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The Scottish Witchcraft Act

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  28 July 2009

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Few acts of the Scottish parliament can have had such deadly consequences as the following, passed on June 4, 1563: Anentis Witchcraftis.

ITEM Forsamekill as the Quenis Majestie and thre Estatis in this present Parliament being informit, that the havy and abominabill superstitioun usit be divers of the liegis of this Realme, be using of Witchcraftis, Sorsarie and Necromancie, and credence gevin thairto in tymes bygane aganis the Law of God: And for avoyding and away putting of all sic vane superstitioun in tymes tocum: ¶ It is statute and ordanit be the Quenis Majestie, and thre Estatis foirsaidis, that na maner of persoun nor persounis, of quhatsumever estate, degre or conditioun thay be of, tak upone hand in ony tymes heirefter, to use ony maner of Witchcraftis, Sorsarie or Necromancie, nor gif thame selfis furth to have ony sic craft or knawlege thairof, thairthrow abusand the pepill: Nor that na persoun seik ony help, response or cosultatioun at ony sic usaris or abusaris foirsaidis of Witchcraftis, Sorsareis or Necromancie, under the pane of deid, alsweill to be execute aganis the usar, abusar, as the seikar of the response or consultatioun.

Copyright © American Society of Church History 2005


1. Edward, Henryson, ed., Actis and Constitutionis of the Realme of Scotland (Edinburgh: Robert Lekprevik, Nov. 1566), fo. clxxiiii(r.), ca. viiiGoogle Scholar. Accurately transcribed, but with omission of title and punctuation, in Acts of the Parliaments of Scotland, 12 vols., eds. Thomas, Thomson and Cosmo, Innes (Edinburgh: H. M. General Register House, 18141875) [henceforth APS], 2:539, c. 9Google Scholar. The printed edition of 1566 is the only source for the acts of the 1563 parliament, the manuscript registers having disappeared, Julian, Goodare, “The Scottish Parliamentary Records, 1560–1603,” Historical Research 72 (1999): 247, 255.Google Scholar

Following the publication of the acts in 1566, this act was cited as the act c. 8, June 4, 1563. A new edition of the acts in 1597 adopted a consecutive numbering system by reigns, whereupon the witchcraft act became the act c. 73 of Queen Mary, or of 1563, or of the ninth parliament of Queen Mary. It continued to be cited thus until the publication of APS.

Historians, who have always quoted the act in the APS edition, have never noted the fact that it originally had a title and punctuation. Some historians have inserted their own punctuation. See in particular Lawrence, Normand and Gareth, Roberts, eds., Witchcraft in Early Modern Scotland: James VI's Demonology and the North Berwick Witches (Exeter, U.K.: Exeter University Press, 2000), 89Google Scholar, and Maxwell-Stuart, Peter G., Satan's Conspiracy: Magic and Witchcraft in Sixteenth-Century Scotland (East Linton, U.K.: Tuckwell, 2001), 3536, in both of which the omission of a comma between “Justice” and “Schireffis” vitiates the meaning of the final clause. These works do, however, provide helpful discussions of the act.Google Scholar

2. Figures on this contain considerable uncertainty. For an estimate of the leading historian of Scottish witch-hunting, see Christina, Lamer, Enemies of God: the Witch-Hunt in Scotland (London: Chatto and Windus, 1981), 63Google Scholar. Her figures have been revised upwards by Stuart, Macdonald, The Witches of Fife: Witch-Hunting in a Scottish Shire, 1560–1710 (East Linton, U.K.: Tuckwell, 2002), appendix B, and Julian Goodare, Lauren Martin, Joyce Miller, and Louise Yeoman, “The Survey of Scottish Witchcraft, 1563–1736,” (archived Jan. 2003).Google Scholar

3. For the early years of the Reformation, see in general Gordon, Donaldson, The Scottish Reformation (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1960)Google Scholar; Cowan, Ian B., The Scottish Reformation (London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1982)Google Scholar; and James, Kirk, Patterns of Reform: Continuity and Change in the Reformation Kirk (Edinburgh: T. and T. Clark, 1989)Google Scholar. For church discipline, see Graham, Michael F., The Uses of Reform: “Godly Discipline” and Popular Behavior in Scotland and Beyond, 1560–1610 (Leiden: Brill, 1996)Google Scholar, and Margo, Todd, The Culture of Protestantism in Early Modern Scotland (New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 2002).Google Scholar

4. Julian, Goodare, “The First Parliament of Mary Queen of Scots,” Sixteenth Century Journal 36 (2005, forthcoming).Google Scholar

5. Randolph to Sir William Cecil, 5 January 1563, Calendar of the State Papers Relating to Scotland and Mary Queen of Scots, 1547–1603, eds. Joseph, Bain and others (Edinburgh: H. M. General Register House, 18981969) [henceforth CSP Scot.], 1:677Google Scholar; Thomas, Thomson, ed., Booke of the Universall Kirk: Acts and Proceedings of the General Assemblies of the Kirk of Scotland (Edinburgh: Bannatyne and Maitland Clubs, 18391845) [henceforth BUK], 1:2530.Google Scholar

6. Cameron, James K., ed., The First Book of Discipline (Edinburgh: St. Andrew Press, 1972).Google Scholar

7. BUK, 1:20–24.

8. Cf. Donaldson, , Scottish Reformation, 7879Google Scholar; Graham, , Uses of Reform, 39.Google Scholar

9. Julian, Goodare, The Government of Scotland, 1560–1625 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004), chap. 8.Google Scholar

10. Draft acts were called “acts”; the English term “bill” was not used in Scotland.

11. Goodare, “First Parliament of Mary”; Julian, Goodare, “The Scottish Political Community and the Parliament of 1563,” Albion 35 (2003): 373–97.Google Scholar

12. In what follows, the terms “author, authorship” indicate having an influence on the text, and “drafter, drafting” indicate putting pen to paper. The terms are related, but the point is that a group could exercise “authorship.”

13. Knox, John, History of the Reformation in Scotland, ed. Dickinson, William Croft (London: Nelson, 1949) [henceforth Knox, History], 2:7980.Google Scholar

14. “Wise men,” and others, may read them at APS, 2:535–37, cc. 1–2 (act of oblivion); 539, c. 8 (manses and glebes); 539, c. 9 (witchcraft); 539, c. 10 (adultery); 539–40, c. 12 (repair of churches).

15. Knox, , History, 1:xcii–xciiiGoogle Scholar; Maurice, Lee Jr., “John Knox and His History,” Scottish Historical Review 45 (1966): 8185Google Scholar; Julian, Goodare, “Queen Mary's Catholic Interlude,” in Mary Stewart: Queen in Three Kingdoms, ed. Michael, Lynch (Oxford: Blackwell, 1988), 163–68Google Scholar; Graham, Michael F., ”Knox on Discipline: Conversionary Zeal or Rose-tinted Nostalgia?“ in John Knox and the British Reformations, ed. Mason, Roger A. (Aldershot, U.K.: Ashgate, 1998).Google Scholar

16. First Book of Discipline, 156–64. The supplication of 1562 had also demanded manses and glebes, and repair of churches, but these were minor items in its program, BUK, 1:22–23.

17. Parliament recognized the latter problem itself in 1581, making an attempt to solve it, which was only partially successful, APS, 3:213, c. 7.

18. BUK, 1:21.

19. For more on this drafting and lobbying process, see Goodare, , Government, 4346.Google Scholar

20. Like Knox, he offered no comment on the witchcraft act, perhaps because the ministers who briefed him did not draw it to his attention. Randolph ”commune[d] oft“ with Knox, and his report may well reflect Knox's views, Randolph to Cecil, 16 December 1562, 13 June 1563, CSP Scot, 1:673; 2:13.

21. For some examples involving Knox, see John, Knox, Works, ed. David, Laing (Edinburgh: Bannatyne Club, 18461864), 6:390.Google Scholar

22. Kyle, Richard G., The Mind of John Knox (Lawrence, Kans.: Coronado, 1984), 9, 73.Google Scholar

23. For Erskine's career, see Frank, Bardgett, ”John Erskiñe of Dun: a Theological Reassessment,“ Scottish Journal of Theology 43 (1990): 5985Google Scholar. For Winram's, see Dunbar, Linda J., Reforming the Scottish Church: John Winram (c. 1492–1582) and the Example of Fife (Aldershot, U.K.: Ashgate, 2002).Google Scholar

24. BUK, 1:25, 30.

25. BUK, 1:28–30.

26. BUK, 1:29.

27. For the later struggle for jurisdiction over these offences, including witchcraft, see Julian, Goodare, State and Society in Early Modern Scotland (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999), 186–92.Google Scholar

28. I am grateful to Rev. Dr. Linda Dunbar for advice on this point.

29. For his notarial training, see Burns, J. H., “Knox: Scholastic and Canonistic Echoes,” in John Knox, ed. Mason, 119–21.Google Scholar

30. Maxwell-Stuart, , Satan's Conspiracy, 3134.Google Scholar

31. Ibid., 43–44. Emphasis in original. Following Christina Larner, he rules out Knox on the grounds of his “relative and apparent indifference to the subject” of witchcraft.

32. Maxwell-Stuart, , Satan's Conspiracy, 5257;Google Scholar Michael Wasser, “Ambition and Failure: Scotland's Unknown Witch-hunt, 1568–1569,” unpublished paper.

33. For this point in a better-documented regional panic, see Julian, Goodare, “The Aberdeenshire Witchcraft Panic of 1597,” Northern Scotland 21 (2001): 1737.Google Scholar

34. Dr. Maxwell-Stuart also cites Erskine as expressing concern about Satan in 1571, but again this was something that all Protestant ministers routinely did.

35. First Book of Discipline, 165–73; BUK, 1:19.

36. Geneva Bible.

37. Smith, David B., “The Spiritual Jurisdiction, 1560–1564,” Records of the Scottish Church History Society 25 (19931995): 118Google Scholar; Julian, Goodare, “Witch-hunting and the Scottish State,” in The Scottish Witch-Hunt in Context, ed. Julian, Goodare (Manchester, U.K.: Manchester University Press, 2002), 125Google Scholar; Goodare, , “Scottish Parliamentary Records,” 251.Google Scholar

38. The English act was not the first one on the subject. An earlier witchcraft act had been passed in 1542, but in 1547 it had fallen victim to a portmanteau act repealing recent felonies. Texts of the acts of 1542, 1547, and 1563 are conveniently collected in Ewen, C. L'Estrange, Witch Hunting and Witch Trials (London: Kegan Paul, 1929), 1318.Google Scholar

39. Sellar, W. D. H., “The Common Law of Scotland and the Common Law of England,” in The British Isles, 1100–1500, ed. Davies, R. R. (Edinburgh: John Donald, 1988), 92Google Scholar, gives examples of English acts of 1535 and 1572, borrowed by the Scots in 1555 and 1575 respectively. An act of 1572 borrowed in 1573 is given by Donaldson, , Scottish Reformation, 177, 231–33.Google Scholar

40. Norman, Jones, “Defining Superstitions: Treasonous Catholics and the Act against Witchcraft of 1563,” in State, Sovereigns and Society, eds. Charles, Carlton and others (Stroud, U.K.: Sutton, 1998).Google Scholar

41. The most likely such minister was Knox, who had served in the English church and who took a continuing interest in it. See Peter, Lorimer, John Knox and the Church of England (London: King, 1875)Google Scholar, and Stephen, Alford, “Knox, Cecil and the British Dimension of the Scottish Reformation,” in John Knox, ed. Mason.Google Scholar

42. The Statutes at Large, vol. 2 (London: Charles Eyre, 1763), contents.Google Scholar

43. Lamer, , Enemies of God, 6667 (and cf. 177, 188).Google Scholar

44. Maxwell-Stuart, , Satan's Conspiracy, 3738Google Scholar; Normand and Roberts, eds., Witchcraft in Early Modern Scotland, 9091.Google Scholar

45. This is not to suggest that Protestants believed that Catholics were knowingly worshiping the Devil. Knox made clear that even the Gentiles did not normally do that; rather “they servit thois whome thay judgeit to be Godis, being sa taucht and instructit from thair antecessouris,” though their judgment and teaching were false. Knox, , Works, 4:231, citing 1 Corinthians 10:20–21.Google Scholar

46. This is worth emphasizing, since (as pointed out above) the title was omitted from the APS edition of the act and has never been noticed since.

47. As would become explicit in the later Authorised Version. For the significance of the passage, see Stuart, Clark, ”Protestant Demonology: Sin, Superstition, and Society (c. 1520–c. 1630),“ in Early Modern European Witchcraft, eds. Bengt, Ankarloo and Gustav, Henningsen (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1991), 6264.Google Scholar

48. This was certainly how James VI would later use these terms, distinguishing ”Magie or Necromancie“ from ”Sorcerie or Witchcraft,” and explaining, “This word of Sorcerie is a Latine worde.… As to the word of Witchcraft, it is nothing but a proper name giuen in our language,” James, VI, Daemonologie, in his Minor Prose Works, ed. Craigie, James (Edinburgh: Scottish Text Society, 1982), 5, 19, 22Google Scholar (emphasis in original). The Privy Council, too, sometimes conflated ”witchcraft” and “sorcery.” The “odious and detestable cryme of witchecraft, inchantment, and sorcerie” clearly involved pleonasm since the ”cryme” was singular, John Hill, Burton and others, eds., Register of the Privy Council of Scotland (Edinburgh: H. M. General Register House, 1877– ) [henceforth RPC], 11:104. Some clerks probably used both terms simply because both had appeared in the act. Reference to “suspected witches, and dealers in sorcery, charms, &c.” might suggest a separation between the terms, though more explicit evidence would be required to establish the point, RPC, 12:734. One might hypothesize that “sorcery” could have meant magical practices not involving healing (which would be “charming”) or malefice (which would be “witchcraft”). Dr. Peter Maxwell-Stuart's ongoing research may shed light on this, and I am grateful to him for discussing the issue with me.Google Scholar

49. For what follows on charmers, see Joyce, Miller, “Devices and Directions: Folk Healing Aspects of Witchcraft Practice in Seventeenth-century Scotland,” in Scottish Witch-Hunt, ed. GoodareGoogle Scholar; and Joyce, Miller, “Cantrips and Carlins: Magic, Medicine and Society in the Presbyteries of Haddington and Stirling, 1603–1688” (Ph.D. thesis, University of Stirling, 1999)Google Scholar. I am grateful to Dr. Miller for lending me a copy of her thesis and for an illuminating discussion of the subject. “Charmers” was the Scottish term for those often known elsewhere as “cunning folk.” Cf. Willem, de Blécourt, “Witch Doctors, Soothsayers and Priests: on Cunning Folk in European Historiographical Tradition,” Social History 19 (1994): 285303.Google Scholar

50. “A charmer” featured in Deuteronomy 18:10–11, but it is hard to say whether this increases or reduces the likelihood of this passage having influenced the act.

51. Quoted in Miller, , “Devices and Directions,” 91.Google Scholar

52. Miller, , “Cantrips and Carlins,” 215.Google Scholar

53. I am grateful to Dr. Lauren Martin for a discussion of this point.

54. A further pattern of healing, distinct from charming, should be mentioned here. Some-one reputed to be a maleficent witch would be accused of inflicting a disease on a neighbor after a quarrel, and one party would then approach the other and attempt a reconciliation. A successful reconciliation would be followed by the lifting of the disease. This, often described as “laying on and taking off sickness,” could be included in the witch's dittay (indictment). It should be recognized as part of a pattern of basically maleficent behavior rather than as the act of a practicing charmer, even on the occasions when similar rituals to the charmers' were employed, Miller, , “Cantrips and Carlins,” 107.Google Scholar

55. Knox, , History, 2:61Google Scholar. Cf. Julian, Goodare, “John Knox on Demonology and Witchcraft,” Archiv für Reformationsgeschichte 96 (2005, forthcoming).Google Scholar

56. Todd, , Culture of Protestantism, 144, 151, 158Google Scholar; Julian, Goodare, “The Scottish Witchcraft Panic of 1597,” in Scottish Witch-Hunt, ed. Goodare, 5657, 68.Google Scholar

57. Defence advocates sometimes attacked this presumption, claiming that their clients ought to be acquitted if specific spells were not proven, but this claim was rarely if ever accepted by the courts.

58. Larner, Enemies of Cod, chaps. 8–9; Julian, Goodare, “Women and the Witch-hunt in Scotland,” Social History 23 (1998): 300301.Google Scholar

59. See for example Bardgett, Frank D., Scotland Reformed: the Reformation in Angus and the Mearns (Edinburgh: John Donald, 1988), chap. 5Google Scholar; Dawson, Jane E. A., “‘The Face of Ane Perfyt Reformed Kyrk’: St. Andrews and the Early Scottish Reformation,” in Humanism and Reform, ed. James, Kirk (Oxford: Blackwell for the Ecclesiastical History Society, 1991)Google Scholar; Michael, Lynch, Edinburgh and the Reformation (Edinburgh: John Donald, 1981), part 3Google Scholar; Sanderson, Margaret H. B., Ayrshire and the Reformation: People and Change, 1490–1600 (East Linton, U.K.: Tuckwell, 1997), chaps. 8–9. I am grateful to Dr. Jane Dawson for a helpful discussion of this subject.Google Scholar

60. The average Lowland parish would experience rather less than one witchcraft panic (involving multiple cases) during the entire period of Scottish witch-hunting, Goodare, “Witch-hunting and the Scottish State,” 141–42.

61. Christina, Lamer, “King James VI and I and Witchcraft,” in her Witchcraft and Religion (Oxford: Blackwell, 1984)Google Scholar; Jenny, Wormald, “The Witches, the Devil and the King,” in Freedom and Authority: Scotland, c. 1050–c. 1650, eds. Terry, Brotherstone and David, Ditchburn (East Linton, U.K.: Tuckwell, 2000), 170–74Google Scholar; Maxwell-Stuart, Peter G., “The Fear of the King is Death: James VI and the Witches of East Lothian,” in Fear in Early Modern Society, eds. Naphy, William G. and Penny, Roberts (Manchester, U.K.: Manchester University Press, 1997), 211–13Google Scholar. Cf. Stuart, Macdonald, “In Search of the Devil in Fife Witchcraft Cases, 1560–1705,” in Scottish Witch-Hunt, ed. Goodare.Google Scholar

62. Cf. Williamson, Arthur H., Scottish National Consciousness in the Age of James VI (Edinburgh: John Donald, 1979), 5562Google Scholar. Professor Larner herself quoted a pre-Reformation mention of the demonic pact from 1552, which also incidentally mentioned necromancers, Larner, , Enemies of God, 163.Google Scholar

63. Goodare, “John Knox on Demonology and Witchcraft.” Knox had had an opportunity to acquaint himself with Continental doctrine in Geneva in the 1550s, and the absence of such doctrine from the Scottish act may reduce the tentative case made above for his contribution to its authorship.

64. Clark, “Protestant Demonology”; Stuart, Clark, Thinking with Demons: the Idea of Witchcraft in Early Modern Europe (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1997), chap. 35.Google Scholar

65. Rio, Martin Del, Investigations into Magic, ed. Maxwell-Stuart, Peter G. (Manchester, U.K.: Manchester University Press, 2000), 12Google Scholar and passim. For the paucity of citation of King James, see James, VI, Daemonologie, 153–57Google Scholar. Scottish references to Del Rio include: Robert, Pitcairn, ed., Criminal Trials in Scotland, 1488–1624 (Edinburgh: Bannatyne Club, 1833), vol. 3, part 2:514–15, 522–23Google Scholar; Sir George, Mackenzie, Laws and Customer of Scotland in Matters Criminal (Edinburgh: Thomas Brown, 1678), 89, 91, 93, 9798, 100, 105Google Scholar; and SirJohn, Lauder of Fountainhall, Historical Notices of Scotish Affairs, ed. David, Laing (Edinburgh: Bannatyne Club, 1848), 1:164.Google Scholar

66. Clark, , Thinking with Demons, 532–34Google Scholar, where he points out that the classic exposition of the issues is Keith, Thomas, Religion and the Decline of Magic (London: Weidenfeld and Nicholson, 1971).Google Scholar

67. Numerous attacks on Catholicism and witchcraft as separate issues are cited in Maxwell-Stuart, Satan's Conspiracy, chaps. 3–4.

68. Williamson, Scottish National Consciousness, chap. 2.

69. Maurice, Lee Jr., John Maitland of Thirlestane and the Foundation of the Stewart Despotism in Scotland (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1959), chap. 11Google Scholar; Mac-Donald, Alan R., The Jacobean Kirk, 1567–1625: Sovereignty, Polity and Liturgy (Aldershot, U.K.: Ashgate, 1998), 4647. This was the son-in-law of the earl of Moray in 1563.Google Scholar

70. Miller, “Cantrips and Carlins,” chap. 11.

71. Richard, Kieckhefer, Magic in the Middle Ages (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1989), chap. 4.Google Scholar

72. Stephen, Wilson, The Magical Universe: Everyday Ritual and Magic in Pre-Modern Europe (London: Hambledon and London, 2000).Google Scholar

73. Richard, Kieckhefer, ed., Forbidden Rites: A Necromancer's Manual of the Fifteenth Century (Stroud, U.K.: Sutton, 1997).Google Scholar

74. Kieckhefer, ed., Forbidden Rites, chap. 6.

75. Thomas, Freeman, “Demons, Deviance and Defiance: John Darrell and the Politics of Exorcism in Late Elizabethan England,” in Conformity and Orthodoxy in the English Church, c. 1560–1660, eds. Peter, Lake and Michael, Questier (Woodbridge, U.K.: Boydell, 2000).Google Scholar

76. Walker, D. P., Unclean Spirits: Possession and Exorcism in France and England in the Late Sixteenth and Early Seventeenth Centuries (London: Scolar, 1981), chap. 2. I am grateful to Dr. Jane Dawson for a discussion of Protestantism and exorcism.CrossRefGoogle Scholar

77. Gordon, Donaldson, ed., Scottish Historical Documents (Edinburgh: Scottish Academic Press, 1970), 152.Google Scholar

78. Francis, Coxe, A Short Treatise Declaringe the Detestable Wickednesse of Magicall Sciences, as Necromancie, Coniurations of Spirites, Curiouse Astrologie and Suche Lyke (London: John Aide, 1561). Coxe does not seem to have contributed any phraseology to the Scottish act, but they shared a concern with the necromancer's vaticinatory role, and Coxe also briefly discussed the demonic pact.Google Scholar

79. Knox, , History, 2:1416. Cf. Goodare, “John Knox on Demonology and Witchcraft.”Google Scholar

80. The fact that a leading Protestant minister was accused of necromancy might seem to contradict the case made here for necromancy as Catholic; but the accusations were of course made by Catholics, who would be unlikely to see necromancy in this way.

81. In his Tractatus de Hereticis et Sortilegiis (1536). See Lea, Henry C., Materials Toward a History of Witchcraft, ed. Howland, Arthur C. (New York: Thomas Yoseloff, 1957), 1:395–97.Google Scholar

82. Although the demonic pact was often described sketchily, if at all, and was not necessarily the focus of concern, Macdonald, “In Search of the Devil.”

83. The Malleus Maleficarum did not support a tacit pact by necromancers, believing that they all made an explicit pact, Malleus Maleficarum, trans. Montague, Summers (London: John Rodker, 1928), book 1, question 2Google Scholar. For James VI's complex views, see Daemonologie, 5, 11.

84. Todd, , Culture of Protestantism, 42 and passim.Google Scholar

85. These problems might have been introduced by those who amended the act, but if so this would illustrate the related point that parliament's own committees were capable of allowing a badly drafted act onto the statute book.

86. Sellar, W. D. H., “Leviticus XVIII, the Forbidden Degrees and the Law of Incest in Scotland,” Jewish Law Annual 1 (1978): 229–32.Google Scholar

87. Julian, Goodare, “The Framework for Scottish Witch-hunting in the 1590s,” Scottish Historical Review 81 (2002): 244–47.Google Scholar

88. APS, 3:44, c. 86.

89. Thomas, Thomson, ed., The Historie and Life of King James the Sext (Edinburgh: Bannatyne Club, 1825), 242. The mention of “sorcerers, witches or suthesayers,” when the act had specified “Witchcraftis, Sorsarie and Necromancie,” indicates the interchangeability of such terms.Google Scholar

90. Larner, Enemies of God, chap. 12.

91. Macdonald, , Witches of Fife, 178–83.Google Scholar

92. RPC, 2nd ser., 8:359–60.