If you asked someone in Elizabethan England to explain what a witch was, you would receive a very clear and familiar description.
Witches were, as everyone at that time knew, devil worshipping practitioners of black magic. They meet in covens, fly on broomsticks, consort with devils, perform satanic rituals, make human sacrifices, and cast evil spells and curses.
It is tempting to believe that this definition of witchcraft is as old as Christianity itself. But it’s not.
If you were to describe a witch in that way to anyone living in 1300, they would have been utterly shocked. It would have been entirely unfamiliar and new to them. You might even have been accused of being mad.
The truth is that the idea of ‘the witch’, as we know it today. was invented in the late Middle Ages. But how and why did this happen?
What is a witch?
If I were to ask you to describe ‘a witch’, what image comes most easily to mind?
Your first thought would probably be of an older woman, perhaps a hag. She probably lives alone to give her the privacy she needs to practice her dark arts. Images of black magic, devil worship, covens, black sabbaths, black cats, broomsticks, human sacrifices and orgies might spring to mind.
This detailed image of ‘the witch’ was fully formed by Elizabethan times and persists to today. But, in 1300, it simply did not register in the cultural consciousness. In the two crucial centuries between 1300 and 1500 the concept of ‘the witch’ was invented.
The concept of the witch
The idea of witchcraft and sorcery certainly existed in 1300 (as indeed it had for centuries) but it was far more loosely defined. It was not particularly associated with devil worship. Concepts such as witch marks and black sabbaths were unheard of. When people thought of witches and sorcery, they were no more likely to think of women than of men. Indeed, the practice of magic was by no means automatically associated with anything inherently evil or harmful.
Throughout Middle Ages, it might perhaps surprise you to learn that very few witches were actively persecuted. Certainly, the numbers involved were vanishingly small compared to the great witch hunts of the late sixteenth and early seventeenth century.
True enough, the bible itself, contains some firm proscriptions against sorcery and witchcraft:
Thou shalt not suffer a witch to live.Exodus 22:18
You shall not practise augury or witchcraft.Leviticus 19:26
A man or a woman who is a medium, or who has familiar spirits, shall surely be put to death.Leviticus 20:27
But wait. The references to witches and witchcraft come from English translations of the Bible. These are all influenced by the King James Bible, which was compiled in the early C17th, at the height of the early modern witch-hunts.
In the Latin translation, used during the Middle Ages, the word ‘witch’ is not used. Instead, we find ‘maleficos’ – which specifically means practitioners of harmful magic (not witches in general).
Additionally, nothing in the Bible explicitly links ‘witches’ with any kind of satanist cult.
For most of the Middle Ages the official Church position was that sorcery and witchcraft were viewed as misguided and to be discouraged. However, they were not seen as inherently evil, and they certainly did not warrant active persecution.
In fact, magic of various kinds was quite commonly practised in the Middle Ages.
If the early medieval Church had imposed the death penalty on everyone dabbling in magic it would have led to a bloodbath. It would certainly have turned the pagan populations who the early missionaries were attempting to convert, against the faith.
The Church saw magic as a misguided superstitious belief (much the same attitude as many people have today). Since this magic did not come from God, as far as the Church was concerned, it could not work. People could be deceived into such foolishness by demons, but this did not mean they worshipped demons.
The practice of magic was usually seen as no more than a symptom of pagan or heretical belief. The solution was therefore to stamp out paganism and heresy. The official Church teaching, for most of the Middle Ages, was that those who practiced magic were delusional and foolish rather than evil.
The relationship between medieval society and magic was therefore ambivalent. On the one hand there is no denying that the Church disapproved of it. But on the other, the Church saw no need to proactively persecute it.
‘Good’ and ‘Bad’ Magic
Of course, not all supernatural powers were classed as magic anyway. Miracles, visions, prophecy, and holy relics were all gifts from God. Deciding what exactly qualified as ‘magic’ in the medieval mind was not so clearcut as we might think.
Astrology provides a form of divination or augury not unlike prophecy. So does this count as sorcery or witchcraft? Or is it another gift from God?
Is not astrology simply observing the patterns in the heavens and discerning their meaning? Are not the stars in the heavens the work of God himself? So, is not astrology simply a means of foretelling the future through an understanding of God’s work?
Certainly, many people in medieval Europe believed so. If you were lucky enough to attend University, you’d certainly be taught astrology as part of your education.
And how about casting spells? If they are aimed at healing, or encouraging a good harvest, that is clearly not evil. It may be misguided, even foolish, but not evil in and of itself. Only if you tried to use magic to curse someone or create some evil effect could it be considered evil. This form of magic, as medieval folk would see it, was classified as maleficent. And practicing this kind of magic would make you ‘maleficos’.
Types of Magic
Magic was practiced openly by many people in the Middle Ages. However, magical practice cannot be regarded as a homogenous collection of beliefs.
Some within the literate elite formally studied magic and magical rituals. Their interest could range from casual curiosity to a serious practitioner. This form of magic required a degree of literacy since its rites and spells were learnt from books. These books represented a collection of medieval and classical spells and rituals. And, during the Crusades, other magical works were imported from middle eastern cultures.
Practitioners of this form of magic could and did perform rituals to summon and control demons. They argued that this was not devil worship since they controlled and commanded these demons rather than venerated them. They also argued that, since they used their magic for good, this was not evil.
However, the type of magic practised by illiterate commoners was of a different sort. This form of magic represented folk traditions handed down orally from generation to generation. Typically, such magic encompassed simple charms, herbalism, crop blessings, fertility spells and so on. Its practitioners regarded magic of this kind as a traditional part of their local culture.
Neither form of magic was automatically regarded as maleficent, nor viewed as evidence of devil worship for most of the medieval period.
In fact, a far greater fear gripped the medieval Church than witchcraft or sorcery. The great enemy was not witchcraft but heresy.
Heretical groups were organised in a way that witches and sorcerers were not. They preached dangerous doctrines that posed a direct (and often overt) threat to church authority.
Witches, by contrast, were simply not seen as representing any kind of organised, insidious, or diabolic threat. Indeed, the official policy of Church inquisitions, right up until the early fourteenth century, was to ignore witchcraft unless heresy was involved.
Heretics were a very different story. Certain heretical sects were very real and very clearly involved many people who opposed the Church. Perhaps the most dangerous example of this had been the Cathars, who flourished in southern France during the C12th and C13th.
A common accusation made against heretics was that they had been misled by demons or the devil. Satan was, after all, the great deceiver. For this reason, persecution of heresy would often attract accusations of demon worship, secret satanic rituals, and the practice of maleficent magic. This featured in the accusations levelled against the Templars in the early fourteenth century. However, the primary charge always remained one of heresy, not witchcraft.
For most of the Middle Ages, the practise of sorcery was only condemned if it was deemed to be maleficent.
However, scholastic thinking during the thirteenth and fourteenth century was increasingly concerned to discourage the practice of magic. To do this, a sound theological case had to be made to condemn it.
The sorcerer’s argument that commanding a devil was not devil worship was one of the concepts that needed to be successfully refuted. This was done by pointing out the fact that to ‘trick’ a demon into serving the sorcerer, some form of lure was often offered. This could be blood or the sacrifice of an animal. This would attract the demon, which could then be bound and commanded. However, by offering the demon something such as blood, was this not a kind of transaction? Was it not, in effect, a pact?
This argument facilitated a blanket condemnation of sorcerous demonology. However, it also had the effect of strengthening the association between sorcery and devil worship.
The early persecutions of sorcerers and witches focused mainly on practitioners of ritual magic, where demonology was most likely to be involved.
However, these early persecutions (pre-1330) were primarily of a political nature. A good early example was the trial of Dame Alice Kytler in Ireland in 1324/5. The motive for her persecution was almost certainly political.
During her trial she was accused of maleficia. Not simply practicing magic but practicing ‘bad’ magic. She was also accused of belonging to a secret heretic sect. The accusation of heresy is significant. Since the Church still taught that witches were not worth prosecuting unless heresy was involved.
The case against Alice included several accusations that were commonly made against heretics. Many of these echoed the inditements against the Templars nearly twenty years before. The prosecutors alleged that the heretics met in secret, denied the cross, made sacrifices to demons and engaged in lewd sexual acts. They were even accused of brewing evil potions from the clothing of dead babies.
The concept of ‘the witch’, as we understand it, is present here, but only in an embryonic form.
A classic case of how accusations of sorcery could be used for political ends is that of Duchess Eleanor Cobham. She was accused of consulting various astrologers who predicted an illness would afflict the young King Henry VI in 1441. Eleanor denied her involvement but admitted procuring magic potions (which she claimed were to help her conceive) from one Margery Jourdemayne. Jourdemayne was a well-known witch, frequently consulted by several members of the nobility of that time (of whom only Eleanor was accused of any wrongdoing).
Eleanor, Margery, and several of Eleanor’s associates were charged with ‘treasonable necromancy’. Those of lesser rank all met grisly ends but Eleanor herself escaped death. However, she was forced to divorce her husband and sentenced to life imprisonment. She was also made to do penance by walking barefoot between three Churches.
Her prosecution clearly had a strong political dimension. Her husband had several powerful political enemies who were itching for an opportunity to see his influence curbed. Eleanor’s conviction was therefore a major blow to his reputation and authority.
Had Eleanor not been the wife of such a political heavyweight, it is unlikely her dabbling in the world of magic would have been so vigorously prosecuted.
Until 1330, prosecution without some political motive was rare. However, these early cases served to establish the precedent that at least some witches and sorcerers could and should be persecuted.
By the mid-fourteenth century persecution without any obvious political motive began to become more common. Accusations of devil worship, pacts with demons and/or secret conspiracies to perform acts of maleficence also became more common.
The net began to widen from the obvious targets (scholarly sorcerers who openly engaged in demon summoning) to others. Most ritual sorcerers were men, but a much higher proportion of folk magic practitioners were women. This transition, inevitably, led to an increasing association between women and witchcraft.
By the late fourteenth century, the association between witchcraft and devil worship had become much stronger. It now appeared far more frequently in accusations made against witches and sorcerers.
The first systematic witch-hunt on any scale began in Valais, in Switzerland, in 1428. Here a total of 367 witches were hunted down and killed over eight years. Most people targeted, even by this time, were still male. Accusations included not only witchcraft but also murder and (still) heresy. Even by this stage society found it hard to conceive of a conspiracy of witches unless some underlying heretical belief lay at the heart of it.
The details of the Valais trials were studied by a scholar by the name of Johannes Nider. He also studied other cases of reported sorcery and witchcraft. This inspired him to write a treatise, defining and codifying the phenomenon of witchcraft. He was one of the first scholars to formally attempt this.
The result of Nider’s research was Formicarius, written sometime between 1435 and 1437. In it he argued that witches were not simply people who practised magic. They were, in every case, also guilty of renouncing their faith, trampling on the cross and selling their souls to the devil. Nider was also keen to draw attention to this practice amongst the more common folk, especially amongst women. It was, Nider argued, a more common and serious problem than people imagined.
Formicarius was quite shocking and represented completely new thinking to many. Nider’s insistence on directly linking devil worship with witchcraft and his emphasis on female witches were both new developments.
Despite this, Nider did not advocate mass witch hunts. He personally believed that Church reform and adherence to traditional monastic rites were the correct antidote to witchcraft, not burning people.
Whatever the intentions of scholars like Nider, a paranoid fear of witchcraft was beginning to infect the public consciousness. By the middle of the fifteenth century, it was reaching fever pitch.
In 1453, in the village of Marmande in France, local people blamed an epidemic of an unknown disease on maleficent sorcery. Initially the authorities accused a single local woman of being the witch responsible. However, the locals, fearing there were other maleficent witches in their midst, took the law into their own hands. In the end a couple of dozen alleged witches (all women) were seized by the mob. These unfortunates were then tortured to extract confessions. Two died under torture and any who confessed were burnt at the stake.
The idea that a community might be threatened, not just by one witch, but by a secret conspiracy, or coven, of witches was now taking shape.
Heinrich Kramer was a Dominican Church inquisitor living in the late C15th. Kramer held a particular obsession with the dangers of witchcraft. He was convinced that witchcraft posed a far greater threat than the Church was willing to accept.
In 1484 he persuaded the pope to issue a papal bull authorising him to extend his inquisitorial work to investigate witchcraft anywhere in Germany. Despite this, senior German clerics remained sceptical of Kramer’s obsession.
Whilst investigating witchcraft in Innsbruck, Kramer clashed with a wealthy local woman by the name of Helena Scheuberin. She concluded that Kramer was hell bent on persecuting innocent people and whipping up hysteria. She even went so far as to publicly disrupt his sermons. Kramer put her and half a dozen other women on trial for witchcraft. Whilst interrogating Helena, Kramer’s questioning focused obsessively on her alleged promiscuity and lascivious sexual behaviour.
Fortunately for Scheuberin, Kramer’s immediate superior, Bishop Georg Golser, did not share his zeal. Golser increasingly came to the regard Kramer’s accusations as baseless, bordering on unhinged. Eventually Golser lost patience and shut down the trials in 1486. He decided Kramer was unstable and paranoid, and duly expelled him from Innsbruck.
Kramer was thwarted but not deterred. He clearly could not continue his witch-hunt in Innsbruck. However, what he could do was write a book to promote his views on witchcraft.
He joined forces with another fanatical cleric, Jacob Sprenger and the result of their combined effort was finally published in 1487. Although both men are credited as co-authors, Kramer was clearly the principle driving force behind the book.
Malleus Maleficarum, as it was titled, added very little that was genuinely new to how many people viewed witches by this time. However, what it did do, very effectively, was create a cohesive, comprehensive, account of the most radical views on witchcraft in circulation at the time.
Malleus had the good fortune to be published just at the time when mass printing was becoming available. This would ensure a wide circulation. As a result, it would have a huge impact on how witches were viewed and dealt with over the next two centuries.
Real and actual evils
Malleus, for all its radicalism, was still constrained by official Church canon law, however much Kramer and Sprenger may have wished otherwise. In particular, the official position of the Church was still that magic, if it was even real at all, was an illusion or deception of Satan. It was not real since Satan had no power to influence God’s creation directly.
Despite this, the book argued that magic should not be entirely dismissed as delusional. Unable to directly contradict canon law, Malleus instead took the view that whilst magic could often be a delusion or a deception, this was not always the case. The devil was real enough and magic that derived from him could also surely be real if God permitted it as a test of the faithful.
“It is a most certain and most Catholic opinion that there are sorcerers and witches who by the help of the devil, on account of a compact which they have entered into with him, are able, since God allows this, to produce real and actual evils and harm.”Malleus Maleficarum
Malleus also emphasised the point (again, already believed by a significant number of people) that the power to perform magic comes exclusively from the devil. Therefore, everyone who performs magic must have made some kind of pact with the devil. Prior to Malleus many people still believed that the practice of magic was only evil if there was evil intent. However, Malleus did much to confirm and reinforce the view that witchcraft was always, fundamentally, a manifestation of satanism.
Malleus also argued that witches are recruited mainly by other witches, rather than directly by Satan. The implication of this was clearly that where you find one witch, you will likely find a network of witches.
The book did not elaborate in detail on such things as the black sabbath (mentioned only fleetingly). However, it did much to promote the opinion that witches were joined together in a secret satanic conspiracy.
One of the most important effects of Malleus comes from the fact that it was stridently misogynistic. Whilst it was not unique in displaying misogynistic attitudes, it was especially virulent and detailed in its insistence that witchcraft was primarily a female evil.
It argued, more forcefully than any previous treatise, that most witches were women. The text included many detailed and lurid elaborations on the vices of women. It even accused female witches of mutilating men by cutting off and collecting their genitals.
“…a greater number of witches is found in the fragile feminine sex than among men; it is indeed a fact that it is idle to contradict, since it is accredited by actual experience, apart from the verbal testimony of credible witnesses … all witchcraft comes from carnal lust, which is in women insatiable…wherefore for the sake of fulfilling their lusts they consort even with devils.”Malleus Maleficarum
Thou shalt not suffer a witch to live
The second key contribution of Malleus was not so much in how it defined witches but in terms of its recommendations for dealing with them.
Malleus argued that witches ought to be formally hunted and prosecuted. It went into detail as to how an investigation should proceed, how a trial should be conducted and what punishment was appropriate.
It was Malleus that most cogently made the case that witches should be treated no differently than heretics. In other words, they should be subjected to torture and, if found guilty, burnt at the stake just like a heretic. The application of torture and capital punishment should be applied in all cases, not just on an ad-hoc basis as it had been before.
The Inquisitor’s legacy
In effect, Malleus Maleficarum was the first complete witchfinder’s guide as to how to find, interrogate, try, and execute witches. And, thanks to the advent of printing, it would be circulated far more widely than anything that had gone before.
There is no doubt that it contributed significantly to defining the intellectual and legal foundations for the witch-hunts of the early modern age. Without it, some form of witch-hunt phenomenon would probably still have plagued the early modern period. However, the sheer scale and brutality of what followed was, in no small part, incited by Malleus Maleficarum.
And what followed was truly shocking. Between 40,000 and 60,000 supposed witches (mostly women) would be persecuted and killed across Europe over the next two centuries.
Helena Scheuberin and Bishop Golser had recognised Kramer for what he was and called him out for it. Golser dismissed Kramer as deranged. Helena went further and denounced Kramer as an evil man in league with the devil. Unfortunately, and tragically, too few people listened to them.
It only seems right to leave the final word on Kramer and the witchfinders who would follow after him to Helena Scheuberin:
“Fie on you bad monk! May the falling evil take you!”Helena Scheuberin
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If you are interested in reading more about mythology, legends and folklore from the Middle Ages, you might be interested to read some of my other articles:
Assassins and the Old Man of the Mountain
You might also be interested in my series of articles exploring the legend of Robin Hood:
Robin Hood of Wakefield (Part 2)
References & further reading:
Magic in the Middle Ages, Richard Kieckhefer, 2021, Cambridge
Malleus Maleficarium, Kremer & Sprenger, PG Maxwell Stuart translation, 2007, Manchester University Press
The Malleus Maleficarum and the construction of witchcraft, Hans Peter Broedel, 2003, Manchester University Press
The Witch-Hunt in Early Modern Europe, Brian P Levack, 1995, Longman
Francisco de Goya y Lucientes – Witches Sabbath (from Wiki Commons)
A Chronicle of England – The Duchess of Gloucester Does Penance by James WE Doyle (from Wiki Commons)
Torturing and execution of witches in medieval miniature C14th (from Wiki Commons)
Malleus Maleficarum – A photo from a museographic exhibition on books and manuscripts from the 15th to the 19th centuries exhibited at the Museum of Arts MUSA of the University of Guadalajara (from Wiki Commons)