This is a guest post by Mark Dimunation, chief of the Rare Book and Special Collections Division. Check back tomorrow when we reprint a witchy Halloween post from last year.
Toward the end of the 15th century in central Europe, the craze for hunting witches was stoked to the level of hysteria, in part by a pair of highly influential works that formed a literary cornerstone of Europe’s fascination with and abhorrence of the occult and supernatural forces. More than 600 years later, copies of both are held in the Rare Book and Special Collections Division.
Our story begins in 1485, when Heinrich Institoris (Heinrich Kramer), an Austrian priest and Dominican inquisitor, launched a series of witch trials of such viciousness that they were ultimately shut down. He went on to further his campaign by writing, at the request of the pope, the most influential work on witchcraft at the time, “Malleus Maleficarum” (“Hammer of the Witches”), which became the second best-selling book of the era, trailing only the Bible. His cohort in this publication was James Sprenger, a prominent German priest. It was a work in three parts, with the most sensational section describing witches’ sabbaths, or secret night-time rituals that allegedly included witches eating children, having sex with the devil and causing deadly mayhem to the wider community. The last part of the book described and authorized the torture and executions of witches. Essentially, anyone could be charged with being a witch and, once charged, was presumed guilty and subject to horrific tortures that often ended in death.
These sort of draconian charges did not go uncontested. Ulrich Molitor was a legal scholar in the region of southern Germany and northern Italy when he was approached to write a discourse on the nature and power of witchcraft as a rebuttal to Kramer. He issued an early treatise, “De Lamiis et Pythonicis Mulieribus” (“Of Witches and Fortunetellers/Diviner Women”) in 1489. Given the inflamed notions regarding witchcraft at the time, Molitor was seen as a moderate. He supported execution for the guilty, but dismissed the idea of witches’ sabbaths as demonic illusions.
Molitor worked in the court of the Archduke Sigismund of Austria, who sought to provide a calm voice in the debate. Sigismund objected to the level of torture heaped upon suspects, for fear that “punishments incites men to say what is contrary to the nature of the facts.” Molitor’s book was printed widely across the realm.
But even though Molitor spoke as a moderate, his work would come to have a dark, lasting impact on society. “De Lamiis” was the first illustrated discussion of witchcraft, with several woodcut images depicting witches. These images, widely reprinted, delivered an impact wildly different from Molitor’s intent.
The illustrations portrayed popular notions of the behavior of witches, thus unwittingly entrenching those fantasies more firmly in the public mind. Rather than leveling the conversation with reason, they added fuel to the already heated discussion. Six images that referenced items in Molitor’s text appeared in the work, but they took on their own documentary meaning. There was a woman shooting an arrow; three shape-shifting witches flying on a pitchfork; a male witch riding a wolf; the devil seducing a woman; two witches before a cauldron; and three women feasting outdoors.
The images did not suggest mere “demonic illusion” as his text did. These witches seemed real and corporeal, the physical manifestations of the devil. Their impact was profound and threatening.
It was a common notion, for example, that although witches could take the form of animals, they would never fully cast aside their true identity as a human. Therefore, the book shows that even as those pitchfork-riding witches have transformed into beings with the heads of animals, they still have female bodies.
Conversely, this was true of the devil. Regardless of his transformations into human forms, he always kept some remnant of his beastly self. In the image of the woman being seduced by the devil, for example, he betrays himself with clawed feet and a tail.
“De Lamiis” went through 43 editions between 1489 and 1669, many more than that of the fiercely influential “Malleus Maleficarum.” The imagery of witchcraft thus became entrenched over these centuries, with witchcraft trials and executions lasting until about 1750.
Today, scholars see these 15th-century depictions as windows into understanding the notions of gender and sexuality in the era, as well as the social and cultural impact of religious practice.
Subscribe to the blog— it’s free! — and the largest library in world history will send cool stories straight to your inbox.