Monday, January 29, 2007

Witchcraft Act Wasn't About Women On Brooms

Severin Carrell's article discussed the prosecution and imprisonment of Helen Duncan in 1944 under the archaic Witchcraft Act of 1735 (Campaign to pardon the last witch, jailed as a threat to Britain at war, January 13).

I have researched this case for my PhD on popular belief and British society, and, while I believe it highly unlikely that Churchill and George VI were among Duncan's clients, as has been rumoured, her trial was certainly sensationalised by the popular press, with headlines such as "Story of ghost that did not like lipstick" (Daily Express) and cartoons of hags riding broomsticks through the night sky.

The general public and the media tend to associate prosecutions under the act with actual witchcraft, but historian Owen Davies has pointed out that, in fact, the Witchcraft Act strove to eradicate the belief in witchcraft once and for all among educated people, the judiciary and the Anglican church. Its passage meant that it was no longer possible to be prosecuted as a witch in an English or Scottish court. It was, however, possible to be prosecuted for pretending to "exercise or use any kind of witchcraft, sorcery, enchantment, or conjuration, or undertake to tell fortunes". Full Story

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