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Fifteenth-Century Supernatural Forces, Demonic or Divine?

Fifteenth-Century Supernatural Forces, Demonic or Divine?
© Photograph by Andrew Vasiliev

When confronting common spells and charms,, or any other potential superstition, clerical authorities in the fifteenth-century, as throughout the Middle Ages, were concerned above all to correct errors and provide clarity, for, in the theological parlance of this period, superstition entailed improper belief and improperly understood ritual acts.

Yet whatever efforts authorities made to define superstition in the abstract, the often ambiguous nature of actual practice eluded their attempts at certain categorisation. They were aware of, and deeply concerned about, these ambiguities, which touched on profound tensions within essential issues of Christian belief, namely the ways in which humans could, and could not, interact with supernatural forces, demonic or divine, and the real meaning of the ritual forms in which that interaction was frequently cloaked.

The category of witchcraft, as constructed by authorities at this time, allowed them to define a number of malevolent magical practices as definitively demonic (all witchcraft, in this sense, was inherently superstitious, although not all superstition was necessarily witchcraft). The intense diabolism that informed authorities’ developing concept of witchcraft entailed the strong denial of any possible direct effectiveness in the spells or other ritualised performances of witches.

Convinced that the power of demons lay behind all acts of witchcraft, clerical authorities worked aggressively to promulgate this point and to disabuse the common laity of any notions to the contrary.

Johannes Nider’s ‘Formicarius’ includes a story that illustrates the confusion surrounding common spells that so concerned authorities, and their deployment of the concept of diabolical witchcraft to achieve clarity. Although Nider assured his readers of the absolute veracity of all the examples he presented in this work, the tale is too perfect, and may well have been entirely invented.

Nevertheless, it encapsulates Nider’s vision of the dangers inherent in commonly used spells and charms, and the message of warning he sought to impart. Sometime in the 1430s, in the southern German diocese of Constance, a man suffering from an injury to his foot visited a friend, a laywoman skilled in healing. Nider named her “Seriosa,” so we will call her Ernestine here.

She was not the first source of relief to which this man had turned. Believing that witches had caused his injury, he had tried numerous cures, including some remedies that church authorities deemed illicit, yet nothing could overcome the initial bewitchment. At last, he came to his friend for help. She made the sign of the cross over him, whispered certain words, and immediately his foot was healed.

Impressed by her power, yet not recognising how she had actually cured him, he asked what “incantations” she had used. At this point, the acerbic Ernestine began to chide her friend: “Whether from weak faith or feebleness,” she addressed him severely, “you do not adhere to the holy and approved rites of the church, and you often use spells and forbidden remedies to heal yourself.” Such spells drew on the power of demons, she warned, and while they might sometimes cure his physical injuries, they always damaged his immortal soul.

This is a story rife with uncertainty. The injured man appears sure that he was bewitched, but we are not told how he knows this. Various means were available in late medieval society for determining when witchcraft was present, and there were a range of popular experts, witch doctors, and cunning folk who could identify witches.

These practices, too, were full of uncertainty, and — given the strife that could arise once accusations of witchcraft began to circulate within a community — fraught with danger. While the man was certain of the cause of his suffering, he had no clear idea how to rectify his situation, trying a number of illicit cures, the “spells and forbidden remedies” of further witchcraft. Only when these failed did he finally turn to his friend Ernestine.

Uncertainty persisted, however, as he did not realise, or adequately recognise, what she did for him. She cured him by making the sign of the cross and silently saying the Creed and the Lord’s Prayer, yet he assumed that she had performed some spell or incantation. She then informed him, in no uncertain terms, of the actual nature of the power she had employed, of the condemned nature of the cures to which he had turned in the past, and of the spiritual harm he had suffered as a result.

In correcting her friend, Ernestine was made to stand in for theorists of witchcraft and other witch-hunting authorities, a fact that carries significant irony, since if she did, in fact, represent a real person living in the early fifteenth-century, she almost certainly would have been a local healer or cunning woman and would have run some risk of being identified as a witch herself.

Yet in the text, she was made to deliver with confident certainty an underlying message that Nider and other theorists of witchcraft sought to convey regarding the spectrum of spells and charms available in late medieval Europe: that many of those rites were, in fact, diabolical witchcraft as authorities understood and constructed it. Witches could cure illness, heal, and relieve suffering, but all their acts, regardless of effect, were inherently evil because the operative power behind them was demonic.

Authorities were deeply concerned that people who believed themselves to be bewitched in some way not turn to further witchcraft for relief. As Nider stressed in Formicarius, “rather a person should die than agree to such things.”

Witchcraft theorists were obsessed with the notion that the laity tolerated and actively patronised practitioners of common magic, who were, in their perception, witches. By submitting to the devil, worshipping demons, and engaging in diabolical sabbaths, witches damned themselves, and by performing maleficium they harmed others; but perhaps their foulest act, in the minds of clerical authorities, was that by deceiving others about the true nature of witchcraft and tempting them into seeking the aid of witches, they corrupted innocent Christian souls. Horrific images of debased carnality and uncontrolled aggression, especially toward infants, proliferated in treatises on witchcraft, as well as in sermons and other forms of propaganda about witches. These served to cast witchcraft emphatically as the inversion of all proper moral order and to warn people against any toleration of suspected demonic activities in their midst.

Most laypeople surely understood at least the basic nature of demonic menace as the church depicted it. They did not, however, seem to connect familiar practices with this menace, or they viewed possible involvement with demons far less seriously than did clerics. Common discourse about interactions with supernatural or occult forces typically reflected care and hesitancy about engaging with such power, but also some casualness, evidenced by claims that most laypeople did not well or fully understand the specific nature of the operations involved or the powers invoked.

According to the early-fifteenth-century Franciscan preacher Bernardino of Siena, for example, the entire city of Siena stood in peril because of its citizens’ unconcerned acceptance of the many “witches” known to inhabit the region.

To clarify and justify their concerns, authorities stressed supposedly direct evidence of the diabolism that witchcraft entailed. For example, in his ‘Das Buch aller verbotenen Künste’ [‘Book of All Forbidden Arts’], the German courtier Johannes Hartlieb claimed to have personally uncovered such diabolism.

In 1447, he was ordered by the Duke of Bavaria to investigate a woman who supposedly professed the ability to summon storms and hail, one of the major evils attributed to witches in southern German and alpine lands.

Under his questioning, she admitted that, to obtain this power, she had denied God, Mary, and all the saints, as well as her baptism and the other sacraments, and that she had given herself “life and soul” to three devils. Thereafter, she needed only to call these devils, and they would raise hailstorms wherever she desired.

Johannes Nider, too, presented an account of a (male) witch who directly confirmed the demonic nature of his powers, also with reference to storm-raising. Captured by authorities, he confessed that he would go with an accomplice to an open field and there implore the “prince of all demons,” the devil, to send a lesser demon. The witch would immolate a black fowl at a crossroads and throw it into the air as an offering, and the demon would then cause hail and lightning to strike at his command.

Like Ernestine, the woman in Hartlieb’s account spoke to confirm the message that authorities sought to impart. As for Nider’s weather-working witch, he supposedly confessed to a magistrate who had captured him, who then reported this story to Nider. Assuming that Nider did not simply invent the tale or recast it wholesale in his retelling, certainly the judge could have extracted a confession that suited his own purposes as an authority bent on stressing the demonic nature of much common magic.

Interestingly, elsewhere in Formicarius, Nider related how this same witch supposedly prevented a married couple from having children over the course of several years.

In this account, no overt diabolism was present; the man cast the spell simply by burying a lizard under the threshold of the couple’s dwelling, although since the accused in this case had already been deemed a witch, Nider was certain that demonic power was somehow in operation.

Amid the doubt and confusion that authorities seem to have faced, and which they certainly feared, regarding the nature of many common magical practices, the figure of the witch, forced either in reality or in exemplary accounts to confess the explicitly demonic basis of her (or sometimes his) power, was made to be reassuringly definitive.

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