In this essay, I am going to discuss how witches were thought to be a part of a sect who worshipped the devil and waged a secret war against the Christian Church. In this account, I will through the close study of two excerpts, be discussing how the literary works Formicarius and Malleus Maleficarum affected the development of Christian theologian’s perception of witches, or malefici (latin translation), during the 15th century.
Historians use the term witch hunt to describe the frenzied state of mind which the Christian society experienced during the middle ages and up until early modern times, but it is vital to point out the fact that there is little to no evidence of groups who actually organised worship of the Devil. The existence of an organisation bent on the corruption of the Church was, however, a reality in the eyes of most Christians, and a witch was by definition a Christian who had forsaken his or her faith and converted to the worship of demons (Davidson, 2012: 57-60). During the 15th century, some theologians conceived literature which specified and ratified the common perception of witches and the worship of the Devil. This would become the justification of a widespread witch hunt. The question we are left with is why these documents caused Christian society to become so fanatic that mothers, sisters and friends alike, and especially women, ended up being accused of witchcraft.
First of all, I need to take a quick look at the proceeding years and what moulded theologian beliefs up until the 15th century. Because of the scholastic foundations of magic during the 9th century and especially Canon Episcopi, witches were no longer thought to be capable of performing physical transformations themselves. They were, however, believed to be capable of performing magic with the aid of demons. During the following centuries, a certain question echoed through European universities: Can demons actually control physical matter? Even though there existed different beliefs within the Christian society, scholars generally agreed on the fact that demons were purely spiritualistic creatures, but that they had the ability to possess humans and through them appear in the physical world. Scholars did not, however, agree on the strength and constraints of which demons acted under (Harris, 2016). So what caused the intensifying radicalisation among Christians towards the pursuit of witches, and female witches in particular, at the end of the 15th century?
To answer this question, I need to look at the conception and consequences of Formicarius or The Ant Hill by Dominican theologian Johannes Nider. Formicarius was written during the Council of Basel in the middle of the Conciliar Crisis in between 1435-1437 and brought back old ideas. Formicarius did this in a new and original combination, which stated that witchcraft and heresy were very much alike and that if people outside of the Church performed magic, they would have to be in league with demons (Levack, 2004: 52). But how did Formicarius portray witches and what did Nider expect the outcome amongst other theologians to be? In order to answer this, we will have to take a close look at the text itself. Within the pages of Formicarius, Nider expressed his concerns about witches being heretics and that they were in allegiance with the devil against the church. He utilises specific and very detailed stories collected from different church members, such as inquisitors and monks, to authenticate his version about how witches served the devil and in return gained magical power. The various acts of cruelty done by different witch communities included the murder and cannibalism of infants but more importantly, it also included the renunciation of the Christian faith itself (Hansen, 2004: 53-55). A man thought to be a witch explains in detail how the renunciation happened, which included having to physically corrupt Christian rituals during a Sabbath, by following instructions from a teacher called magisterulus, the human personification of the Devil:
“First, on the Lord’s day, before the holy water is consecrated, the future disciple must go with his masters into the church, and there in their presence must renounce Christ and his faith, baptism, and the Church universal. Then he must do homage to the magisterulus, that is, to the little master (for so, and not otherwise, they call the Devil).” (Hansen, 2004: 54).
This small extract from Formicarius shows how much Nider wanted to empathise the level of contempt he thought Christians were supposed to hold towards practitioners of demonic rituals. The fact that an organised sect was capable of going into a Church on a Sunday and corrupt an otherwise Christian sanctuary, must have convinced even the most sceptical of disbelievers, that witches were a force to be reckoned with. This tells us, that Nider wished to portray the witch society to be a strong and independent entity that worked against the Church and actively organised perverse rituals in order to renounce Christianity and worship the Devil. Nowadays our stereotype of a witch is an elderly woman with warts on her nose, a crooked back and covered in black robes with a pointy hat, but in the early 15th century, witches were perceived to be far more diverse. A witch could be women as well as men and age did not matter, in fact, everyone could essentially be a witch (Davidson, 2012: 57-60). With Nider’s description of the witches’ Sabbath, a long process of increased centralisation of fears and theories of many theologians set the stage for further radicalisation against witches in the years to come. It would seem as if I am starting to reach an answer to my question, but why did the perception of witches change from them being both men and women to being mainly women? In order to find an answer to this question, I will have to take a look at one of the greatest contributors to the alteration of the general perception of witches, namely the content of the book Malleus Maleficarum.
The main author of Malleus Maleficarum or the Hammer of Witches was another Dominican theologian and inquisitor named Heinrich Kramer. In order to authenticate his arguments, Kramer included a bull from Pope Innocent VIII, where he condoned the content of the book, into its preface and since the Pope were head of the Church, it convinced many Christians of its truthfulness and resulted in it being printed and distributed as being the canon law on how to define and treat witches throughout the following centuries (Kramer & Sprenger, 2004: 57). It is important to add, that Kramer also forced the mind of society by the way he claimed that all true Christians knew deep down in their heart that the tales about witches were true and if not, the misbelievers must sure have been heretics (Ibid. 58-60).
The book described how women were especially prone to the wiles of the Devil because they were “feebler both in mind and body” and because “she is more carnal than man” (Kramer & Sprenger, 2004: 53-55). This is one of the main themes of the book and it shows a very radical way of thinking wherein witches were shown to be mainly women because they were much easier for the Devil to seduce and corrupt with sexual acts. These arguments led to the sexualisation of witchcraft wherein women were believed to accept demonic worship in return for bodily satisfaction from demons known as Incubi. Kramer use a very strong language to define the corrupt nature of women and expose how evil, dangerous and secret they are:
“What else is woman but a foe to friendship, an inescapable punishment, a necessary evil, a natural temptation, a desirable calamity, a domestic danger, a delectable detriment, an evil of nature, painted with fair colours!” (Kramer & Sprenger, 2004: 62).
This served to prove that all women held evil within them and that if given the opportunity, they would commit themselves to the Devil because they were easily seduced. Kramer further established the foundation of his arguments by tales from the Bible and argued that because Eve was made from a bent rib from Adam, every woman since then must be crooked by nature. Eve caused the Fall of Man in the days of paradise and Kramer used this to show that even in the presence of God, women were still prone to seduction. This served as a reason to why every single Christian had to be on guard for witches in their communities, and amongst their family members. Within Malleus Maleficarum, Kramer also describes to some extend the power of witches by giving examples where men, livestock and entire households had been cursed by womanly witches and that almost every disease and misfortune which befell families or societies could be explained by being caused by the wrath of witches (Kramer & Sprenger, 2004: 61-63). This explains why the Christian society would enter such a frenzied state of mind as it did in the following centuries. Because of this, it gives me an indication, that the words of Kramer would cause the final transition of the general perception of witches into the commonly known female witch.
To summarise the answers to my initial question, the 15th century became a crucial turning point in societies’ perception of witches and it was fuelled by two radical pieces of literature, Formicarius and Malleus Maleficarum. In regard to the latter, Malleus Maleficarum became the guide and handbook for the day-to-day handling of witches, greatly influenced because of Pope Innocent VIII’s authentication. Because of the portrayal of women being more prone to the wiles of the Devil, the Christian society experienced a sexualisation of witchcraft. This was done by using the Word of God to justify and define how women had a much higher chance of being seduced by the Devil and that within all women reside the possibility of doing evil deeds.
Written by Frederik Roland Andersen, University College Cork, Cork, Ireland, 2016.
- – Davidson, Jane P. Early Modern Supernatural: The Dark Side of European Culture, 1400- 1700. (Santa Barbara, CA: Praeger 2012), book.
- – Hansen, Joseph. Quellen und Untersuchungen zur Geschichte des Hexenwahns under der Hexenverfolgung im Mittelalter (Bonn, 1901), pp. 91-94 in Brian P. Levack. The Witchcraft Sourcebook (New York: Routledge, 2004), extract.
- – Harris, Jason. 09 – Fifteenth-Century Witchcraft Theory (University College Cork, 10.10.2016).
- – Kramer, Henrich and James Sprenger. The Malleus Maleficarum of Henrich Kramer and James Sprenger, ed. Montague Summers (London, 1928), pp. 1-7, 11-12, 20-21, 41-44, 89, 94-98, 99-100, 111, 114-115, 117-118 in Brian P. Levack. The Witchcraft Sourcebook (New York: Routledge, 2004), extract.
- – Levack, Brian P. The Witchcraft Sourcebook (New York: Routledge, 2004), extract.