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.
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Images Cited: “Frontispiece” in John Dee’s Monas Hieroglyphica (Antwerp, 1564). Reproduced at Esoteric Archives,http://www.esotericarchives.com/dee/monad.htm.
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.
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About MGN

Miranda Garno Nesler is a specialist in early material culture, gender, textuality, and animal studies. View all posts by MGN

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