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  Sexy Devils

What really lay behind the massive witch hunts
of the Middle Ages?

By Dale Keiger

Opening Photo: The Detroit Institute of Arts, USA / Founders Society Purchase with Mr. and Mrs. Bert L. Mokler and Mr. and Mrs. Lawrence A. Fleischman Fund / Bridgeman Art Library One evening 10 years ago, Walter Stephens was reading Malleus malificarum. The Malleus, as scholars refer to it, would not be everyone's choice for a late-night book. Usually translated as The Hammer of Witches, it was first published in Germany in 1487 as a handbook for witch hunters during the Inquisition. It's a chilling text - - used for 300 years, well into the Age of Reason -- that justifies and details the identification, apprehension, interrogation, and execution of people accused of consorting with demons, signing pacts with the devil, and performing maleficia, or harmful magic.

"It was 11 at night," Stephens recalls. "My wife had gone to bed, and on the first page [of the Malleus] was this weird sentence about people who don't believe in witches and don't believe in demons: 'Therefore those err who say that there is no such thing as witchcraft, but that it is purely imaginary, even although they do not believe that devils exist except in the imagination of the ignorant and vulgar, and the natural accidents which happen to man he wrongly attributes to some supposed devil.'"

That convoluted sentence dovetailed with a curious line Stephens knew from Il messaggiero, a work from 1582 by the Italian poet Torquato Tasso: "If magicians and witches and the possessed exist, demons exist; but it cannot be doubted that in every age specimens of the former three have been found: thus it is unreasonable to doubt that demons are found in nature."

Stephens, the Charles S. Singleton Professor of Italian Studies in the Hopkins department of romance languages, is a literary critic, and he sensed that something intriguing was going on beneath the text on the page. Tasso, and especially the Malleus' author, a Dominican theologian and inquisitor named Heinrich Kramer, had in their works invested a striking amount of energy in refuting doubt about the existence of demons. What was that about?

For the next eight years Stephens read every treatise he could find on witchcraft, as well as accounts of interrogations, theological tracts, and other works (his bibliography lists 154 primary and more than 200 secondary sources). Most of the 86 witchcraft treatises he cites had been written in western Europe in the 15th, 16th, and 17th centuries, and one after another (including the Malleus) contain accounts of sexual intercourse with satanic spirits. Why? Were the authors remorseless misogynists hellbent on portraying women in the worst possible light? Were they lurid, repressed celibates who got off by writing accounts of demon sex? Stephens didn't think so; the texts, in his view, didn't support that reading. Elsewhere in the Malleus he had found a key reference to accused witches under torture as being "expert witnesses to the reality of carnal interaction between humans and demons." These guys are trying to construct proofs that demons exist, he thought. They're trying to convince skeptics. And then he thought, They're trying to convince themselves.

Stephens' thesis profoundly revises the conventional wisdom about centuries of cruelty and injustice. The great European witch hunts, he says, were the outgrowth of a severe crisis of faith. The men who wrote books like the Malleus, men who endorsed the torture and burning of tens of thousands of innocent people, desperately needed to believe in witches, because if witches were real, then demons were real, and if demons were real, then God was real. Not just real but present and attentive. Carefully read the works composed by the witchcraft authors, Stephens says, and you will see how profoundly disturbed these educated, literate men were by their accumulating suspicions that if God existed at all, He wasn't paying much attention to the descendants of Adam.

On the desk of his Gilman Hall office, next to a Macintosh computer that announces the arrival of new e-mail seemingly every 10 minutes, Stephens has a paper witch. It's a Halloween decoration, so she's decked out in a long black witch's dress, with her traffic-cone hat and magic broom. Stephens can look devilish himself, favoring black jeans, a distressed leather jacket, and a black fedora. He has just published his new theory in the alluringly titled Demon Lovers: Witchcraft, Sex, and the Crisis of Belief (University of Chicago Press, 2002). It's a dense but engaging volume, praised by Umberto Eco as "a work of high and fascinating scholarship on a story which has frequently inspired only legends and occultism."

Among the many things accomplished by the book is a vivid rendering of the witch hunts' context. The earliest documentary evidence of an actual European witch trial (not trials for heresy or sorcery, which did not necessarily involve corporeal interaction with demons) is circa 1430. The sanctioned, organized pursuit and persecution of witches, which peaked from 1560 to 1630 and was almost entirely a western European phenomenon, began during a time of grave concern in the Roman Catholic church. The European world in the early 1400s was a wreck. The preceding century has been labeled by historian Barbara Tuchman as "calamitous," and she does not overstate. Starting around 1315, a great famine ravaged much of western Europe. From 1347 to 1352, the Black Death killed more than a third of the continent's population. Other diseases and additional outbreaks of the plague scourged the weakened survivors. As if natural catastrophe weren't enough, England and France chose to fight the Hundred Years' War from 1337 to 1453, the longest war in history. The Church itself fractured, riven by massive organized heresies, and by a schism that led to as many as three men simultaneously laying claim to be the true pope. How could a world created by a watchful, benevolent, and engaged God be such a mess?

The answer was no longer a simple matter of faith. As Stephens notes, all of this turmoil coincided with a time of intense questioning by theologians who were schooled in Scholasticism, the dominant philosophical doctrine of the time in Europe. They struggled to reconcile the literal text of Scriptures with what they understood of physical reality by reading from Aristotle and other protoscientific texts. Prior to around 1200, most Christians held what Stephens calls the "uncomplicated belief in the reality of devils, angels, and the whole world of spirit." All of that was in the Bible, they were told, so they simply believed. Two hundred years later, belief was no longer so uncomplicated. Scholastic theologians pored over the Bible and asked, Why are there no more miracles? How was the Flood possible? That is, how could it really have happened? For example, what did God do with all of the water afterward? How did Noah get enough feed for the animals on the Ark? These questions may remind a modern reader of the insistent queries from children in Sunday school, but in the 15th century, some of Europe's best-educated minds were wrestling with them. Says Stephens, "There's this increasing rationalism among theologians. The Bible needs to be explained on a literal level, not as allegory, when stacked up against what they know of the world."

Stephens' work profoundly revises conventional wisdom about centuries of cruelty and injustice.
Photo by Mike Ciesielski
The rediscovered works of Aristotle, who was often referred to simply as The Philosopher, defined the method of Scholasticism. Therein lay a significant problem for Christian theologians who wanted to apply Aristotelian rigor to theological conundrums. For example, Aristotle did not believe in a creation as portrayed by Genesis. The universe was eternal, he said: no end, no beginning, therefore no genesis. He didn't believe in the immortality of the human soul. Nor did he believe in demons. What he did believe was physical reality, all knowledge of which entered the mind through the human senses. The Bible describes a spirit world, with angels, fallen angels, accounts of Jesus transported through the air by a demon, and of course eternal human souls. If you were a Scholasticist, and from the influential Thomas Aquinas on most theologians of the time were, you believed in the truth of Scriptures, but as an Aristotelian you also wanted physical evidence of the existence of it all. Or as Stephens says, "I believe, God, but give me a sign." You wanted faith and reason to reinforce, not contradict, each other. You wanted tangible proof that the spirit world exists.

Looking for that proof, men like Kramer found witches.

You shall not permit a sorceress to live.
--Exodus 22:17

Peasants had for centuries told tales of maleficia, which could refer to everyday crime but usually meant mysterious bodily harm, or problems afflicting livestock or the land -- "things for which there was no easily available explanation," says Stephens. "Sudden infant death. The hailstorm that destroys my wheat field but not yours. The cow that stops giving milk. My stroke, which occurred right after a dispute with you."

Prior to 1400, clerics had condemned these peasant beliefs as the delusions of the ignorant. Stephens' book notes: "Clergy were expected to combat belief in witchcraft among the laypeople, teaching that it was incompatible with Christian belief, administering penance to and even excommunicating those who persisted."

But by the 15th century, troubled theologians seeking proof of the existence of spirits had become attentive to stories of witches. The poor illiterate, ignorant peasants still simply wanted an explanation for why their wheat had fungus or their new baby, seemingly healthy, had died the night before. The learned theologians, says Stephens, had something else in mind. The confessions of accused witches were useful if taken as the expert testimony of people who knew demons existed because they hadn't just seen them, or heard them -- they'd had sex with them. Intercourse with one of Satan's own met even Aristotle's tough standard for experiential evidence, or so the theorists wanted to believe. "Sex with demons was so important because it was the most intimate form of physical contact imaginable," says Stephens. "You can't have sex with something imaginary."

"Sex with demons was so important because it was the most intimate form of physical contact imaginable. You can't have sex with something imaginary." Which, he says, explains why witchcraft treatises are replete with tales like that told -- under torture -- by Walpurga Hausmènnin, a German midwife. In 1587, Hausmènnin confessed that 31 years earlier, as a lonely widow, she had been harvesting grain when she propositioned a fellow worker, Bis im Pfarrhof, to "indulge in lustful intercourse." He had consented, and come to her lodgings where they had made love. But afterward, Hausmènnin testified, she saw to her horror that her new lover had a cloven hoof instead of a foot, and one of his hands seemed neither human nor animal, but "as if made of wood." How this had escaped her attention during the amorous part of the evening is not explained, but it is taken as proof that this was no man, but the Devil himself, disguised as Pfarrhof. The next night, he came to Hausmènnin's bed again, and thereafter led her into a life of orgiastic excess, devil worship, and maleficia that included the murder of 41 infants and two mothers in labor.

Stephens found that similar lurid stories were a staple of witches' confessions and witchcraft treatises. In these documents, women describe in detail the demons' sexual organs, and the mechanics of their lovemaking. Before 1400, tales of sex with demons existed but were almost always accounts of rape; in the 15th century, the sex becomes consensual, and more. Accused witches speak not just of sex, but of good sex, the kind that brought them back for more and seduced them into forswearing God and agreeing to do the Devil's bidding. Not only women were seduced by demons; men, too, were lured into sex with beings who turned out to be something other than just willing village girls. (Scholars estimate that 20 percent of the people accused of witchcraft during this time were male.)

Armed with such testimony, writers like Kramer, Bartolomeo Spina, and Gianfrancesco Pico della Mirandola created an argument that said, Look at the weight of the evidence. Yes, the people who confessed these heinous acts did so under torture. But even under such duress they wouldn't lie, because they knew that by confessing to witchcraft, they were condemning themselves to a horrifying death by burning at the stake. Read their "expert" testimony: These people had sex with demons. Demons are real. Hear these witches' confessions and you cannot not believe.

That last sentence is critical to Stephens' analysis of the texts. He might amend it to be more of a plea: You cannot not believe ... can you? For he is convinced, as a literary critic, that the writing of Kramer, Spina, et al reveals authors who, whether they knew it or not, were working to quell their own deepest doubts. He says, "Religious argumentation is not always what it says it's about. Are we always arguing for what we say we're arguing for?" The authors did have trouble believing these accounts, Stephens argues. That explains why, if you read interrogation after interrogation as he has, you find what begins to feel like scripted performances, as if each interrogation of an accused witch was structured to produce the same testimony of demonic copulation. The inquisitors weren't just looking for the truth, Stephens says, they were looking for a specific truth, for yet another narrative that would make it harder to disbelieve in the existence of demons -- harder for the multitudes, and harder for themselves. "And the damnedest thing about it," says Stephens, "is that the inquisitors couldn't just dictate the testimony, but had to extract it through a game of '20 Questions.' Torture went on until the right answers were given, but the 'witch' had to guess which were the right answers."

Whether the belief that there are such beings as witches is so essential a part of the Catholic faith that obstinately to maintain the opposite opinion manifestly savours of heresy.
--Malleus malificarum (Montague Summers translation, 1928)

In such a climate, accusations of witchcraft could not be dismissed. They had to be pursued, for to do otherwise would be impious. For the roughly two centuries of the intense witch hunts, estimates of the number of men, women, and children accused of witchcraft, and subsequently executed, vary wildly. Feminist critic Andrea Dworkin charges that 9 million women died as a result of witch hunts, but no other scholar in the field seems to take that figure seriously. Brian P. Levack, professor of history at the University of Texas, has scrutinized records and calculated that about 110,000 people were actually tried for witchcraft in Europe, and 60,000 of them executed.

The 20 percent of them who were male is not an inconsiderable figure. That would mean 12,000 men died at the stake. But the preponderance of female victims has led many scholars to explain the witch hunts, at least in part, as misogyny writ large. Stephens doesn't argue against misogyny as part of a complex social phenomenon. But if you closely read the original witchcraft texts, he says, misogyny is present but hardly uppermost.

He cites the most famous text of all, the Malleus, as an example. Part I, Question 6 of the document is a seven-page chapter that details the evil of women. In those pages, there is this: "But because in these times this perfidy is more often found in women than in men, as we learn by actual experience, if anyone is curious as to the reason, we may add to what has already been said the following: that since they are feebler both in mind and body, it is not surprising that they should come more under the spell of witchcraft." And this: "For as regards intellect, or the understanding of spiritual things, they seem to be of a different nature from men; a fact which is vouched for by the logic of the authorities, backed by various examples from the Scriptures. Terence says: Women are intellectually like children." And this: "But the natural reason is that she is more carnal than a man, as is clear from her many carnal abominations. And it should be noted that there was a defect in the formation of the first woman, since she was formed from a bent rib, that is, a rib of the breast, which is bent as it were in a contrary direction to a man. And since through this defect she is an imperfect animal, she always deceives."

Misogynistic, to be sure. But Stephens maintains that if you carefully examine the revisions in the original Latin text, what you find is an anxious and pragmatic writer motivated less by misogyny than the practical need to demonstrate that women were capable of such evil, lest his central argument fall apart. According to Stephens' thesis, Heinrich Kramer, author of the Malleus, needed witches as proof that demons were real. That proof would be the reality of demons copulating with women. But how was this sex possible? Remember, says Stephens, Kramer was writing for an audience of Scholastic thinkers; he would have to explain the mechanics. So he wrote a section explaining demon sex. But in the midst of composing that, Stephens argues, Kramer realized that before he discussed the mechanics of sex between a woman and a demon, he had to persuade his readers that women, regarded as the weak and passive gender, would not only want but pursue sex with demons, that they were capable of such debased conduct. So Kramer went and perfunctorily lifted every diatribe against women he could find, and put them in his manuscript ahead of the material on the mechanics of demonic sex. How does Stephens know that this is what Kramer was up to? Because Kramer was a sloppy reviser. The original Latin text, says Stephens, shows that the title and first paragraph of the chapter on the evil nature of women actually belong with the chapter on the mechanics of demonic sex. Kramer inserted the pages on the perfidy of women after he'd composed the chapter on sex, and when he made the insertion, he forgot to change the chapter's title and first paragraph.

Stephens notes that in 1513, the Fifth Lateran Council declared that Christians had to believe in human immortality. "Something's going on," he says. "If you have to issue a decree, you're afraid that people don't believe." From the same perspective, he considers the extraordinary labor of Kramer, the other authors, and the witches' interrogators to create these elaborate narratives of demonic seduction, and applies an Ockhamesque logic. William of Ockham, the 14th-century Franciscan theologian, is most remembered for "Ockham's Razor," the principle that among competing theories, the simplest explanation invoking the smallest number of causes is to be preferred. In his book, Stephens asks, "Was all this theological reasoning about spirits necessary if the primary goal of witchcraft theory was the social control of humans? Was such reasoning merely a demonstration of its authors' deeply held beliefs? Why was that necessary? To paraphrase Hamlet's mother, herself something of an Ockhamist in psychological matters, 'They did protest too much, methinks.' ... What they claimed to worry about is not usually what their reasoning shows them to be worrying about, and what they loudly profess to believe with complete serenity often betrays nagging philosophical and theological doubts."

"For 850 years, the West has been wondering in various ways about the reality of the spirit world," Stephens says. "If spirits don't exist, is everything matter? If everything is matter, do we need a creator? If the universe doesn't have a creator, it can't care about us. My death is trivial, to anyone but me."

Stephens sometimes muses about the timing of the West's rediscovery of Aristotle: "If Aristotle had stayed lost to the West, and if [translations of] Plato had come back in the 12th rather than the 15th century, I think we'd have a different world. Plato has a creator, God, talking about the immortality of the soul." But Western scholars recovered Aristotle first, and built a philosophical method on his teachings, and painted themselves into a corner, because Aristotle and the Bible do not get along. An Aristotelian mind needed proof, and Stephens is convinced that thousands of people endured the rack, thumbscrews, and the stake to supply that proof. He considers those thousands of victims, and his 10 years of scholarly work, and says, "To put literary criticism to work [to better elucidate] something that hurt and killed a lot of people is pretty satisfying."

Dale Keiger is a senior writer at Johns Hopkins Magazine.

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