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Sir George Mackenzie :: History 229: The Age of the Witch Hunts

Sir George Mackenzie

Sir George MackenzieSir George Mackenzie was born in 1636 and worked as a Scottish lawyer and judge. He was known for expressing skepticism in certain witch trials. However, he believed that the devil had the power to inflict and cure diseases, and he thought the devil could transport witches to the Sabbath. He acquitted several witches during his time as a judge, but he still believed in the existence of them and was a proponent of the death penalty in cases where guilt was the verdict. He was most skeptical on the theory of devil’s pact and his ability to take different shapes. He often argued that witches would not sign such a pact with the devil.

He participated as a lawyer and judge in cases during the 1661-62 witch trials. These influenced his beliefs and made him become more skeptical. As an advocate he defended a witch named Maevia. He published his argument for the defense of her innocence in 1672. Six years later he published The Laws and Customs of Scotland in Matters Criminal. In this work he explained his theories on why so many innocent people were accused and confessed to crimes they did not commit.

His work critiqued the use of torture in order to elicit confessions from people accused of witchcraft. He also criticized the legal processes used to try a witch. For example, he argued that the local authorities trying the witches did not have appropriate knowledge of the crime. He also said that the witnesses in these trials were often unqualified to participate. His influence on the decline of the Scottish witch trials, then, was not the result of his skepticism on the reality of witchcraft. Rather, Sir George Mackenzie’s critique of the witch trials involved the legitimacy of the legal process for trying a witch.

Mackenzie, George. “Sir George Mackenzie: Judicial Caution in the Trial of Witches, 1678.” In The Witchcraft Sourcebook, edited by Brian P. Levack, 158-162. New York: Routledge, 2004.

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