Monday, January 10, 2011

Scholasticism and witchcraft theory 1

By some estimates, over 100,000 people were killed during the witch hunts that occurred in continental Europe, England, and America. The witch craze began in the 15th century, and at that time, the notion of the ‘witch’ appeared with a rather precise definition.

Basically, witches were thought to be people (some men, but mostly women) who made the following sort of pact with a demon: in exchange for the witch’s soul, that demon would go and do all sorts of bad things to other people on the witch’s behalf. That’s how witches were thought to be able to cast spells on their neighbors. Strictly speaking, it wasn’t the witch who had the power to, say, make all your crops wither, make all your sheep sick, make you impotent, and so on. It was their demon who did all that.

Witches were also thought to do other things. For example, it was believed that they flew around on brooms, and that image has of course survived all the way up to our own day. (I should note that brooms became the witch’s flying stick of choice only in the 15th century. Before that, the preference was for the shovel.) Witches were also thought to gather together in local and regional meetings where they would have sex with demons, or even with Satan himself.

How do we know all this? Early modern witchcraft manuals. To cite the most famous: in 1486, Heinrich Kramer and Jacob Sprenger published a book under the Latin title Malleus Malificarum, and that translates roughly as The Hammer of Witches. This was an early modern witchcraft manual --- not a manual for witches, but rather a manual for witch hunters. Indeed, in the Malleus Malificarum, the authors try to explain exactly what witches are; they try to explain how witches get their powers; they try to enumerate the various activities that witches get up to in the wee hours of the night; and they try to explain how one should go about investigating witches (via torture).

Now, if you sit down and read the Malleus Malificarum, you can’t help but notice how often the authors refer to ideas from earlier scholastic thinkers, e.g., people like Thomas Aquinas and John Duns Scotus. This, of course, has not escaped the historian’s watchful gaze. Historians readily acknowledge that 15th and 16th century witchcraft theory has its origins in medieval scholasticism. Unfortunately though, historians have done a rather poor job of identifying and analyzing these scholastic origins.

Because the concept of the witch wasn’t really invented until the 15th century, you won’t find such clearly defined conceptions of witches in medieval scholastic writings. But what you do find are discussions about how angels and demons can interact with the physical world, and that’s the material that 15th and 16th century witchcraft theorists drew upon.

So, the origins of witchcraft theory should be traced back to scholastic discussions of angels and demons, and especially scholastic discussions about how angels and demons can interact with the physical world. In the following series of posts, I want to explore this in a little more detail.

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