Demonology: Fact or Fiction?

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To the modern reader, the beliefs outlined in demonological writings seem outlandish. While some of these beliefs were a reflection of public views, others differed greatly from general opinion. This page shows two examples, one of the way in which the beliefs of demonologists reflected popular culture and one in which they did not.

 

 Women as Witches?

It is no accident that most of those who were prosecuted as witches in early Modern Europe were women. While the witch craze was by no means a woman's holocaust, as some radical historians have argued, women did make up as much as 95% of those accused as witches in some parts of Europe (Schwartz 30). The association between women and witchcraft is apparent both in the historical evidence of witch trials and the beliefs outlined by demonologists. In this case, the assumptions made by demonologists were reflective of popular culture.

The authors of the Malleus Maleficarum go into great detail about why women are more susceptible to the influence of the devil than men. According to them, women:

  • were more credulous than men

"since the chief aim of the devil is to corrupt faith, he rather attacks them" (43).

  • were naturally more impressionable

"when they use this quality well they are very good, but when they use it ill they are very evil" (44).

  • had slippery tongues

"[women are] unable to conceal from their fellow-women those things which by evil arts they know" (44).

  • as characterized by Kramer and Sprenger, women were very child-like in nature

"for as regards to intellect of the understanding of spiritual things, they seem to be of a different nature from men" (44).

The statistical evidence gathered from trial records at this time confirms that sexist beliefs, as outlined by Kramer and Sprenger in their Malleus Maleficarum, did indeed result in the association of women with witchcraft.

 
 

 

(Albrecht Durer, Pride and the Demon, 1494)

 

(Albrecht Durer, Fallen Human Nature, 1493)
These two images demonstrate popular beliefs about women and their relationship to the devil in early modern Europe. As these images show, women were thought to be vain and prideful and this more susceptible to the devils temptations.  

 

 Midwives as Witches?

The Malleus Maleficarum not only suggested that women were more likely to be witches than men, but also that a high percentage of midwives were witches. This belief however is not a reflection of popular practice in the way the association between women and witchcraft was.

The Malleus Maleficarum stated that witches ate the flesh of unbaptized children and sometimes used their remains to make deadly poisons (Briggs 78). On the subject of midwives, Kramer and Sprenger write:

"No one does more harm to the Catholic Faith than midwives. For when they do not kill children, then as if for some other purpose, they take them out of the room and, raising them up in the air, offer them to the devils" (66).

Contrary to this assertion however, surviving European records show very few cases of midwives accused as witches. Actually, there were only 2 instances in England and 14 out of some 3,000 in Scotland accused. (Briggs 279)

Why then were midwives targeted as witches in such works as the Malleus Maleficarum?

Midwives were typically under attack from elite men who sought control over all socio-political circumstances. Midwives held a position of status in the community that was seen as a threat to many male leaders. Often, men wanted to destroy the autonomy for women that midwives represented.

In reality though, midwives were not often accused of witchcraft by the general public because they were regarded as trustworthy persons. The skills midwives possessed to ease the pain of labor and safely deliver children were highly coveted and respected by the community (Briggs 77-78).

Thus, the belief in midwives as witches is an example of how the beliefs of demonologists did not always reflect the practices of the public.


 
 

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