Harmful Misfortune, Witchcraft, and the Will of God

Harmful Misfortune, Witchcraft, and the Will of God
© Photograph by Lyubov Shipaeva

An obvious corollary to a belief in witches is the perception that certain kinds of recognizable injuries or misfortunes are due to witchcraft, and it is clear from the sources that many people in medieval Europe were, at times, prepared to accept certain kinds of misfortunes as the result of witchcraft or harmful magic. Not everyone, however, understood the relationship between magic and its effects in the same way. For unlettered peasants and townsfolk — for everyone, in fact, but a small elite of educated men and women — the relationship between “magic” and its intended result was probably a straightforward case of cause and effect, in which the witch or sorcerer who deployed occult powers for harmful ends was as much responsible for the resulting injuries as was a person wielding a knife with murderous intent.

For the theologically more sophisticated elite, however, the relationship between a witch, her magic, and associated injuries, was fraught with difficulties of considerable complexity. From their perspective, since the witch could not be the immediate cause of magical harm, both because a demon actually effected the injury, and because the witch had no power to compel the demon to do her bidding, the extent to which witches were actually culpable for the injuries inflicted by demons in their name was questionable. The matter was further complicated by the fact that demons could act only with the permission of God. Hence, if demons acted merely in accordance with divine will, why should either the witch or the demon be blamed for the outcome? And why, too, should God have chosen to give the witch or the demon free latitude to carry out magical assaults of their own volition in the first place? To endorse witch persecution, educated Christians had to answer these questions in such a way that the witch would emerge as the efficient cause of worldly misfortune. When she was not, when either a witch’s power to cause harm or her moral responsibility for it were called into question, late medieval writers tended to dismiss the dangers posed by witchcraft. The widespread skepticism about the reality of witchcraft in the late Middle Ages responded precisely to this concern that the belief in witchcraft as, say, Heinrich Kramer and Jacob Sprenger understood it, was a gross affront to both the omnipotence and justice of God. To understand the alternative explanations for magical harm and witchcraft propounded by Heinrich Kramer and Jacob Sprenger and their colleagues, we need therefore first to take a more general look at medieval conceptions of magic and misfortune.

There was never a single, universally applicable explication of misfortune in the Middle Ages. Instead, circumstances dictated the conceptual model appropriate to the beliefs of the observer. In any given instance, a substantial number of interpretations were possible, witchcraft being one and never the most prevalent. Misfortune, as Rodney Needham observes, can be explained in any number of ways: “If misfortune strikes, you can blame an inscrutable god or capricious spirits; you can concede that it is the just retribution of your sin, or else that it is the automatic consequence of some unintended fault; you can put it down to bad luck , or more calculating you can ascribe it to chance.”

During the Middle Ages, all of these possible explanations for sudden misfortune (with the possible exception of chance) were available alongside witchcraft, making for overlapping and competing patterns of considerable complexity.

For instance, the Franciscan chronicler Salimbene di Adam reported that in 1287 a large crowd of Pisans had gathered in a square to watch a great bell being hung. Then, “just as it was being lifted off the platform, it tipped over and fell to the ground. But it injured no one, save for a young man whose foot it cut off.” Human life was full of such unexpected mischances, but to Salimbene di Adam, as to all knowledgeable clerics, it was misleading to call such an unfortunate accident an “evil,” for God had so ordered his creation that events which were injurious or harmful from one perspective always contributed to some ultimate good. Men might be made to suffer either toward some inscrutable end known only to God, or for their own just punishment and correction as, it so happened, in the case of the maimed youth: “For he had once kicked his father with this foot and therefore did not escape with impunity. Thus, by a misfortune of this kind, God demonstrated his justice.”

For Salimbene di Adam, the cause of the young man’s punishment lay directly in his sin. Such an explanation did not necessarily rule out subsidiary factors — the workmen may have been careless, the platform may have been unstable, or a demon may have pushed over the bell — but it did establish why this man was harmed and no other, and explained the precise nature of his injuries.

The basis for Salimbene di Adam’s understanding of this incident was provided by Augustine of Hippo’s thorough delineation of the problems posed by misfortune and material evil in the world. According to Augustine of Hippo, divine providence dictated all the injuries suffered by man, although for a number of potentially quite different reasons. Some punishments were purificatory, intended to “discipline and correct” the sinner and to guide him along the path to salvation. All other misfortunes and injuries, Augustine of Hippo believed, were “imposed either in retribution for sins, whether past sins or sins in which the person so chastised is still living, or else to exercise and to display the virtues of the good”.

God did not, however, administer correction directly, but relied instead upon the agency of men and of angels, both evil and good. Through them, all were made subject to the consequences of Adam’s sin; even the innocent were condemned to suffer the countless miseries of human life due simply to their own fallen natures and life in a now fallen creation. For Augustine, storms, tempests, earthquakes, fire, flood, famine — in short, the entire gamut of possible calamities — were “not directed to the punishment of the wickedness and lawlessness of evil man, but are part of our common condition of wretchedness.” Hence, even infants newly baptized and free from any possible culpability had to suffer disease, accidents, and even the assaults of demons, because they were doomed to live in a world made dangerous by the sins of their fathers. God did not, however, harm the innocent in any absolute sense, despite the physical miseries he might inflict: true, demons were allowed to torment innocent children, but, “we must never think that these sufferings can do them real harm, even if they grow so severe as to cut off the soul from the body,” since death would merely hasten the journey of blameless souls to paradise.

Augustine of Hippo argued that although divine providence was the ultimate cause of misfortunes and injuries, only human sin was to blame. To look outside one’s self, and place responsibility for catastrophes on fallen angels or evil men, was both misguided and, at worst, a dishonest evasion of responsibility. Instead, when good Christians considered the suffering wrought by some sudden or unexpected injury, “First, they consider in humility the sins which have moved God’s indignation so that he has filled the world with dire calamities. And although they are free from criminal and godless wickedness, still they do not regard themselves as so far removed from such wrongdoing as not to deserve to suffer from temporal ills which are the recompense for sin.”

This did not mean, of course, that ill-doers should not be punished, still less that criminals were not culpable for their crimes, since they freely willed the evils they committed. Augustine differentiated, however, between the crimes of men and the seemingly random hazards of the world. In the case of the latter, it was pointless to rail against the angel that carried out God’s will, whether evil or no, since never in the least degree could they exceed the freedom allowed them by God.

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