A Chronicle of Narnia

By | 2 December 2015

Father Christmas himself plays a brief but crucial appearance in The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe as a symbol of hope and, more immediately and conventionally, the bearer of gifts. Those he gave to the Pevensie children became vital in the vanquishing of the White Witch & the restoration of a peaceable kingdom. In the 2005 film version, actress Tilda Swinton channelled an “ultimate white supremacist” so that she could be an acceptable incarnation of evil for 21st century sensibilities, & indeed was a chilling Jadis.

Film poster reproduced under CC licence hjw223 Narnia

Film poster reproduced under CC licence hjw223 Narnia

As librarians teaching legal research skills we cannot but hold dear a story where so much hangs on whether or not someone has done their legal homework thoroughly enough! The White Witch’s court room confidence that the law is for her  – “His blood is my property . . . unless I have blood as the Law says all Narnia will be overturned and perish in fire and water” is ill-founded – she should have read up on the laws laid down by the Emperor beyond the Sea before the dawn of the current age …  Just as well she didn’t have a tool like our Libguides on Roman law to turn to, then!

(Could this be a whole new seam of topics for theses: C.S. Lewis & the civil law??  We respectfully suggest, no!)

The treatment of people accused of witchcraft & sorcery in the real world in past centuries is one of those curiosities of legal history which has a certain fascination.

Until the Tudors, surviving archival evidence in England suggests that accusations were mostly dealt with in the church courts. (Helmholz’s The canon law and ecclesiastical jurisdiction from 597 to the 1640s 634-5 is a starting point Legal Hist O98q/1  & online if you have an Oxford SSO.) The Bawdy Courts, as the ecclesiastical courts are commonly called, are wonderful sources for understanding the life of past communities. (The University of Nottingham 2004 exhibition still has a freely available  introduction online)
However, Tudor legislation brought this form of offence against public order (perhaps  driven by added fearfulness of its potential for fomenting or cloaking treason) into the remit of the secular or royal courts:  Acts against Conjurations, Witchcrafts, Sorcery and Inchantments of 1541 (33 Hen VIII c8, 3 SR 837) & 1563 (5 Elizabeth I, c16, 4 SR 446). (Baker’s volume on 1483-1558 England at 593-4 provides the setting Legal Hist O98q/6 & online if you have an Oxford SSO.)

James VI & I, author of Daemonologie, seems to have been basically a sceptic, but rocked (in more ways than one!) by the North Berwick witches and their alleged storm-raising powers saw parliament repeal the Elizabethan act – but only to replace it by another “for the better restrayning the saide Offenses, and more severe punishinge the same…”: 1603: 1 Jac 1 c12, 4 SR 1028.

(Statutes of the Realm (SR) are the best printed source for English legislation up to 1713, and holders of an Oxford SSO can access these online either via HeinOnine or Making of the Modern Law.)

An important early study on what the surviving court records can tell us about the impact in England of these acts was a 1967 Oxford DPhil thesis: Alan MaMacFWcfarlane’s Witchcraft prosecutions in Essex, 1560-1680 a sociological analysis. He would later publish a revised version of this work as Witchcraft in Tudor and Stuart England : a regional and comparative study (1970 with 2nd edn, 1997), but thanks to the generosity of Dr Leonard Polonsky the original thesis has now been digitized and is available free to anyone with internet access via ORA Oxford University’s Research Archive. (For more information on our institutional repository see the ORA Libguide)

So far analysis of the surviving records have revealed something in the order of 513 witch trials in England between 1560 and 1700, & one in Leicester in 1717.  Of those accused “only” 112  were executed – the last in Devon in 1685. (The right conditions for these types of social panics seem to have occurred more frequently in Scotland, the Survey of Scottish Witchcraft  having identified about 4,000 people accused between 1563 – 1736.)

Most of the work on the phenomenon has been done by social and cultural historians, so the History Faculty Library and the Law Bod have collaborated on a Libguide which includes introductions to the European & North American early modern instances too.

What evidence? Legal Hist D213a

What evidence? Legal Hist D213a

In 1735 (9 Geo 2 c5) Parliament repealed the Jacobean legislation  – but thought best to continue to impose fines or imprisonment on people Nellwho claimed to be able to use magical powers, to protect the vulnerable.  It was last used in a court room in 1944 – by which time fortune-tellers were usually dealt under with Vagrancy Act 1824 (5 Geo 4 c83 art 4) and summarily dealt with as just another category of rogue and vagabond – when it seems the particular stresses of wartime made it seem necessary. It will be remembered that it was a similiar period of heightened tension that had seen the legislation first brought in.

The Fraudulent Mediums Act 1951 c33 took on this responsiblity – until repealed by The Consumer Protection from Unfair Trading Regulations 2008 (S.I. 2008/1277), reg. 1, Sch. 2 para. 3, Sch. 4 Pt. 1 (with reg. 28(2)(3) 2008.))