Thursday, October 31, 2013

Evolution of Witchcraft in Art and Literature: Part Two, Early Renaissance

Happy Halloween! Here is a little more about witchcraft during the late medieval and early renaissance era, focusing a bit more on the literature of the time and how it helped shaped ideas of women and witches. The first part can be found right below or by clicking here. Enjoy!

 Martin Le Franc's 1440 poem Le Champion de Dames [1] is another important work that helped shape the late medieval image of the witch. Largely a discussion between the Defender and the Adversary of the achievements and faults of women respectively, this poem not only shows late medieval attitudes concerning women, but also shows women's association with witchcraft. In response to the Defender's claim that women hold high achievements in arts, the Adversary quickly begins to describe their deep connection with the devil and witchcraft, painting an incredibly detailed and fascinating picture. He states:
...not just two or three old women, but more than three thousand, go together to hidden places to seek out their familiar demons. This is no joke; this isn't fooling. I'm not trying to lie to you in speaking of this sorcery...I tell you that I've seen in a written trail record where an old woman confessed how, since the time she was just sixteen years old that on certain night she flew on a broomstick from Valpute and went directly to the awful synagogue of devils. [2]

This scene is incredibly telling. Firstly, it gives the image of the witch as a part of a group even before the publication of the Malleus Maleficarum (1487) as well as before popular art pieces began portraying the Waldensians, revealing just how much literature such as this could have had a profound impact on defining practices of the witch. Secondly, alongside the discussion of women's dealings with witchcraft is an equally sound discussion of women's worthy achievements. This notion suggest that both positions perhaps have an equal merit and gives reason to believe that on some level, witchcraft was just as solidly believed to be a part of a women's daily life as was any other worthy achievements. Finally, this scene stresses the importance of written literature when the Adversary swears he has read the account of the trial himself. This is an interesting point, for it suggests the importance of literature to the 15th century society, and as a piece of literature itself, suggests the influence its discussion of witchcraft might have over society. Scholar Alan Charles Kors furthers this idea, stating, “Le Franc's arguments are important illustrations of the new constellation of witchcraft beliefs that circulated not only among theologians, lay magistrates, inquisitors, and canon lawyers, but now also among literary elite.”[3] Thus in addition the suggesting its own impact, the Champion des Dames gives insight to the medieval society's changing perception of witchcraft.

Another fundamental aspect of witchcraft included the ability to transform, either themselves or another, into a creature or beast. This strong and terrifying notion is expressed in the Malleus Maleficarum with explicit influence of past literature. Upon this matter the authors Heinrich Kramer and James Sprenger state:
For we have learned much of this matter from the Knights of the Order of S. John of Jerusalem in Rhodes; and especially this case which happened in the city of Salamis in the kingdom of Cyprus. For that is a seaport and once when a vessel was being laden with merchandise...a young man went to the house of a women standing outside the city on the seashore and asked her if she had any eggs to sell... [4]

The story goes on to tell how the man bought and ate the eggs from the old woman, and although he thought he was simply rendered incapable of speech soon after eating the eggs, he was actually transformed into an ass, and had to serve in the witches company for three years, for they were they only beings who would respond to him as if he was human.[5] Yet historian Gareth Roberts notes that this particular story is given again in the 16th century Demonomanie, in which its author Bodin accredits the story to William Archbishop of Tyre, noting that, “If Bodin was right...the story would go back to at least the twelfth century.” [6] Regardless of the tale's actual date, the discussion of the validity of the tale shows how that The Malleus Maleficarum relied on past accounts or tales. Certainly literature played a significant role in influencing Kramer and Sprenger.
Interestingly, the witch’s ability to transform is also heavily influenced by figures from the classical world. As old mythological texts from the ancient world were slowly being incorporated into the14th and 15th century society, they were entering a world in which the image of harmful magic and the witch was slowly being formulated. The result of this is a reinterpretation of figures such as Circe, who in classical mythology transformed those traveling with Odysseus into various animals. [7] With Homer's Circe as influence, Roberts suggests that Circe “often figures as evidence of witchcraft and her reputed power to transform obviously exercised demonological discussions.”[8] Although the assistance of a demon was absent in Homer's characterization of Circe, intellectuals and writers during the renaissance, fueled by current discussions of demons, necromancy and witchcraft, reinserted her image into literature and art to fit their own ideas. The 1493 woodcut published in Hartman Schedel's Nuremberg Chronicle, for instance shows an elaborately dressed Circe mixing potions and overseeing a ship full of transformed animals. Next to her sits her assistant, who points a wand at a dish over a number of different objects. [9] The depiction of Circe mixing potions and charms and the inclusion of an assistant suggests an element of sorcery or witchcraft and that more closely resembles the sort of alluring magic we see in the piece Necromancy's Messenger Shows the Pilgrim how Spirits are Raised, mentioned earlier. 
Circe and Ulysses

In both cases the one doing magic must hold an instrument to do so (whether it is a sword or wand), and each sorcerer someone to the left of them, learning or assisting the other. Although these two pieces are quite different depictions of two very separate scenes, the image of Circe as one practicing the arts of magic to do harm to another stands strong, and certainly resonates strong with images of demon assisted magic. Despite these texts and figures belonging to an entirely different age, the inclusion of Circe in art shows the late medieval society actively turning to literature of the past to help define their idea of witchcraft. From ancient texts, to contemporary art pieces, the evolution of magic throughout Europe during the Renaissance not only reflects the changing attitudes toward magic and witchcraft, but also played a significant part in shaping its definition.

[1] Kors, Alan, Edward Peters. Witchcraft in Europe, 400-1700. (Pennseylvania: University Pennsyvania Press. 2001), 167.
[2] Kors, Peters, Witchcraft in Europe, 400-1700, 168
[3] Kors, Peters, Witchcraft in Europe, 400-1700, 167.
[4] Kramer, Sprenger. The Malleus Maleficarum, 173.
[5] Kramer, Sprenger. The Malleus Maleficarum, 173.
[6] Barry, Hester, and Gareth Roberts. Witchcraft in Early Modern Europe. (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. 1996), 193.
[7] Zika, The Appearance of Witchcraft, 133
[8] Barry, Hester, Roberts. Witchcraft in Early Modern Europe, 192.
[9] Circe and Ulysses. 1493 woodcut. Hartman Schedel's Nuremberg Chronicle, in Zika, The Appearance of Witchcraft, 134.


  1. I'm enjoying these articles on witchcraft; there's lots here I didn't know. And I SO appreciate that you cite your sources. Fascinating stuff!

    Just pasted a note to myself to include these in my next Harry Potter post... I hereby give you permission to harass me if I forget. :)

  2. Every post is better than the next! And I agree with it. Glad you picked the prominent crescent moon, and other symbols. The best thing is that you are bringing the "occult" in a historical context through Art & Literature. And that is what tingles my nerd bones! :)
    Keep writing, this has become one of favorite blogs! The world needs you. And I'm doing my part. I personally can't wait until/if you get to the hermetic tradition in the Rosacrucian Enlightement with John Dee and Edward Kelly. If readers have the time, it is worth doing the etymology of "Circe," which, like the Witch, has evolved. Ulysses was lucky enough to eat Snowdrops. His other mates...not so lucky! XO

  3. These are wonderful, informative, well-spoken essays! Looking forward to more of your writings :)


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