Category Archives: Laws

Witchcraft Acts

Prompted in the first place by Hallowe’en, and then getting interested in the subject, I have put up the texts of the major statutes concerning witchcraft in the British Isles. For England, Great Britain, and the United Kingdom, these are:

1541-2: 33 Henry 8 c.8: The Act against Conjurations, Witchcraft, Sorcery and Enchantments

1563: 5 Elizabeth 1 c.16: An Act against Conjurations, Inchantments and Witchcraft

1580-1: 23 Elizabeth c.2: Against seditious words and rumours (This because it has clauses on prophesizing the Queen’s life span.)

1604: 1 James 1 c.12: An Act against Witchcraft

1735: 9 George 2 c.5: The Witchcraft Act

1821: 1 & 2 George 4 c.17: Repeal of the Irish Witchcraft Act

1951: 14 & 15 George 6 c. 33: Fraudulent Mediums Act

Also, I’ve added two acts from ireland, and one from Scotland, from the legislatures previous to their respective acts of union. For Ireland, 1586: 28 Elizabeth 1 c. 2: An Act against Witchcraft and Sorcerie, repealed by the 1821 act above, and 10 Charles 1 s.2 c. 19: An act for the trial of murders, &c., as it mentions murders through bewitchment. And for Scotland, 1563: Mary c.73: Anentis Witchcraft.

For the word “man” there shall be substituted the word “person”

It is election day today here in the United Kingdom, with the attendent exhortations to vote.

Among these exhortations was a tweet from the UK Parliamentary Archives:

Which infuriated me. Firstly, there isn’t a link to the document, even though it is on their website.  Secondly, because the digitization on their website is, as I put it in an intemperate tweet, Badly digitised, low resolution, illegible, incomplete. Insulting.

Let’s expand on this. It is badly digitized, probably just a photograph rather than a proper scan. It’s a low resolution image, so when running it through an OCR reader produced far worse text than what one can expect from a twentieth century document. It’s not just software that can’t read it; it’s difficult for a human to read as well. And finally, it is incomplete, reproducing only the first three pages of text.

And all this means it is insulting. It’s showing off a possession, not actually sharing or allowing others to read and understand it. This is made worse given the subject: a historic piece of legislation, that finally gave women the vote on the same terms as men, is being used as a boast, reducing the long struggle for this essential right to a scrap of property you can glimpse but not enjoy.

Furthermore, it reduces democracy to one, electoral, dimension. Democracy is not just about voting. It is also about checks and balances, the separation of powers, and the rule of law. The blasé maxim Ignorance of the law is no excuse has to be matched with a commitment that the law be easily available to all. That includes laws like this one, that although repealed have established fundamental principles that survive to this day.

Consequently, I’ve rushed to the British Library to transcribe the act, and published the full text.

Note that I have not found this act in the commercial law archives Hein Online or Lexis Nexis. It is available via Justis, but behind in a paywall. On a happier note, hunting for this text has led me to Matthew William’s fantastic plain text archive of U.K. legislation, 1900-2015. I will be writing more about this amazing resource when I’ve dug deeper into it.