The Trail of Jane Kent at the Old Bailey

Jane Kent was accused of witchcraft – specifically, for cursing and causing the death of 5-year-old Elizabeth Chamblet. Chamblet’s father was Kent’s primary accuser, saying she had not only caused the death of his daughter but also the bewitching of his pigs and his wife. The outcome of the trail immediately caught my eye, as Kent was found not guilty on the ground that she attended church often and was “a great pains-taker,” presumably meaning that she tried hard to follow both the law and the religious rules of the city.

Kent was initially accused after she bargained with Chamblet’s father for two pigs, which she never received since she could not actually pay for them. According to Chamblet, the pigs fell ill following this encounter, as did his daughter, who died shortly thereafter. Chamblet suspected that Kent had also bewitched his wife, and so he went to a Dr. for a folk remedy, after which his wife also fell ill, showing strange symptoms that were recorded by more than just Chamblet himself. The most notably bizarre symptoms were “a teat on her back” and “unusual holes behind her ears.” Chamblet further suspected Kent because he supposedly heard her voice outside of his door before his wife cried out and fell ill. She also was accused of magically tipping over a carriage after the carriage’s driver refused to take her where she wanted to go.

The circumstances of Kent’s ultimate acquittal strike me as odd, however, as she was found not guilty simply on the grounds of being an honest person and a regular churchgoer. This seems at odds with many of the other cases, where the church was used solely as a weapon to attack the accused, with claims that witchcraft is unholy and therefore the trail must be swift and treat the potential witch harshly.

This trail seems oddly in line with the opinions of the people that the brothers Clarke label skeptics: “For sceptics, since the age of miracles was past and God alone could perform miracles, the idea that witches could injure at a distance or fly off to a sabbat was not just preposterous but impious too.” The men who tried Kent seemed to find the idea that she could perform those curses and magics to be preposterous, and since she was an honest churchgoer, she wouldn’t have attempted those things anyway, had she even been capable of them.

Additionally, the trail’s outcome seems to be in line with Scaife’s description of superstition, as only God’s power is real and all other powers are merely false, blasphemous beliefs. It stands to reason that the people who tried Kent found the idea of her being capable of performing miracles of even an unholy kind was unlikely, because if they were puritans they would likely have believed only in the power of God to perform such feats in the first place.

All of that said, however, the man who accused Kent may not have shared those beliefs at all. Either he genuinely believed that she bewitched his family – as the brothers Clarke said many still did in English puritan society – or he was using those accusations to besmirch Kent’s reputation for some reason. It was not uncommon for people at the time to use religion as an excuse to harm the social positions of their neighbors, especially when there was something to be gained from it. Of course I wouldn’t blame religion alone for these people’s actions, but if Scaife and the brothers Clarke are correct in their assertions, religion and superstition were a powerful weapon for one to use against his neighbors in strongly puritan societies.

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