Tales from the Rare Book Collection: An Early Legal History of Witchcraft and Conjuration, as Told Through British Statutes

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It’s nearly Halloween, and that means another opportunity to highlight some of the spookier gems in the law library’s Rare Book Collection.

This year I’ve been reading about the Salem Witch Trials, and this got me thinking about Salem town’s predecessors in witch-hunting paranoia. I wondered what our Rare Book Collection might have to tell us about witchcraft laws from Great Britain. Turns out, it’s quite a bit.

I began my search in The Statutes at Large from Magna Charta Until This Time, a compilation of British session laws organized by Joseph Keble in 1684.

Image of Statutes at Large Cover Page (Great Britain, 1654)


Because there is no official statutory codification of British law (arranging statutes by subject matter like the United States Code), you have to search through laws printed in chronological order. Moreover, the British like to add an additional layer of difficulty for American researchers by arranging laws in chronological order by reign. Before you try this at home, make sure you’ve brushed up on your British monarchs!

Thankfully, the British also realized fairly early on that a chronological arrangement of hundreds of years of statutes created problems for barristers and judges alike. Compilations of both statutes and case law were soon reprinted with indexes that provided the topical arrangement necessary for thorough legal research.

One of the added benefits of using an index is that it will also point you to the proper legal terminology in your research, and that proved true here. I began with a search for “witch,” and the index let me know that the proper legal term was actually “conjuration.” 

Image of Statutes at Large - Index Table (Great Britain, 1684)
Image of Statutes at Large Witches Entry (Great Britain, 1654)


Turning to the entry for “conjuration” revealed an interesting set of citations, but I was most interested in the Witchcraft Act of 1604 passed during the reign of James I. This monarch was a bit obsessed with all things ghoulish, and one of the first acts passed during his reign dealt with the prosecution of witches. The infamous trials of the Pendle witches, which made legal history for permitting the testimony of a child, took place a few years after the enactment of this law. (Check out this link if you’d like to read more.)

Image of Statutes at Large - Conjuration Entry (Great Britain, 1684)

I was able to quickly locate the relevant citation for the 1604 statute from the index - 1 Jacob. Cap. 12 ("A Repeal of 5 Eliz. Cap. 16. . . of Invocation, or Covenant with evil Sprit to take up dead body to use it in Sorcery, is Felony with out Clergy."

Citations like this provide several important pieces of information for locating older British law. You can generally read these citations as follows: Number of Year in Reign, Monarch Name, Chapter Number. So, for example, "1 Jacob. Cap. 12" refers to a law passed in the first year of the reign of King James I, located at Chapter 12.

Image of Statutes at Large - Jacob I Heading (Great Britain, 1684)

I relied on the headings at the top of each page to find the proper monarch and year. As you can see from the image above, this information is printed in Latin, but that's nothing a quick Google search can't fix! We are looking for "Anno primo Jacobi Regis," which tells us that the laws in this section were passed during the first year of the reign of James I. 

If you turn to Chapter XII, you see the law that we wanted: "An Act against Conjuration, Witchcraft, and dealing with evil and wicked Spirits." While the penalty for a conviction under this statute was still death by hanging, it was the first time that such a law prohibited the use of torture for collecting evidence against a defendant.

Comforting stuff, right?

Image of Statutes at Large - Witchcraft Act of 1604 (Great Britain, 1684)

Looking through historical statutes can be a fun way to test your statutory research skills. The authors of these early compilations created many of the finding tools that we still use today. Always try to identify what tools a resource provides and use them to help you locate relevant law.

If you'd like to try your hand at more spooky, 17th century British statutory research, see if you can find these predecessors to the Witchcraft Act of 1604: 33 Hen.VII c.8 and 5 Eliz. c.16.

Happy Halloween!


Posted by Melissa M. Hyland on Mon. October 28, 2019 11:00 AM
Categories: Uncategorized


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