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The Literature of Demonology and Witchcraft

The literature of demonology and witchcraft produced between 1440 and 1750--some of the most important works of which are included on this website--constitutes a substantial source for the intellectual and cultural history of late medieval and early modern Europe and the Americas.

No longer considered as merely incidental to witch trial records, this literature has been integrated into the study, not only of demonology and witchcraft, but of an entire dimension of thought--what Sidney Anglo once characterized as, "a complex of interrelated magical ideas which informs many aspects of medieval and Renaissance thought."1 Among those aspects are women's and gender history, legal history--particularly of crime and punishment--theology, folklore, historical anthropology, sociology, and literature. Many writers of tracts on demonology and witchcraft also wrote on other subjects, some ostensibly far removed from witchcraft. Thus, the literature is connected not only to a variety of topics in early modern European and American history, but to the other intellectual interests of its authors that touch many disciplines.

THE ORIGINS OF THE OFFENCE OF WITCHCRAFT IN EUROPE

In European Christian cosmology as it developed from the epistles of Paul to the late seventeenth century, human nature was generally believed to be innately weak, sinful, and vulnerable to demonic temptation and deception. Although human reason--to the extent that it received divine grace and was properly instructed--could distinguish right from wrong, human will might not always choose the right.

Human ability to perceive and understand the world was also limited by the Fall. Those aspects of nature that humans could not perceive or understand could be manipulated, it was believed, by demons. Because these demons operated in natural realms beyond human intelligence, they could appear to work "wonders" and in doing so tempt humans, sometimes with God's permission. This was how the devil elicited homage of a kind properly paid only to God, and entered agreements with humans: by exhibiting and granting powers over nature and others not attainable by any other means, by performing acts that were not miracles,miracula, but rather mira, "wonders." All of these were ways of winning support from humans whose flawed perceptions and flexible wills would allow them to be led astray.

Servants of the devil could, on their own or with the devil acting through them, harm or illicitly influence other people or property by occult (meaning "hidden from humans," not "supernatural") means. Pact with the devil presumed the sins and crimes of idolatry and apostasy (renunciation of faith), because it constituted both a willful rejection of Christian baptism and the paying of sinful homage to the devil. The Latin word that designated harm caused to others by these means was maleficium, and it constituted the crime of witchcraft, establishing a link between it and demonology.

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Notes

1 Sidney Anglo, "Evident Authority and Authoritative Evidence: The Malleus Maleficarum," in The Damned Art: Essays in the Literature of Witchcraft, Sidney Anglo, ed. (London-Boston, 1977), 1-31, at 3. Anglo's collection was a pioneering effort in assessing the character and importance of the literature. The theme has since been further developed in many of the works cited below in this Introduction.

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