The witch remains among the most popular sources of inspiration for Halloween costumes year on year. With wide-brimmed hats, black cats, broomsticks and crooked noses, the pop-culture witch is instantly recognisable. Going back a few centuries, however, and a witch was more obscurely defined. Suspicions and accusations crept through communities, as paranoid hunts sought to root out the witches superficially indistinguishable from their neighbours.
Still, belief in the threat of witches was not universally accepted, and there are a number published works in the Old Library at Queens’ from the early modern period debating whether they even existed. The witch discourse raised many important theological points: What exactly are the extents of the devil’s power? Why would God allow the possibility of witchcraft? Can humans really become willing agents of demonic power?
The foundations of this debate are laid in the late medieval period with the publication of Malleus Maleficarum (Hammer of Witches) in 1486. Pope Innocent VIII had charged its authors, German clergymen Heinrich Kraemer and Johann Sprenger, to eradicate witchcraft in Germany. At this point, there had generally been no consensus on what exactly witchcraft was, with competing conceptions based on traditional belief prominent in different regions of Europe. Kraemer and Sprenger saw Satan as a more remote, God-like entity, and the witch was an agent of his power on Earth, made so by signing a diabolic pact. She would fly to nocturnal meetings with the devil, offer him the souls of babies, copulate with demons, poison the community and transform herself into an animal, among other evil acts. Due to the relatively recent invention of printing, Kraemer and Sprenger’s ideas spread, and within 50 years of leaving the press, the witch conceptualised by Malleus was widely adopted as the learned definition. Most importantly, in its final part, Malleus called for extermination of those who made satanic pacts, and sanctioned torture as a method for extracting confessions.
Johann Weyer’s De praestigiis daemonum [F.14.21]
Johann Weyer’s De praestigiis daemonum, & incantationibus ac veneficiis (‘On the Illusions of the Demons and on Spells and Poisons’ first published Basel, 1563 – Queens’ copy is the 1577 edition) was the first major assault on the medieval portrayal of witchcraft established by Malleus. By the end of the 16th century, the Church had taken an ever more punitive stance towards witches, and public persecution, trials and executions had significantly escalated, with the majority of victims being older women. The ageism and sexism of witch-hunts prompted a writer for the American Journal of Psychiatry in 1963 to call Malleus ‘one of the worst documents of bigotry of our Western civilisation’. Weyer did not go as far to say this in the 16th century, but he did argue that the perception of witchcraft was merely a product of female senility and demonic trickery. In Weyer’s view, any confession to a pact made with the devil was a delusion caused by unbalanced humours, old-age infirmity, and female hysteria. These delusions may have come from the devil, but the perceived weakness of old women made them vulnerable to his lies, so Weyer wrote. In effect, De praestigiis daemonum pleaded insanity on behalf of women standing trial for witchcraft. Weyer was by no means a sceptic of demonology generally: he acknowledged the reality of demons and devils and their ability to cause harm, but he insisted they could act independently and needed no human agents to do their work.
Jean Bodin’s De magorum daemonomania [H.19.22]
On the defence of Malleus Maleficarum is De la démonomanie des sorciers by Jean Bodin, published in Paris in 1580 (the Old Library holds its Latin translation printed in Frankfurt, 1603). This work contributed little to the development in the knowledge of witchcraft, instead refuting Weyer’s scepticism and reinforcing the understanding of witches solidified in the previous century. Bodin draws heavily on Weyer’s anecdotes in De praestigiis daemonum. He does not deny Weyer’s narration of supernatural occurrences, but comes to vastly different conclusions of their explanations. Where Weyer takes Sybil Duiscops, a woman burned for witchcraft, as an example for a woman wrongly accused and a community tricked by demons, Bodin asserts that she was definitely a guilty witch. For Bodin, it was not for people to say what demonic power could and could not do, since demons, and therefore their human agents, were not bound by earthly laws of nature. To question and seek reason for supernatural phenomena was an affront to God’s omniscience.
Reginald Scot’s The discoverie of witchcraft [C.1.36]
Four years after Bodin’s work, the witch debate sprang up in English publishing with Reginald Scot’s Discoverie of witchcraft – the 1584 first edition is here at Queens’. In his answer to Bodin’s Démonomanie, Scot went even further than Weyer in his scepticism. Every single witch tried and executed in England was innocent, according to Scot, who denied the existence of any Biblical basis for a belief in witchcraft. While Malleus Maleficarum approved of confessions extracted by torture, Scot completely dismissed this as evidence. Where The discoverie of witchcraft exceeds the sceptical claims of De praestigiis daemonum is its implication that evil spirits were somewhat metaphorical: they were perhaps an internal impulse towards evil deeds that could be overcome. The copy in the Old Library contains woodcut illustrations exposing the illusions used by magicians, further showing scepticism in magic:
King James I’s Daemonologie [G.15.14(5)]
There is a popular myth that James I ordered all copies of The discoverie of witchcraft to be burned upon his accession to the throne. James was known to have books destroyed if he disapproved, and his Daemonologie named Scot and Weyer as the main culprits of witchcraft denial, yet there is little evidence for the mass burning of Scot’s work. The copy at Queens’, at least, survived unscathed.
The witchcraft obsession of King James (then James VI of Scotland) first comes to the fore in 1590, the same year the North Berwick witch trials began. These trials saw over 70 people stand trial for their involvement in a treasonous plot to kill the Scottish king by raising a storm to drown him on his return voyage from Denmark. Allegedly, the elderly and respected Agnes Sampson asked the devil to help the Berwick coven in their plot, and so he came to preach to them on All Hallows’ Eve outside a church and denounced the king. James’ fear of witchcraft grew throughout the decade, culminating with Daemonologie in 1597: a study of demons, sorcery and necromancy, and a push back against Scot’s scepticism by reaffirming the concept of the diabolic pact between witches and Satan. It is interesting to note that while Scot denies a Biblical basis for witchcraft, the King James Bible chooses ‘thou shalt not suffer a witch to live’ in a translation of Exodus when others alternatively translate the noun as ‘poisoner’.
Daemonologie is a likely source of inspiration for the Weird Sisters in Shakespeare’s Macbeth, and with this we can see how the image of the witch depicted by Malleus Maleficarum, and reinforced by Bodin’s Démonomanie, entered English literature and was to survive in almost identical depictions to this day.
A discovery of the fraudulent practises of Iohn Darrel Bacheler of Artes [G.15.14(3)]
Belief and scepticism in witchcraft was not only a matter confined to the pages of the Old Library’s volumes: the conflict between these two sides played out at a trial of one of Queens’ College’s own former members. Bound to Daemonologie in the Old Library is an exposé on the dubious actions of a former Queens’ member, John Darrell, a witch hunter and exorcist. After his studies at Queens’ 1575-9, Darrell returned to his hometown of Mansfield where he built a reputation for spiritually healing the possessed, and prosecuting those who were responsible for the bewitchment. Known for his spectacular exorcisms around the English midlands in the 1590s, he attracted curious crowds. In 1597, however, he found himself implicated in controversy, when an apprentice musician in Nottingham, William Somers, claimed to be possessed. Darrell exorcised Somers, but Somers soon became repossessed. This happened again and again, and Darrell eventually had thirteen people arrested as witches for causing the possession. However, when Somers confessed to faking it all, Darrell was investigated for his role in the scandal. Although initially acquitted, John Darrell was imprisoned for fraud in 1599. The Somers scandal is one of a number of cases discussed in A discovery of the fraudulent practises of Iohn Darrel Bacheler of Artes, by Samuel Harsnett, 1599.
As each pamphlet and tract reacts to and refutes the one before, a picture of the polarising nature of discussions about witchcraft comes into view. While it can be generally agreed that scepticism of witchcraft was eventually victorious, we can also see how works such as Malleus Maleficarum, Démonomanie, and Daemonologie have forged a consistent understanding of witchcraft that has been firmly embedded in literature, theatre and modern folklore for centuries.
By Harry Bartholomew – Library Graduate Trainee at Queens’ College
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