Tudor Times and British Herbalism

By Christopher Menzies-Trull

How Physio-Medicalism began

Witch mania began in Italy and Southern Germany, it extended to France then to England and Scotland [Roper, 1994;158. Oldridge, 1995;12. Swain, 1994;3]. The high point of witchcraft prosecutions in Germany coincided with the Jesuit priests keen to root out witches. Prominent witch trials were seen in Bavaria, Bamberg, Wurzburg, Saxony and Treves [Swain, 1995;16].

Adding to the problem Europe sustained the thirty year war from 1616-1648. Witch-hunting spanned four centuries from the 14th to the 17th centuries during which more than 100,000 people were murdered throughout Europe and Britain. The witch craze was founded in feudalism and the ruling classes’ campaign of terror against the female peasant population. Witches represented a political, religious and sexual threat to the church and the state [Ehrenreich, 1972;7].

The most virulent witch-hunts were associated with periods of major social upheaval shaking feudalism at its roots – mass peasant uprisings and conspiracies, the beginning of capitalism and the rise of Protestantism. History was recorded by the educated so we know the witch only, through the eyes of her persecutors. Witch-hunts were well organised campaigns, initiated, financed and executed by the unquestioned authority of the church and state.

To the church inquisitors both Catholic and Protestant alike the unquestioned authority on how to conduct a witch-hunt was the ‘Malleus Maleficarum’ or Hammer of Witches written in 1484 by the reverends Kramer and Sprenger [translation 1928]. A witch hunt was initiated by the vicar [priest] or a county judge who posted a notice to ‘direct, command and require that anyone knowing should reveal if any person reported to be a heretic or a witch or any practice causing injury to a man or cattle’. The suppression of women as healers and the rise to dominance of male professionals was not a natural process, it was an active takeover by male professionals [Ehrenreich, 1972;4].

English Statutes
There are a number of English laws which bear testament to witchcraft prosecutions from 1534 to 1714 when witchcraft was decriminalised. 1534 Treason act1539 Proclamation Act dissolution of the monasteriesVirtually no trials took place until the passage of the witchcraft statute of 542.
1542 Witchcraft act aka Herbalists act. Henry 8th 1547 Witchcraft Act.

It was difficult to assess the number of witchcraft prosecutions before 1560 [Macfarlane, 1970;158]. The picture is clearer after 1560. 1563 Witchcraft act1604 Witchcraft act. James 1st.

The final hanging in Exeter for witchcraft was in 1685.

Witchcraft was decriminalised in England 1736, France 1682 and Prussia in 1714.

Witches and Prosecutions
Prosecutions in Essex resulted from rich neighbours towards the less prosperous; the old, women, widows and the poor. Innocent people were being accused and executed with the effects of witch-hunting being detrimental to the whole village. Accusations were made between people who knew each other intimately and with family connections. There were very few accusations made against people living far away.

Witches desired revenge against neighbours following disputes over goods or money this reflected the total relationship between people. Witches were accused of murder, poisoning, sex crimes and conspiracy but also of helping, healing and midwifery. Women served as cooks, healers and midwives and each of these functions made them vulnerable to the charge that they practiced sorcery. Women healers were often known as ‘wise women’ and used a variety of herbs and ointments. Wise women were useful to the community but were vulnerable to the charge of practicing white magic and when villagers contracted a disease or died unexpectedly they could easily be accused of witchcraft [Levack, 1995;138].

The most common stereotype of a witch was that of a woman over 50. And 75% were widowed or single and poor. Another situation giving rise to accusations of witchcraft was when a woman became involved in disputes with her husband’s property. Calling the wife a witch was an attractive way when there was no legal mechanism available to resolve the conflict between them. Bad tempered and quarrelsome women caused disputes with neighbours and this created resentment against them [Levack, 1995;138].

Written accounts of witches in the 15th and 16 Centuries often stress the subject’s ugliness. Several writers outlined the personality types associated with witchcraft; boastful, illiterate, miserable, melancholic, and those leading a lewd and naughty kind of life were all likely to be witches [Macfarlane, 1970;158]. Above all they were poor and those who had vicious tongues, considered today as anti-social behaviour. Women were vulnerable and in a precarious position as portrayed as having a weak intellect and will [Keicknefer, 1990;198]. Witches were often accused because of causing injury, petty crime or even keeping a cat or dog. The power of peasant women caring and healing the sick was not acceptable to the male clergy.

Witch healers were often the only ‘doctors’ for a people who had no registered doctors and no hospitals and who were affected by poverty and disease. Prior to the 18th century childbirth was entirely entrusted to women. The association between witch and midwife was strong ‘No-one does more harm to the Catholic church than midwives’, wrote Kramer and Sprenger. A number of midwives were prosecuted for witchcraft. Charges of this nature were that they could easily be blamed for the death of infants.

One fifth of all infants died either at birth or during the first few months of life. Miscarriages and stillbirths were blamed on witchcraft [Oldridge, 2002;64]. The charge a midwife used sorcery was that it offered the bereaved parents a means of revenge.

Brutal tortures were used originally or exclusively in witchcraft cases because witchcraft was seen as the most heinous of all crimes. Torture greatly increased the chances of witches being convicted. This unrestricted torture not only resolved the problem of insufficient proof but also made possible the conviction of anyone who incurred the suspicion of witchcraft. When torture was used on a regular basis in witchcraft prosecutions, the rate of convictions could be as high as 95% [Levack, 1995;83]. Overall in a period of nearly 200 years possibly 100,000 people mostly women were executed throughout Europe [Swain, 1998;3].

A woman would be strip searched and completely shaved for evidence of a devil’s ‘mark’ on the body, often a mole was looked for. Then punishment was considered this took the form of a beating, solitary confinement, prolonged sitting cross legged on a stool, starvation, drowning, lynching, sleep deprivation, the swimming test, prison, excommunication, pillory and hanging were all popular methods of torture.

Plague was established in England by 1348 and appears not to be linked to witchcraft accusations of causing illness unlike many minor complaints. Smallpox outbreak of 1514 was a significant cause of illness. Puritanism was most marked in the 1580s and 1640s which saw the most number of witchcraft prosecutions. Puritanism and witchcraft prosecutions went hand in hand [Macfarlane, 1970;186].

Lay puritans were especially interested in prosecuting witches. John Stern [worked with Hopkins a witch-finder] explicitly stated that witches were often churchgoers [Macfarlane, 1970;188]. Hopkins was a fanatical puritan with his victims being anti-puritan. The English civil war caused the breakdown in the enforcement of law and order. Hopkins is described as energetic as far as his own pockets are concerned with his team of witch finders making over £1000; wages were £11 a year.

Europe became divided into Catholic and Protestant factions. Local elites and clergy attempted to impose their beliefs upon the populus. Historians tried to attach witch blame to their religious opponents [Oldridge D. 2002;12]. Counter reformation changed many aspects of religious outlook between Catholics and Protestants but also led to bitter conflicts between them.

There appears to be a correlation between witchcraft prosecutions on the one hand and the extent of religious division on the other [Levack, 1995;14]. The ruling classes would suspect and prosecute women as witches especially when they were engaged in religiously inspired campaigns to reform popular morality; this was seen as ‘an ideologically based movement for reform’ [Klaits, 1985;138]. It was essential to have a witch believing populace before a witch-hunt could start and this was rekindled by preachers [Klaits, 1985;161].

The 1539 Proclamation Act authorised dissolution of the monasteries. By 1540 the last monastery was suppressed. With no monasteries poor people had no-one to rely upon as the Monks grew food and herbs and treated the sick. Matthew Hopkins stated ‘God suffers the devil many times to do much hurt and the devil doth play many times the deluder and imposter with these witches’ [Macfarlane, 1970;193].

From the 1540s onwards the government who disliked and found dangerous a society so full of opportunities used their control of the pulpit to propagate the homilies of obedience [Fletcher, 1968;8].In the year of 1549 the Privy Council began receiving reports of disturbances among the peasantry in many parts of the country – the Midlands, Cornwall, Kent, Essex and Yorkshire.

The news was not startling in itself. A degree of violence was endemic among all classes in English society. Assault, wounding and manslaughter, forcible entry and riotous assembly were daily occurrences. Self control was not an English virtue [Cornwall, 1977;8]. The commons of England that vast mass of people who had no political role and could only bring their grievances to the attention of the government by rebellion were regarded as fickle, irrational and stupid.

At a local level popular dislike of taxation was expressed in sporadic outbreaks of violence against tax collectors. Rebellion occurred as a resistance to taxation in 1489 and 1497 and was ruthlessly crushed. In 1513 and 1525 the resistance was passive and succeeded [Fletcher 1968;13].

During these times difficulties from a population explosion, shortage of food causing famine, rising costs, increased taxes for wars with France and Spain and an increased demand for land with 95% of the population living in small towns only London was a major urban unit with a population of 50-60,000 [Smith, 1988;10]. Changes in land ownership created poorer villages and common land was stolen. There was serious inequality of wealth. Tensions increased and hatred towards the poor resulted from economic pressures.

Agrarian problems were aggravated by Henry 8ths policy towards the church. Before the reformation the church offered a counter action in times of distress, post reformation misfortunes and worries persisted but the ritual framework designed to deal with them was lost; church relief towards the poor was lost. An account of poverty in the village of Terling from 1525-1700 is well documented when wages in 1599 were only £11 a year [Wrightson, 1995;16].

Doctors and the Medical Profession
In the 13th century the ruling classes were cultivating their own university courses entirely run for male doctors. This medical profession was actively engaged in the elimination of women healers together with their exclusion from universities and this included wealthy upper class women. English physicians sent a petition to parliament arguing that ’worthless and resumptuous women who usurped the medical profession’ and asking for the imposition of fines and long imprisonment on any woman who attempted to use the practice of physic [medicine] Ehrenreich, 1973;17].

By the 14th century the medical profession’s campaign against women was complete throughout Europe and male doctors had one the monopoly over the practice of medicine. The church explicitly legitimised the doctors professionalism denouncing non-professionals as heretics. ‘If a woman dare to cure without having studied she is a witch and must die’. The professional doctor, priest, lawyer and judge were all men and this established the moral intellectual climate. Whereas the woman healer was placed on the side of darkness, evil and magic. So forever would the woman healer be branded malevolent.

By the 17 th century male doctors drove an assault against women midwives and quickly transformed a neighbourly service provided by women midwives into a lucrative business. The forceps were legally classified as a surgical instrument and women were legally barred from surgical practice. The women midwives of England organised and charged the male doctors with dangerous misuse of the forceps but it was an impossible task to go against the authority or the medical profession, parliament and the church.
Paracelsus considered the ‘father of modern medicine’ burned his text on pharmaceuticals confessing that he learned from the witch all he knew [Ehrenreich, 1973;17].

Nicholas Culpeper (1616-1654)
Culpeper was a herbalist and he was prosecuted for witchcraft by the Society of Apothecaries but subsequently acquitted by a jury. ‘Culpeper’s Complete Herbal’ is still in print today. His herbal gives pictures of British herbs together with their medical uses. Medical astrology and the link between planets and disease causation puts a different perspective upon matters of health when viewed using the astrological method put forward by Culpeper.

That herbalists have been persecuted throughout the ages is clearly referenced by historical writers and indeed to some extent still are persecuted by the English authorities often spurred on by pharmaceutical companies and other big business interests intent on promoting their drug treatments. One good thing we can say of Henry 8th– he did provide some support for the herbalist in his 1542 charter. For some strange reason in 2010 Europe where there is meant to be harmonisation of law the opposite appears to be happening. Germany has the most open system with herbs freely available to the public by their doctor or Heilpraktiker.

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Henry 8th DVD a William Shakespeare play with Tudor music. BBC publications.

Cornwall, J. Revolt of The Peasantry. Routledge. 1977.
Ehrenreich, B. Witches, Midwives and Nurses. A History of Women Healers. The Feminist
Press. 1973.
Fletcher, A. Tudor Rebellions. 2nd Edition. Longman 1968.
Gray, CM. Renaissance and Reformation England 1509-1714. Harcourt Brace Javanovich, Inc. 1973
Keicknefer, R. Magic in The Middle Ages. Cambridge University Press. 1990
Klaits, J. Servants of Satan. Bloomington 1985.
Levack B. The Witch Hunt In Early Modern Europe. Longman 1995.
Macfarlane A. Witchcraft in Tudor and Stuart England. Routledge 1970.
O’Day. The Tudor Age. Longman 1995.
Oldridge D. Editor. The Witchcraft Reader. Routledge 2002.
Roper L. Oedipus and The Devil. Routledge 1994.
Smith A, The Commonwealth of England. Longman 1988.
Starkey et al. The English Court. Longman. 1987
Swain, J. Witchcraft in 17th Century England. Stuart Press. 1994
Williams H, Life in Tudor England. Batsford 1964.
Williamson, JA. A History of England.2nd Edition. Longman 1957
Wrightson K, Poverty and Piety in An English Village. Clarendon 1995.

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