Image from the infamour 1591 'Newes from North Berwick' sensationalist pamphlet circulated after the trial

The Law of Magick

in History/Magick

Happy birthday. Blow out these candles, and make a wish. Remember, don’t tell anyone, or it won’t come true. Congratulations, we are all witches. 

Consider: you draw on power awarded to you by a specific arrangement of the calendar as pertains to you personally, you have your prop upon which to focus your will via an established ritual, a desire, and an outcome which you wish to arise without effort at the conclusion of the process. Witchcraft. What did you think you were doing exactly? 

These are modern times, so we are free to indoctrinate infants into the craft by way of cake without criminal charges being bought by the state, but this was not always the case. Witchcraft holds the rare distinction of being the only supernatural ability to been granted the authority of recognition by, and suffered the legislative force of, the parliaments of England and Scotland 

As far back as the 7th Century the Archbishop of Canterbury was pronouncing the Liber Poenitentialis. This outlined the various (fairly reasonable) penalties that could be incurred if a witch was found to be using magic against other citizens. Killing a man via magical means meant three years on bread and water. Attacking with Demons bought four years penance with a one year stint on the bread and water, with a similar penalty for raising storms – a serious concern in the days of already hazardous sea travel and one which would greatly trouble James VI of Scotland some nine centuries later. 

Attitudes were hardening somewhat by the time of King Edgar the peaceful in the 10th Century. Here the determination was to “totally extinguish every heathenism” to include “necromancies, divinations, enchantments, man worshipping, and vain practises carried on with various spells.” This train of thought continued through the reign of Ethelred the Unready in the 11th Century with those consorting with magical forces to be “diligently driven out of the country, or…totally perish in the country unless they desist” 

The floodgates for legal mechanisms opened in 1484, with Pope Innocent VIII declaring support for the Inquisition in Spain. Within two years, in Germany Heinrich Kramer and Jacob Sprenger were writing The Malleus Maleficarum, incorporating (with dubious authority) the papal bull into the foreword. The Hammer of Witches pulled together detailed legal arguments for the extermination of witches, introducing alongside detailed instruction for interrogators. Torture was legitimised. Among the series of qualifications for witchcraft taking place was the presence of the devil, forever divorcing any herbal based wise woman or man from Paracelsianism. 

The inquisition was not invited to Britain, but reports of their activities by way of perhaps already enthusiastic Bishops or Calvinists alike may have been the catalyst for the many and varied acts of parliament that were written into law between in 16th and 18th centuries.  

The Witchcraft Act 1542, introduced by Henry VIII listed many ways in which sorcery could be used as a weapon and recognised witchcraft as being punishable by death. The Act was not taken up with any enthusiasm and was repealed by Edward 7th in 1547. 

Elizabeth I took a slightly less genocidal approach in the Witchcraft Act 1563, citing the death penalty only in cases where direct harm had been caused. Merely practising witchcraft led to imprisonment. No such mercies were present in the Scottish Witchcraft Act of the same year. Not only practising witchcraft, but also consulting with a witch could result in a death sentence. 

Prior to ascending to the joint thrones of Scotland and England, King James VI had published the accomplished 1597 witch hunting treatise Daemonologie. No mere armchair or thronely practitioner, James believed in the power and prevalence of witchcraft, with real and genuine concerns that he was under threat from specific and targeted supernatural assault as monarch, playing an active role in the North Berwick witch trials of 1590. Following the union of the crowns in 1603, the Witchcraft Act 1604 (An Act against Conjuration, Witchcraft and dealing with evil and wicked spirits), bought a wider range of crimes worthy of the death penalty across the border into England. In classing witchcraft as a crime the act changed the courts holding jurisdiction over witchcraft cases from ecclesiastical to criminal.  

Taking the bit and running with it, the Scottish Witchcraft Act 1649 attempted to enforce adherence to Godly principals in daily life and made such offences as idolatry, blasphemy and parental assault subject to the death penalty.  

Having endured five Great Scottish Witch Hunts, most notably in 1649–50 and 1661–62, the nation’s fervour as a whole for hanging witches began to wane. With the establishment of Royal Society of Science in London 1662, followed by similar across the continent over the next few decades, the notion of requiring state protection from those that may take to air on a piece of straw or sail to sea in an eggshell would become increasingly redundant. This was not without precedent – King James the witch hunter had himself had recanted somewhat within ten years of his Daemonologie having realised the nonsensical testimonies of severely sleep deprived terrified and vunerable women did not equate to evidence of Satan being in the room. By the time of the Witchcraft Act of 1735 the state began to feel embarrassment at the acceptance of witchcraft as a verifiable ability.  The crime was re-defined as holding out the pretence of witchcraft. Seers, sayers, divinators, all were now pretenders. This act finally repealed both those of 1563 and 1604, and shockingly had one last hurrah in 1944 when the medium Helen Duncan became the last person to be convicted under an act containing the word witchcraft in the title. 

The name of the art was swept away with the damningly entitled Fraudulent Mediums Act 1951 (partly enacted as a response to the Duncan case), which itself was repealed in 2008 and replaced by a series of much less quotable EU consumer Protection Regulations. 

So you can tell me what you wished for after all. Can’t you? 

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