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Witchcraft & the law in early modern Europe & USA: England


For centuries, magic was the preserve of the Church and its courts.

In 1542 (33 Hen VIII c.8) the first English Witchcraft Act defined witchcraft, making it a crime punishable by death and within the jurisdiction of the civil courts.
It was repealed in 1547, but restored by an Act against Conjurations, Enchantments and Witchcrafts1562 (5 Elizabeth I, c 16).
1604 Witchcraft Act (1 Jac 1 c.12) remained on the statute books until repealed  in 1736 .
The 1736 Witchcraft Act  (9 Geo 2 c.5) imposed fines or imprisonment on anyone found guilty of claiming magical powers.  
Provision in the 1824 Vagrancy Act (5 Geo 4 c. 83) made fortune-telling, astrology and spiritualism became punishable offences.
1951 Fraudulent Mediums Act repealed and replaced the 1736 Act.
The 1951 Act was itself repealed by the  Consumer Protection from Unfair Trading Regulations 2008 (S.I. 2008/1277)

Books on English phenomenon

Items with a shelf mark starting Legal Hist or Crim are on open shelf in the Law Bod.  Both are on Floor 2, but in different areas. Please ask a member of staff for further directions once in the Library

Eighteenth century credulity & scepticism

English criminal law

Items with a shelf mark starting Legal Hist are on open shelf in the Law Bod. Please ask a member of staff for directions.

Pleas of the crown in England and Wales

Until the reign of Henry VIII, witchcraft was just one instance of misuse of magic, and was left to the ecclesiastical law. This was administered by the church courts: a distinct legal system with specific jurisdiction (types of cases they could hear), practice and procedure (methods of hearing and deciding cases and determining punishment). For more about these courts see box to right.

In Tudor times, witchcraft prosecutions shifted from a matter for the church courts to those of the secular or royal courts. Henry VIII's
Act against Conjurations, Witchcrafts, Sorcery and Inchantments did not long survive his death, but it was revived by his protestant daughter in 1563 (5 Eliz 1 c.16 :one-year sentence for anyone found guilty of causing injury by witchcraft).
An excellent source for early legislation, Statutes of the Realm, is available online for holders of an Oxford Single Sign On - see links below. The acts mentioned above are at 3 SR 837 & 4 SR 446.

Printed resources in the Law Bod

 Chapters 29 & 30 of Baker's Introduction to English Legal History (4th ed 2002) at Legal Hist B167a4 for a first introduction to both criminal procedure and criminal law. Both chapters end with suggested further reading.

If the trial had been noted in a manuscript that then found its way into print prior to the mid 19th century, you will need to search either in the year books or the nominate reports.
There is no clear date division between the content of the two - but content of yearbooks is predominately  prior to the 1530s, the content of the nominate reports predominately after 1520s.
The nominate reports were reprinted as the English Reports in the mid 19th century. That is why you will get different looking (though in fact parallel) citations for the same case note. For example, the case Oliver and his Wife v Stephens of 1619 can be correctly cited as either Croke, Jac. 531  or 79 E.R. 455 or indeed with both one after the other!

If the manuscript  containing the case note had not been printed before the mid-19th century, then it may have been subsequently edited and published by a scholarly society such as the Selden Society.

These sources are in print in the Law Library, but also can  be consulted  electronically by holders of an Oxford Single Sign On username and password.

The problem is that Assize court cases are unrepresented in law reports and year books. To assess the frequency of witchcraft trials at these local criminal courts, published Calendars should help with statistics.  The court archives may supply factual details and ideas of evidence  - a link below is to The National Archives guide for finding them.


Electronic resources

For year books, nominate reports and Selden Society publications use HeinOnline.
For contemporary  popular accounts of trials and reaction, OU Single Sign On holders should remember to search: EEBO Early English Books Online, ECCO: Eighteenth Century Collections Online, MOML: Making of Modern Law, MMW: Making of Mordern World

Church courts : official matters

The church courts were not solely concerned with the policing of morality  & disciplining their local communities, but the suppression of bad magic was part of their "office" or criminal jurisdiction.

The Bodleian Law Library does not hold much material on ecclesiastical law on its open shelves - by tradition these have been the preserve of other divisions of the Bodleian -  however, the Law Bod's open shelves are not devoid of useful material!

Try Chapter 8 of Baker's Introduction to English Legal History (4th ed 2002) at Legal Hist B167a4 for a first introduction.
The recent authoritative volume The canon law and ecclesiastical jurisdiction from 597 to the 1640s  by R.H. Helmholz (volume I of Oxford History of the Laws of England) on open shelf at Legal Hist O98q/1 is the master work. (Holders of an Oxford Single Sign On can read this online via link below.).

The Law Bod also has a copy of   Lower ecclesiastical jurisdiction in late-medieval England : the courts of the Dean and Chapter of Lincoln, 1336-1349, and the Deanery of Wisbech, 1458-1484(ed L.R. Poos) at Legal Hist P824a Among the case load recorded a "handful" of charges for acts of "sortilegium" and "sorsoria" - attempted or claimed use of magic by both men and women.

SOLO searches will reveal the Reading Room and Closed Stack material available.
As a general subject search try:
Ecclesiastical law -- England -- History

Church history  - periodicals may help to discover useful journals.