Heinrich Kramer and Jacob Sprenger begin their analysis of witchcraft by observing that for witchcraft to have any effect, three things must concur: the devil, the witch, and the permission of God. For them, as for us, the devil provides a convenient starting point, because the witchcraft of the ‘Malleus Maleficarum’ depends upon an unusual conception of what the infernal side of the Christian pantheon is all about. Like so many late-medieval cultural icons, the inquisitors’ devil is not amenable to simple definition; nor is it easy to determine in what form and to what extent the devil was actually “present” in peoples’ minds.
Jeffrey Burton Russell maintains that the sinister presence of the devil was medieval man’s ubiquitous companion, that “The eternal Principle of Evil walked in solid, if invisible, substance at one’s side and crouched when one was quiet in the dark recesses of room and mind.” At the same time, however, and with equal justice, Richard Kieckhefer can point to the evidence of witchcraft prosecutions themselves, which suggest that to most people the devil was not of any particular concern, appearing instead “more as a legendary figure of folklore than as the master of a demonic cult.”
One might plausibly maintain that these divergent views were the products of different levels of culture, one clerical and the other “popular,” but the late-medieval devil was also to everyone a sort of chameleon, whose particular appearance was dictated more by circumstances and context than by anything else. Further, there was a considerable common ground between the conceptions of the diabolic held by learned inquisitors and those of their less educated informants. This partial consensus was possible because some clerics had come to accept a complicated and not wholly consistent vision of the devil, as at once a transcendent principle of evil, and at the same time as a being who was present daily in all manner of supra-normal encounters and phenomena. Certainly, the location of the transcendent in the immanent corresponds with a general tendency in late-medieval religion, but in the devil’s case it also created difficult problems: where a transcendent God could manifest himself in the mundane world through a variety of mediating agents, a transcendent devil was traditionally not so well equipped. While God was represented in the various manifestations of the Trinity, and had as well an array of angels and saints, to say nothing of the Church, the devil had only a multitude of demons to carry out his will on earth. Because all demons were perceived as beings of essentially the same type, not obviously distinguished from their master, the mere existence of minor demons could potentially lead to Satan’s trivialization. To reconcile the apparent ubiquity of demonic power with a transcendent principle of evil, some clerics began to insist upon the necessity for human mediation of the diabolic side of the supernatural.
Such a striking dislocation of a diabolic agency from the being of the devil stands in stark contrast to the thinking of earlier ages and requires some explanation. The fundamental Christian devil of the Fathers had been a relatively coherent, consistent figure, who competently played out his distinct role in God’s creation. This is not to say that the conception of the devil had ever been simple, but in the earlier Middle Ages, most clerics would probably have accepted as their starting point Augustine of Hippo’s view of a powerful but strictly limited devil. This orthodox Christian demon was a fallen angel, who retained his angelic nature despite the loss of grace, and whose aerial body, superhuman intellect, and vast experience enabled him to do wonderful things. He was, however, entirely separated from the divine, and could not perform true miracles or do anything truly supernatural: a demon was simply a creature created by God, differing from the birds and beasts only in degree, and not in kind. Because the devil lacked the capacity for moral goodness, he was man’s superior in neither a moral nor an absolute sense, and, despite his remarkable physical and intellectual powers, he could always be overcome, albeit with difficulty, by pious minds turned entirely toward God.
Demons had a job to do, however, and that was to make life miserable for people on earth by tempting them to sin and by afflicting them with injuries. Tempting men came easily to demons, for their powers of observation revealed our weaknesses and inner characters, while their spiritual natures allowed them to beguile surreptitiously those already prone to succumb. Demons had considerable influence over such unlucky souls and were able to persuade them to sin in marvelous and unseen ways, entering by means of that subtlety of their own bodies into the bodies of men who are unaware, and through certain imaginary visions mingling themselves with men’s thoughts, whether they are awake or asleep.
This connection between demonic activity and human sin was responsible for the prominence of the devil in Augustine of Hippo’s thought. Not only was man’s own fall the direct result of a failure to resist the devil’s lure, but the temptations of the fiend continued to inspire all manner of sins and create countless roadblocks on the way to paradise. For Augustine of Hippo, “evil” was first and foremost moral evil and an expression of sin; when Augustine of Hippo’s devil did evil in the world, his presence was known principally by human behaviour and not by mischance or misfortune.
In comparison, the devil’s power to cause physical harm was of almost trivial concern. It was true, Augustine of Hippo admits, that the natural powers of demons enabled them to bring about physical harm — they might cause disease, for example, by rendering the air unwholesome — but, since any mundane injury was ultimately inconsequential when compared with the death of the soul, Augustine of Hippo was interested in demons’ capacity for physical harm only when it complemented their ability to tempt man into sin. Black magic was an important example of this kind of behaviour: demons used their powers to give efficacy to magicians’ spells not because they enjoyed causing suffering, but because by doing so they confirmed the efficacy of superstitious magical rites. Thus, men who longed to do evil were rewarded by God with the deception of demons. For example, when men used superstitious rites to discover the future, many things happen for the diviners in accordance with their divinations, so that, enmeshed in them, they are made more curious and entangle themselves more and more in the multiple snares of a most pernicious error.
The same principle applied when demons impersonated pagan gods and bestowed benefits upon their deluded worshipers: by so doing they prevented the superstitious from turning towards true religion. Similarly, demons deployed their powers to do harm and to tempt in concert to lure people to have recourse to magical remedies: “How many wicked things [the devil] suggests, how many things through greed, how many things through fear!” With these allurements, he persuades you to go to the soothsayers, the astrologers when you have got a headache. Those who abandon God and resort to the devil’s amulets have been beaten by the devil. On the other hand, if the suggestion is made to someone that the devil’s remedies are perhaps effective for the body — and so-and-so is said to have been cured by them because when the devil had received a sacrifice from him he left off troubling his body, having got possession of his heart; [one should say] “I would rather die than employ such remedies.”