Battling Demons: Witchcraft, Heresy, and Reform in the Late Middle Ages (Magic in History)

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The council convened in as a gathering of ecclesiastical leaders from across Europe.


It soon became entangled in a protracted struggle with the papacy, which feared rightly that such a body would limit papal authority over the church. This conflict progressively drained the council of its energies, until it finally dissolved itself in During the early years when Nider was present in Basel, however he departed for a post at the University of Vienna probably at the end of or very early in , the council was extremely active in many areas of ecclesiastical concern. Indeed, for a time Basel became virtually the center of the entire Western Christian world, and Nider was one of the most active and important men in Basel.

While he was a member of the Council of Basel, Nider undertook crucial negotiations with the most threatening heretical sect to confront the church in the early fifteenth century, the Hussites of Bohemia, and he also found time to consider the questionable status of beghards and beguines, lay people who chose to live a quasi-religious life and whom, for a variety of reasons, many clerical authorities found suspicious or even heretical.

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Although he does not seem to have taken much interest in issues of conciliarism per se—that is, the ecclesiological debates over whether the council or the pope should wield supreme authority within the church—he was clearly involved in such matters at least insofar as they affected the other issues that held his attention at Basel. Matters of ecclesiastical reform, for example, were entangled in complex ways with the issue of conciliarism.

It was also at Basel that Nider became interested in the matter of witchcraft. Although the council does not appear to have engaged officially in any discussion of this new phenomenon, scholars have long recognized that Basel was an important center for the codification and diffusion of the idea of witchcraft from lands in and around the western Alps, where some of the earliest true witch trials were beginning to take place at this time, to the rest of Europe. Nider was one of the most important figures in this process.

Although he actually wrote most of his influential accounts of magic and witchcraft after leaving Basel, many of the stories he related focused on lands in western Switzerland, and he obviously collected much if not all of his material on these subjects while at the council.


Here the matter of witchcraft would have been raised and discussed amidst many other religious issues and concerns, and Nider would have seen this new phenomenon as but one aspect of a larger crisis facing the Christian world. Despite his significance in so many areas of late medieval religious history, however, Nider has until recently remained a remarkably understudied figure. The only general account of his activities, the biography written by the German parish priest Kaspar Schieler, is now over one hundred years old, and was hardly serviceable even when it was new, offering more eulogy than critical historical analysis.

More recent scholarship on Nider what little there is has generally focused on specific categories of his writings or on individual aspects of his thought. Broader studies of the major issues and events with which he was involved rarely do more than mention his name, if that. His treatise on the Hussite heresy which admittedly survives in only two incomplete copies goes unmentioned and unexamined in all scholarship on that topic.

His attacks on the heresy of the Free Spirit have been noted, but his two far more positive treatises on lay poverty and the semireligious way of life led by many beguines, although labeled by one expert as "fundamental" to any discussion of the subject in the fifteenth century, have remained "almost completely ignored" by modern scholarship.

Even in the area of witchcraft, in which he clearly made his most enduring contributions to the later history of Europe, he has until recently received far less attention than was his due. Quite simply, he wrote too much and his religious concerns were too catholic. Any full examination of all his writings would quickly become encyclopedic, both in volume and in thematic coherence.

Such a work would doubtless prove fascinating, shedding light on many areas of the late medieval religious world, but it is, to use the hackneyed phrase, simply beyond the scope of this book. The focus here is on witchcraft, yet still not witchcraft solely. The issues of heresy and reform, both broadly understood, do much to clarify how Nider approached the issue of witchcraft and how he conceived of the threat that witches represented to the Christian faith.

At first glance, the elements of witchcraft—extreme diabolism, gruesome cannibalism of infants, and secret nocturnal conventicles filled with orgies and other depravities—appear entirely irrational, and such authorities as Nider who accepted and propounded these notions appear either mad, naive, or ridiculous. In fact, while he obviously opposed these movements and regarded them as utterly condemnable, he seems to have been far less concerned about heretics than about witches. In his writings on heresy, and especially in his broad defense of the semireligious beguines, who were often accused of heresy, he appears much more restrained, moderate, and to modern minds, at least "rational.

His support for beguines in particular was based on his conviction that these devout lay people, whom other clerical authorities often viewed with grave suspicion, followed an entirely laudable way of life and might provide a model of spiritual reform for the rest of the laity. A careful examination of his reformist treatises then reveals how wide ranging his concept of reform was, not just encompassing institutional change within the church but, even more important, entailing a moral and spiritual regeneration within individual believers.

In this spiritual sense, Nider firmly believed that religious reform could and must extend to the laity as well as to the clergy, and should encompass not just the institutional church but ultimately all of Christian society. In this spiritual sense, too, his ideas of reform shaped and fed his fear of witches. Only when viewed from the perspective of these larger reformist concerns will the phenomenon of witchcraft begin to appear to us as I think it must have appeared to Nider—as but a single terrible aspect of a world degraded by sin, assailed by demons, and desperately in need of reform.

In tales of witchcraft Nider the reformer found ideal material with which to propel faithful Christians who had become somewhat lax in their beliefs back to full piety. To a large extent, he used accounts of the relatively new phenomenon of witchcraft just as moral reformers within the church had for centuries been accustomed to use stories of demonic power and demonic possession, to instruct and encourage proper belief and to warn of the dangers of moral and spiritual lapses.

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That such men should have been attracted to the fantastic horrors of witchcraft and have proved more than ready to accept and employ this new concept is hardly surprising. Scholars have long noted a connection between the growing desire for reform and the rise of witch-hunting in the late Middle Ages. Yet the specifics of this relationship have never been fully articulated, let alone explored. Nider provides exemplary insight into this connection.

His entire concept of witchcraft was shaped and colored by his particular understanding of reform. Although I see a strong connection between witchcraft and reform, particularly for Nider, I do not wish to suggest that the emergence and the acceptance of the idea of witchcraft in even a single mind, let alone by an entire society or culture, is an easily explained or monocausal process.

The alchemy involved was far more complex than just a matter of reformist concerns transmuted into diabolical fantasies. Indeed, the rise of witchcraft remains so fascinating and still so difficult to fathom, despite the vast array of scholarship devoted to it, largely because it was such a multifaceted and "multifactoral" phenomenon, drawing on and feeding off many other aspects of late medieval religious culture. When the inquiry is limited to one man who left an extensive record of his thought on such matters, and whose writings then had a significant influence on the thoughts of others who followed him, some sense of order, however constrained, should emerge.

What follows is a cultural history of ideas and concepts, however, and not an intellectual history in the usual sense. That is, Johannes Nider was himself never aware of consciously developing or constructing the idea of witchcraft. It was instead, for him, a reality that he merely accepted, described, and sought to explain. Thus he leaves no clear passages that might allow us to trace with absolute certainly the development of his thought in relation to this matter.

Never does he write, "I saw witchcraft as a means toward reform," or "My concern over heresy caused me to turn to witchcraft. To do so seemed to me, however, to suggest too great a unity in his thought and concerns where I see only continuities, influences, and overlaps. I also worried that such a structure would necessitate digressions so long and unwieldy as to disrupt the flow of the central arguments about witchcraft. I decided, then, to keep the various areas of witchcraft, heresy, and reform more or less distinct in separate chapters, although with obvious overlaps and linkages between those chapters.

I began with the problem of witchcraft, and then moved on to what I saw as the closely related area of heresy. I soon realized, however, that in his treatment of heretics Nider appeared in a far different light, far less credulous and fearful, than in his accounts of witches. Through his writings on heresy I came to understand that reformist concerns formed the basis of his approach to most other issues, so I moved next to his treatises on reform and then returned to his magnum opus, the Formicarius, and his stories of witchcraft recorded there, attempting to understand them in the context of reform.

The story that follows here thus opens and closes with witchcraft, moving through other matters in between. I find this approach essential. Of course, continuities still abound, as do the occasional contradictions. Historians labor valiantly to force the past into the Procrustean structures of their arguments. The fit is never prefect. My argument here is that the rise of witchcraft in the early fifteenth century must be understood in the light of other developments in the religious world of that time. It seemed foolish not to let those other developments have some space to speak for themselves.

In situating the rise of witchcraft, particularly the growing clerical concern over this new and terrible crime, among other major aspects of late medieval religious history, I hope to demonstrate that this was not a marginal, fantastical, or historically incomprehensible development. The larger world of the fifteenth century can shed considerable light on the emergence of witchcraft, and the emergence of witchcraft can, if examined carefully, shed some light back on its time.

Close to a century ago, Johan Huizinga, in his classic Autumn of the Middle Ages, described the fifteenth century as being "more than any other the century of the persecution of witches. It was the natural result of typical medieval "credulity and lack of critical thinking," and the final and most horrific embellishment of medieval concerns over heresy and demonic power. The only difficulty lay in explaining how the wondrous new age of Renaissance humanism failed to "immediately reject the cruelties of the witch-hunts.

Yet still the overall dichotomy between the medieval and early modern periods has to a great extent held firm, and in lieu of a sharp boundary the entire fifteenth century has come to be seen as a long transitional period between these two epochs. Events and developments within that century continue to be viewed largely from the perspective of earlier or later eras.

While such perspectives can be very informative, they can also obscure certain aspects of the period, and this has certainly been the case with witchcraft. The rise of this new idea in the fifteenth century is still most often seen, from one perspective, as some sort of natural culmination of medieval concerns over heresy and demonic magic, and from the other as a mere preliminary step toward the great witch-hunts that actually did not begin in earnest until the sixteenth century.

Without doubt both views are accurate, but they also inevitably overlook many of the unique aspects of the fifteenth century that helped give rise to witchcraft at that specific time. Having abandoned such simplistic notions as "decay" and "rebirth" to characterize the late Middle Ages, much modern scholarship now tends to leave the impression, doubtless to some extent true, that the fifteenth century was a terribly fragmented age. Yet certain continuities, if not any single great unity, clearly run through and bind together the religious history of this era, and our understanding of any one aspect of the period will remain incomplete and fragmented until we pay more attention to them.

The writings of Johannes Nider, when examined closely, can reveal some of the intricate connections that bound the rise of witchcraft to other developments and ongoing religious concerns in the early fifteenth century. They also may begin to indicate that the phenomenon of witchcraft, far from being marginal or "historically unassimilable," was actually a central characteristic of an age deeply concerned with matters of religious and spiritual reform.

03.07.11, Bailey, Battling Demons

Early Modern. Schrijf een review. E-mail deze pagina. Auteur: Michael D. Uitgever: Pennsylvania State University Press.

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Samenvatting The fifteenth century is more than any other the century of the persecution of witches. Although Huizinga was correct in his observation, modern readers have tended to focus on the more spectacular witch-hunts of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries.

Nevertheless, it was during the late Middle Ages that the full stereotype of demonic witchcraft developed in Europe, and this is the subject of Battling Demons. At the heart of the story is Johannes Nider d. Nider was a major source for the infamous Malleus maleficarum, or Hammer of Witches , the manual of choice for witch-hunters in late medieval Europe.

Today Nider's reputation rests squarely on his witchcraft writings, but in his own day he was better known as a leader of the reform movement within the Dominican order and as a writer of important tracts on numerous other aspects of late medieval religiosity, including heresy and lay piety. Battling Demons places Nider in this wider context, showing that for late medieval thinkers, witchcraft was one facet of a much larger crisis plaguing Christian society.

As the only English-language study to focus exclusively on the rise of witchcraft in the early fifteenth century, Battling Demons will be important to students and scholars of the history of magic and witchcraft and medieval religious history.

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Toon meer Toon minder. Recensie s In this valuable, accurate, and engaging volume, Michael Bailey investigates the prehistory' of the early modern concept of witchcraft through the writings of Johannes Nider, a Dominican whose fundamental treatises-in particular, the seminal Formicarius-are still remarkably understudied. Specialists and novices of magic, witchcraft, and heresy will find this book to be accessible, compelling and informative. Bailey will leave his readers wanting to explore further the life and activities of Nider, his writings, and the whole history of the Council of Basel in which Nider occupied a major position.

The book is scholarly enough to keep the attention of the specialist, but not so technical and intricate as to be passed over by students. Davidson, Sixteenth Century Journal Although the extent to which Nider was typical of his time is debatable, the book does make a valuable contribution towards integrating the origins of the idea of witchcraft into the history of the fifteenth century. By elucidating Nider's role in fifteenth-century institutional and spiritual reform, and then connecting that reform to his conceptualization of the witch, Bailey has shed important light not only on his specific subject, but on the entire context of the early modern period.