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Dictionary of the History of Ideas

Studies of Selected Pivotal Ideas

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The unifying element in the idea of witchcraft is the
belief that an evil intent may be carried out by appeal
to an evil incorporeal power. Some part of mankind
has always believed in a cause and effect relation
between an evil intent and a subsequent injury or
death. While most societies (Egyptian, Greek, Roman,
Germanic, African) have condemned witches and
sorcerers for crimes associated with the belief, Hebrew
and Christian societies have condemned the belief itself
as well as the imputed crimes. In the polytheistic world
of classical times, where the deities of the underworld
and death were part of the pantheon and most deities
had both good and evil aspects, the belief was generally
included as one among many. Monotheistic Hebrew
thought, however, associated the witch and sorcerer
with the idolater, forbidding an error in religious atti-
tude as well as any deeds that might result from it.
It is this association that Christianity developed.

The history of the idea of witchcraft in the Christian
period is mainly the history of the application by
the Church of Judaic-Christian demonology to non-
Christian—hence idolatrous—religious impulses among
the baptized. Wherever a surviving or revived impulse
came to the attention of Church writers they dealt with
it in terms derived from biblical statements about
witches, sorcerers, the Serpent, Satan, Leviathan, and
evil spirits in the Old Testament and the Hebrew
Apocrypha, and from references to Satan and evil
demons in the New Testament (see Demonology). De-
spite the tendency throughout the Christian era to
transmute “general supernatural power into the two
schools of divine and anti-divine power,” as Charles
Williams suggests (Witchcraft, p. 60), the attitude in
the early centuries was to treat magic and sorcery,
frequently associated with the Triple Goddess Hecate
or Diana, as a superstition to be overcome by persua-
sion. For a long time these arts were not treated by
the Church as heresy but as infidelism. However, the
common belief that they could result in injury or death
was reflected in civil laws under Christian Roman
Emperors as well as earlier pagan Emperors, especially
when sorcery involved divination with its political
threat to the ruler's life. The Church was long in
developing the full implications of its position with
regard to pagan worship and folk customs among the
baptized despite the early Church Fathers' belief that
Omnes dei gentium sunt daemonia (Psalm XCVI, 5
Vulgate) and Saint Augustine's view that sorcery in-
volved a pact with demons.

The position of the Church just prior to Scholas-
ticism is stated in the anonymous Canon (or Capitulum)
Episcopi recorded by Regino of Prüm (ca. 900) and
incorporated into Church law. Issues to be debated for
eight centuries are raised in this ruling. The author
distinguishes between those who follow the “pernicious
art of sorcery and malefice invented by the devil”—
which he condemns as heretical—and those “wicked
women” who believe that they or other women can
really “ride upon certain beasts with Diana... and
... traverse great spaces of earth... to be summoned
to her service on certain nights”—which he condemns
as “in every way false” and as “phantasms... imposed
on the minds of infidels and not by the divine but by
the malignant spirit.” He compares night-riding (a
nearly universal folklore element) to “dreams and
nocturnal visions” similar to those “in spirit” of
Ezekiel, John, and Paul, and concludes that whoever
believes that any creature can be changed into another
species except by God is “beyond doubt an infidel”
(trans. Lea, Materials, I, 178-80). Here, the heresy
involved in a sorcerer's pact with demons is distin-
guished from the mental delusions of night-riding and
of animal transformation. Yet, in the following period,
influenced by Scholastic discussions of the powers of
angels and demons, by the rise of dualistic heresies,
and by the establishment of the Inquisition, the idea
of the first sort of activity came to be applied to the
second—to such an extent that by the time of the
Malleus maleficarum (1487?) it was akin to heresy not
to believe in the reality of night-riding. When what
we must presume were the remnants of pagan observ-
ances—whether imaginary or acted out—came under
the scrutiny of Inquisitors trained in the demonology
of the Christian tradition and knowledgeable in the
various dualistic heresies of the thirteenth century, they
construed them as devil worship involving the pact
with demons or the Devil and the implicit adherence
to evil incorporeal power that had been regarded as
heretical since the early period of the Church. In order
to give a rational account within the Christian frame-
work of ideas of the persistent belief in the night-flying
witch, in such primitive ideas as that of the “evil eye,”
in the power of a curse, in the wise woman's control
over wind and weather, and in the magical power of
charms, the Church referred them to the agency of
the Devil, the tempter of Adam and Christ. But each
attempt to explain some local belief placed a new,
comparatively intellectual construction upon it. The
resulting interpretations sifted into sermons and books
and thence into people's minds. Worse yet, it informed
the Inquisitors' leading questions and the replies from
prisoners under torture. The Inquisitors and the
Protestant judges interpreted further the extracted
testimony and codified it in Inquisitorial manuals of
the fifteenth century such as Kramer and Sprenger,
Malleus maleficarum, and in the judicial guides of the


sixteenth century such as Martin Del Rio, Disquisi-
tiones magicae
(1599-1601), Nicholas Remy, Daemon-
(1595), Jean Bodin, De magorum daemono-
(1581) and Henri Boguet, Discours des sorciers
(1590-1601). Almost unwittingly, the very attempt to
eliminate one danger to the Church—latent infidelism
and its peril to the soul—gave rise to a greater one—
the elaboration within the Church of a dualistic system
of ideas in which an evil incorporeal power assumed
almost as much importance in men's lives as God.

Two circumstances, one legal and one theological,
preceded the definition of witchcraft in both civil and
canon law as a crime and the elaborate systematization
of ideas about it. First, there occurred the theocratic
union of Church and State in the Christian common-
wealth, in regard to which any heresy could be called
treason. By the thirteenth century Emperor Frederick
II and Pope Innocent III had made this identification,
for, as Frederick said, echoing an earlier letter of
Innocent, “To offend the Divine majesty is a far greater
crime than to offend the majesty of an Emperor”
(Maycock, p. 88). Hence, when under the revived
Roman law, death was applied as the penalty for trea-
son, the way was clear for the legal extirpation of
heretics through the Inquisition and the secular arm.
The second circumstance, the theological identification
of all witchcraft with heresy, was more complex.
Throughout the latter half of the thirteenth century
and during the fourteenth it was debated. Alexander
IV's bull Quod super nonnullis (1258) suggested that
those sorcerers who paid honor to demons savored of
heresy, which was not new, and Nicholas Eymeric in
his Directorium (1376) distinguished “simple” and
“heretical” sorcerers in a similar manner and subjected
the latter to the Inquisition. Lea notes the difficulty
the Inquisition had in subjecting sorcery to itself, be-
cause it was supposed to deal only with beliefs not
acts. The document that drew all beliefs and practices
associated with witchcraft under the laws applicable
to heresy was an article adopted by the theological
faculty of the University of Paris in 1398 which
declared that there was an implied contract with Satan
in every superstitious observance of which the expected
result was not reasonably to be anticipated from God
and from nature. The biblical statement, “We have
entered into a league with death; we have made a
covenant with hell” (Isaiah 28:15), which had since the
days of Saint Augustine implied the possibility of a
pact with Satan, was taken to be the explanation for
the witch's power over men's bodies and over natural
forces—a power which was never doubted in popular
belief. The witch as heretic and as evil-doer was the
enemy of the state, the individual, and of her own
salvation. Martin Luther much later summed up the
common attitude with its emphasis upon the question
of fealty: “Does not witchcraft, then, merit death,
which is a revolt of the creature against the creator,
a denial to God of the authority it accords to the
demon?” (Luther, p. 252).

Long before the theoretical possibility of witchcraft
was generally questioned, the Spanish Inquisitor Alonso
de Salazar y Frias and the English Bishop Samuel
Harsnett questioned the evidence for the crimes
imputed to witches and checked the spread of accusa-
tions wherever their example penetrated. The abstract
belief in the Devil and his power lingered, especially
in the idea that he was the cause of the delusion con-
cerning the Sabbat—a return essentially to the tenth-
century position of the Canon Episcopi. It informs the
work of the “hag-advocates,” who called for common
sense, justice, and reason—writers such as Reginald
Scot, John Weyer, Friedrich von Spee, and even
Balthasar Bekker, who, in De Betoverde Weereld
(1690-93), argued from Scripture and reason that no
evil spirit could be active in the world but did not
deny the Devil's existence. The belief in the system
lingered longest among Calvinists, it has been sug-
gested, because of the doctrines of the depravity of
man and of the double election, the literal inter-
pretation of Scripture, Genevan theocracy, and
Calvinism's origin in the regions of Switzerland and
France where the dualistic heresies of the Middle Ages
had flourished and lingered underground (Davies, pp.

General belief in witchcraft declined with the eight-
eenth century, in part because of the rise of rationalism
and the general skepticism of the marvelous, as out-
lined by Lecky, and in part because of the acceptance
during the century of the idea of a fixed natural order
under a benevolent deity. The triumph of the latter,
essentially Christian, idea, combined with the growth
of the scientific habit of observation of nature put an
end to the belief except among the least educated.

With the romantic period literary interest in the idea
of witchcraft took two directions which have continued
into the twentieth century. There was a strong revival
of interest in it as historical subject matter, as in Scott's
popular Letters on Demonology and Witchcraft (1830),
which led to many imitations and culminated in the
great historical works of H. C. Lea and Joseph Hansen.
As a theme of romantic literature all aspects were
exploited, whether comic as in Burns' Tam O'Shanter
(1791) or tragic as in Melville's Moby Dick (1851).
Goya's Caprichos and Pinturas negras reflect the inter-
est in art. It also began to receive scientific study both
by proto-anthropologists as a survival of early European
folk religion comparable to contemporary beliefs in
primitive parts of the world, as in Joseph Ennemoser,


History of Magic (1854) and by psychologists as a
mental disease, as in Samuel Hibbert, Sketches of the
Philosophy of Apparitions
(1825). In the twentieth cen-
tury, studies of the nearly universal black African
acceptance of the reality of witchcraft throw light
upon the European experience, especially by suggest-
ing that the problem for thinkers of the Middle Ages
was to reconcile in a rational manner the prevalent
popular belief with the Christian notion of a good and
omnipotent God. Although they achieved this recon-
ciliation by regarding the evil angel and his agents as
operating under God, in so doing some thinkers yielded
to the perennial hazards of dualistic theology.


R. Trevor Davies, Four Centuries of Witch-Beliefs
(London, 1947). Joseph Hansen, Zauberwahn, Inquisition
und Hexenprozess im Mittelalter
... (Leipzig, 1900). Hein-
rich Kramer and Jacob Sprenger, Malleus maleficarum,
trans. Montague Summers (London, 1926). Henry Charles
Lea, Materials Toward a History of Witchcraft, ed. A. C.
Howland (Philadelphia, 1939); idem, A History of the in-
quisition of the Middle Ages
(New York, 1921). W. E. H.
Lecky, History of the Rise and Influence of the Spirit of
Rationalism in Europe
(London, 1946). Martin Luther,
Table-Talk, ed. William Hazlitt (London, 1902). A. L.
Maycock, The Inquisition from its Establishment to the Great
(New York and London, 1927). Geoffrey Parrinder,
Witchcraft: European and African (London, 1963). Rossell
H. Robbins, Encyclopaedia of Witchcraft and Demonology
(New York, 1959). Ronald Seth, Witches and Their Craft
(London, 1967). Charles Williams, Witchcraft (London,


[See also Demonology; Dualism; Heresy; Hermeticism;