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Approaches to Magic, Heresy and Witchcraft in Time

Approaches to Magic, Heresy and Witchcraft in Time
© Photograph by Danny Springgay

In medieval thought, the concept of witchcraft held a place in the moral cosmology as a necessary evil receptacle of the hierarchically contrasting good of the community of Christians, God, piety and virtue. Still, the contents of the concept of witchcraft were dependent on the contents of its superior counterparts — and vice versa. In medieval and early modern thought, there could be no Christianity without the Devil and without witchcraft. This gave witchcraft an inherently unstable place on the threshold between orthodoxy, heterodoxy and heresy.

It had been a widely spread premise throughout the history of the medieval period that magic and maleficia could only work because of the power of the Devil. In his Summae Thomas Aquinas had put forward what would be the foundations for the early modern Catholic condemnation of witchcraft by outlining the relationship between magicians and the devil.

Although focusing on ritual magic, Thomas Aquinas stated that while magicians may claim it was divine powers at work in magical rituals, in fact, the powers were always diabolical. Magical rituals were practised with a selfish aim, so making it an arrangement only the Devil would participate in.

To have the Devil provide a magical ritual with the power required the magician to enter a diabolical pact.

In the fifteenth-century, this demonised idea of magic gained much more force. During the later Middle Ages heresy became more demonised and gradually evolved into the idea of the fully fledged witch.

Since the work of Norman Cohn (1975), scholars generally agree that the first witch-hunts grew out of a demonisation of magic, which took place roughly at the same time as the eradication of Cathars and Waldensians.

More recent studies of these heretical roots have documented that the fifteenth-century witch prosecutions were explicitly linked to these persecutions. Members of these sects were misleadingly accused of being devil worshippers (Luciferanists), and the constant presence and activities of the Inquisition spurred on the transferral of these ideas and accusations to witches.

The first fully articulated conception of witchcraft occurred in writings in 1428 and 1442 in the area around Lausanne in Western Switzerland. Soon thereafter, in 1448, a series of trials was conducted in the same area, in all of which the witches were described as “modern Waldensian heretics”.

Together these trials and writings represent what Richard Kieckhefer has named the ‘Lausanne paradigm’ — the formation of the fully articulated witch. By the end of the fifteenth-century, a witch was not just any performer of magic, but a heretical and diabolical figure, one who had explicitly given herself to the Devil. Witchcraft was thus placed on the platform of heresy, apostasy, idolatry and possibly even schismaticism.

In this collection, Charles Zika explores how this process was reflected in late medieval visualisations of the Witch of Endor, pointing also to a rise in the personal agency of the depicted necromancer alongside the rise of the demonic elements in the images.

The witch was no mere channel, but had herself made a pact and worked together with the Devil in disguise. Johannes Geiler, presented in Rita Voltmer’s essay, and Giovanfrancesco Ponzinibio, whose works are discussed in Matteo Duni’s essay, were figures right on the threshold of old and new ideas of witchcraft.

The ambiguity of witchcraft ideas shows in both their works. The same personal agency of the witch, the rise of whom is shown in Zika’s essay, was emphasized by Ponzinibio in order to make witchcraft a crime among those to be investigated and judged by lawyers, instead of an exceptional crime to be moved to the realm of priests and inquisitors.

To Ponzinibio, the Devil had no material power in the world and witchcraft was merely a spiritual phenomenon: the real heresy was believing that witches, in fact, went to the Sabbath. While Geiler never presented witchcraft as the exceptional super crime that had to be prosecuted without mercy, he did present it as the archetype of blasphemous crime. In fact, in these three essays, we can already see at the turn of the fifteenth- and sixteenth-centuries all the ingredients of both the persecution and the waning of it.

The essay by Zika demonstrates how by the late-sixteenth-century the woman of Endor was depicted as a fully fledged witch parallel to the rise of the post-Reformation witch-hunts. In the Latin regions, and where inquisitions continued to handle trials for witchcraft, the link between heresy and witchcraft persisted. In the reformed churches of northern Europe, the correlation tended to take a secondary position to maleficia in the courts.

The essay by Kallestrup investigates the link between heresy and witchcraft in the post-reformation witch-hunt in Denmark, from authoritative theologians such as Niels Hemmingsen to the practical handling of the trials — and how this correlation gradually faded when secular authorities handled the offence. The condemnation of witchcraft as heresy then became part of a sharp rhetoric applied for consolidating the Evangelical faith.

In his contribution, Rune Hagen turns his attention to another part of the Danish-Norwegian kingdom, namely the most northern part, the Finmark. He demonstrates how the myths of the evil north were applied in the efforts to gain power over the new territory and how this implied persecuting the indigenous population. In this sense, the prosecution of witches in the Finmark becomes an example of early modern state-building, since it is about consolidating the power of the Danish king on the frontiers of the kingdom.

Whether the transformation of witchcraft into a form of heresy was a result of the hunt for heretics, Waldensians and Anabaptists dying out and then moving on the witches, or a new creation of post-Reformation period polemics between different religiopolitical parties — of course, not straightforwardly accusing each other for being witches, but creating an atmosphere where that was a viable possibility — witchcraft acquires the place of the most important and most horrifying heresy, the necessary “enemy within” a Christian society.

Nevertheless, witchcraft and witch trials also fulfilled similar religious functions to those served previously by ghost stories and anti-Jewish stories: they were an arena where the transcendent could be explored.

The trials with testimonies, sentences and executions also provided proof of the existence and reality of the other world, and with it, the supernatural that was the principal essence of Christianity.

Another way of exploring the metaphysics and epistemology or the virtual reality was the abundant fiction created around witchcraft, and explored in this volume by Willem de Blécourt in examining magic and witchcraft in the late medieval Dutch play ‘Die Hexe’ as a commentary on historical events.

In making a mockery of witchcraft and presenting magic as a series of fraudulent and useless tricks, the play presented an early version of the scepticism that came to mark witch trials in the Netherlands.

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