Spells, and Charms in Early European Witchcraft Literature

Michael Bailey
Michael Bailey

In 1917, in a lecture in Munich on ‘Science as a Vocation,’ Max Weber first articulated his notion of “the disenchantment of the world,” later also incorporated into his seminal Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism.

He presented disenchantment as a hallmark feature of modern Western society, which had come into full vigour with the Protestant Reformation. Initially, Weber described this development, in relation to science, as entailing primarily the conviction that “there are no mysterious incalculable forces” and that “one need no longer have recourse to magical means in order to master or implore spirits.”

Later, and rather more evocatively in relation to religion, he described it as a historical force that had progressively “repudiated all magical means to salvation as superstition and sin.” Weber’s assertions were hardly uncontroversial, and they have been challenged repeatedly in the century since they were first made. Nevertheless, the basic notion of disenchantment remains very influential on many academic disciplines’ understanding of the modern world. Magic and cultural perceptions of the magical occupy a critical place particularly in sociological and anthropological conceptions of modernity, and issues of “magical thought” and “superstition” in opposition to “scientific rationalism” frame discussions not only of the modern West but of instances in which Western modernity confronts the traditional beliefs and practices of other world cultures.

Historians of European magic and witchcraft have also engaged, sometimes overtly but often tacitly, with the themes Weber identified and encapsulated as “disenchantment.” Keith Thomas in particular, in his groundbreaking ‘Religion and the Decline of Magic’, made only passing reference to Weber directly but took up the essentially Weberian theme of the degree to which religion (of the more modern, reformed variety) displaced magic from European society.

Far from eliminating all magic in the world, however, Thomas concluded that by eradicating the “magical” practices of the medieval church, Protestantism in England actually promoted concern about witches and popular reliance on cunning folk, astrologers, and other types of common magicians. Following this line of argument, historians have since pushed generalised disenchantment back to progressively later points in European history — the Scientific Revolution, the Enlightenment, even nineteenth-century industrialisation.

Most recently, historians of the modern period have begun to engage directly with, and further problematize, Weber’s analysis by arguing that certain magical beliefs and systems of thought not only endured into the nineteenth- and twentieth-centuries but were, in fact, essential elements of European modernity.

An underlying issue plaguing any attempt, save perhaps for the modern period, to historically examine key issues entailed in disenchantment — the emergence of putatively purer “modern” religious sensibilities compatible with scientific rationalism out of earlier, supposedly muddled “magical” systems — is the fact, now widely recognized, that the categories of “religion” and “magic” in their current forms are almost entirely creations of the post-Reformation era.

Some historians of early modern Europe, however, now present an at least quasi-Weberian analysis of certain shifts toward more modern mentalities in the area of ritual during that period. They have also returned to locating the critical force behind these shifts in the Reformation.

Protestant authorities, they contend, primarily abandoned the view that real efficacy or presence of power was inherent in ritual acts and began to assert the notion of ritual as mere symbolic signification or representation. This process was most clearly evident in Protestant sacramental and above all eucharistic theology, but it also played out in many areas of ritualized activity.

While there is no denying the significance of the Reformation in terms of ritual and more general religious developments in European history, there is also considerable danger in positing a single period of relatively sudden, dramatic change, especially when the modern analytical categories employed are rooted mainly in Reformation-era debates.

In regard to historical conceptions of magic, shifting notions about the inherent qualities of various kinds of ritualised, magical actions need to be disentangled from the immediate context of the Reformation. In the century prior to the eruption of Protestantism, reformist impulses already animated many clerical authorities, feeding increased concern about proper religiosity, lay piety, and putative superstition.

A number of these authorities became particularly troubled by the common spells, charms, healing rites, and other simple ritualized acts widely used by laypeople and also by many clerics.

Fearing that these rites entailed at least tacit invocation of demons, authorities judged them to be erroneous and therefore superstitious. In this, they followed long-standing Christian conceptions of the potentially demonic nature of virtually all magic.

New this time, however, was the degree to which established theories were applied to questions of common practice and belief, and the level of concern these practices now generated. The first half of the fifteenth-century, in particular, saw a rash of tracts and treatises produced on the question of superstition. Here, however, the focus is on the treatment of common spells and charms in early witchcraft literature.

As important studies by Stuart Clark and Walter Stephens on late medieval and early modern witchcraft treatises have shown, authorities often deployed the idea of witchcraft as a tool for dealing with basic ontological and epistemological problems of their age. They employed this concept at least partially to resolve dilemmas of uncertainty raised by common spells and other ritual acts.

By the early fifteenth-century, witchcraft connoted far more — for authorities, at least — than just the performance of simple malevolent magic (maleficium). Witches were now constructed as surrendering themselves entirely to demons, entering into pacts with them, and worshipping them as members of diabolical sects that gathered secretly to devour babies, desecrate sacraments, partake in sexual orgies, and perform terrible rites.

The explicit (and horrific) association of witches with demons removed all doubt about the essential nature of their acts. In establishing witchcraft as clearly diabolical in nature, authorities were particularly concerned to strip any effective agency from the simple ritual acts that witches employed. The words witches uttered or the gestures they performed could not directly cause magical effects; nor did these formulas have inherent power to bind or compel demons to cause those effects. Rather, witches’ access to and control over demonic power was made to rest entirely on an explicit pact with Satan.

In addressing witchcraft and explicating both the nature of witches’ power and the rites by which they might appear to work that power, authorities were also obliged to address the nature of many common healing and protective rites, both official ceremonies and formally approved practices as well as more fully popular improvisations often derived from these — those rites of power that Keith Thomas evocatively, although anachronistically, labeled the “magic of the medieval church,” and which David Gentilcore more accurately described as constituting a complex “system of the sacred” that permeated pre-modern European society.

As with witchcraft, authorities again denied any real effect to rites themselves. True agency was either covertly demonic (a frightful possibility) or legitimately divine. Even more than demons, however, divinity could never be compelled or coerced by human acts. Thus ritual forms again became meaningless; so long as the intent was good and proper faith was maintained, God should respond. Yet not only did this fly in the face of widespread common beliefs that perceived many church rites, as well as spells and charms based on them, to be automatically efficacious, but it also could be thought to undermine a critical point that witchcraft theorists sought to make: that people should eschew questionable rites, even if their intent was good, and employ only the long-approved rituals of the church.

Theorists of witchcraft did not resolve these dilemmas in the course of the fifteenth-century. Indeed, as the literature on witchcraft grew more developed and thorough, the problems of properly understanding and categorising common spells and charms became more complex. Not only did authorities frequently seem to maintain the virtually automatic effectiveness of official ceremonies, but even the most severe opponents of witchcraft still argued for the permissibility of various unofficial rites.

Issues of the effectiveness, and appropriateness, of spells and charms, church ceremonies, and sacramentals, as well as the sacraments themselves, continued well into the early modern period.

Arguably the two greatest monuments of fifteenth-century witchcraft literature were Johannes Nider’s ‘Formicarius’ [Anthill], the most extensive and influential of several early tracts and treatises on witchcraft produced in the 1430s, and Heinrich Kramer’s ‘Malleus Maleficarum’ [‘Hammer of Witches’], the most important late medieval witchcraft treatise, written in 1486.

Both men were members of the Dominican order, which was famous for its pastoral and inquisitorial activities and was in each of these roles deeply involved in investigating and shaping common beliefs and practices.

Both were also largely conservative in their thought, grounded in the Thomism of the thirteenth-century rather than newer intellectual systems such as nominalism that were developing in the fourteenth- and fifteenth-centuries. Thus they indicate how growing concerns over spells, charms, and potential witchcraft were rooted in long-established interpretations of Christian belief. Moreover, the two men shared a direct connection, as Kramer drew heavily from and expanded upon Nider’s earlier accounts.

Although these works were written in the fifteenth-century and reflected a particular strain of thought within that century, insights derived from careful attention to this material carry broad implications for how historians and scholars in other disciplines conceive and periodize a significant aspect of Western Europe’s development toward modernity. Processes identifiable as “disenchantment” — notably the conceptualization of much magical and religious ritual as merely symbolic rather than directly effective — were evident already in the fifteenth-century, and indeed earlier, and thus nothing like Weber’s “disenchantment of the world” or any concomitant lurch toward modernity should be bound exclusively to the impact of the Reformation.

Critically, locating some “disenchantment” before the Reformation helps to decouple these processes from modern conceptions of “magic” and “religion” that are products of Reformation-era debates. They are instead revealed to be deeply enmeshed with medieval Christian beliefs about the nature of superhuman powers, whether those of demons or divinity, and the means by which human beings might interact with, supplicate, or attempt to direct such power.

Yet the tensions and uncertainty regarding this interaction evident in fifteenth-century witchcraft treatises, and especially in their treatment of spells, charms, and other superstitions, reveal a heightened concern with these issues and indicate much of the manner in which they would continue to provoke and inform debate throughout the Reformation and at least until the Enlightenment.

The fifteenth-century was, therefore, an important connecting juncture between “medieval” and “early modern” concerns, and the disenchantment it reveals was not a sudden break with or rejection of earlier magical thought, but a development within it that illuminates continuing concern and debate over magical operations into the modern era.

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