Edward Peters, Professor of History, University of Pennsylvania, wrote this introduction to the Primary Source Media digital witchcraft project in 1998:

The Literature of Demonology and Witchcraft

In addition to committing such acts, witches, it was said, evidenced other characteristics. They were thought to be identifiable (differently in different parts of Europe) because they might bear the mark of the devil on their bodies, have demonic companions (familiars), gather collectively to pay homage to the devil (at assemblies that came to be called the "synagogue" or "sabbath"), sacrifice infants, engage in acts of sexual promiscuity, and to be capable of flight and shapeshifting. Although not all writers on demonology and witchcraft subscribed to all of the aspects of the model for the offense of witchcraft here sketched, most did. The doctrines of demonology and witchcraft as they developed between 1300 and 1500, moreover, were consistent with the cosmology of the Church Fathers and later theologians and so appeared to beconfirmed by scripture.2


Until the fifteenth century witchcraft was not clearly distinguished from general sorcery or magic. Linguistically, this is still the case in French. In German Hexerei (witchcraft) was differentiated from Zauberei (magic, sorcery) in the early fifteenth century, and in Spanish this distinction was reflected in the terms hechicería (sorcery) and brujería (witchcraft). In English witchcraft--from the Old English wiccecraeft, which once meant divining, foretelling the future--was distinguished from magic/sorcery somewhat earlier.

Sorcery was consistently described and condemned in scripture, in the writings of the church fathers, especially St. Augustine [354-430] and Isidore of Seville [ca. 569-636], and later in theology, such as the work of Thomas Aquinas [ca. 1227-1274] and in canon law. Although sorcery was never the primary concern of the Church Fathers or medieval theologians before the fifteenth century, their work provided a comprehensive and contextual view of its function in the universe and in Christian cosmology.

Beginning in the twelfth century magic tended to divide into two types: learned magic, which was natural--and arguably neither sinful nor demonic--and sorcery proper, which was both. The division was shaped by the twelfth century influence of much Arabic (and much Greek via Arabic) learning into Latin learning. Under this influence, European thinkers began to view learned or natural magic as diabolical. From the twelfth through the seventeenth centuries, in fact, scholars undertook a vigorous debate concerning the validity of learned/natural magic. This raised some of the most important questions about spiritual causality that the period knew. As a consequence, sorcery, necromancy (the raising of the spirits of the dead), divination, and other forms of congress with the spirit world were all uniformly labelled as diabolical and came to be associated with a number of practices: healing, recovering lost or stolen objects, and harming one's neighbors. Witchcraft, learned demonology and other kinds of demonic magic became objects of widespread popular belief and were the charges behind most trials and condemnations during the period of the most intense persecutions, roughly from 1560 to 1660.

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2 There is an excellent synthetic portrait in Robin Briggs, Witches and Neighbors: The Social and Cultural Context of European Witchcraft (New York-London, 1996), Ch.1, "Myths of the Perfect Witch,"17-59.