The World, the Flesh and the Devil: Robert W. Thurston Looks at the Politics of Demonology and Rethinks Attitudes to Witches and Women between 1400 and 1700

By Thurston, Robert W. | History Today, November 2006 | Go to article overview

The World, the Flesh and the Devil: Robert W. Thurston Looks at the Politics of Demonology and Rethinks Attitudes to Witches and Women between 1400 and 1700


Thurston, Robert W., History Today


All wickedness is but little to the wickedness of a woman ... [She is] an evil of nature ... [Women] are more credulous; and since the chief aim of the devil is to corrupt faith, therefore he rather attacks them ... Women ... are intellectually like children ... [A woman] always deceives.

AS THE DOMINICAN monk Heinrich Kramer (c.1430-c.1505) sat down to write about witches in early 1486, he must have felt desperate. He had recently been sentenced to prison for theft, blocked by other clerics as he tried to convict women of witchcraft, and scorned and threatened by a bishop. Kramer (known as Institoris in some sources) needed to recoup the respect appropriate to a papal inquisitor, his position in 'Upper Germany', a swathe of present day Germany, France and Austria.

This was the inauspicious background to the creation of the Malleus Maleficarum ('Hammer of Witches'). First printed in 1486, the Malleus is often considered to be the pivotal work for the study of both the witch hunts, which lasted roughly from the 1420s to the 1690s, and the era's commentaries on women.

The book owes much of its fame to late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century scholars who were certain that superstition and fanaticism produced the hunts, while the Enlightenment's breakthrough to reason ended them. In 1878 the President of Cornell University, Andrew Dickson White, showed an early edition of the Malleus to 'his shuddering class', saying that it had 'caused more suffering than any other [work] written by human pen'. The narrator of Dan Brown's The Da Vinci Code (2004) echoes this claim:

   The Catholic Inquisition published
   the book that arguably could be
   called the most blood-soaked
   publication in human history. Malleus
   maleficarum--or The Witches' Hammer--indoctrinated
   the world to 'the
   dangers of freethinking women' and
   instructed the clergy how to locate,
   torture, and destroy them.... During
   three hundred years of witch hunts,
   the Church burned at the stake an
   astounding five million women.

Not astounding but absurd--the old guesses of up to nine million victims have been revised downwards: recent estimates suggest 30-40,000 executions. Nor did 'the Inquisition' itself publish the Malleus. Germany, particularly along the Rhine, was the worst killing ground. France was a distant second, while England and even Scotland lagged far behind. Italy, Spain, and Portugal contributed relatively few victims to the pyres.

For all that estimates of the death toll have fallen recently, it still appears that females typically comprised about 75 per cent of the victims. However, commentators on witchcraft between 1400 and 1700 divide sharply on three key points: whether or not women are intrinsically wicked; whether demons could perform real actions or simply create illusions; and whether witchcraft was truly practised. These divisions go far to explain why the witch-hunts were so erratic.

The reasons for the high proportion of female victims must be sought in more mundane factors than the demonologists advanced: the tasks that women performed, giving birth, suckling babies, preparing-food, caring for children, and washing the dead, were just the ones that contemporaries suspected could provide opportunities and substances for evil acts.

The story of the Malleus and its author open the way to rethinking demonology in general. In the last decade studies of European demonology have focused more on widespread anxiety about heresy than on obsessions with women. When Kramer's work is seen in the context of the wider politico-religious struggles of the era, the Malleus appears less an assault on women than an attempt to use them--or stock images of them--to make points about correct belief.

Kramer had been arrested in 1482 for allegedly stealing silverware and money in the course of his inquisitorial duties. The Inquisition had arisen in the late twelfth century as the Church focused on combating heresy.

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