09.10.24, Utz Tremp, Von der Häresie zur Hexerei

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Gerhild S. Williams

The Medieval Review 09.10.24

Utz Tremp, Kathrin. Von der Häresie zur Hexerei: "Wirkliche" und imaginäre Sekten im Spätmittelalter. Schriften der MGH Band 59. Hannover: Hahnsche Buchhandlung, 2008. Pp. xxx, 704. ISBN: 978-3-7752-5759-6.

Reviewed by:
Gerhild S. Williams
Washington University, St. Louis

This is a book best started at the back at the Conclusion (Zusammenfassung) (609). The reason for this is simple: this study provides such an overwhelmingly rich exploration of the relationship between heresy and witchcraft, here investigated as real and imagined sects in the Late Middle Ages, that the reader needs the conclusion to use as a compass to move through the book. This reviewer did not follow her own prescription, of course. As a result, I have in front of me a large volume with many multicolored stickers and pencil markings alerting me to important sections, names, and court cases that make up the vivid fabric of this study.

Following a summary review of the earliest demonologies and some of the path-breaking heresy/witch studies from several decades back (Grundmann prominently among them), Utz Tremp, for the most part, proceeds chronologically (from the 13th century), decade by decade, year by year (272). This strategy suggested itself to her in response to earlier studies which, as she correctly points out, did not advance with the required caution and, as a result, sometimes arrived at questionable results. As an example, she cites a study about the supposed mixing of heresy and witchcraft in 14th century Piedmont and Dauphine which, in her mind, disregards the important question of who conducted the trials, the lay or religious authorities (273).

Carefully constructing the evidence for her argument to stand up against the direct chronological evolution from heresy to witchcraft, Utz Tremp proceeds from the discussion of real sects (Part I) to imaginary sects (Part II). In her concluding remarks she mentions, in an "Ausblick," the Arras witch persecutions of the 15th century and the Wallis witch trial of 1467, before reviewing, at the very end, the distance her study has traveled from the 13th to the 15th century.

Following her own prescription, Utz Tremp carefully builds her case (real vs. imaginary sects). She argues against an often-postulated straight chronological progression from heresy (Waldensians, Cathars, Luciferians) to sects with witch characteristics to the prosecution of single, mostly female witches at the end of the 15th century. Instead, with a careful review of countless sources, court cases, catalogues of inquisitorial questions (376 et al.), many of them introduced here for the first time, she arrives at what she calls the syncretism of the heresy/magic/witchcraft evolution. This evolution did not proceed in a chronologically straight forward way; rather, at certain points in time, which she carefully lays out, heresy and witch trials moved parallel; at others, heresy trials became investigations of diabolism and witchcraft (337 ff.). In all the factual details, which occasionally reach the point of minutiae, this study makes clear that the witch persecutions which reached a first climax with Institoris's Witches Hammer (Malleus Maleficarum 1486/87) did not originate in the geographical three-corner universe of Southwest Germany, Switzerland, and Southern France. Rather, the ebb and flow of heretical movements reached Italy, Germany, Switzerland, and France over a period of decades, even centuries. The struggles between ecclesiastical and lay powers, regional as well as more broadly national, significantly contributed to the waxing and waning of people's interest and participation in heretical activities and the authorities' attention to the presence of witches in their midst. Utz Tremp demonstrates that the case-by-case description of inquests into heretical activities exposes the simultaneous reception of learned heterodoxy and popular beliefs. This resulted in a cultural cross-fertilization that, ultimately, formed the basis for the witch phenomenon of later centuries. Along the way, a veritable bureaucracy emerged around the prosecution of heresy and witchcraft: files were exchanged and trials extended or shortened according the spheres of influence claimed by local inquisitors, bishops, or lay courts (249, 263, 265, 335 ff.). Equally gradual seems to have been the introduction of torture, first occasionally and then routinely employed, until it became synonymous with hunting witches, extended more often to female witches than to male heretics (256 ff.).

By the late 15th century, elements of Waldensian and Cathar heresies (meeting in groups, in the dark, sharing communion of bread [consolamentum], engaging in illicit and indiscriminate sexual activities) join the diabolizing of magic. Together these forms of knowledge and beliefs form the foundation and the eventual conviction of the reality of witches and the witches' sabbath (having its imaginary roots in the heretical Synagogue, 237 et al.) with all its attendant attributes like the eating of children, the presence of Satan (in the form of a person or a black cat or a goat), the flying to the Sabbath (not yet on brooms but on sticks), weather magic, and production of illness, revenge magic on neighbors and political enemies. Utz Tremp identifies the influence of Cathar thinking about the equality of God and the Devil as one of the vital junctures where heresy turned into witchcraft (239; 404 ff.).

In no way wishing to diminish the power of her arguments and the value of this book, the study's strength is also its occasional weakness. At times, it suffers from a profusion of names, places, and time frames thus threatening to overwhelm the reader with such an abundance of information that the guiding thread of the narrative is obscured. And now and again, the reader wonders about superfluous conjectures, verbal and adverbial expressions like "könnten," "vielleicht," "scheint" which put some of the projected results into doubt (270; 414; 415; 448) signaling the author's hesitation at what she has so effectively put forward.

These minor quibbles notwithstanding, this study stands as a monument to the success of research funded by the Schweizer Nationalfond. It clarifies, once and for all, the relationship of heresy and witchcraft and the evolution of both in the three centuries preceding the first wave of witch persecutions in the late 16th century. It is a source book as well as a guide to the primary and secondary sources pertaining to the debate about heresy and witchcraft in the 13th to 15th centuries; and, to the patient reader, it is a riveting story. In short this book represents a significant achievement.

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Author Biography

Gerhild S. Williams

Washington University, St. Louis