The Content of Popular Tradition

The Content of Popular Tradition

Intellectual and cultural historians have traditionally referred to the intellectual assumptions of the educated élite as constituting the early European world-view. The beliefs of the uneducated populace regarding the spiritual and material worlds have meanwhile remained in large part terra incognita. Only certain salient features of the popular mind, and particularly of popular religion, are genuinely well known. It would lead too far astray to attempt a general survey of popular religious and cosmological notions, but one should at least bear in mind that the widespread preoccupation with sorcery was part of a general framework that encouraged belief in superstition.1 While literate members of the upper and middle classes were attracted by devotional and mystical movements, and a minority of extremists rejected the paraphernalia of Catholicism altogether, the bulk of the populace relied heavily on external observances, relics, pilgrimages, and rituals, in ever-increasing abundance. Churchmen endeavored (though with less than total consistency) to discourage overtly superstitious beliefs and practices, which seemed to compel magical results without affecting the spiritual life of the practitioner. But the distinction between superstition and legitimate devotion was largely one of intention, which was impossible to legislate or regulate. Even some of the Church’s favored practices lent themselves readily to magical employment: examples such as the ‘agnus dei,’ a wax medallion made originally from paschal candles, come easily to mind. While some of these customs (veneration of wells, recitation of charms, etc.) can be traced directly to the paganism of western Europe, others (such as magical employment of saints’ relics) were introduced by Christian missionaries. The general mentality that underlay these practices was in any case neither specifically pagan nor distinctively Christian; it was a natural result of circumstances in which religious leaders exercized only loose control over the populace, and to a large degree shared the religious conceptions of the laity. The present chapter, then, will examine the superior documents from the witch trials in the attempt to shed further light on one aspect of this popular frame of mind.

As was stressed in the last chapter, the most frequent allegation in the superior texts is sorcery. It is not always possible to determine in detail what form of sorcery a witch is supposed to have perpetrated. Indeed, one general problem with the superior sources is that they tend to be shorter and less informative than the inferior ones, perhaps because scribes found Sabbaths and incubi more titillating than maleficent magic, and more worthy of detailed exposition. Whatever the reason, one commonly finds less information in the superior documents than one would like. In extreme cases they tell nothing more than that a particular person was tried ‘for witchcraft,’ or ‘for sorcery.’ Still, the mass of superior evidence, considered as a whole, does permit some estimation of the patterns of witchcraft in late medieval Europe.

The kinds of sorcery can be classified either according to the means or procedures that sorcerers employed (potions and powders, image magic, incantations, etc.) or according to the ends that they sought to accomplish. In the following exposition the main categories will be based upon the ends of sorcery, while within each main class there will be sub-classes based on means employed. The main kinds of sorcery—bodily harm, love magic, weather magic, and theft—will receive separate treatment. After this there will be a section dealing specifically with the means of sorcery. Finally, the charges other than sorcery will be discussed.


Trials for bodily harm (bringing sickness or death to men or animals) rank among the most abundant witch trials in the period 1300–1500. In addition, they fall more evenly throughout western Europe than do trials for other kinds of sorcery. In virtually every country for which there are known witch trials, this type of bewitchment was common.

The means used to bring physical harm were various. In some cases they involved direct and overt physical contact with the victim: pressing his chest, smearing him with an unguent, or beating him with a stick. These procedures, however, are found almost exclusively in the inferior texts, molded by learned tradition. The superior documents speak instead of subtler methods for inflicting harm: image magic, placement of magical substances in proximity to the person afflicted, and recitation of incantations. Administration of magical (or ‘poisonous’) food or drink lies midway between the extremes, since it entails direct contact with the person to whom the food is served, but the actual harm is not performed through the physical contact itself. Thus, bewitchment through such means is the only form that occurs commonly in both superior and inferior records. These differences are fairly easy to explain. If a sorcerer genuinely was attempting to bewitch his neighbor he would in all likelihood do so through indirect means, which might arouse some suspicion but would not make his responsibility altogether obvious. A sorceress would particularly be inclined to choose such means if she lacked both physical power and social influence, and was resorting to sorcery as her only possible way to attain some desired end—as seems frequently to have been the case. Likewise, if an alleged victim was seeking to explain some sudden illness as caused by sorcery it would in most cases be easier to postulate indirect means than to recall a plausible instance of physical assault by a likely suspect. When the defendant appeared in court, however, it would not be difficult for the judges to convict him or her of using direct means of bewitchment, for reasons to be discussed in the next chapter.2

Administering lethal potions and powders was one of the most common ways of killing someone or rendering him ill.3 Perhaps it is not extravagant to see in this fact the mentality of a society ridden with plague. The popular attribution of this disease to poisoned water supply would, one might think, radically increase people’s anxieties about the substances they were ingesting. Another reason for the popularity of this means—assuming now that sorcerers actually were using it—is that it worked more consistently than other means, particularly when natural poisons were used.

It must often have been difficult for contemporaries to decide whether the deleterious effect of a given food or drink was natural or magical. In proceedings at Innsbruck, Henry Institoris was uncertain whether an alleged sorceress had accomplished her victim’s demise by poison or by bewitchment, though he inclined toward the latter suspicion on the peculiar grounds that the suspect had a history of sexual laxity, and was thus no doubt prone to such base activities as witchcraft.4 If the active ingredient of the substance could be isolated and identified, experiments could be performed to determine whether it had the same effect in all circumstances, in which case its power would presumably be natural. But even if technology for such investigation had been available, the ingested substance would in most cases have been lost to inquirers in the mere act of digestion. (It is presumably for this reason that most of the relevant sources speak of the harmful substances only in vague terms, affording the historian no clue what materials were used in these crimes.) Not surprisingly, the Latin term veneficium, or ‘poisoning’, was applicable even in antiquity to both natural and magical species of harm. Likewise, lawcodes of the early and high Middle Ages tended to cite poisoning and this form of sorcery as closely analogous, if not equivalent, offenses.5 The ambiguity prevails in the later judicial records, in which a given deed might be referred to indifferently as sorcery or as poisoning.6 A woman beheaded at Appenzell had bewitched cattle, and had killed a neighbor by means of a ‘poisoned’ apple; it would be futile to speculate about the nature of the poison.7 No doubt there were many instances in which a person with evil intentions would attempt both natural and magical poisons, with little concern for their metaphysical differences.

In some cases, to be sure, at least the external trappings were clearly magical. Thus, a priest in the diocese of Soissons in the mid-fifteenth century set out to wreak vengeance on his enemies.8 He consulted a sorceress, who advised that he baptize a toad, giving it the name John, and administer a consecrated host to the creature. The priest did this, and then took the toad to the sorceress, who tore it to pieces. From the animal’s remains she made poisons that were so potent that the priest’s enemies perished miserably. Even if a genuinely poisonous substance was extracted from the toad,9 the animal’s baptism and viaticum cannot have contributed materially towards this result. Ultimately the sorceress also perished, though through the perfectly natural process of combustion.

Perhaps equally common as a means for inflicting bodily harm was image magic.10 This is the best known species of what James Frazer called homeopathic magic, in which the harm done to a person’s representation (made of wood, cloth, wax, lead, or some other material) is thought of as happening to the person himself.11 The antiquity of image magic is well documented, particularly for England. It was forbidden in the early medieval penitential of Ecgbert: ‘If anyone drives stakes into [the image of] a man, let him fast for three years ….’ The same penitential further recognizes the possible efficacy of this sorcery, and specifies that if the victim dies the perpetrator should fast for seven years.12 The testimony of this text is supported by an example from the mid-tenth century. An English woman and her son attempted to kill a man named Aelsie by driving iron stakes into a representation of him. The ‘deadly image’ was discovered in their closet and removed. The woman was drowned, and the son, who escaped, was outlawed.13 The same practice was forbidden a century and a half later, under the designation invultuatio, in the laws of Henry I.14 It remained popular in the late Middle Ages. The practitioners sometimes claimed that their motive was to obtain the subjects’ friendship—an excuse that seems to have met with skepticism from the judges.15 The obvious end in most cases was illness or death of some enemy.

In some cultures such magic is sometimes accomplished by hostile action toward a person’s shadow, or by desecration of a tablet on which his name is written.16 In one trial in late fifteenth-century London a sorceress endeavored to commit murder by melting a wax candle, on the theory that ‘as the candle consumes, the man [represented by the candle] must waste away.’17 In most instances, though, late medieval sorcerers appear to have used more or less realistic figures, usually made of wax, in their image magic.

Around the turn of the century the bishop of St David’s provoked a sorceress named Tanglost to use image magic against him.18 She had been living adulterously with one Thomas Wyriott, until the bishop placed her in captivity for her marital offense. Her lover broke into the episcopal castle with the aid of twenty-four men, thus releasing the woman. When his lawful wife died soon afterwards rumour attributed the death to Tanglost’s witchcraft. The bishop, upon hearing of this ‘riotous dealing,’ first imprisoned Tanglost anew and then banished her from his diocese. She then allegedly tried to retaliate by hiring two other women to assist her in making a series of wax representations of the bishop himself, so as to destroy him. If the charge was true—and Tanglost denied it—the women were apparently unsuccessful in their attempt.

Usually the wax image was first pricked with pins and then left by the victim’s house, or in some other place where he would come into contact with it, though either step was apparently considered sufficient. A sorcerer in Florence pricked a wax image with pins, and then tried to suffocate it with incense and myrrh; he also wrote an inscription on another wax image, and buried it in a street over which his intended victim would walk.19 The notion of piercing a wax image occurred again at Péronne in 1465,20 while twenty years later a sorceress at Innsbruck was found to have deposited a strangely formed piece of wax in a victim’s house.21 In the same case at Innsbruck, a woman who suffered pains throughout her body solicited the aid of a certain potter, whose familiarity with magical arts enabled him to uncover a wax image under the woman’s threshold. This figure, about the size of a person’s hand, had been pierced with holes all over, while two needles that were still implanted in the wax lay in areas where the woman suffered most acutely: from her breast to her left shoulder, and from her breast to her back.22 At roughly the same time a sorceress in Southwark was accused of burying images and other substances near a certain house, presumably for a similar purpose.23 A Tyrolean sorceress attempted to kill a provost by using a variety of magical ploys, among them placement of a wax image under his choir seat.24 More elaborate still were the preparations of learned sorcerers such as those at Milan who essayed the killing of Pope John XXII: their silver image, complete with genitalia, had symbols and names of demons inscribed on it, and was equipped so that substances could be placed in a cranial hole and then burned over a fire; before using this image for their maleficent purposes, the sorcerers incensed it for nine nights and exposed it to the elements for seventy-two nights. Though more refined than the procedures of the unlearned, these efforts were similar to those of popular magic in their basic conception.25

One remarkable feature of image magic is the frequency with which it occurs in political trials, or cases involving prominent personages. In the political cases during the first period of prosecution (1300–30) it was the most important single means of sorcery. To take one example for which there is relatively full information, image magic was central in the case at Coventry in 1324.26 Twenty-seven discontented residents of this town are supposed to have solicited the aid of a sorcerer and his assistant in the undoing of their political lords: the king of England, the prior of Coventry, and others. Using seven pounds of wax and two ells of canvas, the sorcerer and his assistant made seven representations, one of which showed the king wearing his crown. The assistant then stuck a lead pin two inches into the forehead of one of the images, and the real victim at once suffered debilitating frenzy; the same image was pierced in the heart, and three days later death ensued. Before the rest of the victims could be given the same treatment, the assistant revealed the plot to the authorities, and the twenty-seven clients evidently destroyed the images to prevent their own incrimination. Similarly, the charge of image magic was routine in the French trials of this period, though information is seldom so full as in the Coventry affair.27 When a plot against John XXII was uncovered in 1317, it was discovered that the conspirators had already killed the pope’s favourite nephew through image magic. After this initial success they procured three wax figures from a Jew, baptized them (presumably to effect a mystical connection between the images and the persons with whose names they were baptized), and wrapped them in strips of parchment inscribed with ominous curses. The next step was to conceal the figures inside loaves of bread and smuggle them into the papal palace, but it was in this last step that the conspiracy became disclosed.28 Later in the century, however, and even in the following century, image magic was still repeatedly employed or alleged in trials involving prominent figures.29

As already mentioned, wax images were sometimes placed in proximity to the person afflicted. With this exception, bewitchment through contact with magical substances occurred rarely; the only trial in which it was prominent was that of 1485 in Innsbruck.30 Numerous different materials figured in this trial as maleficent charms: powders, wax, chalk, hair of men or animals, bones of unbaptized babies, nuts, fragments of wood from a gallows, threads from altar cloths, dead mice, and human excrement. One sorceress had allegedly rendered another woman delirious for more than half a year by sending her a bundle containing various such items.31 Another sorceress placed charms of this kind under a woman’s bed, causing a lingering illness and then death; to test the cause of this demise another woman tried lying in the bed, and found that she felt pain only when she lay in it, so that eventually she discovered the cause of the bewitchment.32 A further case is important because it served as a model for a story in the Malleus maleficarum: a sorceress was performing a magical cure for a client’s headache, and when her maid became irritated at the superstitious ceremonies the sorceress threatened her with a similar disease in three days. After the specified time the maid began suffering maddening pain in her head, and black, purulent boils covered her whole body. The sorceress’s husband then grew angry, because the ill maid was unable to attend to the cattle as she was supposed to do. One day he discovered a linen bundle that someone, presumably his wife, had placed in the cow-stall. Taking it down and cutting it open, he found that it contained a yellowish powder (which according to the report looked like dried feces or gore), human hairs, and grains. When he cast these substances into a fire the maid was healed. He later warned his wife not to dabble in such activities any further, for fear that she would eventually get into serious trouble.33 When another sorceress likewise used a bundle of eighteen different substances to inflict various maladies on an adversary, the latter consulted a seeress, who recommended throwing all the materials into a fire. When the recommendation was carried out the woman recovered her health.34 On another occasion a sorceress cast bewitchment by rubbing a salve on a piece of cloth that was to be used in making a tunic.35

There are two similar episodes from a trial in fifteenth-century Todi.36 In one, a man was bewitched by a feather that had been placed in his pillow; in the other, a sorcerer or sorceress had placed three black animals, described as looking like mice, under the threshold of a house, thus afflicting one—and, oddly, only one—of the residents.

The documents that survive for all these modes of sorcery seldom indicate the specific disease inflicted. Some of the sources refer to the illnesses as protracted,37 but only a handful of records give details of the symptoms. When such information is forthcoming the diseases appear to be common ailments, which could be induced psychosomatically but could also occur naturally: lameness,38 headache,39 blindness,40 boils,41 and mental disturbance or delirium.42 Approximately half the time the illness is recorded to have been fatal. Frequently, especially in trials involving important public figures, the alleged sorcery was unsuccessful.

In two known instances epidemics were popularly attributed to sorcery. In 1491 an epidemic at Boucoiran was killing babies and animals, according to the judicial record.43 Eventually a likely suspect was found: a woman whose mother had earlier been thought of as a sorceress, and whose own immoral life was notorious. She was subjected to lengthy interrogation, and presumably sentenced to death. A similar occurrence at Marmande in 1453 led to an even more tragic outcome.44 A serious epidemic of some unspecified disease had caused numerous deaths in the community, and the municipal authorities interrogated a certain woman who had been accused of causing the blight. When townsmen ascertained what was transpiring they said that they knew of many more sorceresses in the community who should likewise be arrested. The authorities did not act on this recommendation, so the assembled mob of two hundred or more people divided into two groups, each under a leader, and captured ten or eleven further suspects that very night, delivering them over to jail. Against the will of the authorities, two or three hundred people assembled the next day to determine what action they should take next. They decided to torture the suspects, and to capture one further woman. Within a few days the torture ensued, despite the legal irregularity of proceeding to torture without obtaining prior information or issuing an interlocutory sentence. Some of the women confessed under torture that they were sorceresses, and had killed numerous children through their arts. Those who made these admissions were burned, while two others died from the torture itself.

The subjects of bodily harm were by far most commonly human. But in eleven trials (mostly from Switzerland) there is reference to bewitchment of animals, either along with men or else alone.45

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