Daily Archives: October 28, 2016

The Woodcut Witch

Witchcraft and witch trials are by no means an academic focus for me, but any European historian who studies and teaches the early modern era must take these subjects on. Consequently I developed an undergraduate course called “Magic and Witchcraft in Early Modern Europe” just a few years after I came to Salem, in part because I also felt that I had a certain obligation, given the local unawareness of the fact that over 100,000 people were put on trial for witchcraft in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries across Europe and the consequential belief that the 1692 trials were the largest/most important/consequential in world history. My course goals consequently included: 1) putting the Salem Trials in a wider geographical and chronological perspective and; 2) placing the European witch trials in a longer and larger intellectual tradition, hence the “magic”. The course title is partially a misnomer, as we spend half our time in the medieval era, laying essential theological and historical groundwork, and the last few times I taught it, I became somewhat stalled in the fifteenth century. I think this was a bit frustrating for my students, as the most intensive period of witch hunting was the century between 1560 and 1660 (can’t we get to the trials?), but the more I studied both the primary and secondary texts the more I came to realize that the fifteenth century was absolutely key to the intensification that was to come. This is true not only because of the publication of the famous Malleus Maleficarum, an incredibly accessible, even riveting, “how-to” manual of witch identification and prosecution which itself is a consequence of fifteenth-century trends regarding what was seen increasingly as a “pestilential heresy” on the Continent, but also because of the visualization of diabolical witchcraft, most prominently in Ulrich Molitor’s De lamiis et pythonicis mulieribus (‘On Witches and Female Soothsayers, 1489). A Professor of Law at the University of Constance, Molitor’s point of view is traditional in terms of his opinions on witchcraft, unlike the more radical authors of the Malleus, Heinrich Kramer and  Jacob Sprenger, whose perspectives were inquisitional rather than reasoned. In the course of a ten-chapter dialogue, Molitor ultimately concludes that witches are generally products of demonic illusion. So his words did not incite, but one could argue that his images did, as De lamiis was the first illustrated treatise on witchcraft, and a text with a remarkably long run: 43 editions were published between 1489–1669—more than the Malleus Maleficarum. Molitor’s insistence on the illusionary  powers of witches was definitely undercut by the inclusion of woodcut illustrations of middle-aged “witches” engaging in some of the things Kramer and Sprenger accused them of: stirring up storms, flying to the sabbat, frolicking with their demon lover. And so, in both words and woodcuts, stereotypes were created, and cemented over the next century.








Woodcut illustrations from the 1489, 1500, and 1544 (last one) editions of Ulrich Molitor’s De lamiis et phitonicis mulieribus. [first published in Reutlingen: Johann Otmar, not before 10 Jan. 1489]. University of Glasgow Sp Coll Ferguson An-y.34. For more and the later visualization of witches and witchcraft, see Charles Zika’s excellent The Appearance of Witchcraft: Print and Visual Culture in Sixteenth-century Europe.

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