The Johns Hopkins Gazette: October 25, 1999
October 25, 1999
VOL. 29, NO. 9


The Real Story About Witches

Walter Stephens takes a scholarly look at otherworldly forces

By Greg Rienzi
The Gazette

Johns Hopkins Gazette Online Edition

Young girls dressed in pointed black hats and wielding broomsticks almost assuredly will be walking the streets come this Halloween. For their efforts, a knock on a door usually will be greeted by a smiling face and a shower of candy and treats.

The witch today, for the most part, is little more than a Hollywood construct, like the werewolf or the mummy risen from the dead. It is not something to be feared in the normal course of the day's activities.

Such was not the case, however, for the witch in medieval times. Back then, when a hail storm would destroy crops or an infant died in his sleep, it was often believed by common people that otherworldly forces were at play. The most likely culprit was often the witch. A familiar tale would be that of a witch who, in the form of a black cat, would stealthily sneak into a child's bed and steal away his life-force.

In the Christian world, this type of explanation begged the question, Why would God allow an innocent child to be killed in such a way?

The late-medieval theologians' answer to that question is the focus of Walter Stephens' forthcoming book, Demon Lovers: Witchcraft, Sex and Belief (University of Chicago, 2000). Stephens, the Charles S. Singleton Professor of Italian Studies in the Krieger School of Arts and Sciences, says that up until the 1400s, theologians had disparaged the belief in witches as ignorant superstition. In ruling out the idea that witches were born with special powers, Stephens says, these same theologians were left to explain why bad things happen.

WITCH CRAFT: Seven years in the writing, Walter Stephen's upcoming tome 'Demon Lovers: Witchcraft, Sex and Belief' explores the thinking of late-medieval theologians.

"They needed a scapegoat," says Stephens, who has published extensively on medieval and early modern literature.

Stephens, who began work on this book in 1992, has studied the various treatises written by theologians and intellectuals on magic and the occult dating back to the 12th century. He says that by the 1430s, theologians began to reverse their stance from disproving witchcraft to going out of their way to prove witches actually existed.

The basic premise they came up with, according to Stephens, was that it wasn't witches alone who were to blame for some of these horrible acts but the devils and demons who assisted them and made the deeds possible. Witches, theologians argued, must have had physical interaction, including sexual intercourse, with demons. How else to explain that witches could do such acts as flying or controlling the weather?

"For clergy between 1400 and 1700--and for many lay people, once they had been convinced by the clergy--the definition of witchcraft was the power to harm obtained through corporeal contact with demons," Stephens says.

This belief that demons were behind such acts served a twofold purpose for Christian theologians, according to Stephens. On one hand, it explained how bad things happened, and on the other, it helped demonstrate the existence of God by proving why they happened.

Prior to the antiwitch treatises that were written in the 1430s, Stephens says that Christian theologians were uneasy because they had begun to doubt the existence of spirits, that is, anything beyond the material world. These doubts contradicted fundamental beliefs of Christianity, and the theologians found it hard to stomach their own skepticism about the spirit world.

Stephens argues in his book that the validation of witchcraft on the part of theologians was a primary catalyst for the witch hunts that began in earnest in the 1450s and lasted until the early 1700s.

During the course of three centuries, it is estimated that somewhere between 30,000 and 60,000 people were tried, tortured and executed because of their connections to witchcraft. The primary reason for wanting to torture witches, according to Stephens, was to get them to confess to their relationships with demons. Such confessions proved the existence of demons and, by inverse reasoning, the existence of God.

"It was a perverse logic on the part of the theologians. The witches were seen as expert witnesses to prove the existence of demons," Stephens says. "Theorists of witchcraft were much more interested in convincing themselves that such corporeal contact was real than in the crimes witches supposedly committed. Some theorists actually defined the crimes as proof that demons were real--and some theorists said people should be executed for contact with demons, even if it proved they had harmed no one."

Most of those accused of witchcraft were women, Stephens says, but men also were singled out, as were children as young as 8 years old.

Without witnesses to--or physical evidence of--demonic acts, those who were accused were often just the victims of circumstances like living alone or simply being eccentric.

"Most were guilty of nothing at all, except for being at the wrong place at the wrong time, or of having offended a neighbor, who accused them either out of spite or while he or she was under torture for witchcraft her or himself," Stephens says. "There were women and men who claimed to have certain knowledge [related to witchcraft]--including that of herbs and potions and the chants that were performed while gathering or preparing them--but they did not claim to be in contact with demons."

In the 20th century, witches can be seen in kindly forms such as television's Sabrina the Teenage Witch or Glinda, the good witch, from the Wizard of Oz. Such representations are more a throwback to the origins of the witch myth rather than to the view of witches put forth by medieval theologians, Stephens says.

"The idea that 'the power is just there' [in witches] is much closer to what witchcraft was before early modern Christian clergy got hold of it," Stephens says. "Popular witchcraft always tried to keep the idea that witches could perform both helpful, white [magic] and harmful, black magic. But clerical theorists opposed this idea. They needed all of it to be evil so they could investigate it."