History Witch: Uncovering Magical Antiquity

Want to know about real magic from history? This is the place. Here we explore primary texts and historical accounts from the past.

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The Great Conflation

I am looking forward to the final episode of Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell on Sunday (I think it's begun in the States more recently). It's been fun seeing an 'alternate' history of magic, though I will be sad to see it end. It got me thinking about a period in history that leads to a lot of confusion. When people say 'witch hunts' most people still seem to think of the Middle Ages, though the worst years were part of the Early Modern era, sometimes known as the Renaissance (a much disputed term for a variety of reasons). While many see the dividing line as the Reformation, the roots of that change can be see in Wycliffe and the Lollards in the 14th century. I tend to see Gutenberg's innovation as a technological change, though even there printing existed before his moveable type -- but the speed of the technology has all kinds of impacts as we know in the internet age.

We may not think of magic as technology, but all knowledge is technology. A revolution in technology may be regarded as good or bad or something in between, but it usually hard to deny once it happens. A big change happened in the history of magic that had a huge impact that leads to the widespread witch hunts of the Early Modern era (and on into the so-called Age of Enlightenment). For background, I highly recommend you get Michael D. Bailey's Battling Demons: Witchcraft, Heresy, and Reform in the Late Middle Ages. Perhaps easier to obtain is his briefer essay, 'The Feminization of Magic and the Emerging Idea of the Female Witch in the Late Middle Ages' (available via Project Muse in many libraries).

I realise that I've been calling this moment 'The Great Conflation' in my head: this is not a widely used academic term but it fits. What happens in the mid-15th century (around the time that Gutenberg is getting going) is a conflation of two very different things. The two concepts are maleficium (evil sorcery) and necromantia, the latter as Bailey points out,

Technically referring only to divination performed by summoning the spirits of the dead, this term—necromantia or often the slightly corrupted nigromantia—meant in this period a specifically learned, indeed often specifically clerical form of demonic invocation for magical purposes. 29

While the clergy at that time were displeased with pagan beliefs of ignorant people (as they saw it) it was because it was foolishness, not because it was a threat to the church. In the fascinating Decretum of Burchard of Worms (a handbook for priests hearing confession) he sneers at 'those women' who believe in enchanters and perform rituals in the woods. Such people left themselves open to the deceptions of demons. As Bailey writes, 'The focus of the message is not on the power or threat of real sorcery or human sorcerers, but rather on the dangers of demonic deception' (124). Among male clerics this was seen as largely the province of silly women.

But then came the popularity of a mostly male practice of magic: 'As part and parcel of the "Renaissance of the Twelfth Century," Western European intellectuals discovered or rediscovered a whole host of classical, Hebrew, and Arabic texts on occult arts. 28 As Bailey details, this necromancy was highly ritualised, formal and overwhelmingly the province of literate male clerics. Necromancy was explicitly demonic, too. While those who attempted maleficia might draw the attention of demons, the necromancer trafficked directly with them, imperiling his soul.

How then do witch hunts become so gendered a practice against women (apart from in Iceland and Finland)? Bailey argues that

In his Formicarius, written around 1437, the Dominican theologian and religious reformer Johannes Nider was the first clerical authority to argue that women were more prone to become witches than were men. 5 In fact, his treatment of this issue was extremely influential on the later Malleus, and Kramer incorporated whole sections of Nider's text virtually verbatim into his own more expansive analysis of female proclivity for evil. 6

We're all accustomed to internet arguments gone awry when someone conflates two things that are kind of similar or related. It's not just a modern habit. However, a blip of an argument on the internet does not have the same effect as an influential scholar's reform-minded book in a time when the authority of such a volume was much more weighty. As Bailey notes, 'While Nider was the first clerical authority to discuss female witches specifically in terms of their gender, his arguments regarding female corruptibility and propensity for evil may not, at first, appear very original or surprising' (123). The fourteenth century had seen a precipitous rise in the seemingly ever-present clerical misogyny.

But 'in the Formicarius,Nider explicitly equated maleficium with necromantia 35' and in doing so changed history. While as Bailey notes, there was 'a complex series of factors' that led to the specifically gendered outcome of the Early Modern witch hunts, there's no doubt that Nider's volume is a linchpin in conflating these two strands of magic, for

Nider was able to provide his fellow churchmen, as well as lay authorities who followed a similar rationale, with a perfectly coherent explanation, one derived from their own basic conceptions of how this apparently widespread form of demonic sorcery operated. Witchcraft was not an exclusively female crime, but it certainly represented a more feminized form of demonic magic than did elite, learned necromancy. At the very least, witchcraft could be seen as more suited to women than to men, because the power of witches rested on their submission to the devil and their susceptibility to his seductions. (128) [emphasis added]

After this great conflation of the two kinds of magic, it was much easier for the learned clerics to assume (and unfortunately for history) to act upon the idea that witchcraft was 'a crime particularly appropriate for women' (128). Perhaps it's not surprising that the clerical style of learned magic with its circles, rituals and Latin commands got thrown aside from the rush to punish bad magic. It's only natural.

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K. A. Laity is an all-purpose writer, medievalist, journalist, Fulbrighter, social media maven for Broad Universe, and author of ROOK CHANT: COLLECTED WRITINGS ON WITCHCRAFT & PAGANISM, DREAM BOOK, UNQUIET DREAMS, OWL STRETCHING, CHASTITY FLAME, PELZMANTEL, UNIKIRJA, and many more stories, essays, plays and short humour. Find out more at www.kalaity.com and find her on Facebook or Twitter.


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