03.07.11, Bailey, Battling Demons

Main Article Content

Gerhild Williams

The Medieval Review baj9928.0307.011


Bailey, Michael D.. Battling Demons: Witchcraft, Heresy, and Reform in the Late Middle Ages. Series: The Magic in History Series. University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press, 2003. Pp. xii, 200. ISBN: 0-271-02226-4.

Reviewed by:
Gerhild Williams
Washington University

Currently, the Dominican Johannes Nider (ca.1380-1438) and his famous demonology, the Formicarius, enjoy a great deal of scholarly attention. Among the books devoted to Nider, Georg Modestin, Biel (Hexenforschung 1/15/2003), identifies Werner Tschacher's Aachen dissertation (1997/8) and a critical edition of the Formicarius produced by Catherine Chene (Lausanne) on the basis of all available manuscripts. In the context of these studies, Bailey's Northwestern University dissertation on Johannes Nider's Formicarius (1436-38) provides welcome additional materials that position Nider's work within the reform-oriented world of the first third of the fifteenth century.

Beyond discussing the Formicarius itself, the author casts his net quite widely. A significant part of his study, almost one half, is devoted to Nider's career as a reformer who, in his writings, battled heresy in all forms, especially where they affected religious orders. Bailey insists, correctly I believe, that Nider's attitude toward witchcraft only makes sense in the context of a commonly shared view that the world was sinful, beset by demons, and unwilling to, yet in great need of reforming its errant ways. Wondering why Nider, busy with suspected heresies and religious reform at the Council of Basel and thereafter, would be so obsessed with witches, Bailey takes a closer look at Nider's pronouncements about various groups accused of heresy during the first half of the fifteenth century. Among them we find the Hussites, the sect of the Free Spirits, and the Beguines. Moreover, Bailey reviews Nider's tracts on monastic reform. Careful analysis of these texts leads Bailey to conclude that, while Nider viewed the Hussites as a dangerous heretical sect, he did not go beyond standard anti-heretical condemnations. Bailey suggests that Nider, when writing against heresies other than witchcraft, appears "mechanical and reflective" and "calm, rational, and pragmatic" (60). He finds Nider's stance toward the followers of the sect of the Free Spirit and the Begharts and Beguines moderate, pointing out that Nider generally writes in a rather balanced way about voluntary poverty and mendicancy. Nider's approach to these heresies, so Bailey, is marked by restraint, even a general lack of interest. While I am somewhat skeptical of the occasionally atmospheric ("strangely indifferent, mechanical, reflexive") descriptions of Nider's response to movements that many of his contemporaries considered dangerously heretical, it is clear that Bailey read the sources carefully and contextualized them with much knowledge and sensitivity.

If Nider's view toward the heresies of his day seems less than passionate, his concern for order, reform, and the renewal of the Christina church was deeply felt and strongly argued. Furthermore, moderation, calm, and pragmatism are certainly not noticeable when we read (about) Nider's treatment of witches and witchcraft, twin crimes he judged to be beyond redemption. Bailey positions the Formicarius in a long line of moralizing tracts comparable to others that have been popular since the earlier Middle Ages. He mentions Caesarius of Heisterbach, Gregory the Great, and Thomas of Cantempre as possible models. Bailey confirms what has been argued elsewhere in recent witch literature, that on the topic of witches and demonology this tract is one of the most important and influential of the fifteenth century. We know that Heinrich Kramer quotes extensively from the Formicarius in his Malleus Maleficarum (1487). In fact, one could argue (which Bailey does not) that the notoriety of the Formicarius must be seen in the close association of the two works and the far-reaching reception that the Malleus enjoyed during subsequent centuries. Moreover, Bailey's study agrees with those scholars who have insisted that the "invention of the witch phenomenon," the elaborated witch image as it is now known, cannot be ascribed to Kramer's Malleus alone. By the time Nider produced his tract, the witch image that frightened the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, was complete in its basic components, which included the satanic pact, practice of maleficium, murder of unbaptized infants, and the production of flying unguents.

Aside from offering a close reading of the Formicarius itself, the merit of this book lies in Bailey's careful construction of the intellectual background against which he projects Nider's assessment of the witches and the absolute evil they represented. In so doing, he carefully highlights Nider's apparent conviction that witches were beyond redemption; that witchcraft was a most heinous crime; and that no theological remedy except death by fire could be the appropriate punishment for this act of apostasy. The succeeding two hundred years of the waxing and waning witch persecutions was to witness endless debates on this issue. The fate of a witch's soul after she had compacted with Satan, the efficacy of prayer in her struggle for redemption were to become an especially vexing challenge to Protestant demonologists. Reading Bailey's study, it is clear, that already in the early years of the phenomenon, Nider stood on the side of those who recommended vigorous and unrelenting identification and prosecution if the woman as witch.

Article Details

Author Biography

Gerhild Williams

Washington University