Curses or Threats? Debating the Power of Witches’ Words in 17th-Century Scottish Courtrooms

Magdalena Leitner


17th-century Scottish court records present a perspective on witchcraft language that is unavailable in Early Modern English trials, namely that of defence lawyers. This paper offers a discursive analysis of speech act functions attributed by trial parties to alleged witches’ utterances in three 17th-century Scottish witchcraft cases. Culpeper and Semino’s (2000) curse definitions are combined with Jucker and Taavitsainen’s (2000: 74) “pragmatic space” to capture the spectrum of witchcraft speech acts. The examination of metacommunicative expressions suggests that threats were key witchcraft speech acts with different degrees of performativity, ranging from venting anger to effective harm- causing curses. The supernatural dimension of witches’ threats is absent in modern threats.

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