Witchcraft: The formation of belief – part one
in The Malleus Maleficarum and the construction of witchcraft

In a universe where God and the devil had, to such an extent, abandoned their traditional roles, learned theologians had plenty of space in which to carve out the new category of witchcraft. Although the broad contours of late-medieval learned conceptions of witchcraft were determined by basic metaphysical assumptions, the specific form these conceptions took was primarily the result of the evidence and experience available to various authors. This chapter discusses the epistemological problems posed by belief in witchcraft. It examines how motifs drawn from traditional beliefs about spectral night-traveling women informed the construction of learned witch categories in the late middle Ages. In the case of Institoris and Sprenger, their category ‘witch’ responded to their experience as inquisitors, which included extensive familiarity with the oral testimony of victims of witchcraft and of accused witches themselves. Their witches were the common people's witches, those unpleasant and unpopular individuals held responsible for damaging crops, souring milk and causing illness out of petty malice. Institoris and Sprenger were predisposed to accept almost any consistent body of testimony at face value. Their notion of witchcraft retained congruence with traditional beliefs lacking in the constructions of authors with different experience or epistemological orientations.


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