Killing Women - Gender, Sorcery, and Violence in Late Medieval Germany

Seminar Paper, 2008

34 Pages, Grade: A


Goethe, Faust I, Walpurgisnacht.

SCHOLARS STUDYING THE WITCH HUNTS that swept across most European countries during the period 1560-1700 commonly agree that the dominant concept of witchcraft was constructed during the fifteenth century, primarily in German­speaking lands. The various elements that came together to define witches as a diabolically sponsored conspiracy of maleficent sorcerers, guilty not only of committing harmful acts which endangered their neighbors, but also of subverting the Christian religion through the worship of the Devil or by consorting with demons, had been present in an occasional fashion throughout the Middle Ages. But the same elements took form in the theoretical writings of fifteenth- century clerics in such a way as to create a particular, if notional, identity for contemporary sorcerers which enabled judicial authorities to prosecute persons so identified, at the same time enabling injured victims to target suspected perpetrators.

Although the actual number of fifteenth-century witchcraft trials was small compared with those to follow,1 collectively they realized what Brian Levack calls the “cumulative concept of witchcraft,”2 whose constituent elements include worship of the Devil, pacts made with the Devil or with demons to empower the sorcerers, the notion of the witches’ sabbath, the belief that witches can fly, and their ability on occasion to shape-shift or metamorphose into animals. The main varieties of maleficia also came to be defined, which included such large-scale exertions as the creation of adverse weather events to effect crop failures, down to a variety of actions intending personal injuries and illnesses. These elements achieved an intellectual foundation in the principal theoretical works of the fifteenth century: the Formicarius by Johannes Nider, written between 1435 and 1437; Malleus Malefiicamm (Witches’ Hammer) by Heinrich Kramer, first published in 1486 with thirteen reprints before 1520; the Papal bull Summis desiderantes of Innocent VIII of 1484; and De Lamiis et Pythonicis Mulieribus (Of Witches and Diviner Women) by Ulrich Molitoris, published in 1489.

Taken together, these works created so to speak a character profile for the detection of witches, in addition to establishing a moral and judicial authorization for their capture, judicial prosecution, and eventual elimination. With the exception of the Papal bull, these theoretical writings also emphasized the susceptibility of women to become the primary performers of witchcraft. Although the word “witch” in English may have originally indicated either a male or a female sorcerer, in German, “die Hexe” is always feminine in gender.3 Although the concept of maleficent sorcery is not in itself gender-specific, with the passage of time women came to be seen as the chief perpetrators and were of course prosecuted accordingly. During the great witch hunts of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, the percentage of women executed for sorcery as opposed to males is estimated from 75 to 90 per cent, depending on the time and place of the executions.4

In the following essay, we will examine in detail the process by which witchcraft became deliberately and definitively feminized in fifteenth-century Germany, and we will also show how contemporary artists of the time made use of the prevailing popular notions about witches to depict them in accordance with the “evil old woman” archetype. We will also see how these women subjects became eroticized through their depiction as young seductresses and as participants in diabolical sexual extravaganzas of various kinds. Finally we will show how the witchcraft fright presented the same artists with the opportunity of illustrating women in sexually suggestive, not to say pornographic poses, made publicly permissible and even fashionable for the first time in the history of German art.

Prior to 1430, most witchcraft prosecutions in Europe involved charges of either maleficium or ritual magic. Although the case records that survive are mostly incomplete, they do not indicate charges of diabolism, and it is clear that many of the prosecutions were politically motivated.5 But after 1430, not only do the witchcraft trials increase in frequency, but also charges of diabolism and heresy become more frequently associated with them, as urged in the theoretical writings of the period, leading some scholars to assert that these developments mark the beginning of the European witch- hunt.6 Thus the first witchcraft treatise, Formicarius, written by the Dominican theologian and inquisitor Johannes Nider between 1435 and 1437, describes witches as persons who not only cast spells, but who also pay homage to and worship the Devil, renounce the Christian faith, and trample on the cross.7 Witches are thus seen as dangerous heretics requiring not chastisement, but outright extermination, a theme which will be reiterated in the most influential witch manual of the century, the Malleus maleficarum. Pope Innocent VIII in Summis desiderantes describes witches as persons who “have given themselves over to devils” in order to wreak various kinds of havoc in the community, and authorizes both Malleus authors, the Dominican churchmen Heinrich Kramer and Jacob Sprenger, to undertake an inquisition against them in order to “prevent the taint of heretical depravity and of other like evils from spreading their infection to the ruin of others who are innocent.”8 In other words, witches were now officially stigmatized as heretics, and the inquisitors were now explicitly deputized by the Pope to prosecute and punish them.

Not only do Formicarius and Malleus establish diabolism as a constituent element of witchcraft, but they also agree that women are especially likely candidates for its transaction, and accordingly for its punishment. Since Formicarius preceded Malleus by fifty years, Johannes Nider is the first clerical authority to state that women are more inclined to sorcery than men, and it has been demonstrated that Kramer lifted Nider’s ideas almost directly into Malleus, at times almost verbatim.9 Before both, however, there exists a long history of notions regarding female sorceresses extending back into Antiquity. The ancient Romans conceived of a creature called a strix that flew about at night, screeching like an owl and attacking human beings for their flesh and blood, and carrying off babies to devour them. Ovid says that such creatures could be actual birds, or else women who have magically transformed themselves into birds.10 Mention of similar beings is made by Petronius and Apuleius, while the Latin grammarian Sextus Pompeius Festus, writing in the second century C.E., defines strigae as “the name given to women who practice sorcery, and who are also called flying women.”11 The so- called “night-witches” also take flight much later in a legal text composed by the Italian Bishop Gratian in 1140 called Canon Episcopi:

It is also not to be omitted that some wicked women, perverted by the Devil, seduced by illusions and phantasms of demons, believe and profess themselves, in the hours of night, to ride upon certain beasts with Diana, the goddess of pagans, and an innumerable multitude of women... and to obey commands, as of their mistress12

As Levack points out, the belief that witches could fly is closely associated with the notion of the witches’ sabbath, in that it explained how the women could commute back and forth to their secret nocturnal gatherings without being detected.13 That the female witch stereotype is lurking in the background of German folklore in the thirteenth century is shown in the following lines written around 1230 by an anonymous poet known as “Der Stricker.,” (“The Knitter”), who is unconvinced of the existence of such beings:

oh ein wïp einen ovenstap uberschrite und den gegen Halle rite, daz si taete deheinen val, dazgeloube ich niht14

whether a women bestrides a fire poker and rides it to Halle and tries to land there— that I don’t believe.15

Such folkloristic evidence confirms that the association of women with witchcraft certainly pre-existed the fifteenth century,16 but it is the accomplishment of Nider and Kramer to provide a rationale explaining why this association will eventually become prevalent in the witchcraft persecutions, and why women are more susceptible to practicing sorcery than men to begin with. Nider regards witches in Formicarius17 as potent sorcerers capable of performing the usual panoply of malifida—killing children, suspending fertility, destroying crops, calling forth lightning and hail, spreading disease and pestilence—and he describes them as Satanic servants who gather to worship demons at orgiastic, nocturnal assemblies called sabbaths.18 He then examines the alleged proclivity of women for witchcraft, “ultimately based on longstanding Christian conceptions of the physical, mental, and spiritual weaknesses of women, and their greater susceptibility to the temptations of the devil,” drawing upon very “standard biblical, patristic and scholastic sources.”19 To substantiate his arguments concerning female corruptibility and the propensity of women for duplicity, treachery and evil, Nider quotes such diverse authorities as the Bible, a commentary of St. John Chrysostom, and Cicero and Seneca.20 21

Almost all of Nider’s witchcraft ideas were taken up in the infinitely more influential Malleus maleficarumfi but Heinrich Kramer’s main intention was sub-stantially different: to make readers aware that witches were a real threat to civil society, and to incite the authorities to take immediate corrective action.22 This polemic is central to Kramer’s approach, and serves as his justification for creating the resulting witch manual. As the title of the work already suggests—maleficarum (performers of maleficent magic, or simply sorcerers) is a feminine plural in Latin— it is absolutely clear to the author that the perpetrators are mainly women.

Answering the question why more sorcerers are female, Kramer explains that 1) women, being “frail and unstable,” are inclined to be “credulous,” making them more prone to “attack” by the “Evil Spirit;” that 2) “the way they are made makes them naturally prone to leak,” making it easier for individual spirits to find entrance; that 3) women have a “lewd, slippery tongue,” useful when employed as an “evil skill;” that 4) because “women are weaker than men both intellectually and physically,” they “seem to be of a different species,” when it comes to intellectual or spiritual matters; and that last not least, 5) she “is given to fleshly lusts more than a man, as is clear from her many acts of carnal filthiness.”23

If all this weren’t enough to drive a woman into witchcraft voluntarily, our author suggests further that God formed woman from a curved chest-rib bent in an opposite direction from a man’s: “From this weakness one concludes that since she is an unfinished animal, she is always being deceptive.”24 Not only is woman something of an anatomical disaster, even her name is disreputable, since, according to Kramer, it derives etymologically from fe (“faith”) and minus (“less”).25 26 Woman is therefore an almost inevitable vessel for infidelitas and perfidia, which together may produce falsa fides, or even haeresis,26 and if these are left unchecked, the calamitous result will surely be “the extermination of the Faith.”27

Due to the immense popularity and widespread circulation of Malleus maleficarum, it is reasonable to suggest that the feminization of witchcraft reaches its most effective ideological expression and influence in its pages. A further issue that is not mentioned in the Malleus, but which we may regard as a subtext from its positioning of women to be so inferior as to be powerless, is the inference that female witches require the assistance of demons in order to practice sorcery. In and of themselves, women are not possessed of the strength of mind or physical prowess to transact maleficent witchcraft, so instead they must seduce demons—and seduction of course is exactly what they excel at by nature, according to Nider and Kramer—so that the demons will perform magic for them. This in turn injects sexual intercourse as a fundamental urgency into the general conception of witchcraft, which finds ample expression, as we shall see, in the visual media of the times.


1 The fifteenth-century trials, which occurred mainly in French and German-speaking areas in today’s Switzerland, are discussed comprehensively in Blauert, Andreas, Frühe Hexenverfolgungen (Hamburg: Junius, 1989).

2 Levack, Brian P. The Witch-Hunt in Early Modern Europe, 2nd ed. (London and New York: Longman, 1987), 29-50.

3 It is possible to say “der Hexer” in German to indicate a male sorcerer, but this use

is quite rare.

4 Bailey, Michael D. Battling Demons. Witchcraft, Heresy and Reform in the Late Middle Ages. (University Park, Pennsylvania: Pennsylvania State University Press, 2003), 48.

5 Kieckhefer, Richard. European Witch Trials: Their Foundations in Popular and Learned Culture, 1300-1500. (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1976) 10-26.

6 Levack, Witchcraft, 186.

7 Levack, Witchcraft, 34-35.

8 In Kors, Alan C., and Peters, Edward, eds. Witchcraft in Europe 1100-1700. A Documentary History. (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1972) 108-110. The bull does not discriminate between male and female witches.

9 Bailey, Battling Demons, 49. Bailey’s work shows Formicarius to be more significant than previously assumed.

10 Cohn, Norman. Europe's Inner Demons. The Demonization of Christians in Medieval Christendom. (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1993).

11 In Cohn, Demons, 163. The strigae were also called lamiae, a reference to the mythical Queen of Libya, loved by Zeus, who sucked the blood from babies because Hera had killed her children.

12 Kors,Witchcraft, 29. In later texts, Diana is replaced by Hecate as the goddess associated with night witches. Hecate was known in ancient times as the goddess of sorcery and magic.

13 Levack, Witch-Hunt, 44.

14 In Behringer, Wolfgang, ed. Hexen und Hexenprozesse. (Munich: Deutscher Taschenbuch Verlag, 1988) 25.

15 All translations in this paper are mine, unless otherwise noted. Halle is a city in central Germany, where this poet from south Germany apparently thinks that witches might gather.

16 Wolfgang Behringer states that “reports of executions of women for witchcraft are spread throughout the Middle Ages,” citing documentary evidence contained in Joseph Hansen, Quellen und Untersuchungen (see Bibliography). Behringer, Wolfgang, “Witchcraft studies in Austria, Germany and Switzerland,” in Witchcraft in early modem Europe. Studies in culture and belief, eds. Barry, Jonathan; Hester, Marianne; and Roberts, Gareth, (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996) 81.

17 Nider’s Formicarius is a very extensive work covering many different topics of interest not only to demonologists, but more generally to Christian clerics and moralists as well. Only a few pages are dedicated to witchcraft, and otherwise it presents almost a descriptive catalogue of various virtues and vices. Many gender issues are discussed, including for example “How dangerous it is to live with women,” “Why men are superior to women,” and “How to deal with women who talk too much.” There are also discussions about how to conduct oneself in old age, why nobody should construct a house under the surface of the earth, and a chapter dealing with Catherine of Siena.

Unfortunately the Latin in which Formicarius is written is highly truncated and abbreviated, as happens commonly in early bookprinting, making it very difficult to read. The work has not yet been translated, but the facsimile edition of Hans Biedermann (see Bibliography) provides a table of contents in translation for all the chapters.

18 Bailey, Michael D., “The Feminization of Magic and the Emerging Idea of the Female Witch in the Late Middle Ages,” in Essays in Medieval Studies 19 (2002): 122.

19 Bailey, “Feminization,” 122.

20 Bailey, “Feminization,” 123. This small list of references from Antiquity pales in comparison with the many citations in Malleus, most of which are bogus.

21 Notably the notion of the witches’ sabbath does not occur with Kramer, who is now considered the sole author of the Malleus.

22 Many leading clerics and rulers of the period did not consider witchcraft an important threat. Kramer’s argument resembles recent modern perceptions of international terrorism as a powerful, secret conspiracy set against destroying the social order.

23 Maxwell-Stuart, P.G., ed. and transl. The Malleus Maleficarum. (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2007) 73-79.

24 Maxwell-Stuart, Malleus, 75.

25 Maxwell-Stuart, Malleus, 75.

26 False faith, heresy. These terms occur repeatedly throughout the Malleus.

27 Maxwell-Stuart, Malleus, 78.

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Killing Women - Gender, Sorcery, and Violence in Late Medieval Germany
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