Ritual Mythologies and Witchcraft in the Fifteenth-Century

Richard Kieckhefer

Richard Kieckhefer

Work on the history of witchcraft has come to a point at which we both can and must rethink this and other basic assumptions about the rise of these trials. We must reconsider how far the concept of witchcraft was consolidated into a single imaginative construct during the fifteenth century, and how the mythology of witchcraft functioned in distinct places. Most basically, we must ask anew how useful standard models of historical explanation are for understanding the early witch trials.

At the turn of the twentieth-century, Joseph Hansen traced the evolution of what he called the ‘‘collective concept’’ (Kollektivbegriff) of witchcraft, corresponding to what we would now call the imaginative world of the Sabbath. All the components of this concept had their separate histories: the nocturnal assembly, flight through the air with demonic assistance, the pact with the devil, sexual intercourse with incubi and succubi, and bewitchments or maleficia.

In Hansen’s construction, which has never seemed controversial, it was in the fifteenth-century that these notions fused into a cohesive notion of witchcraft, to which the Sabbath was of central importance. Whether agreeing or disagreeing with Hansen in other respects, historians have followed his lead in all this, accepting as a given that in the fifteenth-century there was a more or less established conception of witchcraft.

The single mythology of witchcraft is then explained by tracing its roots in medieval heresies, in the practices of ritual magic, in the tenacious peasant culture of Europe, or in the effort of Christians to shore up their own uncertain faith by grasping for evidence of the supernatural.

Historians of various persuasions agree on this point: whatever their sources, and however diverse they may be at first, the elements of witchcraft consolidated quickly into that cumulative construct, into a concept of ‘‘the Sabbath’’ that emerges relatively early in the fifteenth-century through the agglutination of elements in a single mythology.

We now have fuller documentation at our disposal than even the great source-compiler Hansen could claim. We are therefore in a position to see that in the fifteenth-century there was not a single mythology of witchcraft but multiple mythologies, and that in certain places these mythologies remained intact for several decades, preserving their independent contours with remarkable tenacity.

We can now see, too, that when these mythologies did lose their stability, the circumstances leading to change require special attention. We can trace the patterns of both stability and modification with greater precision than Hansen could have hoped to attain.

The point is not simply that mythologies of witchcraft are plural rather than singular, and that they come in regional varieties — although this much is true, important, and more obvious now than any of us once knew. The further argument I want to make is that mythologies of witchcraft functioned differently under different circumstances.

Two sources, in particular, compel us to revise our notions of how the witch trials began at the end of the Middle Ages. First, it would be difficult to imagine a source for the history of witchcraft more important than manuscript 29 in the Archives Cantonales Vaudoises at Lausanne. This manuscript gives us detailed information about the trials of twelve men and seven women from the southern edge of the Pays de Vaud, the region of Lausanne, along the north shore of Lake Geneva, all tried for witchcraft in the years 1438–98.

This collection of legal records provides a wealth of information early in the history of the witch trials, from the very heartland of those trials. The accused are called heretics (heretici), but their transgressions are those of conspiratorial witches.

The documentation for this series is full and candid enough that we can tell how the trials began, how they progressed, and how interrogation and torture molded the outcomes. The manuscript has been known to scholars since 1908–9, when Maxime Reymond published two articles based on it, and some of us have made use of it in later decades; but it was in only 1995–97 that a team of historians published editions, French translations, and extended commentary in four volumes.

The second source, less extensive than the first yet still vitally important, is a series of trial records in the Archivio di Stato di Perugia, most especially a set of four trials between 1455 and 1501, published in 1988 by Ugolino Nicolini. The trials took place at the Umbrian town of Perugia. The accused here were almost all women, and they were called streghe or witches.

In each of these sources we can see a mythology of witchcraft that remains fundamentally stable over several decades. But it is a different mythology in each case: the witchcraft of the documents from Perugia bears almost no resemblance to that of the manuscript from Lausanne.

In a conventional interpretation, we might say that they describe different versions of witchcraft, with differing accounts of the Sabbath. But not all contemporary observers would have classed the heretici of Lausanne and the streghe of Perugia in the same category.

I will want to examine the implications of these differences. I will then turn to other witch trials of the fifteenth-century, in parts of France where the mythic vocabulary was less stable, and where the myths of witchcraft were largely borrowed from western Switzerland, from central Italy, or both.

And I will argue that it makes a great deal of difference whether the mythology of witchcraft was indigenous to a region or imported into it.

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