Thursday, December 26, 2013

"To deny the possibility, nay, actual existence, of witchcraft and sorcery is at once flatly to contradict the revealed word of God"

In 1753, noted jurist William Blackstone set down some of his thoughts on the subject of Witchcraft. Several essential points need to be emphasized about what Blackstone had to say:
  1. Witchcraft is a religious crime against Christianity.
  2. Witchcraft is placed in the general category of magic, without necessarily requiring any qualification that the magic in question be used to cause harm.
  3. Witchcraft is placed in the same category as the crime of Heresy, "condemning both to the flames."
  4. Special emphasis is placed on the fact that practitioners of Witchcraft are actively sought out by those who wish to employ Witches for their magical services.
  5. Divination and love magic are explicitly included in the types of magic included in the prohibition against "witchcraft, conjuration, enchantment, or sorcery."
  6. At no point is Witchcraft in particular singled out in any way (for example as somehow worse either from a legal or a spiritual perspective) as opposed to "conjuration, enchantment, or sorcery."
  7. Blackstone divides the general category of magical crimes into those that are punishable by death on the first offense, and those that are punishable by death only on the second offense.
  8. Magical crimes deserving death on the first offense are further divided into three categories: (i) any and all consorting with "evil spirits", (ii) necromancy, or (iii) killing or causing harm "by such infernal arts".
  9. Magical crimes deserving death on the second offense consist of all attempts (whether successful or not) to employ "sorcery" in order to (i) "discover hidden treasure", (ii) "restore stolen goods", (iii) "provoke unlawful love", or (iv) "hurt any man or beast".
  10. The fact that Blackstone does explicitly mention the use of magic to cause harm (or even attempting to do so), alongside other specific acts that are all treated as equally deserving of the same punishment, serves to highlight the fact that there was no absolute correlation between Witchcraft as a crime and the use of unlawful magic to cause harm.

Sir William Blackstone, Commentaries on the Laws of England in Four Books, vol. 2 [1753]
[Please see the original at the link for notes and sources.]

VI. A sixth species of offence against God and religion, of which our antient books are full, is a crime of which one knows not well what account to give. I mean the offence of witchcraft, conjuration, enchantment, or sorcery. To deny the possibility, nay, actual existence, of witchcraft and sorcery is at once flatly to contradict the revealed word of God, in various passages both of the Old and New Testament: and the thing itself is a truth to which every nation in the world hath in its turn borne testimony, either by examples seemingly well attested or by prohibitory laws; which at least suppose the possibility of commerce with evil spirits. The civil law punishes with death not only the sorcerers themselves, but also those who consult them,(j) imitating in the former the express law of God,(k) “Thou shalt not suffer a witch to live.” And our own laws, both before and since the conquest, have been *equally penal; ranking this crime in the same class with heresy, and condemning both to the flames.(l) The president Montesquieu(m) ranks them also both together, but with a very different view: laying it down as an important maxim that we ought to be very circumspect in the prosecution of magic and heresy; because the most unexceptionable conduct, the purest morals, and the constant practice of every duty in life are not a sufficient security against the suspicion of crimes like these. And indeed the ridiculous stories that are generally told, and the many impostures and delusions that have been discovered in all ages, are enough to demolish all faith in such a dubious crime; if the contrary evidence were not also extremely strong. Wherefore it seems to be the most eligible way to conclude, with an ingenious writer of our own,(n) that in general there has been such a thing as witchcraft; though one cannot give credit to any particular modern instance of it.

Our forefathers were stronger believers when they enacted, by statute 33 Hen. VIII. c. 8, all witchcraft and sorcery to be felony without benefit of clergy; and again, by statute 1 Jac. I. c. 12, that all persons invoking any evil spirit, or consulting, covenanting with, entertaining, employing, feeding, or rewarding, any evil spirit; or taking up dead bodies from their graves to be used in any witchcraft, sorcery, charm, or enchantment; or killing or otherwise hurting any person by such infernal arts, should be guilty of felony without benefit of clergy, and suffer death. And if any person should attempt by sorcery to discover hidden treasure, or to restore stolen goods, or to provoke unlawful love, or to hurt any man or beast, though the same were not effected, he or she should suffer imprisonment and pillory for the first offence, and death for the second. These acts continued in force till lately, to the terror of all antient females in the kingdom: and many poor wretches were sacrificed thereby to the prejudice of their neighbours and their own illusions; not a few having, by some means or other, confessed the fact at the gallows. But all executions for this dubious crime are now at an end; our legislature having at length followed the wise example of *Louis XIV. in France, who thought proper, by an edict, to restrain the tribunals of justice from receiving informations of witchcraft.(o) And accordingly it is with us enacted, by statute 9 Geo. II. c. 5, that no prosecution shall for the future be carried on against any persons for conjuration, witchcraft, sorcery, or enchantment. But the misdemeanour of persons pretending to use witchcraft, tell fortunes, or discover stolen goods, by skill in the occult sciences, is still deservedly punished with a year’s imprisonment, and standing four times in the pillory.12