03.01.21, Stephens, Demon Lovers

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Allison P. Coudert

The Medieval Review baj9928.0301.021


Stephens, Walter. Demon Lovers: Witchcraft, Sex, and the Crisis of Belief. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2002. Pp. xvi, 451. ISBN: 0-226-77261-6.

Reviewed by:
Allison P. Coudert
Arizona State University

In 1968 Erik Midelfort protested that "more pure bunk" had been written about witchcraft than about any other field in history."[[1]] But in the last thirty years a reverse Gresham's law has taken effect: good scholarship has edged out the bad. This is certainly true of Walter Stephens new book, which is a compelling work of scholarship elucidating what should have been obvious but somehow wasn't: namely, that European and American witchcraft theories were the logical product of Christian doubt.

Stephens contends that witchcraft theorists were neither credulous fools nor prurient misogynists, but tormented skeptics trying to resolve the conflicts in Christian doctrine about the benevolence of God, the existence of spirits and souls, and the efficacy of the sacraments. Neither irrational nor unscientific, witchcraft theorists deployed all the resources available from natural philosophy and theology to vindicate the goodness of God and the truth of the bible. Witchcraft theory, to use Stephens apt phrase, was a kind of "theological damage control" (366). It was in itself a theodicy that let God off the hook of seeming injustice.

Stephens takes a Braudelian "long duree" approach to witchcraft. While he sees 1400 as a pivotal date marking the point when significant numbers of educated Christians began to believe that human beings, especially women, interacted with demons in intensely physical ways -- the most pronounced of which was through sexual intercourse -- he argues that this belief was itself the end product of a long period of cumulative doubt that began in the twelfth century. The bed-rock Christian belief in spirits, both angelic and demonic, was undermined by fuller knowledge of Aristotle's works from the twelfth century onwards. How were Christians to deal with the realization that "the philosopher" categorically rejected the existence of spirits on the grounds that matter and form were inseparable aspects of an entity? The Aristotelian idea that physical events occurred as a result of strictly natural causes not only conflicted with the role accorded to spirits in the Gospels and later Christian thought, but it also undermined the belief in both divine providence and miracles, which Christians had routinely taken as concrete proof of the truth and superiority of their religion. Aquinas and his followers were profoundly disturbed by the Aristotelian idea that natural causes were the only viable "scientific" explanations for physical events, a view encouraged by growing contact with the Moslem world and the West's absorption of the occult sciences of astrology, alchemy, and natural magic, all of which argued for natural rather than "spiritual" or divine causes.

Stephens accepts Salvatore Camporeale's characterization of the fourteenth to the sixteenth century as the "travail of Christendom."[[2]] The Black Death, the Great Schism, new methods of theological research, the discovery and dissemination of new texts, printing, mysticism, trade, travel, and the discovery of the new world all undermined established truths and called into question the idea of divine providence and God's omniscience and benevolence. Misfortune, uncertainty, and insecurity called for a new theodicy, and Stephens argues that this was supplied by the witch theorists. A consistent theme runs through all their writings: the terrible fear that God, spirits, heaven, and hell did not exist. They wrote to assuage their deepest doubts, and these doubts could only be kept at bay by proving that spirits were real and interacted on a physical level with human beings.

From Caesarius of Heisterbach's Dialogus miraculorum (1225) to Marlowe's Doctor Faustus, Christians were plagued by doubts about the reality of spirits, for if spirits did not actually exist but were figments of the imagination, how could one prove the existence of that most spiritual entity of all, God? Augustine claimed that spirits were incorporeal and that they had "aerial" bodies (City of God, bks 8 & 9). But if this were the case, how could purely spiritual entities interact with physical human beings? Aquinas tried to resolve the question by asserting that although angels and demons were pure spirit, they could assume bodies made of air that had been condensed by divine power to a suitable shape. Aquinas and subsequent theologians devised a complicated explanation for how devils, who did not have real bodies, could copulate with humans who obviously do: as succubi (those lying under) they received semen from human males, which as incubi (those lying above) they deposit in females. As Stephens points out, devils and demons became increasingly corporeal through the centuries, emerging in the fifteenth century as "a riot of corporeality" (110) with horns, reptilian tails, grotesque features, and faces inappropriately situated on their stomachs or posteriors. Even more worryingly, during the period of most intense witch hunts in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries devils and demons often appeared in increasingly human guise, to the point that they were virtually indistinguishable from human beings. Their interaction with people was thus assured, or was it? The paradox was that as theologians and witch theorists became more detailed and concrete in their scientific explanations for the corporeality of demons, they promoted the very skepticism they were at pains to allay.

Stephens claims that the reason why witch theorists were so interested in proving the reality of demonic sex had little to do with an obsession with sex or misogyny but was a consequence of their attempt to provide irrefutable evidence that demons did interact physically with humans. What, after all, could be better proof of physical intimacy than intercourse?

"Literate interest in copulation with demons was hardly driven by prurience, misogyny, or puritanical fervor. Literate men craved demonstrations that even sexual intercourse, the most intimate sort of bodily contact, was possible with demons. Copulation offered valuable perspectives on the life of demons, their corporeality, and the possibility of acting meaningfully with them" (19).

Stephens describes witch theorists as "metaphysical voyeurs"; their deepest desire was not to look through bedroom walls but through those barriers that separated the physical world of human beings from the spiritual life to come (32). While he admits that witch theorists were misogynists, he claims they did not exploit theology in order to demonize women but utilized the prevailing misogyny to reinforce a demonology that supported the religion they seriously doubted. Stephens makes a valid point, but only up to a point. His valiant attempt to apply this logic to Heinrich Kramer, the notorious author of the Malleus maleficarum, and to exculpate him from the charge of writing "scholastic pornography" is so tortured that it left this reader's mind reeling!

"Of course the Malleus was misogynistic, but what for Kramer was the use of misogyny? To read his treatment of demonic copulation as a tirade against women's sexual powers is to miss his point entirely. If anything, his tirade is for women's sexuality. The issue was not keeping women in their place or controlling their sexuality. Henrich Kramer did not fear that women were associating with demons: he hoped that they were. His whole theology depended on women's sexual transgressions, and it would have collapsed if he had ever had to admit that women's behavior conformed to the patriarchal ideal of chastity and submissiveness" (37).

One suspects that Stephens protests too much. It hard to believe that the long and tortured history of Christian ambivalence to sex and procreation and the misogyny this generated were not important contributing factors to witch theorists' emphasis on the perverse sexuality of female witches. After 1400 those accused of witchcraft were no longer charged with practicing specific acts of magic (maleficium) but simply with attending the Sabbath, where demon sex was a standard feature. Stephens' explanation that demonic sex replaced maleficum as the sine qua non of witchcraft because sexual intercourse offered better proof of demonic and human interaction -- "Kramer's interest is not prurience but provability" (40) -- is problematic. Surely, an emphasis on witches and demons making demonic pacts could have provided the same level of "proof" that physical interaction was possible. The fact that witch theorists were so interested in the specifics of the sexual encounters between witches and demons, so detailed in their descriptions of the size and shape of demonic sex organs (enormous), so curious as to whether women preferred sex with demons or humans, so convinced of the painful and unpleasant nature of demonic intercourse, and so insistent that even demons refrained from "crimes against nature" (i.e. sodomy or even intercourse in anything but the missionary position) indicates a fixation on sexuality and gender profoundly colored by Christian attitudes to sex and celibacy. It also suggests that there was an increase in the level of misogyny in the late medieval and early modern period that made it possible for female witches to replace male necromancers, heretics, and Jews as the Church's most dreaded enemy.[[3]]

In their creation of the stereotype of the witch, witch theorists not only tried to eradicate their doubts about the reality of the demonic and divine realms, but they also attempted to assuage their doubts about the efficacy of the Christian sacraments. Stephens points out that the witchcraft rituals imagined by witch theorists were not parodies or travesties of Catholic rites; they were "counter-sacramentals," whose very existence were intended to dispel growing doubts about what if any effects the sacraments had (199ff). The attempt made by scholastic theologians to describe the way the sacraments worked in terms of Aristotelian notions of cause and effect, matter and form, substance and accidents had the unintentional effect of naturalizing or desacramentalizing them (184). This, in turn, raised the question of how the effects of the sacraments could be verified. As Stephens says, "The problematic verification of sacramental effects was a crucial stimulus to theories of witchcraft" (183). The witch's evil deed, or maleficium, was the counterpart of the good effect (beneficium) of the sacraments and sacramentals (holy water, using the cross as a prophylactic, holy candles, etc.). Ever since the promulgation of the doctrine of transubstantiation by the Fourth Lateran Council (1215), Catholic theologians had to counter their own as well as lay doubts about Christ's "real" presence in the consecrated host. It appeared easier to prove this negatively than positively, through the innumerable stories told about the desecration of the host -- first by Jews and then by witches -- and the subsequent miraculous appearance in the host of blood or the figure of the Christ child. The denial of transubstantiation by various groups of heretics from the thirteenth to the fifteenth century reached a climax with the emergence of various Protestant sects. Stephens argues that it is no coincidence that Heinrich Kramer was not only an expert on witches but an ardent defender of transubstantiation (227).

Stephens contends that sexual dysfunction and impotency was one of the most distressing anxieties affecting early-modern Europeans. Marriage was an economic institution and childless marriages affected inheritance and alliances between families as well as countries. Impotency and sterility therefore had profound consequences for husbands and wives. It had implications for the sacrament of marriage as well. Catholic theologians defended the sacrament for its efficacy against impotency, but, as in the case of the Eucharist, the reputed ability of witches to negate the effect of the sacrament provided a needed explanation when the sacrament proved ineffective. In this regard, as in many others dealing with inexplicable misfortune, witchcraft provided an effective theodicy. Witches, not God, were at fault.

Witchcraft could also explain why the sacrament of baptism failed to protect the great number of baptized children who died in infancy. Again, the witch, not God, was to blame. Witch theorists claimed, that witches were especially interested in procuring unbaptized children for their disgusting nostrums because unbaptized children were more easily harmed. This idea conveniently reinforced the notion of baptism as an effective prophylactic, while simultaneously explaining why it sometimes failed.

Like Carlo Ginzburg, Stephens interprets the replacement of the earlier demonic stereotypes of Jews, heretics, necromancers, and magicians with the witch as a sign of heightened skepticism and fear among Christians (221).[[4]] Historians have pointed out the various ways in which the myths about lepers, Jews, necromancers, heretics and witches resembled each other. As enemies of society, they were accused of doing those things society most abhorred -- killing children, destroying marriages, causing death and disaster, ruining crops, and undermining religion. But Stephens adds another common element to this list, one that emerges logically from his analysis of witchcraft theories as defenses against the nagging fear that spirits, and hence God, did not exist. As he says, "a desire to be convinced of the reality of spirit was the psychic glue that held the witch myth together...This conceptual adhesive accounts for otherwise puzzling resemblances between myths about witches, Jews, necromancers, and heretics" (366).

Scholars before Stephens have noted that the witch hunting was not the antithesis of science or antithetical to the so-called scientific revolution but an actual part of it. But his detailed analysis of how witchcraft theorists dealt with questions of evidence and proof adds greatly the discussion. Underlying the witchcraft debate were fundamental issues concerning the authority and credibility of the Christian revelation, the constitution of the created world, the nature of man, and the basis of ethics and morality. Every one of these involved the larger problem of what constitutes knowledge and how knowledge may be obtained. Stephens reveals how ambivalent witchcraft theorists were to the prevailing Aristotelian conviction that real proof and certainty come from sensory data and bodily experiences. Inquisitors like Kramer were convinced that the physical experiences described by witches (under torture, to be sure) provided valid evidence. They were the expert witnesses, whose testimony affirmed that demonic copulation was not a figment of Kramer's overactive imagination, a thought that Kramer himself voices, revealing his own doubts: "The theory that modern witches are tainted with this sort of diabolic filthiness does not depend so much on our own opinion, as on the expert testimony of the witches themselves, which has made all these things credible" (35).

The problem with Kramer's line of reasoning was two-fold. It raised the issue that would become central in the seventeenth century of whether sensory experience can provide accurate knowledge of external reality; and it brought into question the value of second-hand testimony. Both issues come to the forefront in Gianfrancesco Pico della Mirandola's treatises on witchcraft. Pico was one of the first to employ the skepticism of Sextus Empiricus to undermine philosophy in order to support faith. In Strix (1523), his dialogue between an Inquisitor, a skeptic, and a moderator (himself), Pico takes travel reports as an example. The Inquisitor asks the skeptic if he believes what he hears about crossing the Atlantic or arriving in the gulf of India. When the skeptic admits he does, the inquisitor is quick to point out that there is no different between the accounts of travelers and those describing witches and the Sabbath; both are second-hand. Their truth lies in the credibility of the narrator. The skeptic is convinced and agrees with the moderator that "when many people are of the same opinion about something, and agree about it as if speaking with one voice, it cannot seem credible that someone goes on claiming the right to deny it" (235). Thus for Pico the truth of witchcraft lay in narratives given by trustworthy people who have witnessed the activities of witches.

A similar conclusion was reached by Bartolomeo Spina, who argues that human society would cease to exist if we only believed what we have ourselves experienced (174). In this regard it should be pointed out that Steven Shapin and Simon Schaffer see the same process of witnessing and emphasis on the probity of the witnesses as the process through which Boyle's chemistry and the "new" science was validated.[[5]] One might object, and scholars have, that the scientific revolution was validated by more than just witnessing, that a model of experimental research was put in place that depended on the successful repetition of experiments. Stephens points out that in some cases witch theorists took an experimental approach, describing experiments in regard to such things as the ointments that supposedly enabled witches to fly to Sabbaths. The fact that the experiments failed, however, was taken by them as proof that the activities of witches were unnatural because they were demonic. In other words, the ointment used by witches had no natural inherent power; demons actually did the flying. This may not seem to us to be a valid scientific conclusion, but it does reveal that witch theorists were deeply involved in the scientific debates of their time.

This review does not do justice to the richness and complexity of the issues raised by Stephens. His book is a model of scholarship and should interest anyone concerned with the belief systems of the late medieval and early modern periods. It will especially interest historians of science and intellectual historians investigating the complex relationship between religion, magic, and science on the eve of the scientific revolution.


[[1]] H.C. Erik Midelfort, "Recent Witch-Hunting Research, or Where Do We Go From Here?" Papers of the Bibliographical Society of America 62 (1968).

[[2]] Salvatore Camporeale, "Renaissance Humanism and the Origins of Humanist theology," in John W. O'Malley, Thomas M. Izbicki, and Gerald Christianson, edd. Humanity and Divinity in the Renaissance and Reformation: Essays in Honor of Charles Trinkhaus. (Leiden, 1993), 101-24.

[[3]] Stuart Clark, like Stephens and a number of scholars, rejects the idea that gender was an issue in witchcraft literature. See Clark's Thinking with Demons: The Idea of Witchcraft in Early Modern Europe (Oxford, 1997), 114ff. I have explained why I think gender was a central issue in "The Myth of the Improved Status of Protestant Women: The Case of the Witchcraze," in Jean R. Brink, Allison P. Coudert, & Maryanne C. Horowitz, edd. The Politics of Gender in Early Modern Europe. (Kirksville: Sixteenth Century Journal Publishers, 1989), 61-90.

[[4]] Carlo Ginzburg, Ecstasies: Deciphering the Witches' Sabbath (New York, 1991), 72.

[[5]] S. Shapin and S. Schaffer, Leviathan and the Air-Pump: Hobbes, Boyle, and the Experimental Life (Princeton, 1985), 104-5. Peter Dear also discusses the way in which the members of the Royal Society tried to establish "facts" by writing ostensibly objective "reports." Hence the ironic title of his article describing a Society whose motto was "Nullius in verba." ("'Totius in verba': Rhetoric and Authority in the Early Royal Society," Isis 76 (1985): 145-161.

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Author Biography

Allison P. Coudert

Arizona State University