cases of bestiality, or sexual relations between humans and animals. As Susan Amussen notes regarding English law, “Ordinary law enforcement was local, not national; most punishments were imposed by the quarter sessions and assizes” (11). Therefore, punishments for any criminal activity varied according to location, severity of the crime, and other situational factors. In terms of bestiality, English attitudes were ambiguous at best. Erica Fudge suggests that unwed young men were often the perpetrators of this crime, although there recorded cases against women do exist (22). The church expected young men to wait until marriage to have sexual intercourse. In reaction to the strong body policing, men turned to the only other available option within their rural communities: farm animals.

The Buggery Act of 1533 changed the relatively laid back public perception of bestiality. It made bestiality “a felony without benefit of clergy, and anyone convicted of the offence would ‘suffer such pains of death and losses and penalties of their goods, chattels, debtors, lands, tenements, and hereditaments’’’ (Fudge 20). The law revealed the many anxieties regarding bestiality and the potential half-animal, half-human offspring such relations could produce. Such anxieties were largely religious in nature. But religious officials were not so much concerned with the safety and well-being of the animals (as they did not think that animals had souls at all) as they were with policing human bodies. Many in early modern England considered bestiality a “species pollution” (Thomas 150). In a colonial world, lines between animal and human became sufficiently blurred. As Fudge notes, “The sixteenth and seventeenth centuries were a time when many of the previously held assumptions about humanity were coming under threat. Colonists were bringing back stories of monstrous races which appeared to confirm medieval ideas, and which upset many of the establish perceptions about the final work of the Creation” (22). For the first time, English people had access to the unknown, and they brought back stories of the odd places, often misconstrued and inaccurate narratives. That fed into anxieties about bestiality and the product of animal-human relations, many of Screen Shot 2014-05-03 at 6.32.44 PMwhich were the stars of the stories in question. Would a human still be human if he mated with an animal? These anxieties accelerated the criminalization and strong public stance of bestiality, though it was not actually that common. As Courtney Thomas remarked, there was “… [a] discrepancy between the low number of people actually prosecuted for the crime and the comparatively high number of printed materials decrying bestiality as an oft-committed violence” (151). There were several cases of bestiality documented, but not as many as the religious extremist pamphlets would lead one to assume.
As a result of these churning times, the English regarded bestiality as the ultimate sin; unable to comprehend how humans could blur the human-animal divide. Throughout my research, I have returned to this question: did this shift in public perception and opinion happen because bestiality, being a hideous sin, created such a strong negative reaction (along with other sexual crimes like sodomy and masturbation)? Or because religious influences, motivated by extreme anxiety about the growing world, forced the issue? If religion had not been present in policing sexuality (i.e. not allowing church members to engage in masturbation, sodomy, and bestiality), some of the people persecuted for bestiality perhaps would not have done so. After all, it was an extreme form of deviance that happened in situations where there was no sexual reprieve for young unwed men. The church, by policing bodies and sexuality, encouraged what they aimed to destroy.

Emily  is an English literature student at Ball State University. She hopes to go onto graduate school to pursue being a librarian.


Image: “Half Dog, Half Human.” n.d. “Monstrous Acts: Bestiality in Early Modern England.”, Aug. 2000. Web. 26 Apr. 2014.


Amussen, Susan. “Punishment, Discipline, and Power: The Social Meanings of Violence in Early Modern England.” Journal of British Studies 34 (1995): 1-34.


Fudge, Erica. “Monstrous Acts: Bestiality in Early Modern England.” History Today 50.8 (2000): 20-25.


Thomas, Courtney. “‘Not Having God Before His Eyes’: Bestiality in Early Modern England.” Seventeenth Century 26.1 (2011): 149-73.


Law & Deviance: Defining Human Value(s)

By Emily C., Kali E., Sam I., Lisa K., and Erik P.

Our understanding of law and social policies in Early Modern England became clearer as we examined the legislation that intended to identify and punish sexual or religious deviants. With an eye to legal policy, the following research series focuses on intersections among bestiality, sodomy, lycanthropy, witchcraft, and fairies. Our collective research shows that the presence of these seemingly disparate categories of deviance ties figures in each group together, insofar as each threatened English communities’ social conventions and their perception of what constituted a wholly human body under law.

This collection of research looks at the following deviancies and what questions arise. For example homosexual and bestial acts, both considered sodomy under English law, were punishable by death because they violated religious expectations linked to human sexuality. These acts were “unnatural,” as they could never result in the birth of children; worse, they could result in the production of prodigies, or of human/beast hybrids. Laws on lycanthropy resembled sodomy to some extent; but differed in that the deviance was considered a mental rather than physical illness. Still, like sodomy, it could warrant the death penalty.

Laws on witchcraft and the occult were complicated because some figures identified were charged while others were not. For example, John Dee was a prominent philosopher, but also an Occultist. While others of less educational or social status were punished for similar activities, John Dee was free to do as he pleased. Similarly, people could be accused of associating with fairies. In this time period, fairies were thought to be ‘devil spirits,’ often termed familiars, with the ability to corrupt the human soul. Those accused of interacting with fairies were, by definition, corrupting their souls and threatened the sanctity of their human bodies.

What all of these research topics have in common is that a social minority  posed some sort of threat to what was considered mainstream. Our research aims to clarify why, how, and to what extent did these laws  effect the people they targeted.

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