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
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
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
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
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
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
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
Authorities were deeply concerned that people who believed themselves to be bewitched in some way not turn to further witchcraft for relief. As
Witchcraft theorists were obsessed with the notion that the laity tolerated and actively
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
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
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.