Cover image for Battling Demons: Witchcraft, Heresy, and Reform in the Late Middle Ages By Michael D. Bailey

Battling Demons

Witchcraft, Heresy, and Reform in the Late Middle Ages

Michael D. Bailey


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ISBN: 978-0-271-02226-0

216 pages
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Magic in History

Battling Demons

Witchcraft, Heresy, and Reform in the Late Middle Ages

Michael D. Bailey

“In Battling Demons, Michael Bailey places the Dominican theologian Johannes Nider at the center of an emerging set of beliefs about diabolical sorcery and witchcraft in the fifteenth century. His argument is entirely original and will force those of us who study witchcraft to consider its implications not only for the late Middle Ages but also for the great persecutions of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries.”


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The fifteenth century is more than any other the century of the persecution of witches. So wrote Johan Huizinga more than eighty years ago in his classic Autumn of the Middle Ages. Although Huizinga was correct in his observation, modern readers have tended to focus on the more spectacular witch-hunts of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. Nevertheless, it was during the late Middle Ages that the full stereotype of demonic witchcraft developed in Europe, and this is the subject of Battling Demons.

At the heart of the story is Johannes Nider (d. 1438), a Dominican theologian and reformer who alternately persecuted heretics and negotiated with them—a man who was by far the most important church authority to write on witchcraft in the early fifteenth century. Nider was a major source for the infamous Malleus maleficarum, or Hammer of Witches (1486), the manual of choice for witch-hunters in late medieval Europe. Today Nider's reputation rests squarely on his witchcraft writings, but in his own day he was better known as a leader of the reform movement within the Dominican order and as a writer of important tracts on numerous other aspects of late medieval religiosity, including heresy and lay piety. Battling Demons places Nider in this wider context, showing that for late medieval thinkers, witchcraft was one facet of a much larger crisis plaguing Christian society.

As the only English-language study to focus exclusively on the rise of witchcraft in the early fifteenth century, Battling Demons will be important to students and scholars of the history of magic and witchcraft and medieval religious history.

“In Battling Demons, Michael Bailey places the Dominican theologian Johannes Nider at the center of an emerging set of beliefs about diabolical sorcery and witchcraft in the fifteenth century. His argument is entirely original and will force those of us who study witchcraft to consider its implications not only for the late Middle Ages but also for the great persecutions of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries.”
“Aside from offering a close reading of the Formicarius itself, the merit of this book lies in Bailey’s careful construction of the intellectual background against which he projects Nider’s assessment of the witches and the absolute evil they represented.”
“In this masterful study of Nider, Bailey situates the Dominican reformer and his most famous work in the larger context of European religious and intellectual culture, convincingly demonstrating that the theologian’s concerns informs and shaped his understanding of [witchcraft]. By elucidating Nider’s role in fifteenth-century institutional and spiritual reform, and then connecting that reform to his conceptualization of the witch, Bailey has shed important light not only on his specific subject, but on the entire context of the early modern period.”
“Although the extent to which Nider was typical of his time is debatable, the book does make a valuable contribution towards integrating the origins of the idea of witchcraft into the history of the fifteenth century.”
Battling Demons is a useful and thought-provoking book. Bailey will leave his readers wanting to explore further the life and activities of Nider, his writings, and the whole history of the Council of Basel in which Nider occupied a major position. The book is scholarly enough to keep the attention of the specialist, but not so technical and intricate as to be passed over by students.”
“Although I suspect that more can be said about the religious status of wonders, and the pressing need to develop strategies to evaluate these, Michael Bailey has provided a thorough and compelling analysis of the origins of witchcraft.”
“Bailey has written a book that should be read by everyone interested in witchcraft and late medieval religion.”
“Copious notes and a thorough, even though select, bibliography with an index close out this fine volume. Specialists and novices of magic, witchcraft, and heresy will find this book to be accessible, compelling and informative.”
“In this valuable, accurate, and engaging volume, Michael Bailey investigates the ‘prehistory’ of the early modern concept of witchcraft through the writings of Johannes Nider, a Dominican whose fundamental treatises—in particular, the seminal Formicarius—are still ‘remarkably understudied.’”

Michael D. Bailey is Visiting Scholar at the Medieval Institute of the University of Notre Dame.




Introduction: Witchcraft, Heresy, and Reform in the Fifteenth Century

1. The Life of Johannes Nider

2. Witchcraft in the Writings of Johannes Nider

3. The Threat of Heresy: Hussites, Free Spirits, and Beguines

4. Reform of the Orders, Reform of the Religious Spirit

5. The Reform of the Christian World: Johannes Nider's Formicarius

6. Witchcraft and Reform

Conclusion: Witchcraft and the World of the Late Middle Ages

Appendix One: Chronology of Nider's Life and Datable Works

Appendix Two: Dating of Nider's Major Works Used in this Study

Appendix Three: Manuscript Copies of Nider’s Treatises

Select Bibliography


Witchcraft, Heresy, and Reform in the Fifteenth Century

Sometime in the mid-1430s an unknown author, certainly a cleric and most likely an inquisitor, recounted the errors of a new and terrible heretical sect. He described a secret nocturnal gathering, which he termed a synagogue. Presiding over this assembly was the "enemy of all rational creatures," the devil, who appeared "sometimes in the form of a man, although imperfect, or in the likeness of another animal, but generally in the likeness of a black cat." Before this figure, new members of the sect were required to renounce their faith and to swear oaths of loyalty both to the devil and to their fellow heretics. The author then described the following scene:

After having sworn and promised these things, the poor seduced person adores the presiding devil by giving homage to him, and as a sign of homage he kisses the devil, appearing in human or in another form, as noted above, on the buttocks or anus, giving to him as tribute one of his own limbs after death. After which all the members of that pestiferous sect celebrate the admittance of the new heretic, eating whatever is around them, especially murdered children, roasted or boiled. When this most wicked feast is completed, after they have danced as much as they desired, the presiding devil then cries, while extinguishing the light, "mestlet, mestlet!" After they hear his voice, immediately they join together carnally, one man with one woman, or one man with one man, and sometimes father with daughter, son with mother, brother with sister . . . scarcely observing the natural order.

After this depraved ritual, the author continued, the devil would instruct his new minions in various magical arts and would give them certain magic potions, poisons, and unguents, as well as magically anointed staves on which they were to ride to all future synagogues. Indeed, all the members of this sect were described as possessing terrible magic powers and being able to work powerful and destructive sorcery. They could raise storms and cast down hail, kill children, wither crops, and cause death and disease among both animals and human beings. In short, these people were not merely heretics, they were witches.

Although the notion that certain people could perform harmful sorcery was extremely ancient, the full stereotype of European witchcraft—that is, the idea of a diabolically organized and conspiratorial cult of maleficent sorcerers bent on harming faithful Christians and subverting the order of the Christian world—actually developed quite late in the medieval period, appearing only in the early fifteenth century. Mostly within the space of a single decade, the 1430s, several important documents were written describing this phenomenon in detail for the first time. The source quoted above, Errores Gazariorum or "Errors of the Gazarii" (a common term for heretics), is perhaps the most lurid of these early accounts. This anonymous work is also relatively brief, however, and the immediate circumstances in which it was written remain entirely unknown. It thus serves to illustrate one of the major problems confronting scholars seeking to understand the rise of witchcraft in the late Middle Ages. Just as the Errores is an immediately, if gruesomely, captivating document but provides virtually no larger context in which to situate the horrors it describes, so too witchcraft as a whole evokes a certain dark fascination but remains largely isolated from other major aspects of European history. Although a great deal of scholarly attention has focused on this subject, a tendency still prevails among many historians to regard anything to do with witches as, in the words of one expert, "somehow peculiar and historically unassimilable," and a survey of the history and historiography of fifteenth-century Europe has aptly noted that "research has still not yet integrated the problem of witchcraft in a meaningful way into the overall development of Christian religiosity." Witchcraft, however, was not an isolated phenomenon; nor, for all its seemingly fantastical and horrific elements, was it a concern only to certain particularly paranoid minds. Although the extent of actual witch-hunting has often been exaggerated, belief in witchcraft quickly became nearly universal in late medieval and early modern Europe, and the image of the witch that first appeared in the early 1400s endured as a figure of fear and persecution for many centuries.

Of all the sources dealing with witches and witchcraft from the early fifteenth century, some of the most valuable, particularly in situating this new phenomenon in an understandable historical context, were produced by one man, Johannes Nider. A German Dominican theologian and religious reformer, Nider presented long accounts of magic, superstition, and witchcraft in several of his theological and moral treatises, but significantly, in none of these works did he deal solely with witches. He wrote also about other heresies, religious crises, questions of morality, and general matters of faith. His most important work, for example, titled Formicarius (The anthill), although best known today as a treatise on witchcraft, was not solely, indeed not even primarily, about witches. Rather it was a work of what I shall call spiritual reform, decrying a supposedly widespread laxity of belief among the Christian laity and aiming at a general rejuvenation of faith among all believers. Thus the detailed and in many ways seminal accounts of witchcraft contained in this work can be fully understood only in relation to these larger reformist concerns. This book explores the rise of witchcraft in the early fifteenth century primarily through the writings of Johannes Nider. But it explores several of the other subjects he dealt with as well. The breadth of Nider’s writings provides a unique opportunity to understand witchcraft not as an isolated or historically aberrant phenomenon but as one significant aspect of a larger world of religious thought and spiritual concern. My goal, therefore, is not just to examine one of the earliest and best witnesses to the emergence of witchcraft in late medieval Europe, but through him to help integrate that dark new phenomenon more fully into the overall religious, intellectual, and cultural history of the period.

Johannes Nider was by far the most important single authority to treat the subject of witchcraft in the early fifteenth century, in respect to both the amount of material he produced and the influence his writings would have. Taking up this notion at almost the very moment it first appeared in Western Europe, he played a key role in its construction, codification, and spread. His major work, the Formicarius, survives in over twenty-five manuscript copies from the fifteenth and early sixteenth centuries and went through seven printed editions from the 1470s to 1692, thus covering the entire period of the great European witch-hunts. His writings also served as an important source of information for what is today the most infamous of all late medieval treatises on witchcraft and witch-hunting, the Malleus maleficarum or Hammer of the Witches, by the Dominican inquisitor Heinrich Kramer (Institoris in Latin), first published in 1487. Kramer drew heavily on the earlier accounts of his fellow Dominican Nider, reproducing large sections of Nider’s texts virtually verbatim in the Malleus and referring to him at one point as "the most eminent doctor." Moreover, the fifth book of the Formicarius, dealing primarily with witchcraft, was often printed along with the Malleus in later editions.

Writing at the very beginning of the so-called witch craze in Europe, Nider is a critical source for understanding the early development of this new phenomenon. During the early fifteenth century, the crime of witchcraft no longer entailed just the practice of harmful sorcery against others, but took on terrible demonic and indeed diabolic overtones. Ultimately witches were accused of worshiping demons, renouncing their faith, and surrendering themselves completely to the service of the devil. Thus they were guilty of idolatry and apostasy, and, believed to be in league with Satan, they were regarded as a serious threat to the entire order of the Christian world. Certainly this new conception of witchcraft was by no means solely the creation of clerical authorities such as Nider, later imposed on the rest of European society through propaganda and persecution. Many aspects of the witch stereotype arose from common conceptions of magic and popular folklore widely held by the laity, and belief in witchcraft fed to a large degree off common social structures and interactions, not extraordinary waves of official persecution. Still, it has long been known that many theologians and other clerical authorities became increasingly concerned with notions of superstition and sorcery in the late Middle Ages, particularly in the early fifteenth century, and their concern did much to facilitate the witch-hunts that were to come. Among such men Nider was a figure of overarching importance, and his descriptions of this new and dark form of magical practice and demonic activity offer some significant insights into how and why the concept of witchcraft emerged and spread so rapidly across Europe.

In approaching the origins of witchcraft primarily through the writings of Johannes Nider, this book focuses on witchcraft as an idea, not as a social reality or object of institutional persecution. The principal story told is of the emergence of this new concept in the mind of a single important authority. But witchcraft alone is not the sole element of the late medieval religious world discussed here. I consider numerous other issues that figured prominently in Nider’s thought—concern over the threat of heresy, which was a significant force in the early fifteenth century; debates among clerical authorities about the questionable status of semireligious lay people such as beguines; and above all the pervasive late medieval desire for reform in capite et membris, in head and members, both within the church, its institutions and its orders, and more broadly in Christian society as a whole. The figure of the witch did not exist alone or in isolation in Nider’s thought. For him witchcraft was but one aspect of a larger religious world that he saw to be in turmoil and crisis. Any attempt to understand his view of witchcraft, to grasp his understanding of that new idea and the anxiety it aroused in him, would fail if it did not set witchcraft within the larger context of his other religious concerns.

Although Nider is known today (when he is known at all) almost exclusively as an authority on witchcraft, he was actually an important figure in many areas of late medieval religious history. Trained as a theologian, he served for several years as the Dominican professor of theology at the University of Vienna. Within his own religious order, which was undergoing a movement for reform throughout his lifetime, he was a leading figure in the so-called observant movement (as the reform party was known), and he directed the process of reform for the entire Dominican province of Teutonia, which stretched from the Rhine to Vienna and from the Alps to the Low Countries. He personally reformed several important Dominican houses, and he wrote the first and only extended theoretical treatise on religious reform to emerge from the Dominican observant movement—De reformatione status cenobitici (On the reform of the cenobite status). A contemporary, the observant Dominican chronicler Johannes of Mainz, praised him as "the greatest zealot of the order and the greatest propagator of the reform," and a generation later his reputation remained so high that the chronicler Johannes Meyer, also an observant Dominican, could write, "Even today in the reformed houses of our order one can hear the brothers say, ‘Thus did Master Johannes Nider act, thus he taught and commanded and forbade, and thus he himself lived."

Nor did Nider limit himself to affairs within his own order. His writings on the subject of reform, for example, extended to other religious orders as well. He wrote these works while participating in the great ecumenical Council of Basel, and it was here that he surely achieved his greatest influence and importance in the larger religious affairs of his day. The council convened in 1431 as a gathering of ecclesiastical leaders from across Europe. It soon became entangled in a protracted struggle with the papacy, which feared (rightly) that such a body would limit papal authority over the church. This conflict progressively drained the council of its energies, until it finally dissolved itself in 1449. During the early years when Nider was present in Basel, however (he departed for a post at the University of Vienna probably at the end of 1434 or very early in 1435), the council was extremely active in many areas of ecclesiastical concern. Indeed, for a time Basel became virtually the center of the entire Western Christian world, and Nider was one of the most active and important men in Basel. Not only was he an official representative of the Dominican order at the council, but he also served as prior of the local Dominican convent, which during these early years was a principal center of the council’s activity. The initial general sessions were held there, and several deputations, the various standing committees in which most of the council’s work was actually done, met within its walls.

While he was a member of the Council of Basel, Nider undertook crucial negotiations with the most threatening heretical sect to confront the church in the early fifteenth century, the Hussites of Bohemia, and he also found time to consider the questionable status of beghards and beguines, lay people who chose to live a quasi-religious life and whom, for a variety of reasons, many clerical authorities found suspicious or even heretical. Although he does not seem to have taken much interest in issues of conciliarism per se—that is, the ecclesiological debates over whether the council or the pope should wield supreme authority within the church—he was clearly involved in such matters at least insofar as they affected the other issues that held his attention at Basel. Matters of ecclesiastical reform, for example, were entangled in complex ways with the issue of conciliarism. It was also at Basel that Nider became interested in the matter of witchcraft. Although the council does not appear to have engaged officially in any discussion of this new phenomenon, scholars have long recognized that Basel was an important center for the codification and diffusion of the idea of witchcraft from lands in and around the western Alps, where some of the earliest true witch trials were beginning to take place at this time, to the rest of Europe. Nider was one of the most important figures in this process. Although he actually wrote most of his influential accounts of magic and witchcraft after leaving Basel, many of the stories he related focused on lands in western Switzerland, and he obviously collected much if not all of his material on these subjects while at the council. Here the matter of witchcraft would have been raised and discussed amidst many other religious issues and concerns, and Nider would have seen this new phenomenon as but one aspect of a larger crisis facing the Christian world.

Despite his significance in so many areas of late medieval religious history, however, Nider has until recently remained a remarkably understudied figure. The only general account of his activities, the biography written by the German parish priest Kaspar Schieler, is now over one hundred years old, and was hardly serviceable even when it was new, offering more eulogy than critical historical analysis. More recent scholarship on Nider (what little there is) has generally focused on specific categories of his writings or on individual aspects of his thought. Broader studies of the major issues and events with which he was involved rarely do more than mention his name, if that. His treatise on the Hussite heresy (which admittedly survives in only two incomplete copies) goes unmentioned and unexamined in all scholarship on that topic. His attacks on the heresy of the Free Spirit have been noted, but his two far more positive treatises on lay poverty and the semireligious way of life led by many beguines, although labeled by one expert as "fundamental" to any discussion of the subject in the fifteenth century, have remained "almost completely ignored" by modern scholarship. Even in the area of witchcraft, in which he clearly made his most enduring contributions to the later history of Europe, he has until recently received far less attention than was his due. As recently as 1991, Carlo Ginzburg was still able to note, quite aptly, that Nider’s major work on witchcraft, the Formicarius, remained "more quoted than analyzed."

I do not aim here at a complete study of all aspects of Nider’s thought. Quite simply, he wrote too much and his religious concerns were too catholic. Any full examination of all his writings would quickly become encyclopedic, both in volume and in thematic coherence. Such a work would doubtless prove fascinating, shedding light on many areas of the late medieval religious world, but it is, to use the hackneyed phrase, simply beyond the scope of this book. The focus here is on witchcraft, yet still not witchcraft solely. Other factors and other concerns must enter into consideration, both for their influence on Nider’s approach to witchcraft and his understanding of that new phenomenon and for their influence on my approach to the same subject. In reality, this expanded focus could well serve as a license to enter into all areas of Nider’s thought, but two areas in particular stand in close relation to witchcraft. The issues of heresy and reform, both broadly understood, do much to clarify how Nider approached the issue of witchcraft and how he conceived of the threat that witches represented to the Christian faith.

At first glance, the elements of witchcraft—extreme diabolism, gruesome cannibalism of infants, and secret nocturnal conventicles filled with orgies and other depravities—appear entirely irrational, and such authorities as Nider who accepted and propounded these notions appear either mad, naive, or ridiculous. One might expect, given Nider’s deep concern over witchcraft, to see his fears in this area paralleled by other anxieties about possible assaults on the church and Christian faith, and that his lurid accounts of demonic sabbaths would be matched by shrill denunciations of the major heresies of the late medieval period, the Hussites and the Free Spirit. In fact, while he obviously opposed these movements and regarded them as utterly condemnable, he seems to have been far less concerned about heretics than about witches. In his writings on heresy, and especially in his broad defense of the semireligious beguines, who were often accused of heresy, he appears much more restrained, moderate, and (to modern minds, at least) "rational." Moreover, in these works he begins to reveal the degree to which all other areas of his thought were influenced and shaped by his profound commitment to reform. His support for beguines in particular was based on his conviction that these devout lay people, whom other clerical authorities often viewed with grave suspicion, followed an entirely laudable way of life and might provide a model of spiritual reform for the rest of the laity. A careful examination of his reformist treatises then reveals how wide ranging his concept of reform was, not just encompassing institutional change within the church but, even more important, entailing a moral and spiritual regeneration within individual believers. In this spiritual sense, Nider firmly believed that religious reform could and must extend to the laity as well as to the clergy, and should encompass not just the institutional church but ultimately all of Christian society. In this spiritual sense, too, his ideas of reform shaped and fed his fear of witches.

Only when viewed from the perspective of these larger reformist concerns will the phenomenon of witchcraft begin to appear to us as I think it must have appeared to Nider—as but a single terrible aspect of a world degraded by sin, assailed by demons, and desperately in need of reform. In tales of witchcraft Nider the reformer found ideal material with which to propel faithful Christians who had become somewhat lax in their beliefs back to full piety. To a large extent, he used accounts of the relatively new phenomenon of witchcraft just as moral reformers within the church had for centuries been accustomed to use stories of demonic power and demonic possession, to instruct and encourage proper belief and to warn of the dangers of moral and spiritual lapses. That such men should have been attracted to the fantastic horrors of witchcraft and have proved more than ready to accept and employ this new concept is hardly surprising. Scholars have long noted a connection between the growing desire for reform and the rise of witch-hunting in the late Middle Ages. Yet the specifics of this relationship have never been fully articulated, let alone explored. Nider provides exemplary insight into this connection. His entire concept of witchcraft was shaped and colored by his particular understanding of reform.

Although I see a strong connection between witchcraft and reform, particularly for Nider, I do not wish to suggest that the emergence and the acceptance of the idea of witchcraft in even a single mind, let alone by an entire society or culture, is an easily explained or monocausal process. The alchemy involved was far more complex than just a matter of reformist concerns transmuted into diabolical fantasies. Indeed, the rise of witchcraft remains so fascinating and still so difficult to fathom, despite the vast array of scholarship devoted to it, largely because it was such a multifaceted and "multifactoral" phenomenon, drawing on and feeding off many other aspects of late medieval religious culture. When the inquiry is limited to one man who left an extensive record of his thought on such matters, and whose writings then had a significant influence on the thoughts of others who followed him, some sense of order, however constrained, should emerge. What follows is a cultural history of ideas and concepts, however, and not an intellectual history in the usual sense. That is, Johannes Nider was himself never aware of consciously developing or constructing the idea of witchcraft. It was instead, for him, a reality that he merely accepted, described, and sought to explain. Thus he leaves no clear passages that might allow us to trace with absolute certainly the development of his thought in relation to this matter. Never does he write, "I saw witchcraft as a means toward reform," or "My concern over heresy caused me to turn to witchcraft." The reader will understand, then, if I more often suggest and attempt to demonstrate rather than to prove definitively the connections that I see between various areas of his thought.

Given that the overall focus of this book is on the emerging idea of witchcraft, particularly as described in Nider’s writings, I considered whether I might not interweave a discussion of his writings on other subjects such as heresy and reform into the chapters on witchcraft per se. To do so seemed to me, however, to suggest too great a unity in his thought and concerns where I see only continuities, influences, and overlaps. I also worried that such a structure would necessitate digressions so long and unwieldy as to disrupt the flow of the central arguments about witchcraft. I decided, then, to keep the various areas of witchcraft, heresy, and reform more or less distinct in separate chapters, although with obvious overlaps and linkages between those chapters. The present structure turns out to reflect almost exactly how I myself initially worked through Nider’s thought. I began with the problem of witchcraft, and then moved on to what I saw as the closely related area of heresy. I soon realized, however, that in his treatment of heretics Nider appeared in a far different light, far less credulous and fearful, than in his accounts of witches. Through his writings on heresy I came to understand that reformist concerns formed the basis of his approach to most other issues, so I moved next to his treatises on reform and then returned to his magnum opus, the Formicarius, and his stories of witchcraft recorded there, attempting to understand them in the context of reform. The story that follows here thus opens and closes with witchcraft, moving through other matters in between. I find this approach essential. The insights gained by considering Nider’s writings on these other issues serve not just to support the conclusions of later chapters but in a sense to justify the very premises of those chapters as well. Of course, continuities still abound, as do the occasional contradictions. Historians labor valiantly to force the past into the Procrustean structures of their arguments. The fit is never prefect. My argument here is that the rise of witchcraft in the early fifteenth century must be understood in the light of other developments in the religious world of that time. It seemed foolish not to let those other developments have some space to speak for themselves

In situating the rise of witchcraft, particularly the growing clerical concern over this new and terrible crime, among other major aspects of late medieval religious history, I hope to demonstrate that this was not a marginal, fantastical, or historically incomprehensible development. The larger world of the fifteenth century can shed considerable light on the emergence of witchcraft, and the emergence of witchcraft can, if examined carefully, shed some light back on its time. Close to a century ago, Johan Huizinga, in his classic Autumn of the Middle Ages, described the fifteenth century as being "more than any other the century of the persecution of witches." In his view, this new horror exemplified the profound decay of late medieval civilization. It was the natural result of typical medieval "credulity and lack of critical thinking," and the final and most horrific embellishment of medieval concerns over heresy and demonic power. The only difficulty lay in explaining how the wondrous new age of Renaissance humanism failed to "immediately reject the cruelties of the witch-hunts." Since Huizinga’s time, scholars have progressively abandoned the view that the late Middle Ages were a period of unmitigated decline, as well as modifying the simplistic notion that the Italian Renaissance and Protestant Reformation represented a complete break with earlier medieval traditions and were the birth of all things modern. Yet still the overall dichotomy between the medieval and early modern periods has to a great extent held firm, and in lieu of a sharp boundary the entire fifteenth century has come to be seen as a long transitional period between these two epochs. Events and developments within that century continue to be viewed largely from the perspective of earlier or later eras. While such perspectives can be very informative, they can also obscure certain aspects of the period, and this has certainly been the case with witchcraft. The rise of this new idea in the fifteenth century is still most often seen, from one perspective, as some sort of natural culmination of medieval concerns over heresy and demonic magic, and from the other as a mere preliminary step toward the great witch-hunts that actually did not begin in earnest until the sixteenth century. Without doubt both views are accurate, but they also inevitably overlook many of the unique aspects of the fifteenth century that helped give rise to witchcraft at that specific time.

Having abandoned such simplistic notions as "decay" and "rebirth" to characterize the late Middle Ages, much modern scholarship now tends to leave the impression, doubtless to some extent true, that the fifteenth century was a terribly fragmented age. Especially in regard to religious history, the years from the outbreak of the Great Schism (1378) to Luther’s break with Rome (1521) were ones of crisis upon crisis, of such tremendous and rapid transition that contemporaries often failed to see any coherence in their world. Yet certain continuities, if not any single great unity, clearly run through and bind together the religious history of this era, and our understanding of any one aspect of the period will remain incomplete and fragmented until we pay more attention to them. The writings of Johannes Nider, when examined closely, can reveal some of the intricate connections that bound the rise of witchcraft to other developments and ongoing religious concerns in the early fifteenth century. They also may begin to indicate that the phenomenon of witchcraft, far from being marginal or "historically unassimilable," was actually a central characteristic of an age deeply concerned with matters of religious and spiritual reform.

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