Cover image for Hazards of the Dark Arts: Advice for Medieval Princes on Witchcraft and Magic Translated by Richard Kieckhefer

Hazards of the Dark Arts

Advice for Medieval Princes on Witchcraft and Magic

Translated by Richard Kieckhefer


$24.95 | Paperback Edition
ISBN: 978-0-271-07840-3

168 pages
5.5" × 8.5"
7 b&w illustrations

Magic in History Sourcebooks

Hazards of the Dark Arts

Advice for Medieval Princes on Witchcraft and Magic

Translated by Richard Kieckhefer

“These two little-known fifteenth-century texts are here expertly translated into English for the first time by one of the world’s leading authorities on medieval magic and witchcraft. They document the involvement of laymen in the early prosecution of witchcraft and provide valuable context for more famous works such as the Malleus maleficarum. The introduction deftly introduces the authors and places the works in the long tradition of manuals for princes. Highly recommended for anyone interested in the history of magic, witchcraft, heresy, or ‘aberrant’ beliefs.”


  • Description
  • Reviews
  • Bio
  • Table of Contents
  • Sample Chapters
  • Subjects
This volume comprises English translations of two fundamentally important texts on magic and witchcraft in the fifteenth century: Johannes Hartlieb’s Book of All Forbidden Arts and Ulrich Molitoris’s On Witches and Pythonesses. Written by laymen and aimed at secular authorities, these works advocated that town leaders and royalty alike should vigorously uproot and prosecute practitioners of witchcraft and magic.

Though inquisitors and theologians promulgated the witch trials of late medieval times, lay rulers saw the prosecutions through. But local officials, princes, and kings could be unreliable; some were skeptical about the reality and danger of witchcraft, while others dabbled in the occult themselves. Borrowing from theological and secular sources, Hartlieb and Molitoris agitated against this order in favor of zealously persecuting occultists. Organized as a survey of the seven occult arts, Hartlieb’s text is a systematic treatise on the dangers of superstition and magic. Molitoris’s text presents a dialogue on the activities of witches, including vengeful sorcery, the transformation of humans into animals, and fornication with the devil. Taken together, these tracts show that laymen exerted significant influence on ridding society of their imagined threat.

Precisely translated by Richard Kieckhefer, Hazards of the Dark Arts includes an insightful introduction that discusses the authors, their sources and historical environments, the writings themselves, and the influence they had in the development of ideas about witchcraft.

“These two little-known fifteenth-century texts are here expertly translated into English for the first time by one of the world’s leading authorities on medieval magic and witchcraft. They document the involvement of laymen in the early prosecution of witchcraft and provide valuable context for more famous works such as the Malleus maleficarum. The introduction deftly introduces the authors and places the works in the long tradition of manuals for princes. Highly recommended for anyone interested in the history of magic, witchcraft, heresy, or ‘aberrant’ beliefs.”
“The two essays presented for the first time in English in Richard Kieckhefer’s Hazards of the Dark Arts show a comparable but refracted view of early modern opinion, reminding us to never underrate its intricacy.”
“This is a very useful and engaging volume, and deserves to be widely used in teaching on magic, witchcraft, and courtly culture in the medieval and early modern periods. As a model for similar Magic in History Sourcebooks we might hope to see in the future, it is very encouraging.”
“A great boon to the study of witchcraft.”

Richard Kieckhefer is Sarah Rebecca Roland Professor of Religious Studies at Northwestern University and author of Forbidden Rites: A Necromancer’s Manual of the Fifteenth Century (Penn State, 1998).


List of illustrations

List of Abbreviations



Johannes Hartlieb, The Book of All Forbidden Arts

[A.] Prologue

[B.] Powers of the Devil

[C.] An example from Caesarius of Heisterbach

[D.] Moral exhortation

[E.] Nygramancy (necromancy)

[F.] Geomancy

[G.] Correlation of arts with elements

[H.] Hydromancy

[I.] Aeromancy

[J.] Pyromancy

[K.] Chiromancy

[L.] Spatulamancy

[M.] General prohibition

Ulrich Molitoris, On witches and pythonesses, in German “Unholden” or “Hexen”


[Part I]

1. Weather magic

2. Harm to humans and infants

3. Impotence

4. Change of form

5. Riding on sticks or wolves

6. Intercourse of Devil with women

7. Children born to demons and witches

8. Foretelling future things

[Part II]

Chaps. 1-3 resumed

Chap. 4 resumed

Chap. 5 resumed

Chaps. 6-7 resumed


Short bibliography


When prosecution for witchcraft first became vigorous in late medieval Europe, it was churchmen, especially inquisitors and theologians, who played the most prominent role in promoting witch trials—but laymen played an important part as well.1 Town governments tried people as witches. Kings and princes sometimes took part in the prosecution. Even when Church courts condemned witches, the convicts were released to secular authorities for execution. But not everyone cooperated: some rulers were skeptical about the reality and danger of witchcraft, and some actually dabbled in the occult arts, or consulted astrologers and magicians whose activities seemed similar to those of witches.2 Rather than collaborating in persecution, such rulers were (in the eyes of the zealous) negligent or even complicit. Johannes Hartlieb and Ulrich Molitoris were fifteenth-century German laymen who addressed these issues in their writings. Both of them studied in Italy, whether medicine or law, then returned to their German homelands, entered into the service of territorial princes, and endeavored to persuade these secular rulers that witchcraft and magic were serious offenses they should be vigorously uprooting. Both authors wrote as laymen, for laymen, even if their ideas were largely borrowed from churchmen. Their writings were grounded not only in biblical, theological, and legendary sources but also in medical and legal literature, and in the case of Molitoris they were tinged with Humanist learning. They demonstrate how late medieval witch-hunting engaged a coalition of clergy and laity, Scholastics and Humanists, molded by the cultures of northern and southern Europe, steeped in both academic and popular discourse. Lay authorities could ignore the counsel and continue to dabble and connive—as could clergy. But the task Hartlieb and Molitoris undertook was to address laymen as laymen and win them to the cause.

They had predecessors who had written for the instruction of rulers. Educated people had often cultivated favor and sought to wield influence at court. Books called “mirrors for princes” were generally meant for young and presumably malleable princes needing guidance on how to rule wisely before they had to assume the throne.3 There were also authorities in various fields who wrote more specific advice literature on particular topics of concern to kings, including matters such as monetary policy.4 The works of Johannes Hartlieb and Ulrich Molitoris, whole moralizing in the tradition of mirrors for princes, fall more clearly into the category of specific advice literature.

There was also, by the time Hartlieb and Molitoris wrote, a significant tradition of literature touching on the nature and perils of superstition, magic, and witchcraft. Writings describing and condemning magic can be traced back to early Christian centuries, and the work of Saint Augustine had lasting influence on such literature. Fundamental to these writings was the belief that magic was invented by demons, taught by demons, and worked with the aid of demons. When the magician wrote obscure words on a talisman, or inscribed them on the leaves of a healing plant, or wove them into a charm, they served as communication with demons—even if the magician supposed they tapped hidden powers (“occult virtues”) within nature, or sought to engage the beneficent aid of unfallen angels. Superstition might be a less serious offense than magic, but it, too, came under scrutiny. The boundaries between magic and superstition were fluid, but in general the latter was a broader category. For the theologians, superstition was an offense against faith: something could be superstitious because it addressed God and the saints but in an unauthorized and inappropriate manner, or because it paid honor to creatures that should be paid only to God. From a rational skeptic’s perspective, a superstition was an offense against reason: it found significance and causality where there was none, perhaps in the chattering of birds or the observance of pointless rituals.

In earlier periods magic was discussed mostly in writings that touch on it along with other issues, but in the fourteenth and especially fifteenth centuries there were numerous works devoted specifically to magic and witchcraft. Works on witchcraft began to proliferate in the 1430s, representing witches as making an explicit pact with the Devil, seeking the aid of demons, and associating with other witches in a conspiracy against Christendom. In the consolidation and spread of this concept, witchcraft trials and witchcraft literature worked hand in hand: writings about witchcraft stimulated witch trials, which led to further trials. The best known and most influential of late medieval treatises on witchcraft, the Malleus maleficarum ascribed to Heinrich Kramer and Jakob Sprenger, first published in 1487, was based largely on Kramer’s experience as an inquisitor in southern Germany, and in response to skepticism and resistance Kramer had experienced in his prosecution of alleged witches.5 Although Kramer was a friar and inquisitor, he shared with Hartlieb and Molitoris the project of persuading secular authorities that witchcraft was real, that magic was inherently harmful, and that lay rulers should join with inquisitors in the eradication of these threats rather than standing in the way.

Johannes Hartlieb (ca. 1400–1468) and The Book of All Forbidden Arts

Hartlieb’s Book of All Forbidden Arts is a more or less systematic treatise devoted to the dangers of superstition and magic.6 Two circumstances are of particular importance for our understanding Hartlieb. First, he enjoyed a highly varied educational background. He obtained a bachelor’s degree in 1432, a master’s by 1437, and a medical doctorate at Padua in 1439. He spent time in Vienna and was steeped in the pastoral approach to theology cultivated there; he could have entered the clergy but opted not to do so. Second, he spent most of his adult life in service to princes. His father had been in service to the duke of Bavaria-Ingolstadt. He himself served the duke of Austria in his thirties, then spent much of his career at the court of Duke Albrecht III of Bavaria-Munich, and after Albrecht’s death he became physician to Duke Sigmund.

Alongside his interest in medicine and theology, Hartlieb had a long-standing interest in the occult. In the 1430s and 1440s he seems to have written works on divination by various means: by phases of the moon, by consultation of names, by geomancy and palmistry.7 The princes with whom he associated shared an interest in or apprehension for the occult arts. Duke Albrecht’s mistress (and possibly his first wife), Agnes Bernauer, had been executed by drowning for sorcery in 1435, and Hartlieb’s wife, Sibilla, has been identified as her daughter. One of Hartlieb’s acts of service to the duke was negotiating an attempted marriage alliance with the family of Margrave Johann “the Alchemist” of Brandenburg-Kulmbach. It was for that margrave that Hartlieb wrote his most famous work, The Book of All Forbidden Arts, in 1456, the same year in which he told Duke Albrecht in a letter about the margrave’s fascination with the occult.

Apart from chapters on the Devil’s powers and general warnings against the occult, The Book of All Forbidden Arts is organized as a survey of seven occult arts. The first of these he calls nigramancia, or the black art, which he clearly conflates on the one hand with classical necromancy, and on the other hand with witchcraft.8 As he saw it, this art chiefly entails ritual magic designed for conjuring evil spirits. The second through fifth of the arts are named for the four elements—earth (geomancy), water (hydromancy), air (aeromancy), and fire (pyromancy)—following a set of categories going back ultimately to the classical writer Varro.9 The sixth is chiromancy or palmistry, while the seventh is spatulamancy, or divination through inspection of bones. All these designations are construed broadly; aeromancy, for example, includes observation not only of birds’ flight and signs in the heavens but even such things as how people sneeze, while pyromancy is defined broadly enough to include the inspection of anointed fingernails. The work is quite loose in its structure, at times almost haphazard. At one point Hartlieb seems to suggest he will go on to discuss eighty-three further occult arts, but he does not do so in the book as it comes down to us.

Hartlieb’s attitude toward the occult arts is problematic. On the surface, he writes as a rationalist condemning the folly of magic and superstition, and as a moralist railing against their immorality. He tells a great deal about them, but he does not write fully enough to provide actual instruction, and he repeatedly warns Margrave Johann against his temptation to dabble in such affairs. Yet historians have wondered about Hartlieb himself. He knew too much about magic to be immune from suspicion that he had tried his own experiments. As has been mentioned, writings on lunar astrology, geomancy, divination by names, and chiromancy are ascribed to him. How can he have written such things when in The Book of All Forbidden Arts he so vigorously condemned them? Three interpretations present themselves. First, the works of occult lore represent an earlier phase of his life and career (the 1430s and 1440s), while The Book of All Forbidden Arts (of 1456) comes from a time when he had been converted to a more cautious and orthodox approach. Second, it is possible that the attributions are false: that he did not write the earlier books, although he may have copied some such works in full or in part simply to inform himself more fully of their contents. This argument is more plausible for some of the writings in question (e.g., the work on geomancy) than for others (e.g., the treatise on chiromancy). Third, he may just have been ambivalent. For all his condemnatory bluster, he clearly was fascinated by the occult, immersed himself in it, wanted to know how it worked, and he may have dabbled in its use more than he was willing to admit. Frank Fürbeth, who has written most extensively on the matter, sees Hartlieb as drawing on a tradition of moral and catechetical literature—indeed, as contributing significantly to a thriving tradition of moral instruction—that does not show he had been an offender, and yet suspicions will linger.10

The idea that there are seven occult arts is modeled on the notion of seven liberal and seven mechanical arts. There had been various categorizations of magic in medieval sources. Isidore of Seville in the seventh century gave an untidy list of the forms of magic, devoted mainly to means of divination or fortune-telling. He had shared and popularized Varro’s idea of geomancy, hydromancy, aeromancy, and pyromancy as among the branches of magic, corresponding to the four elements earth, water, air, and fire, and many writers adopted this fourfold schema, but what else counted as magic varied a great deal.11 Isidore included necromancy, which he still took in its classical sense, meaning telling the future by conjuring the spirits of the dead. By the later medieval period “necromancy” or “nigramancy” (no clear distinction was made) was understood as conjuring demons, whether to tell the future or for other purposes, and this was the first of Hartlieb’s seven occult arts, in some ways the most important. Some classifiers had mentioned chiromancy, but Hartlieb was unusual in highlighting this as one of the seven major arts. Even more unexpected was his granting this status also to spatulamancy. In any case, Hartlieb did not observe his categories rigorously; they provided a framework to which anything he wished to discuss might be attached.

His explicit sources are of three basic sorts. First, he was clearly familiar with the writings of the magicians, although he cites these mainly in his account of necromancy “nigramancy” (chaps. 23, 26, 27, 28, 30, 35, 36), and he does not have a great deal to say about the actual content of these writings. Second, he draws widely on ecclesiastical and medical sources—theologians such as Thomas Aquinas, medical writers such as Galen—and here he does give actual content. Yet he can be frustratingly vague at times, as when he cites “the doctors of holy Scripture” (chap. 11). Third, he refers to his own personal experience: to a trial in Rome involving people who changed into cats and went about killing children (chap. 33); to a case in Heidelberg in which he interrogated an accused witch (chap. 34); to an incident in which he interviewed a woman who practiced palmistry (chaps. 106–8). He tends to describe these personal testimonies at some length, and with an attention to detail he clearly relished. Apart from these three types of explicit source, Hartlieb makes considerable use of lore for which he does not cite a source, and which he could have learned either from reading or from oral accounts: he speaks of an unguent made with seven plants plucked on particular days (chap. 32), of bread and cheese used for fortune-telling (chaps. 50–51), of different ways to obtain water for hydromancy (chap. 58).

Hartlieb has much to say about the practitioners of magic and superstition, who came from all ranks of society (chap. 2). To be sure, some forms are more common among the lower classes: it is “old women” who engage in certain forms of hydromancy (chaps. 60–61), belief in changelings is found more among women than men (chap. 129), and Hartlieb knows the reputation of Gypsies for palmistry (chaps. 103–4). Still, he knew princes and lords who made use of superstition in hunting (chap. 69), courtiers who wore superstitious feathers without realizing the practice is superstitious (chap. 70), even a great prince who used an executioner’s sword for divination (chap. 88). The general movement was from lower to higher classes. Thus the custom of fortune-telling by means of the breastbone from a goose eaten on Saint Martin’s Day was once practiced by old peasants on remote farms, but then it spread among royalty and nobility, even high clergy. Even when the princes were not themselves practitioners, they bore responsibility for what was done in their lands, and Hartlieb scolds them for their negligence in suppressing infidelity: practitioners of magic and superstition proliferated in German lands because the princes tolerated and protected them, although a truly faithful prince should help root them out (chap. 79a).

Hartlieb’s book is full of moral exhortation (throughout, but especially chaps. 17, 119, 123, 126). He speaks often of the Devil, the “founder and inciter” of the arts of fortune-telling (chap. 68), who involves himself in forms of divination that one might think innocuous (chap. 117). The Devil’s powers are limited, but he is clever about getting around the barriers he confronts: he cannot coerce people’s minds or senses, but he beguiles them successfully (chap. 118). Hartlieb was fond of the thirteenth-century Cisterian monk Caesarius of Heisterbach, whose Dialogue of Miracles was an important source of anecdotes about the supernatural events that happened not long ago and not far away. He even wrote a German translation of portions from Caesarius’s compilation.12 When he cites Caesarius in his Book of All Forbidden Arts, it is always in the context of human dealings with the Devil: he tells stories from Caesarius illustrating the danger of taking counsel from the Devil (chaps. 12–16), or the risk of being damned for association with the Devil (chap. 29a), and in one case the story he borrows is about a monk who in death escaped from the clutches of the Devil (chap. 95). He is aware that certain magicians thought they were invoking not the Devil but holy angels for their magic; like other critics, he held this to be an illusion, because the “angel” these masters invoke “is really a devil” (chap. 92).

The “forbidden arts” described in this book are, from Hartlieb’s perspective, offenses against the faith. The term he usually uses for them is unglouben, not simply superstition in a modern rationalist sense but unbelief. At one point he refers to a form of fortune-telling that leads people to suppose their children or their horses have been cursed, and he speaks of that practice as a heresy (chap. 127), and he refers to the goose bone used in fortune-telling as a “heretical superstition” (chap. 130). He tells of superstitions linked with popular observance in Christmastime, traceable to archaic pagan practice (chap. 64). He speaks of superstitions involving the perversion of the Church’s sacramentals: water blessed for the feast of Saint Blaise (chap. 65). Elsewhere he speaks of sorcerers who sprinkle the blood of birds as sacrifice to spirits of the air (chap. 78), or who use wax images for sorcery (chap. 78), and in his account of pyromancy he refers several times to the use of an innocent child as a divinatory medium (chaps. 83, 84, 88, 89, 90).

The text as we have it breaks off abruptly and is clearly incomplete, either because Hartlieb did not finish it or because of problems in transmission. The former explanation is more plausible, because the work seems in general rather hurriedly put together, and there is no reason to think the author ever devoted time to its careful revision. The work did not enjoy any particular success; Hartlieb asked the margrave to share it with his friends, but we have no concrete evidence that this happened, and there are only three manuscripts in existence. Still, it gives a fascinating picture of the practices Hartlieb found rife in the society of his time—and of his vigorous if somewhat ambivalent efforts at reform.

Ulrich Molitoris (ca. 1442–1507) and the Dialogue On Witches and Pythonesses

Ulrich Molitoris’s On Witches and Pythonesses (1489) is a dialogue on the powers and culpability of witches.13 Molitoris is also known, if rarely, by the vernacular version of his name, Müller, but the Humanist preference for the invariant Latin genitive “Molitoris” (referring in principle to his father’s trade as miller) shows even in the German version of his dialogue published not long after the Latin original, where he is called Ulrich Molitoris. He was a much younger contemporary of Hartlieb, and the difference in their age correlates with differences in cultural context. Molitoris had Humanist leanings, studied at the Humanistically inclined University of Pavia, and wrote among other things a comedy in Latin. Back in German territory, he entered into service to Archduke Sigismund of Austria in 1488 and later became chancellor of the duchy of Tyrol. His dialogue is dedicated to that prince, and he wrote it as part of the process of being considered for ducal service. It takes the form of a dialogue involving three speakers. In his own person he quotes from a relatively wide range of sources, and he is almost the only one to refer to canon law. The magistrate Conrad Schatz, a municipal judge at Constance, had experience in trials for sorcery, and in the course of the dialogue he draws on his judicial experience, giving an account that is partly corroborated by surviving archival evidence (chap. 5). When he draws on tradition, he cites the Bible and legends of the saints more often than he does more erudite sources. Archduke Sigismund plays the skeptic and mostly urges the other speakers along with brief interventions and queries, to which sometimes Ulrich and sometimes Conrad responds. In the later portions of the dialogue, which I am labeling Part II, issues that have been freely discussed are meant to be resolved; Conrad drops out of the exchange, and Molitoris himself is the main speaker, taking clear charge of responding to the archduke’s questions.

Archduke Sigismund, whom Molitoris served, and to whom he dedicated his dialogue, was a figure of some importance in the history of witchcraft and witch-hunting. He ruled over Tyrol (including Innsbruck) and “Further Austria,” a cluster of territories around southwestern Germany. In 1485, the inquisitor Heinrich Kramer (or Institoris) conducted extensive prosecution for witchcraft in Innsbruck, and some of the accused had links to the archduke’s court.14 Sigismund at first lent Kramer the support he owed to a papal inquisitor, and may actually have been convinced that witch-hunting was necessary. The trial eventually foundered on procedural and other grounds, and the archduke drew back from his initial support. Kramer went on to write the Malleus maleficarum, the best-known treatise on witchcraft from the fifteenth century, and in that work he urged that secular authorities should join in the prosecution of witches. Sigismund remained cautious and wanted further counsel on the matter, which Molitoris was pleased to provide for him in the form of his dialogue.

Coming out only two years after the Malleus maleficarum, Molitoris’s work takes a more nuanced approach to the topic than does the Malleus. He recognized the witches’ pact with the Devil as a reality, and also sex with the Devil in the form of an incubus. He viewed the Sabbath, the witches’ flight to the Sabbath, and metamorphosis into animal form as ultimately dreams or illusions. The error in such matters is one about fact: what the witches think happens does not in fact happen. With the Devil’s help, witches can practice weather magic, love magic, sorcery to cause bodily harm, and divination. Here, on Molitoris’s reckoning, the error is one not of fact but of cause: the bewitchments do in fact occur, but the witches are wrong in believing they cause them; at most it is the Devil who brings them about, with God’s permission. Implicitly disagreeing with the Malleus, Molitoris does not accept the notion that witchcraft represents a new sect, a conspiracy against Christendom involving nocturnal assemblies of witches and demons, but he does believe that as individuals witches turn against God, ally themselves with the Devil, bring harm to others, and are thus deserving of execution. While he does not deny the competence of ecclesiastical tribunals to prosecute witches, he speaks only about the role of secular courts—those for which the archduke had responsibility, and in which Molitoris himself had witnessed how witches are tried.

The chapters of the dialogue deal with weather magic, sorcery to cause bodily harm, magically induced impotence, transformation of humans into other the forms of animals, magical transport to the witches’ assembly (he calls their convivium, their assembly or entertainment, what other writings call the Sabbath), whether witches can have sex with the Devil in the form of an incubus, whether children can be born of such copulation, whether fortune-telling women can know future and secret things with the aid of demons, and how witches should be punished. Under some but not all these headings Molitoris speaks of evidence taken from trials: from the confessions of witches, and from the accusations made against them, or rumors of the sort that became matter for accusation. That witches can influence the weather and cause bodily harm is a common report, corroborated by confessions of accused witches. That witches have had sex with the Devil is also affirmed by confessions.

In each section of the dialogue Sigismund typically raises objections: surely confessions under torture are worthless; rumors can be woefully misleading; only God controls the weather and knows the future; the famous canon Episcopi, which had been issued by an early medieval synod and incorporated in canon law, denied the possibility of transformation into animal form and of flight in the company of malign spirits. Molitoris does not give extended theological response to such objections, as the Malleus maleficarum had done. Some of the objections are glossed over without serious consideration, such as the challenge to testimony given under torture. In other cases Molitoris makes or implies distinctions: transformation of substance from a human into an animal is impossible (as the canon Episcopi rightly says), but changes in sense impressions can be worked in various ways, most of which involve illusions caused by the Devil. By far most often, Molitoris draws on scriptural, historical, literary, and legendary sources to show that what witches are alleged to do is indeed possible, with demonic aid: demons can afflict people, they can make plausible conjecture about the future, they can make humans seem to become animals, and so forth, all of which is amply shown by sources in which Molitoris placed great trust. For example, the story of the Swan Knight, which became the basis for Wagner’s Lohengrin, serves as an authority for the notion that intercourse with demons can produce offspring. At one point the skeptical voice in the dialogue protests, “You are telling a fable! The poets invented things that are not to be believed.” The response comes from Lactantius: that the poets were writing histories veiled beneath hidden figures (sub occulto figmento), which is to say there was a core of truth beneath the cloak of fiction.

The title of Molitoris’s dialogue requires comment. It refers to witches as laniae, and fortune-tellers as phytonicae mulieres, pythonic women or pythonesses. Both terms are feminine. As Molitoris surely knew, lamia was a term used in classical Latin for a witch, sometimes a blood-sucking witch, and its confusion with laniare or “tear apart” led to the form lania, which Molitoris himself preferred.15 He would also have known that a pythoness was a fortune-teller such as the oracle of Delphi, where Apollo had slain Python the serpent. Molitoris was not the first to borrow such classical vocabulary: phitonissen for “witches” had occurred earlier in German-language trial records.16 Still, these were not common terms, and it is a bit odd that in the title itself he equated them with the more familiar German words unholden and hexen, even though these beings were not traditionally known either for blood-sucking or for oracular prophecy. He actually uses laniae only in the opening sections of his work, and phitonicae mulieres only twice. Elsewhere his vocabulary is kaleidoscopic: he uses interchangeably strigas (an Italian term for witches), maleficae (a generic word for malefactors or witches), incantatrices (enchantresses), and maleficae mulieres (bewitching women or sorceresses). He tends to assume that witches are mostly women, yet he does refer also to malefici (sorcerers), magi (magicians), arioli (male fortune-tellers), ioculatores (illusionists), and mathematici (here meaning astrologers), all in the masculine.

The linkage of classical with later Latin and vernacular terms was symptomatic for Molitoris’s project, which at many points cites classical literature for the light he thinks it sheds on the witches brought to trial in late fifteenth-century Germany. He could cite the authority of Virgil’s Eclogues and the histories of Rome. He could allude to the rhetoric of Terence. He quotes at length from Boethius on the story of Ulysses and Circe.17 Molitoris was writing as both a lawyer and a Humanist, and while his primary audience was a prince from whom he sought and obtained patronage, his broader audience was a reading public that might not be able to quote Boethius and Virgil but respected the authority of those who could. The main purpose of his classicism was to persuade these readers that belief in witchcraft could be grounded in the full range of sources a Humanist was expected to have mastered.

While Molitoris was eager to display his classical learning, the great majority of his sources are traditional Christian ones such as the Bible, legends of the saints, and Saint Augustine. His reliance on Augustine is not surprising. Augustine’s defense of Christianity against pagan attacks in The City of God led him to vigorous assault on the magic that he saw as integral to traditional Roman paganism, and his treatise On the Divination of Demons is the classic medieval reference for the notion that fortune-telling can be accurate only because it relies on information obtained from cunning demons.18 When Molitoris cites incidents from the lives of the saints, taking them as fact, he seems to rely heavily on a German translation of James of Voragine’s Golden Legend, a thirteenth-century compilation of saints’ legends and other material that had wide currency in the later medieval West.19 He leans even more on the work of Vincent of Beauvais, a Dominican friar of the thirteenth century.20 Vincent compiled what amounted to the greatest encyclopedia of medieval Europe, in the form of a series of Mirrors. His Mirror of Nature dealt with the entire spiritual and material world, more or less following the order given in the creation narrative of Genesis 1, turning then to a quick survey of geography and history. The Mirror of Teaching deals largely with practical matters such as the duties of a prince and the art of warfare, the mechanical arts, medicine and law, and agriculture, the virtues, physics, and mathematics. The Mirror of History traced the course of history up to the year 1250. A fourth compilation, the Mirror of Morals, was actually not by Vincent but put together in the following century. Relying on compilations such as those by James of Voragine and Vincent of Beauvais allowed Molitoris to convey a sense of deep and broad learning, even when much of his material was taken at second hand from these compilations.

Because Molitoris had been trained in ecclesiastical or canon law, we would expect him to draw on it in his dialogue, and he does, but he shows less depth of legal learning than one might anticipate. The foundation for canon law was the Decretum, a massive twelfth-century compilation associated with the renowned jurist Gratian; later enactments were added, with the authority of thirteenth- and early fourteenth-century popes, but the most important canons dealing with magic and witchcraft were in the Decretum, particularly Part 2, Case 26, Questions 3 to 5, under which seventeen canons (drawn from various sources, especially regional Church councils and the writings of Augustine) are quoted and discussed.21 One of these texts is the canon Episcopi (Question 4, Canon 12), which had been included in earlier compilations of canon law but now had the authority of Gratian behind it. This canon, named Episcopi because its first word is the Latin term for “bishops,” begins by urging bishops and their officials to banish from their midst those guilty of fortune-telling and harmful magic. It then turns to what it claims is a widespread belief in sinful women who ride about at night on animals in the company of the goddesses Diana and Herodias. This belief is a pestiferous error, inspired by the Devil, who presents illusions of this sort to foolish women while they sleep. These are illusions of fact, not of causality. Those holding to them—not just the women who believe they do such things, but others in the general public—are not simply misled but culpable. When fifteenth-century writers developed the mythology of the witches’ Sabbath, and judicial authorities prosecuted people for attending the Sabbath, flying to it, forming a pact there with the Devil, and having sex with the Devil in the form of an incubus or succubus, this complex of beliefs seemed to revive precisely the error condemned by the canon Episcopi. Some writers argued that the Sabbath was indeed an illusion but that assent to the Devil’s allurements was still culpable. Others argued that the Sabbath and associated activities were not in fact the same as what the canon took to be illusion, but something new and different. One way or another, the canon Episcopi was a roadblock that writers had to surmount, including Molitoris.

Molitoris’s work is also important in the early artistic depiction of witchcraft. The early editions typically included a series of woodcuts. The first, not given in all printings, shows Sigismund receiving the book from Ulrich and Conrad Schatz, the participants in the dialogue. The next woodcut has a witch shooting an arrow at a man’s feet to make him lame. The third in the series depicts three witches, in animal form but wearing long robes, flying on a forked stick. In the fourth, a male witch rides a wolf to the witches’ assembly, although the wolf is walking on the ground and appears to be moving rather sluggishly. The fifth has a thinly disguised demon embracing a witch. The sixth and most famous shows two witches casting a cock and a snake into a seething cauldron, while a storm breaks out from a dark cloud above the cauldron. The last depicts three women seated at an outdoor meal, which can be identified only by implication as the witches’ banquet; the food appears quite ordinary. Three of the images (the third, fourth, and seventh) relate to the witches’ assembly, which Molitoris viewed as illusory, and thus what they depict is the witches’ illusion. The fifth shows the erotic relationship between a witch and a demon, which Molitoris thought of as real, but which is here rendered in rather tame form, with both figures fully clothed and standing. The second and sixth depict bewitchments, which the text represents as reality but does not describe in detail.22 These woodcuts are reproduced here from a printing done around 1489 in Reutlingen by Johann Otmar, held by the Newberry Library.

While Hartlieb’s book had no broad circulation, Molitoris’s dialogue did reach a considerable audience. First published in 1489, it was reprinted in 1494, 1495, and several times in the sixteenth century. By 1669 it had been printed thirty-nine times, more often than the Malleus maleficarum. A German translation, often taken to be by Molitoris himself, came out soon after the Latin original. Beginning in the later sixteenth century, the work was disseminated as an appendix to the Malleus maleficarum. The princes of late medieval and early modern Europe may have shown little interest in Hartlieb’s project of reforming their own morals, but Molitoris’s dialogue helped spur them to a cause in which many did become zealous: the burning of witches and ridding society of this most fatefully imagined threat.

Comparison of the Two Works

The most obvious differences between Hartlieb’s work and Molitoris’s are in form and focus: Hartlieb wrote a vernacular survey of the forbidden arts that is on a superficial level tightly organized, while Molitoris penned a Latin dialogue on witchcraft with the more overtly rambling quality of a dialogue. Certain shared circumstances are also clear: both writers were laymen, educated partly in Italy, who served territorial princes back in Germany and wrote their works for the instruction of those princes. The two pieces are of interest as specifically lay writings, and as appeals to secular authority.

Other shared features are worth noting. First, both Hartlieb and Molitoris emphasized strongly the cunning, deceptive nature of demons: they trick people into believing they have and can impart more power than they actually have at their disposal. Hartlieb is most insistent on the seductive element in this trickery, the demons’ success at winning followers by alluring them with attractive promises that lead ultimately to their perdition. The issue for him is mainly errors of moral judgment: demons lead people to suppose they can use magic and superstition without incurring serious harm. Molitoris has somewhat different concerns. He is more focused on the theological issue of what the witches and the demons can and cannot do, and how effects are worked. For him, what the demons induce are mainly errors of fact and errors about causality. They lead witches to believe falsely that they go, for example, to their assemblies; in fact the assemblies are pure delusion, but witches who assent to this delusion are still culpable and subject to execution. The demons also want the witches to suppose it is their rituals that cause such things as destructive storms; the storms and other bewitchments do actually occur, and the witches are rightly punished for them, but it is actually the demons themselves and not the witches’ rituals that cause bewitchment to work. The difference here is one more of emphasis than of principle. Other early writings on magic and witchcraft, indeed even patristic works, also talk about the illusory dimensions of these arts, but the clear stress on the theme of delusion in the works of Hartlieb and Molitoris stems perhaps from a sense that laymen are particularly susceptible to the demons’ wiles.

A second feature that these two share is a fear that the secular rulers may be lenient in their treatment of magic and witchcraft. They both wish to impress on the princes, and indirectly on a much wider audience of lay readers, that the issues must be taken seriously, that the offenses are by no means trivial. Even when witches were deluded, their delusion was culpable. No doubt there were ecclesiastical authorities who also winked at transgressions, but the danger of laxity was here ascribed mainly to lay rulers.

Third, both our authors show an eagerness to draw on the works of clerical culture—Augustine, Caesarius of Heisterbach, Vincent of Beauvais, and others—and a willingness to appropriate that work uncritically, making little distinction between legend and history, fiction and fact, folklore and literal truth. If such distinctions arise, they are quickly set aside. Lay Christians in the fifteenth century were increasingly asserting their own authority in religious matters, all the way from the parish level to that of high ecclesiastical politics. But they did not always base their claim to authority on distinctly lay viewpoints or traditions. Rather they could claim—as Hartlieb and Molitoris in effect did—that they had equal access to and mastery of the same sources that churchmen commanded.

In the end, Hartlieb and Molitoris demonstrate that the distinction between clergy and laity, which from a sacramental perspective had the clarity bestowed by holy orders, was not absolute from a social or cultural viewpoint. Hartlieb had an education that a priest might also have had, and at one point he came close to being ordained and accepting a position as parish priest at Ingolstadt, but instead he remained lay and married. Molitoris studied canon law and might easily have moved into a position in ecclesiastical administration but instead remained a layman in service to laymen. The works given here in translation, then, do not represent distinctly lay approaches to witchcraft and magic, but the appropriation of clerical approaches by writers who occupied lay roles, mingling and serving with the lay rulers for whom they articulated the views they shared with many clergy. They served as channels through which these views were taken over from a clerical into a lay sphere, and they show laymen asserting a kind of moral authority that might earlier have seemed more specifically clerical. It is for that reason that they are particularly interesting and important.

Note on the Text

In the translation of Hartlieb, the section letters A through M are the translator’s insertions, as are the section headings for B through M. Chapter designations for that work are insertions by the editors or the translator in the cases of chapters 1, 29a, 37a–c, 39a, 79a, and 124–132. In the translation of Molitoris, the designation of parts I and II is an insertion by the translator, as is the use of numerals for the individual questions, and in the case of question 3 also the question heading.