Thursday, January 31, 2013

Witchcraft, Magic, and Anglo-Saxon Law

In an interview earlier this year, Ronald Hutton stated that, 
Wicca or wicce (according to the sex of the person described) was by far the most common of the words employed in early English law codes to describe acts of magic equivalent to serious crimes against the person, which injured or manipulated people and ranked with murder and perjury. The Laws of Ethelred II, for example, made exile or execution the penalties for wiccan odde wigelaras, scincraeftan odde horcwecan, mordwyrtan odde mansworan (witches or sorcerers, workers of magical illusion or seduction, those who kill secretly or deceive). While the other terms died out, it became standard and evolved into ‘witch’. The Anglo-Saxons had a range of other expressions for less harmful kinds of magic, such as galdra (charms) and idelra hwata (divinations). 

More recently, Hutton wrote the following in his new paper published in the Pomegranate (Revisionism and Counter-Revisionism in Pagan History):
"The Anglo-Saxon words that form the basis for 'witch', 'wicce' and 'wicca' (according to the sex of the person described), occur in law codes to indicate workers of deadly crimes against the person such as murderers and perjurers.(15) By contrast, Anglo-Saxon churchmen regularly glossed 'wicce' and 'wicce' [sic] with Latin terms defining a range of workers of harmless magic such as divination.(16)"

So much for what Ronald Hutton has to say. Now let us endeavor to discover the truth of the matter.

Fortunately, an industrious graduate student at the University of Amsterdam, named Marianne Elsakkers, has done a remarkable job of systematically analyzing 18 different instances of Anglo-Saxon law with special attention to the words used in those laws for referring to Witchcraft, Heathenism, magic, prostitution, etc. It should be noted that the number 18 could be somewhat misleading because it includes a number of Latin translations.

Elsakkers even went so far as to distill her analysis into one extraordinary, information-laden Table, reproduced as a GIF image at the bottom of this post. I would strongly encourage the interested reader to go directly to the source and read her dissertation to fully appreciate what she has done (and also to get all the niggling details about her sources, and so forth). Her full dissertation is available at this link:, while the specific chapter that contains the table and a discussion of the related data is here:

All of the information contained in Elsakkers' table is already known to most people who have an interest in such things. However, this is one of those cases where properly organizing and presenting the data, as Elsakkers has done, makes all the difference. There might be other law texts that could be added to this list (in fact there is at least one, as discussed immediately below), and some of the items on Elsakkers' list could use some further clarification (for example, one of the Anglo-Saxon texts is probably a redaction by Wulfstan, which I don't believe she notes). Also, there are other sources that need to eventually be included, such as Anglo-Saxon charms and so forth. One important law missing from Elsakkers table (although she does discuss it at some length in her dissertation) is that attributed to King Ælfred (c.890) which states:

Ða fæmnan þe gewuniað onfon gealdorcræftigan & scinlæcan & wiccan, ne læt þu ða libban

Of the 18 versions/texts of Anglo-Saxon law looked at by Elsakkers, 11 of them are actually Latin translations of laws originally written in Old English. The original seven laws are from the reigns of Aethelstan, Edmund, Edward (and Guthrum), Aethelred, and Cnut, with Cnut being responsible for three of the seven laws. In the following discussion I will also include the one law fro Ælfred not included in Elsakkers' table, bringing the total of vernacular laws to eight.

"Wiccecræft" is mentioned in six out of eight of the original laws in the vernacular. But in all but one of these, "wiccan" appears alongside one or more other magical terms. Three times we find "wiccan" mentioned along with "wigleras" (Aethelred and two of Cnut's laws), and twice it appears along with "scinlæcan"/"scincræftcan" (Ælfred and Aethelred), while "wiccan" appears along with "lybblac" twice (Ælfred and Aethelstan) and once along with "gealdorcræftigan" (Ælfred). The one instance in which "wiccecræft" is the only form of magic explicitly proscribed also happens to be a case where the "crimes" that are being enumerated all fall under the general heading of "hæðenscip" (Heathenism), and another item on the same list is idol worship ("idol weorðunge"). So that particular law (the first of Cnut's)  is actually a clear example of the religious nature of the earliest laws prohibiting "wiccecræft".

Two of the eight laws do not mention "wiccecræft" at all, and one of these (Edmund) does mention "lybblac" as the only form of magic specifically prohibited by that law. This is highly significant since the term "lybblac" is itself sometimes translated as "Witchcraft" and it is perhaps the most difficult of all of these terms for us to understand. While an alternative translation of "lybblac" is "poisoning", it must be remembered that this was an age when the word chemistry had not yet been coined, and instead people spoke of "Alchemy," and that, more generally, the vocabularies of "poisoning" and "magic" are often inextricably intertwined, and this is probably such a case.

The other law that doesn't mention "wiccecræft" is that of "Edward and Guthrun" (which is possibly a redaction by Wulfstan), which is included in the list because it does mention "morðwyrhtan", often translated as "secret murder", which is a term with a range of shades of meanings. This term ""morðwyrhtan" is often associated with murder by magical means, but it can also mean literally and simply murdering someone in secret, as opposed to killing someone out in the open and freely admitting to it (there was quite a difference between these two types of killing in Anglo-Saxon culture). If we include "morðwyrhtan", and related terms, as magical terms, then these suddenly jump to tie for the top of the list of magical crimes, occurring in six out of the eight laws, the same as "wiccecræft."

It should be noted that if we include "secret murder" as a magical crime, then there are no instances in which "wiccecræft" is singled out as the only form of magic being criminalized. This is in contrast to "lybblac", which is outlawed in the law attributed to Edmund, and the only other crime listed alongside it in the same section is "mansweriað", perjury, a crime with no magical connotations whatsoever.

Inclusion of the term "morðwyrhtan" also brings us to the question of the 11 different Latin translations that are included in Elsakkers' data. The significance of "morðwyrhtan" in particular is that this Anglo-Saxon term is the one that is most often translated into Latin as either "malefici" or "venefici", the two Latin terms most closely associated with the Christian notion of inherently evil (and literally diabolical) magic, and they are also the Latin terms that Christians are most likely to translate into English as Witchcraft, although "sorcery" would be a close second. There are a total of nine Latin law texts that translate the term "morðwyrhtan", and in five cases it is translated as either "malefici" or "venefici". By contrast, "wiccecræft" and related terms are translated in eight different Latin texts, and only twice is it translated as either "malefici" or "venefici" (once each, as a matter of fact). In the other cases it is translated as "incantores" three times, and one time each for "sortilegis", "sage", and "magi". The translation of "wiccecræft" as "incantores" is especially noteworthy, since the two times that we have examples of "wiccan" and "wigleras" being translated into Latin side-by-side, it is "wigleras" that gets translated as "incantrices." The only other term translated as either "malefici" or "venefici" is "lybblac", which is translated in three different Latin texts, once as "maleficis", and twice with invented Latin terms ("liblacis" and "liblatum") indicating either that the translator simply did not know the meaning of "lybblac", or felt that no Latin equivalent existed.

So, does "wiccecræft" stand out as "by far the most common of the words employed in early English law codes to describe acts of magic equivalent to serious crimes against the person, which injured or manipulated people and ranked with murder and perjury"? Uh, no. For one thing, the actual pool of data is rather too small to meaningfully employ phrases such as "by far the most common". In this sample (based on Elsakkers, 2010, plus Ælfred's law), "wiccecræft" occurs six times (out of a possible total of eight) as does "morðwyrhtan", while "wigleras" and "lybblac" both occur three times, "scinlæcan" twice, and the term "gealdorcræftigan" is found once.

Moreover, Hutton's attempt to characterize Anglo-Saxon laws against "wiccecræft" as falling under the general category of laws against "deadly crimes against the person" is now shown to be utterly ridiculous. It is true that "wiccecræft" appears alongside the explicitly deadly crime of morðwyrhtan in five of its six appearances, but in all but one of these prostitution ("horcwenan") is also on the list, and in the only other case, idol worship is also listed. And at least half of the laws mentioning "wiccecræft" are clearly cases of religiously motivated persecution directed against "hæðenscip."

Perhaps there are other early English laws against "wiccecræft" that Hutton is basing his claims on? But if we look at the statements Hutton has made, these appear to reference only three early English laws. In his interview he explicitly references Aethelred's law, while in his paper he refers the reader to Agnes Jane Roberton's book The Laws of the Kings of England from Edmund to Henry I, which only mentions two relevant laws, that of Edmund and one of Cnut's. In fact, one of the two laws found in Robertson (Edmund's) is precisely the one case where "wiccecræft" is not mentioned at all, but "lybblac" is! So it doesn't appear that Hutton has any secret database of otherwise unknown or little known Anglo-Saxon laws up his sleeve.

Thanks to Marianne Elsakkers' scholarship, we can now see both the forest and the trees. There is no evidence, whatsoever, even remotely suggesting that the Anglo-Saxon precursors to the modern English words "Witch" and "Wicca" stand out as terms that uniquely and unambiguously refer to malevolent practitioners of harmful magic who were hated by their neighbors. Rather, Anglo-Saxon "wiccecræft" was one of at least six different terms (the others being "wigleras", "lybblac", "scinlæcan", "gealdorcræftigan", and "morðwyrhtan") used to refer to varieties of Heathen magic that the Christian kings of England sought to eradicate. In other words, the pattern that emerges when the data are laid out properly bears no resemblance to Ronald Hutton's version of Anglo-Saxon Witchcraft and magic.

Table 1 from M.J. Elsakkers, 2010: "Reading between the lines: Old Germanic and early Christian views on abortion." The table is found in "Article VIII: Anglo-Saxon laws on poisoning: an invitation to further investigation." 

Revision history:
Originally posted 1-31-2013
Revised version, including Ælfred's law, post 2-1-2013


Scott said...

If you admit that "morðwyrhtan" has a range of meanings, not all of which are magical, on what basis do you conclude that its frequency compared to "wiccecræft" contradicts Hutton's assertion that the latter "was by far the most common of the words employed in early English law codes to describe acts of magic equivalent to serious crimes against the person"?

Moreover, I think you're reaching to present Elsakker's work as the foundation for a comprehensive refutation of Hutton's assertion here: her primary interest, which you neglect to mention outside of the citation, is in early Germanic views on *abortion*, and she apparently only analyzes the witchcraft terms insofar as they coincide with laws about poisoning, which itself is only a small facet of her overall interest. (p. 221: "This short study of Anglo-Saxon law on poisoning is a by-product of my research on early medieval abortion law.") There's no reason to think that her presentation of references to witchcraft in Anglo-Saxon law is at all complete, because witchcraft is not the thing that she's studying.

Apuleius Platonicus said...

Scott, would you like to suggest a particular example where you want to claim that "morðwyrhtan" appears in one of these laws with a non-magical meaning? Certainly when it is part of a list of "heathen practices" alongside "idol worship" it is clearly intended to have a spiritual connotation. Also, when it is translated as "malefici" and/or "venefici", again, this clearly makes the meaning spiritual and not simply mundane "murder at night".

As far as whether or not Elsakkers work can be appropriated for the use to which I am putting it, all I can say is that my academic background in in the hard sciences, and in that "tradition" data is data. In fact, I think it is rather amusing that a graduate student working on a side-project with apparently not direct interest in Pagan history, per se, came up with such a profoundly important factual result for those interested in that area of study.

And as I said in the post, if there are other Anglo-Saxon laws that are relevant, then as far as I am concerned "bring it on." This is already far more data than Hutton has ever bothered to present on the issue, even though he has been tooting this particular horn since at least 2004--and he is supposedly an expert on this precise area! In fact, Hutton's fallback position when challenged on issues relating to the Renaissance, late-antiquity, classical Paganism, etc, is always that his chosen focus in on the history of Paganism in Britain! Well, here is a fine piece of research on Paganism in Britain that seems to call into question just how much Hutton knows about anything, whatsoever.

Scott said...

AP: your original post reads:

This term "morðwyrhtan" is often associated with murder by magical means, but it can also mean literally and simply murdering someone in secret, as opposed to killing someone out in the open and freely admitting to it (there was quite a difference between these two types of killing in Anglo-Saxon culture). If we include "morðwyrhtan", and related terms, as magical terms, then these suddenly jump to tie for the top of the list of magical crimes, occurring in six out of the eight laws, the same as "wiccecræft."

So "morðwyrhtan" can refer to non-magical means of secret murder as well as magical means, and given that Elsakkers is primarily interested not in documenting witchcraft laws, but in examining laws that could cover poisoning, the fact that the term is used in conjunction with other, more explicitly magical terms is no justification for assuming that it is meant in solely its magical capacity here. The presence of perjurers and prostitutes in these legal formulations further undermines any idea that the organizing principle here is magical in nature; if anything, the connecting theme here appears to be "notably-dishonorable behavior," which certainly fits with historical Germanic approaches to magical practice, as in the Edda, for example.

With regard to your assertion that "data is data" in the hard sciences: I come from a scientific background myself, and that's simply a gross oversimplification of the scientific method. Details of data gathering, analysis, and presentation can have tremendous ramifications for potential reuse of that data. Given the question I've raised about the discrepancy between the purpose for which Elsakkers collected and presented this data and your proposed reapplication of it, I'd say that the burden is on you to explain why this is an appropriate and representative set of data to address Hutton's assertions.

Apuleius Platonicus said...

There are legitimate questions about the precise (or even the approximate) meaning of "morðwyrhtan". However, when it appears in a particular context, these problems become at least partially solvable. And when we are provided with numerous Latin translations of the term (in this particular context), then we come even closer to knowing what is intended.

As far as I can tell, the "magical" connotation of "morðwyrhtan" is the general rule, and so it is reasonable to assume that in the absence of evidence to the contrary, but it would not be reasonable to make any strong conclusions that hinge only on that interpretation. I believe that there is in every case at hand additional evidence that supports the view that "morðwyrhtan" is being used to mean essentially "murder by magical means".

And now that I think of it, I do not doubt for a moment that Anglo-Saxon Heathens did, in fact, engage in the use of harmful magic, including "death" magic, against the Christians of that time. In fact, I would be quite disappointed if they did not.