As Halloween approaches, all of the typical iconography of the season steadily fills the windows and lawns of individuals across the country. Skeletons, ghosts, tombstones, and especially witches, are on full display wherever one looks. But these things were not always the light-hearted frivolities that they are today. Historically, witches have been seen as real forces at work in the world around us. Consequently, they were hunted down by the righteous, in order to protect the innocent. In pre-1750 Europe, these witch hunts were formal, structured legal ordeals. Countless women were put on trial and burned for supposed witchcraft, leading one to wonder what would cause such a phenomenon to occur. Evidence of what may have sparked these witch hunts can be traced through careful examination of some of the books in the Burns Library’s collections.
In 1487, the Malleus Maleficarum (which translates to “Hammer of the Witches”), which would soon become a staple reference text for witch hunters, was published. Within it, its author Heinrich Kramer attempts to lay out his general knowledge of witches, their practices, and how best to combat them. He also attempts, by the laying out of this information, to prove to doubters that witches do indeed exist. Further, he claims that witches are far more likely to be women than men, as women are far more susceptible to demonic temptations in their weakness, and that these women are responsible for infanticides, cannibalism, and the theft of the genitals of unsuspecting men. This inherently sexist approach to the topic of magic is perhaps a major contributing factor of our modern conception of the witch as female and, consequently, the prosecution of countless innocent women. Due to the invention of the printing press, the book was able to spread across Europe and incite panic and witch hunting fervor.
Over time the Malleus Maleficarum was replaced by a newer tome of witch lore. The 1595 book Daemonolatreiae libri tres, or simply “Demonalotry” in translation, became the standard manual for witch-hunters after its publication. A much smaller text, the information in this book is drawn from the personal experiences of its author, Nicholas Remy. Remy reportedly hunted down and put to death 900 people. In addition, Remy did extensive research on witchcraft, gathering citations about various witch cases from a variety of authors and archives. Remy was a consummate professional as he worked his way through cases, approaching each case with the same impassioned zeal for justice. His passion for the destruction of witches stemmed from the death of his favorite son, struck down in a street accident, after a beggar woman supposedly bewitched him. Fact checking his work proved difficult, as all of the materials he examined from archives mysteriously disappeared.
This is not to say, however, that the notion of real witches went unchallenged. Many intellectuals and church officials rebelled against this notion and attempted to quell the witch hunting frenzy. Among the skeptics was English gentleman and MP Reginald Scot, who wrote The Discovery of Witchcraft, first published in 1584, in order to disprove the existence of witches. In it, he attempts to convince his audience that witches do not exist by explicating, in detail, the ways in which charlatans had fooled the masses into believing that they were capable of performing magic. Scot worked under the assumption that both reason and religion could work to disprove the existence of witchcraft. He himself belonged to a fringe religious sect of Christians known as the Familists, who believed that Satan was entirely mental in nature, and not a physical entity who could be invoked for the purposes of witchcraft. This belief predisposed Scot to skepticism, and The Discovery of Witchcraft soon became a textbook of the common superstitions surrounding witchcraft of his time. Shakespeare himself used this book as a reference for his witches in the play Macbeth.
Despite Scot’s work, persecution of those accused of witchcraft would go on for centuries. Over a century after the work of Scot, witch hysteria was in full swing in the new world. The now famous Salem Witch Trials resulted in the executions of twenty individuals accused of witchcraft. A prominent figure in these events was the Reverend Cotton Mather. Mather’s pamphlets on witchcraft exacerbated the growing fear in the community. Yet even Mather advocated, at the very least, for moderation in these trials. The Burns Library owns three letters written by Mather. In one of these letters, dated March 31st, 1692, Mather wrote that “When you are satisfyd, or have good, plain, legal Evidence, That the Demons which molest our poor Neighbours, do indeed represent such and such people…yett I suppose that you will not reckon it, a Conviction, that the people so represented are Witches, to bee immediately Exterminated.” Despite his belief in witches, Mather appears to have some mercy for the accused: believing that all cases may not be true witchcraft, but rather the work of demons against the will of the accused.
If you are interested in learning more about Burns Library holdings on witchcraft, please contact the Burns Library Reading Room at 617-552-4861 or firstname.lastname@example.org. You may also learn more about theses books by doing a basic search for witchcraft in Holmes, the BC University Libraries online catalog. If you need help with searching in Holmes, visit this guide to learn some tips and tricks.
- Zach Weinsteiger, Burns Library Reading Room Assistant & M.A. Student in the English Department