The late 16th and early 17th Centuries saw the peak of ‘witch hysteria’ in Europe. Paranoia surrounding ideas about sorcery and demons led to accusations, trials and cruel punishments, including tens of thousands of executions. This month’s blog post explores the literature that fuelled this phenomenon: as texts that condemened or seemingly provided evidence for witchcraft circulated, feelings of panic and suspicion also spread. The following texts reveal not only the literature and academic ideas regarding witchcraft, but the real impact they would have had on ordinary lives.
1487, Heinrich Kramer and Jakob Sprenger (1574 ed.) – the ‘hammer of witches’
Kramer’s Malleus maleficarum was a landmark text, and was second only to the Bible in number of sale for almost 200 years. The text argues that witchcraft is a criminal offence equal to heresy and encourages its punishment by torture and death. Kramer himself was charged with criminal behaviour and expelled from the city of Innsbruck, while his writing was condemned as unethical by key theologians of the period. Despite this, Malleus was hugely influential and was used as a justification and guide for the brutality of witch trials.
The Triall of Maist. Dorrell
Richard Schilders, 1599
John Dorrell was an alleged exorcist, who claimed to chase out demonic spirits from possessed people. In 1597 he carried out an exorcism of a man named William Somers in Nottingham; the authenticity of this exorcism was called into question and Dorrell was brought to trial. His defence was required to prove that Somers’ possession and Dorrell’s exorcism were real, using evidence from biblical passages and accounts of the possession. Somers was said to have undergone unworldly experiences, such as speaking with his mouth closed and his eyes changing colour. In response, the prosecution argued that each of the symptoms of possession could have been artificially created. Ultimately Dorrell was declared a fraud, and was sentenced to a year in prison.
De praestigiis daemonum, & incantationibus ac veneficiis libri sex
Johann Weyer, 1577 – ‘the delusions of demons’
Weyer was one of the first people to connect supposed indicators of witchcraft with psychology, arguing that symptoms of mental health problems were misinterpreted and used to unfairly accuse women of witchcraft. The text draws on evidence from both superstition and science, including a fascinating list of the names of demons. De praestigiis daemonum offers an insight into a developing world of psychological science, as well as the growing academic movement against accusations of witchcraft.
A true and faithful relation of what passed for many yeers between Dr. John and some spirits
1659, John Dee and Meric Casaubon
John Dee was an advisor to Elizabeth I and an occult philosopher, who was allegedly able to commune with spirits and angels. This text collects conversations between Dee and spirits. Often these dialogues are straightforward biographical discussions, but at times sinister elements appear, such as an unidentified voice telling Dee “you shall be beaten if you tell”. An interesting and powerful figure, John Dee remained a feature of public imagination, potentially influencing the characterisation of Shakespeare’s Prospero.
The Library holds several books on the history of witchcraft and witch trials, which can mostly be found at shelfmarks HIST/168 and HIST/859 in the Laudian Library.