by Elisa Slattery
Johann Weyer set out to provide a clear-eyed attack on witch hunting in his book, De praestigiis daemonum, first published in 1563. Weyer believed witch hunts were misguided attempts to punish harmless and crazy old women, and rather than removing dangerous criminals witch hunts rent the fabric of society. Weyer occupies a complicated place in witchcraft history. He has been hailed as a pioneer in and the father of modern psychiatry2, and charged with misogyny. He has been lauded as a tolerant Erasmian and criticized for encouraging the persecution of magicians and sorcerers. He has been praised for his scientific rationality and accused of superstition.3
This paper cannot and will not address many of those issues. Instead it will delineate Weyer's defense of witches, discuss his three categories of wrongdoers--real and perceived--and grapple with some of the implications of Weyer's contradictory attack on magicians and impassioned defense of heretics. The paper's scope is limited and draws largely from Weyer's text.
In terms of his belief in demons, Weyer can be situated somewhere between the Catholic witch hunters, Heinrich Institoris and Jacob Sprenger, and the thoroughly skeptical witch defender Reginald Scot.4 Like the witch-hunting authors of the Malleus Maleficarum, Weyer believed that the devil was expert at deceiving the senses and harming people. Unlike Reginald Scot, Weyer neither discounted the devil's existence nor minimized his power. Weyer remained within the belief system of his time. It can even be argued that Weyer "[left] the devil in full command."5 But Weyer, strongly influenced by Lutheran thought, left the devil in a different kind of command than Institoris and Sprenger.
According to the theories of the time, witches could be prosecuted legally because they had free will. Drawing on St. Augustine's theories of sin and free-will, Institoris and Sprenger asserted that the witch's will was at least initially free from the devil's control. Witchcraft was seen as a combination of harmful magic and heresy in which the witch willingly renounced the Christian faith and made a pact with the devil in exchange for sexual satisfaction and powers which would allow her to perform maleficia. The witch was not simply an innocent victim of the devil (as with demonic possession) but rather his willing instrument. "But a witch is depraved through sin," they wrote, and "therefore the cause of it is not the devil but human will."6
The Malleus Maleficarum "tried to shift the focus away from the actual harm done to the spiritual state of infidelity and heresy that made maleficium possible."7 Brian Levack posits that the witch provoked anxieties within society on many levels:
As a heretic and apostate the witch was considered guilty of lese majeste or treason against God; as a Devil-worshipper she was part of an enormous political conspiracy; as a lower-class peasant she was part of a movement that was striving to turn the world upside down, reversing the divinely established order of society and rejecting all its moral norms.8
By choosing to give their souls over to the devil witches had committed crimes against man and against God. The gravity of this double crime classified witchcraft as crimen exceptum, and allowed for the suspension of normal rules of evidence in order to punish the guilty.
Claiming that witches posed no danger except to themselves, Weyer defended witches using the full array of his knowledge of medicine, law, philosophy, and theology9 in an effort to prevent the "constant shipwreck of souls"10 which he saw as the outcome of misguided witch trials. By punishing those who could not be held accountable for their supposed or real crimes, witch hunters were creating more misery and tainting their own souls thus creating more fodder for the devil.
Through a complicated theoretical maneuver, Weyer sought to remove witchcraft prosecution from the legal realm and make it a matter of treatment for priests and physicians. Like Institoris and Sprenger, Weyer saw the devil as a master of illusions, an expert at obfuscating the truth, but he questioned the immense physical capabilities with which they imbued the devil.
Weyer argued strongly for the limits placed on the devil's behavior by natural laws which he defined as "the measure and order established by God."11 According to Weyer, the devil had physical powers carefully limited by God, and the duty of a good observer was to discover what the devil could and could not do. Weyer shared an equal dislike for theories which denied the existence of demons and stories which exaggerated their power.12 Through common sense and careful attention to natural laws, Weyer claimed to be able to discern whether an alleged maleficium resulted from natural causes or the devil's work:
Many things come before our eyes from time to time which are thought to be beyond the law of nature, and deemed to be the mocking activities of demons, even though Nature--the parent of all things--has produced them from definite causes not difficult to understand.13
Weyer retrieved from the Malleus Maleficarum a space in the natural realm in which the clear thinking and educated mind could function. Close and informed observation could detect the truth. Illusions were not so rampant that the powers of reason were struck wholly useless.
As an "early master of intrepid debunkery"14, Weyer claimed to find simple natural explanations for seemingly mysterious events. But his explanations were not always so simple. Weyer stopped a witchcraft investigation by arguing that an ill nobleman was "a victim not of maleficium but of demonic possession."15 The devil was busy at work in the world but he acted directly, not through witches as intermediaries.
Natural laws limited not only the activities of the devil but those of men and women as well. Humans were incapable of committing acts beyond their natural power, and witches-- often weak and feeble women-- had even less strength to perform miracles than other members of society.
On the contrary, they can do nothing beyond the innate strength of human nature, even if the demon cooperate a thousand times over; rather, because of their sex and age ...they hinder the work of the demon's fine and subtle substance....16
Weyer asserted the physical impossibility of the acts attributed to witches and established a natural hierarchy in which the devil occupied a prominent position, overturning the idea that the devil needs humans in order to commit maleficia. "Satan needs the help of no second creature in displaying his power and declaring his actions, he who is constrained by the will or command of none but God and God's good ministers."17 The devil was more powerful than humans but less powerful than God.
By making human cooperation unnecessary for the devil, Weyer expanded the powers of the devil on earth. The devil's power on earth in the Malleus was constrained not only by God's will but by the will of those who refused to aid the devil. Witch hunting, according to Institoris and Sprenger, was necessary to root out those who would aid the devil and in this way protect others from harm. A strong human will was one of the last bulwarks against demonic control. Weyer undermined one of witch hunting's purposes by asserting that witches (and magicians) could do no physical harm. But that claim alone could not eliminate the need for witch hunts.
Witchcraft was the double crime of harmful magic and heresy. Weyer had disposed of the crime of harmful magic but the witch's pact with the devil remained. In making this pact, Institoris and Sprenger wrote, the witch willingly and joyfully renounced the Christian faith. Even if a witch could not perform harmful magic, she was still guilty of heresy and apostasy.
Weyer attacked the importance of the pact from several angles. It was not a legally binding agreement because the devil could not provide what he promised, nor did he have any intention of doing so. A bad faith agreement contracted between a deluded old woman and a malicious spirit, it could not outweigh the initial good faith contract of baptism with a truthful God. "As for the fact that she confessed to deserting God and adhering to the demon, this will not be actionable in civil court. For who of us is there who does not do the same?--since indeed everyone who sins is a slave to sin according to Christ's teachings..."18 To sin against God in any way meant joining with the devil, and all humans were guilty of that at some point. That type of sin could be punished only by God himself.
The witch was not guilty of heresy but of error. Her will was somehow impaired when she entered into the pact. She was "dulled by age, or inconstant by reason of her sex, or unsteady because of her weak-mindedness, or in despair because of a disease of the mind..."19 Weyer turned the argument of women's susceptibility to sin as reason for punishment on its head. Instead, he argued they should be accorded more mercy than men because of their weakened states: "Though of sound mind and body, and though forewarned by Christ", Weyer argued, "Peter denied Christ three times, going against the testimony of his heart; he even added an oath thereto,"20 and he was nonetheless forgiven by Christ.
Weak-willed and feeble-minded women should be punished less than sound-minded men. "It is commonly said that in the same type of offense, women sin less than men and should be punished less than men, all other things being equal. This is of course because of their weakness of spirit, mind, and natural disposition."21 Even if witches could not be exonerated from charges of heresy and apostasy on account of illness or coercion by the devil "the singular debility of their age or simpleness of their sex should exonerate them or at least mitigate their punishment."22 For Weyer, the devil made such a powerful adversary that it was unrealistic to expect people, especially women, not to fall into his trap.
But De praestigiis daemonum is more than just a defense of deluded old women. In his efforts to clarify his thoughts on witchcraft and guilt Weyer discussed two other categories of people besides witches: magicians and poisoners. Poisoners were guilty of inflicting actual physical harm and magicians were, to some degree, guilty of heresy. Weyer's category of magicians is his most problematic and most interesting and will follow a brief discussion of poisoners.
Weyer argued that the biblical phrase "Thou shalt not suffer a witch to live" was in fact an error in translation and should have read "Thou shalt not suffer a poisoner to live."23 Poisoners actually harmed others and could be found guilty in a court of law:
Here there shall be no doubt at all but that someone can experience loss through the power of enchantments, but if this does happen, it must be case of veneficium or poisoning. It can be nothing else, because no injury can be inflicted by means of a look or by words or curses, or by some useless material hidden under the threshold or anywhere else--as has been demonstrated over and over again in the various parts of this book.24
By willingly inflicting harm on others, poisoners met Weyer's criteria for legal prosecution--they were of a sound mind and had committed a physical crime.25
Having the will or intention to kill without committing the harmful act was not adequate cause for hauling someone up before the magistrate. Once again, Weyer asserted that most people committed sins of the will:
If you say that they have the will and the intention to kill, even though they do not succeed....I will point out to you that sin of the will is punished by God and not by the magistrate, unless it begins to be translated into action, because only matters of behavior are entrusted to a magistrate. Otherwise, thousands upon thousands of persons would be dragged off to torture daily for willing and longing for the death of others.26
Weyer continued his argument that since witches had no special powers their only possible remaining sin--which he did not even believe them guilty of--was common to all people. Far from being crimen exceptum, wishing harm on others was a rather banal activity. Prosecuting every guilty person would tear the very fabric of society apart.
Weyer, thus, wanted to remove matters of faith and illness from the legal realm. Only God could punish the sins of the will. The magistrate was confined to prosecuting physical acts that could be determined through cause and effect with adequate standards of proof. Physicians could establish if a poisoning had actually occurred or if the accused were merely a lunatic confessing to impossible acts:
On this matter, let the judgment of the physicians be consulted--physicians renowned for their understanding of natural objects and the properties thereof--just as the law wishes in other cases which fall in the medical sphere. Just as one cannot rely upon the confession of a melancholic person or a mentally incompetent person, so, too, punishment should not be inflicted on the basis of a confession by these women....The proofs must be clearer than the noon-day sun, especially in a so-called criminal investigation....27
In short, Weyer argued that in witchcraft cases, the physician should be called in to ascertain whether a crime had taken place and a criminal investigation merited. If an act of poisoning had taken place, Weyer wrote, the guilty party should then be subject to the full force of the law.
Although Weyer drew a clear line between witches and poisoners, magicians blurred that distinction. He admitted that the term magician was not as clearly delineated as witch and poisoner28. One wonders if Weyer used the figure of the magician not to increase the number of potential victims of persecution29 but as a safe vehicle with which to launch an attack on the ills of contemporary society. Weyer includes so many types of people in his category of the magician that it comes to resemble Erasmus' use of folly in all senses of the word in The Praise of Folly. One could argue that we are supposed to read Weyer's harsh words about magicians--numbered among them are priests, doctors, prestidigitators, and soothsayers--as a critique of what he saw wrong in his society rather than a prescription for punishment.
Weyer's animosity towards magicians seemed to stem largely from their learned status. Not only did they often besmirch the name of medicine in "their quest for money or their itching desire for undeserved esteem"30 but they should know better. The goal of learning for Weyer was to get closer to the truth which he defined as "the knowledge of something certain, attained especially through sight."31 Truth was not only necessary to the art of medicine but the pursuit of truth was in accordance with God's wishes. Weyer argued that where God wished humans to see clearly, the devil wanted to strew illusions and falsehoods. To fool the senses was to do the devils's work.
Weyer defined the "infamous magician" as anyone who willingly took instruction from a demon, from other magicians or from books. Magicians tried to overcome the laws of nature, and attempted to predict the future in forbidden or superstitious ways.32 Whereas witches were merely the devil's dupes, magicians were his agents because they willingly negotiated with evil in exchange for greater powers and helped the devil spread illusions.33
Magicians were guilty of the greater sin of heresy because they had sound minds and bodies and still chose the wrong path. But as much as Weyer disliked magicians they were not poisoners and could inflict no actual physical harm. The laws of nature limited magicians as well. Therefore, they were immune from the punishments reserved for poisoners. Weyer quotes from St. Augustine's City of God: "things which are done by magician's tricks and illusions are proven to be not true but imaginary. Therefore there will be no question here of a criminal proceeding."34
Although he contradicts himself on punishment for magicians35, much of Weyer's wrath can be attributed to the harm inflicted upon innocent women by magicians when they made allegations of witchcraft in order to cover up their own ignorance or helplessness.36 By initiating witchcraft trials the magician effected a real and concrete harm against a fellow human being--the wrongly accused witch.
The human intellect and senses were another battleground for control between good and evil. They were a battleground of especial interest to Weyer because he placed so much emphasis on the value of observation and clear thinking. Drawing on Dionysian theories of the intellect, Weyer wrote of understanding as a passive process in which both the angelic influence and the devil "can impress a certain form upon the intellect." The angelic influence impressed the intellect in order that humans might understand whereas the devil used his natural power to persuade and deceive.37 And the devil was an expert of deception. He knew how to:
display various forms, fashion empty idols with wondrous skill, confound the organs of sight, blind the eyes, substitute false things for true with remarkable dexterity (lest they be detected), cover over things which really exist, so that they are not apparent, and show forth things which in reality do not exist, in such a way that they seem to do so.38
By deceiving the senses, Weyer posited, the devil could lead humans astray. Through illusion and disturbance of the nerves and humors the devil could drive men "to wonderment, lack of faith, false opinions about others, lies, forbidden remedies, and murder."39
It was no small wonder for Weyer that weak-minded women were easily deceived by the devil when he wielded such powers over their senses and minds. Less excusable for Weyer was that magicians and other healthy men would allow the devil to delude them and join with the devil in his work of deception. It was difficult enough to trust one's senses with the devil loose in the world without magicians aiding the devil in his trickery.
In fact, Weyer argued, one could only trust one's senses to a certain degree. The devil could muddy the waters so much that the truth might be impossible to discover. Magistrates might be blinded to the truth and in their own blindness could destroy the lives of innocent victims.40 While Weyer thought a physician's expertise could be useful in determining whether criminal action was necessary in specific cases, there were situations in which no one could be certain. Where one could not determine whether maleficium had occurred it was best to use the tools of faith and medicine to bring those who had wandered back into the fold.
In this way, one could avoid the often widespread tragedy that a witchcraft trial could bring: "Assuredly in matters admitting of little certitude, the less cautious [princes and legal officials] would not then be slipping from one single error into a thousand others, as though trapped in an inextricable labyrinth....From long experience, that crafty old weaver [the devil] knows how to weave such webs skillfully."41 As witchcraft assured little certitude, Weyer asserted, it was best left to a God who could understand and discern all things, a God whose senses remained immune to the devil's tricks. 42
Weyer challenged Institoris and Sprenger's somewhat optimistic belief that one could limit the devil's power through the legal system. Law was an inadequate tool with which to overcome the devil. Rather law could become a tool of the devil.43 The only way to keep the law from becoming yet another method of spreading misery, Weyer asserted, was to exercise caution and skepticism in the face of accusations of witchcraft and confessions by witches.44
Nor should witches be put to death for heresy, Weyer claimed, even if proved. Drawing on the theories on heresy of the church fathers and Erasmus, Weyer claimed that rooting out heretics did too much damage to the community and ruled out the possibility of a return to the faith.45 Weyer's heresy argument is somewhat confusing and could yield some radical interpretations.
Weyer made a very strong argument that witches as old women, often melancholic old women, were not guilty of heresy because of their impaired will. Defending witches from accusations of heresy, he wrote "where there is fraud, force, fear, error and ignorance there can be neither will (as I have shown above) nor agreement. Therefore, there is no suspicion of heresy or of any other sin that depends upon the mind alone, nor are there grounds for punishment."46
After launching a convincing argument absolving witches from heresy charges, Weyer made an impassioned plea against the death penalty for heretics, arguing instead that they should be brought back to the true faith through religious instruction and gentle treatment. Why did Weyer do this? Was it simply to assure that he left no loophole that would allow for the burning of witches? Surely, Weyer knew that by defending heretics, he also protected the magicians he despised. Baxter accuses Weyer of falling short of "the tolerant Erasmian" portrayed by Trevor-Roper and of using his categories to extend rather than restrict the "class of potential victims of persecution."47 This accusation seems misguided, however, because Weyer's defense of heretics is both Erasmian and somewhat unnecessary to his defense of witches. Rather, Weyer could be accused of spreading a net of tolerance that extended far beyond witches.
Weyer not only protected witches. He tried to mark off a sphere immune from legal prosecution--that of the will and the mind. "Nothing is freer than thought," Weyer wrote. "Indeed an intention retained within the mind works no harm, public or private, upon anyone. Therefore the contemplation of crimes of every sort--crimes which a person can actually carry through to completion--remains unpunished, since it is held within its own confines."48 He went on to add that witches who may have contemplated crimes which are not even possible should be considered even less guilty.
Weyer did not think that heretics were absolved of punishment. He believed that sins of the will were punished by God. But, he wanted to argue that sometimes a "sin of the will" was not actually a sin but the result of disease or physical or mental impairment. Weyer did not seem entirely capable of separating heresy from disease and this is seen in his conflation of the two in his defense of witches.49 Witches were not guilty of heresy because of an impaired will but even if they were it would be because of an impaired will.50
Midelfort asserts that Weyer's claim that witches were mentally disordered "was embedded in [his] far more radical claim that witchcraft was an idiotic or lunatic attempt to do the impossible."51 One could argue that on some level heretics were also mentally disordered or impaired because abandoning the true faith was an unreasonable act. Weyer quoted this powerful passage from John Chrysostom on disease and heretics:
Heretics are afflicted in a similar fashion as are those who labor under a disease and who are physically blinded; the latter because of the weakness of their eyes, resist the light of the sun, and, because of their poor health, they refuse even the best and most healthful foods, whereas heretics, being sick in spirit and blinded in their mental vision, cannot look at the light of truth. Let us therefore do our duty and reach out our hands and speak to them with great gentleness....And so, let us say to them, "Emerge, and come to your senses for a little while. Look at the light of justice."52
The heretic, like the melancholic, needed to be brought back to his senses so that he could see the truth.
Taken to its most radical point, one could use Weyer's argument protecting women to assert that all heretics were not truly guilty because they were somehow inherently weak and more likely to see things in such a way that they would make the wrong choices. One could read heresy as a choice based on imperfect data provided by imperfect senses. And because the devil constantly attacked humans' senses, all humans ran the risk of falling into heresy. Weyer was obliged to argue leniency for heresy because it was a danger which permeated the world and not simply a matter of choice and stubbornness.
This is not to say, however, that Weyer destroyed notions of free will. But Weyer's Lutheran bent made it clear that humans were inherently sinful creatures inhabiting imperfect bodies doing battle with an incredibly powerful devil. To persecute them for what they could not help, instead of offering the possibility of repentance, was bound to create more misery and sorrow.
This article is part of Essays in History, volume 36, 1994,