The Imposition of Learned Notions

The Imposition of Learned Notions

In 1428 a woman named Matteuccia Francisci appeared before an inquisitor at Todi.1 The inquisitor had evidently conducted extensive inquiry into her activities, and had obtained charges against her from numerous former clients. He routinely specified the precise place and year in which Matteuccia had performed sorcery for these clients, or given them recipes or advice. Many of these patrons were women whose husbands no longer loved them, and the sorceress prescribed a wide variety of folk remedies for this complaint. Many of these cures involved use of herbs; others centered about rituals in which wax images were placed over fire; still others involved use of incantations. Though the records specify that Matteuccia gave such prescriptions ‘at the instigation of a diabolical spirit,’ many of her incantations called upon members of the Trinity, the Virgin, and various saints. The woman appears to have been something of a specialist in folk medicine, and on one occasion prescribed a contraceptive for the concubine of a local priest. The bulk of the trial contains no hint of diabolism. Toward the end, however, one can discern a clear caesura: the tone of the allegations shifts abruptly, and one finds Matteuccia confessing to all the crimes perpetrated by members of the devil’s sect. The emphasis is still largely upon bewitchment, but the maleficent acts are different in kind from those in the earlier part of the trial, and from those in records of witnesses’ depositions. Rather than employing magical substances and rituals, the subject is supposed to have anointed herself with unguents made, among other things, from the fat of babies. She then recited a formula, whereupon a demon appeared in the shape of a goat, transporting her to the assemblies over which he presided. On countless occasions she is supposed to have gone to the homes of people in various towns and sucked the blood out of their babies, so that their fat might be employed in the manufacture of unguents. Though there is no mention in the record that the later admissions were made under judicial coercion, it is difficult to account for the abrupt change by any other hypothesis. Clearly in this trial the notions of diabolism were superimposed on earlier charges in the course of judicial interrogation.

Another trial suggests the same interpretation: The chronicler Cornelius Zantfliet mentions that in 1456 two women were burned at Cologne, one for killing a man and the other for her ability to raise winds, hail, and storms in the company of her associates.2 The latter woman had come from Metz, where she had raised inclement weather on one occasion and destroyed all the crops within two miles. The citizens of Cologne wanted to know whether the abilities she claimed were real, so they asked her for a demonstration. When a cup of water was brought to her she promptly made it turn so hard that it could not be cut even with the sharpest knife. In addition to the chronicler’s account there are letters exchanged between the authorities of Cologne and those of Metz, which shed further light on this trial. Having heard that the woman from Metz had relatives still in that vicinity, and that her sister was presently in captivity, the burgomaster and council of Cologne wrote to the government at Metz requesting information about the suspect’s background. The authorities of Metz replied that the woman in question had fled from their town under suspicion of witchcraft. Other women, who had killed infants, raised storms, and flown through the air, had implicated her in their misdeeds. They claimed that the suspect had given each of them a box of ointments, presumably for use either in casting bewitchments or in flying to Sabbaths. The fact that similar suspicions arose in both cities suggests clearly that the woman did engage in weather magic of some kind. In Metz, however, the authorities did not content themselves with this accusation of sorcery. Pressing further, and probably employing some form of judicial coercion, they convicted the suspects of certain elements of diabolism. The discrepancies between the charges in Metz and those in Cologne can best be explained on the supposition that, unlike their counterparts at Cologne, the officials at Metz used coercive measures to superimpose the learned notion of diabolism on the popular charge of sorcery.

In all respects, then, these cases are analogous to those discussed in Chapter II, in which witnesses’ charges of sorcery were followed by judicial interrogation, in which charges of diabolism were extracted from the suspects. Indeed, all valid and relevant evidence indicates that this pattern was typical. This is not to say that all members of the learned élite believed in diabolism and interjected it into the charges. Recent historians have made clear that there were divergent strains in thought concerning witchcraft. Certain educated people, particularly those with humanist backgrounds, seem to have been less inclined to credulity than others.3 Yet a relatively skeptical attitude could serve only to suppress the popular charges of witchcraft or to leave them as they stood, without the addition of further, more elaborate concepts. It is only those educated people who did believe in diabolism, therefore, who imposed distinctively learned notions upon the substratum of popular belief. This latter group of intellectuals was significant because of the effect they had on judicial proceedings. Even if they were numerically unimportant in 1300 (and they probably were), they seem to have increased dramatically by 1500. In any event, it is their ideas that call for separate attention.

The task that remains for understanding the context of witch accusations is fourfold. First the distinctive features of the imposed learned tradition must be examined. Second, the reasons must be ascertained why members of the intellectual élite felt it necessary to devise notions more fantastic than those of the populace, and to place these ideas in the mouths of suspects. Third, the way in which judges carried out this imposition must be explained. And fourth, the influence of learned concepts upon popular belief must be studied, to the extent that the sources allow.

It would be superfluous to examine the learned notions of witchcraft in comprehensive detail. They are fundamentally the same whether seen in witch hunting manuals or in the charges brought forth in court. They have been studied extensively by numerous historians—perhaps at greater length than their historical significance requires. It will suffice here to suggest some of the ways in which learned tradition as shown in the trials differed from folk belief.

The most essential point to be conveyed is that learned influence did not merely juxtapose the notion of diabolism with that of sorcery. In basic ways it transformed the conception of sorcery as well. In only rare instances does one find sorcery precisely as described in the last chapter included in a document along with diabolism, in the same stage of the judicial proceedings.4 Almost invariably the sorcery that accompanies diabolism is radically distinct. Whereas the sorcerer or sorceress in popular tradition is usually an enemy of an individual accuser, or a set of specific accusers, the devil-worshipper is an adversary of a broader and less personal society. The sorcerer in the superior document, whose offenses are specified by the victim, attacks out of personal motives having to do with the victim.5 The devil-worshipper, whose crimes are suggested by judges (individuals not affected in any directly personal way by the suspect’s actions), inflicts evil out of sheer malice. This distinction is clearest, as Keith Thomas has suggested in a different context,6 in trials for weather magic. Because destructive storms were not clearly directed against specific individuals, there was little inclination for private accusers to press charges of weather magic. In the superior documents the accusation arises with moderate frequency in Switzerland and in Upper Germany, but virtually never in other regions. Even in inferior texts, where it occurs more frequently,7 it is not universal; it does not appear in Italian trials for diabolism, perhaps because of relatively stable climate, but it does arise frequently in France.8 The relative frequency of the charge in inferior sources seems natural. When a suspect was under interrogation, and when judges were looking for offences that could plausibly be attributed to him or her, it might frequently have been easier for them to recall a damaging storm from the recent past than to call to mind a death, illness, or love affair that seemed incomprehensible in natural terms.

Storms were not the only means that witches had to destroy crops, according to the inferior sources. They also accomplished this goal by filling the skin of a cat with various grains, soaking it in a spring for three days, then drying and pulverizing the mixture, and strewing it to the winds from a mountain top. Whatever fields the powder fell on would be rendered sterile.9 For destruction of property, witches in certain Swiss trials are also supposed to have created avalanches.10

Oddly, one does not find plague ascribed to witches in the inferior documents, though this also would be a crime against society in general. Probably the closest approximation to this notion is a charge against witches in or near Savoy: that they formed a powder from the innards of murdered children and the bodies of venomous animals, and scattered the concoction through the air during a mist. Those towns to which the deadly substance was carried by the wind would suffer heavy mortality, while neighboring areas would be spared.11 From the very onset of the plague in the mid-fourteenth century, however, this disease had been widely attributed not to maleficent action of witches but to the malice of Jews or to the wrath of God. These alternative explanations evidently preempted the suggestion that outbreaks of the affliction could be blamed on devil-worshippers. To be sure, there were two incidents in which the populace held sorceresses responsible for epidemics,12 but the diseases in these cases do not appear to have been plague (particularly not in the case of Boucoiran, where the disease affected animals and children specifically).

In any case, the specifically antisocial nature of devil-worshippers is borne out by further aspects of their maleficence. They attacked infants far more commonly than did mere sorcerers. The records frequently give as motive for infanticide the need of infants’ fat as an ingredient in unguents, or the consumption of their flesh at Sabbaths.13 Likewise, the attribution of stillbirth and miscarriage to witches seems to be a distinctive feature of the inferior documents.14 In both these ways the sheer malevolence of devil-worshippers, not directed against specific personal enemies, is revealed. Furthermore, the most clearly personal offense of witches, love magic, is conspicuously lacking in most of the inferior texts.15 This may be surprising to readers of the Malleus maleficarum, which dwells in lurid detail on the sexual bewitchments of witches, and which claims that God permits them special power over the sexual act.16 Yet earlier theologians had not demonstrated the same measure of concern for this kind of sorcery, and apparently neither had judges. Canonists had had to consider whether impotence resulting from bewitchment was grounds for annulment of marriage, but their concern evidently does not indicate general preoccupation with the matter among the intellectual élite.17

The acts of sorcery narrated in inferior texts are more commonly carried out through direct, overtly physical contact than are those in superior sources. Neither image magic nor placement of magical substances in proximity to the victim plays a prominent role in the inferior sources.18 Instead, one finds devil-worshippers incessantly approaching people (especially babies) directly, particularly during the night, and either pressing them on their chests in such a way as to wound them or else smearing them with magical unguents. One witch, having quarreled with a certain man over a debt, took vengeance by rubbing the man’s daughter on the hand with an unguent that the devil had given her. The daughter at once grew ill, and five days later died. The same witch avenged another grievance by bewitching a man’s cow with certain powders, again given to her by the devil.19 A witch in the diocese of Lausanne entered through a window one night and strangled his own granddaughter, and used her remains to make a lethal powder and an unguent that would cause a broom or stick to fly through the air.20 In the mid-fifteenth century the devil gave a male witch in the same diocese an unguent, and told him to place it between the testicles of a certain John of Mossel and see what would happen. The witch, concealed in a cloud, approached the victim from behind and anointed him with the unguent. Immediately John began raging about the fields in a mad frenzy, unable to bear the pain.21 In numerous other circumstances witches used magical poisons to afflict both men and animals. One witch at Boucoiran killed a one-year-old girl by putting magical powders in her bowl as she sat eating on her doorstep. Likewise, she put powders into the troughs from which pigs fed; a man testified in court that his pigs had in fact died, though he had not known the cause.22

The most fundamental distinction between the popular and learned notions of sorcery, however, is that in learned tradition the devil had a necessary role in all bewitchment. The devil dispensed powders and unguents to his followers at the Sabbaths, ordered them to work as much harm as they could, and instructed them in the arts of sorcery. On one occasion a witch refused to carry out this order,23 but typically they complied with their master’s will. One subject confessed that he and his companions had been rendered invisible, and had gone behind farmers as they sowed their fields, snatching up the seeds. Asked why they had done this, he said merely ‘that their master had ordered them to do so, and that the evils and harms that they inflict on others redound to his purposes.’24 In other contexts the powders and unguents used by witches were concocted ‘by diabolical art,’ or ‘through diabolical mystery.’25 In short, learned ideas were not merely added to popular beliefs, but were thoroughly intermingled with them, and altered them.

Why did the judges bring about this radical transformation of the charges? If diabolism had been the original charge against the suspects, one would have to explain the preoccupation with it as the result of a morbid, pathological fear or fascination. But from all the valid evidence available it appears that diabolism was not the original charge, but was superimposed in the courtroom on some prior accusation, usually sorcery. The introduction of diabolism can thus more plausibly be construed as resulting from a desire of the literate élite to make sense of the notion of sorcery. On this interpretation the concern with diabolism arose more from intellectual needs than from psychological grounds. Psychological factors no doubt played an important subsidiary role, particularly in the case of a pathological soul such as Henry Institoris. Whether some further kind of amorphous collective psychosis played a major part in the formulation of ideas about witchcraft is highly dubious.

The motives for the transformation are clearer in the witchcraft treatises than in the court records. Essentially, the authors of this literature opposed a religious interpretation of sorcery to a magical one. They could not entertain seriously the notion that acts of sorcery and maleficent words or substances had inherent power to bring evil results, without the mediation of demons. There was no place in their world-view for causation that was neither natural nor fully supernatural. As H. R. Trevor-Roper has pointed out, it was predominately Aristotelians rather than Neo-Platonists who encouraged the concern with witchcraft,26

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