Imagine this world: one in which many of the normal-looking people on the street consist not of flesh and blood, but of condensed air. They can move, and even speak. Though they cannot produce semen, they can have sex—which they strongly prefer to do in the most conventional way. Since they can take either female or male form, they harvest semen from human males, which they store up for later injections into human females. When touched—so one informant explains—they feel “very similar to flax or cottonwood that has been bundled and densely packed”—not the most attractive imaginable physique. But their “pleasing faces,” adept wooing, and enormous virile members, which “fill up the most secret parts” of the women they sleep with, make them irresistible: “probably they can stimulate something very deep inside…by means of which these women have greater pleasure than with men.” No wonder, then, that women are so often seen in the woods and fields, lying on their backs, legs in the air, making the motions and noises appropriate to copulation: they are having intercourse with their invisible demon lovers.

In the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, many Europeans inhabited this world—or said they did. The authors of a long and vile series of treatises on how to detect, interrogate, and prosecute witches—Johannes Nider, Heinrich Kramer, Jacob Sprenger, and many more, down to that pioneer of modern political thought, Jean Bodin—described it in detail. They claimed, moreover, that they knew this world by direct experience—not their own, but that of witches whom they and others had caught and interrogated. The descriptions of demonic sex quoted in the paragraph above, for example, come from a character in a dialogue, The Screech-Owl (Strix), written in Latin by Gianfrancesco Pico della Mirandola. This urbane philosopher, the nephew of the more famous Pico, who helped to create the European tradition of learned magic, ruled a small principality where seven men and three women were burned as witches between 1522 and 1525. Pico, as lord of the territory, involved himself in the actual trials, and made clear that in his dialogue he fictionalized what he had heard from the suspects in person. He went so far as to make one of his characters a female witch, whose graphic accounts confirmed that male and female witches alike had carnal congress with demons.

These books horrified the hardened readers of the sixteenth century—not, in most cases, because their contents seemed implausible and disgusting; on the contrary, their evidence of widespread demonic possession commanded its own forceful logic. The erudite German Hellenist and student of astrology Joachim Camerarius recalled how he had discussed “the dreadful crimes of certain female witches” with a visiting official, who had described demonic intercourse. He noted that treatises on witchcraft provided ample evidence to corroborate what his friend told him, and recalled how, after reading Pico’s book a little before bedtime, he had spent a terrible night, “my mind full of all sorts of fears inspired by the things narrated there.”1 Partly thanks to Pico, his world was full of witches who took demon lovers. Learned men like Camerarius would serve as the inquisitors and judges for the terrible wave of witch trials that inundated parts of both Protestant and Catholic Europe in the later sixteenth and earlier seventeenth centuries, by one informed estimate costing the lives of 60,000 people.2

Historians have long been fascinated by the witch craze of the late Renaissance, and from the 1960s onward they have shed a flood of new light on it. They have emphasized, first of all, that witchcraft, as understood in the years around 1600, represented something new—not a survival of “medieval superstition,” as progressive scholars once held, but the crystallization of ideas as powerful, innovative, and destructive in their own time as the Nazi doctrines that underpinned the Holocaust (it is no accident that one of the most distinguished students of the early witch trials, Norman Cohn, had also reconstructed, in Warrant for Genocide, the origins of that bulwark of modern anti-Semitism, The Protocols of the Elders of Zion3). They have shown that only on the Continent and in other regions where inquisitorial procedures based on torture enabled judges to extract whatever confessions they wished from suspects did witches admit a full range of crimes: they had joined a sect which conspired against all of Christian society; they had flown to remote places where they could perform a parody of the Mass (the Sabbat) and have intercourse with demons, and done their best back home to ruin crops, kill babies, and sterilize men and women alike.

These scholars have also traced the actual trials of witches, and the crimes of which they were first accused, back to the face-to-face societies they lived in. Thus Lyndal Roper, one of the most learned and original historians of witch- craft, has explained the special vulnerability of midwives. Working at the dangerous moment of childbirth, their hands inside the body cavities of their social superiors, they could easily fall victim to the furies of transition—especially if an infant emerged stillborn or crippled from the womb.4


Only in the later sixteenth century, we can now recognize, did witch trials start up on a grand scale, when a continent-wide religious war and long-term inflation had made life in Europe increasingly difficult for millions, and short-term subsistence crises threatened whole cities and villages with starvation. Like the ideas of Houston Stewart Chamberlain, those of Heinrich Kramer and Gianfrancesco Pico turned out to be delayed-action bombs, which had their full effect only one or two generations after they were formulated.5

It has also become clear that the downfall of witch trials had little or nothing to do with the rise of modern science, which took place during these same years. Trials ceased to be held, in southwest Germany, when the accused witches began to identify too many members of local elites as fellow habitués of the Sabbat.6 They wound down in France when learned jurists, more skeptical than Bodin, began to insist that they rested on flimsy evidence. Less than forty years after H.R. Trevor-Roper opened up this field with a bold, and sometimes bizarre, essay,7 the tragic story of the witches has been told, from the archives.

But this distinguished body of scholarship, as Walter Stephens points out in his dazzlingly original book Demon Lovers, has shed relatively little new light on the persecutors of the witches. The same scholars who spare no pains to excavate the details of a trial from documents cast in a forbidding technical language and written in an impenetrable notarial hand have rarely ventured to explore such classics as Pico’s Screech-Owl, or Hammer of the Witches (Malleus Maleficarum), the vast, weird work by the Dominicans Heinrich Kramer and Jacob Sprenger which later scholars reprinted, cited, and pillaged over and over again. Often they have read these works not in the original but in such English translations as exist—for example, the English translation of Kramer and Sprenger by Montague Summers published in 1928, which enjoys wide distribution to this day in paperback.8

Summers, a characteristic participant in the occult revival that took place between the world wars and whose most notorious proponent was probably Aleister Crowley, saw Hammer as a work of great intelligence and authority, a factual description of the witches and their world. He also mistranslated its Latin in many, many passages. Stephens slyly suggests that an understandable, deep-seated terror—terror of boredom—has kept most scholars from attempting to explore the hideous territory that he has now made his own. He himself feels no such fears. A philologist and literary historian trained in the exacting school of the great Italian Renaissance scholar Eugenio Garin, Stephens is the author of Giants in Those Days, a superb, sprawling, meticulously documented account of the historical and exegetical scholarship of the Renaissance and the imprint that it left on the fictions of Rabelais. He has braved the forgeries of the demented Dominican genius Annius of Viterbo—as well as the massive commentaries with which Annius tried to make his work credible. No wonder, then, that he has proved able to cross the pathless wastes of Hammer of the Witches with gun and camera—or that in doing so he has made discoveries that will transform this field of study.


Many readers of Hammer, in recent years, have found one aspect of this complex and forbidding treatise especially salient: the authors’ disgust for women. (Its Latin title, Malleus Ma-leficarum, literally means “hammer of the female evildoers.”) The work devotes a long section, early on, to describing the special weaknesses of the female sex, the foolishness, lust, and greed that make women easy prey for demons and lead them to make men their victims in their own turn. No pages of this ugly book are more vivid, or uglier, than those explicitly dedicated to the authors’ misogynistic fantasies. Female witches, they claim, can convince men that they have stolen their penises—and even that they have collected these in birds’ nests, where they feed them as if they were fledglings. Renaissance artists—who like to show naked female witches grilling sausage-like objects—gave these passages graphic form (if a deceptive one—these stolen penises, like the demons’ physical apparitions, are nothing more than phantasms of condensed air).

Most of the victims of the craze, moreover, were female—something like 80 percent, according to recent surveys. An easy inference lies open: the witch craze, created by male members of religious orders, represented, above all, a vast attack on women—or even, in some readings, on a traditional female religion of the earth and the body. Stephens notes—as any scholar must—the noxious misogyny of his sources. But he also argues that misogyny did not dominate them. To understand the first witch hunters, he argues, we must examine their writings, in the original, in all their texture and detail. When we do so, we can see at once that the attack on women represented not the core of their work, but a particularly powerful side effect.


To describe the real core of terror that moved the witch hunters to mount their terrible crusade, Stephens turns to an anecdote from James Boswell’s Journal of 1779, in which his six-year-old daughter holds forth about God with “strange and alarming” precocity:

At night after we were in bed, Veronica spoke out from her little bed and said, “I do not believe there is a God.” “Preserve me,” said I, “my dear what do you mean?” She answered, “I have thinket it many a time, but did not like to speak of it.” I was confounded and uneasy and tried her with the simple arguments that without God there would not be all the things we see. It is He who makes the sun shine. Said she, “It shines only on good days.” Said I: “God made you.” Said she: “My Mother bore me.” It was a strange and alarming thing to her Mother and me to hear our little angel talk thus.

It is Stephens’s contention that Veronica Boswell was not the only person in early modern Europe to have “thinket many a time” that God might not exist. (Was it in fact this same skeptical curiosity that led two-and-a-half-year-old Cotton Mather to declare that “Ton would go see God”?) The growing power of scientific inquiry, the religious debates that ranged Protestant against Catholic and turned both to close examination of their Scriptures, those unavoidable calamities of life that Virgil called “the tears in things” and the law still calls “acts of God,” all these forces, when taken together, exposed Christian theology from the fifteenth century onward to a combination of pressures that demanded, with increasing urgency, a definitive response. In a sense, one response was formulated in the late fifteenth century when Pope Sixtus IV, an enlightened scholar and a great patron of the arts, established the Inquisition as a permanent institution of the Catholic Church.9 Like heresy, witchcraft called into question the basic tenets of Christianity. By putting heretics and witches on trial, the Church found a forceful way to prove, or at least to act out, its own validity.

Meanwhile, the desire for empirical proof in the early modern period amounted to nothing less than a craving. As the Italian writer Vittorio Messori recently observed, Caravaggio’s Incredulity of Saint Thomas of 1605 shows the doubting apostle probing his finger deep into the wounded side of the resurrected Christ, whereas in the Bible, Thomas barely touches Jesus before falling to his knees in adoration. Indeed, Doubting Thomas could stand as the patron saint of the Renaissance; for the fifteenth century’s critical scrutiny of ancient Greek and Roman literature naturally gave rise to critical scrutiny of the Bible, the writings of the Church Fathers, and the whole documentary apparatus underpinning Christianity.

In a famous example, by analyzing the Latin style of the Donations of Constantine, the purportedly fourth-century deed whereby the first Christian emperor turned over vast Imperial properties to the nascent Church, the fifteenth-century scholar Lorenzo Valla unmasked a medieval forgery—and robbed the papacy of crucial evidence for the legitimacy of its claims to ancient Roman real estate. But Valla was hardly alone. In some respects, by the early sixteenth century, the Church’s foundations began to look as precarious as the physical structure of St. Peter’s basilica, condemned as hopelessly unsound by Pope Julius II in 1506—only a few years before Martin Luther, in 1517, called the very legitimacy of the papacy into question.

No aspect of Christian doctrine, however, looked as vulnerable, or meant so much, as the sacraments, the seven basic ceremonies that marked the various stages of life in the faith: baptism, confirmation, the Eucharist (communion), marriage, penitence or confession, ordination, and that death- bed blessing known as extreme unction. As the Protestants would contend with increasing vehemence, only baptism and communion had any actual basis in Scripture, and of these two, communion was only prefigured—in the Last Supper—not described as it was actually practiced in Christian ritual.

As Stephens explains in careful detail, the sacraments were regarded not only as symbols of human contact with divinity; their effects were thought to be real. Baptism literally washed away sin. The bread and wine of communion literally became the body and blood of Christ, although they continued to look like bread and wine. The fact that this transubstantiation was imperceptible to human senses had never been a simple doctrine to accept, and many a medieval miracle was already directed toward proving its factual reality. The fourteenth-century mystic Saint Catherine of Siena claimed that she could feel the Lord’s bones crunching between her teeth as she chewed the Host, and when a doubting priest in the central Italian city of Bolsena saw the Host bleed as he held it up for consecration, the bloody linen in which it had been wrapped became (and remains) a popular goal for pilgrims—which is why the relic was stolen in the Middle Ages by the rival city of Orvieto. It is no accident that both Saint Catherine and the Miracle of Bolsena were given renewed attention in the same period that gave rise to close investigation of literary texts, close examination of nature, and perspectival art; in a culture obsessed with empirical reality, they supplied the nearest approximation to eyewitness proof.

Stephens’s ingenious contention is that the same ravenous search for empirical proof of the sacraments drove contemporary theologians to devise a coherent theory of the demonic arts as proof by negation of the sacraments’ reality:

Witchcraft theory and Protestantism emerged between 1400 and 1600 as manifestations of the same crisis of confidence in the efficacy of the sacraments, that is, of the efficacy of their energies and effects. The effects of the sacraments had come to seem imaginary because they were imperceptible. Where Protestantism openly contested sacramental efficacy, witchcraft theory attempted to defend it, but it did so covertly, indirectly, and in bad faith. Protestants exhibited, and witchcraft theorists resisted, their skepticism and doubt.10

It is the profundity of the doubt, and its religious basis, that in Stephens’s view explains the virulence of the witch hunters’ crusade, a crusade that spared no horrific means of interrogation or punishment, that included animals and property as its victims as well as people, and whose baleful effects were as insidiously pervasive as those of the anti-Semitism with which belief in witchcraft was often closely associated. Stephens succeeds in telling this brutal, tragic tale with supreme delicacy, sparing his readers the gruesome specifics in which many works on the subject, Renaissance and modern, have tended to revel, and tempering his incandescent anger where a lesser writer would have indulged in sermons—instead, wisely, he leaves the sermons to the witch hunters, and they damn themselves.

Why, if the true point of contention was the validity of the Eucharist, did the investigators of witchcraft place such an inordinate emphasis on demonic sex, and why did they concentrate their inquiries on women? Stephens shrewdly avoids making obvious remarks about the prurience of a celibate clergy, and argues instead that the emphasis on sexual experience was “not pornographic, but metaphysical”:

Interactions [with demons] were imagined as fully corporeal and included sexual intercourse, conceptualized as a form of knowledge gathering…. The real demon lovers, the persons who most ardently desired physical relationships with embodied devils, were the theologians themselves. Their desire for “carnal knowledge” of demons was, not pornographic, but metaphysical.

He discusses the preponderance of women in the annals of witchcraft with similar perception. In medieval Christianity as in the ancient world, contact with demons was reserved above all for necromancers and wizards, wise, educated men who summoned the spirits to do their bidding. The demons who possessed witches, on the other hand, usually exercised a dominant role, for which women, generally perceived as passive partners both socially and sexually, were ideally fitted:

Because most women were illiterate, their sexuality was the only trait that literate men could imagine bringing them into contact with demons. Kramer could imagine women as the ideal witnesses…to demonic reality, because a woman who confessed to being ravished by a demon was testifying to the existence of a suprahuman presence that left her no choice but to believe in its reality.

As Stephens describes him, Dr. Faustus, unquestionably a child of the sixteenth century, falls somewhere in between active necromancer and passive witch:

The early sixteenth-century story of Doctor Faustus entered Western European tradition after the stereotype of the witch had formed, but it still looked back to the earlier ideal of contacting demons as an activity for learned men. It showed the influence of witchcraft mainly in its unrelenting emphasis on Faustus’ evil intentions and in his sexual relations with demons….

In one respect, Stephens could have made his central thesis still stronger. Over and over again, he follows the twists and turns in his subjects’ arguments, contending that they themselves were aware of the weakness of their evidence and their logic. But he never shows that contemporaries reading these treatises found their logic strained. Obviously those who simply copied them—as many did—did not see any problem. But there were contemporary readers who responded very much as Stephens does. The Ferrarese scholar Celio Calcagnini, friend of Erasmus and expert on natural history, had little liking for what he saw as superstition. He advised his nephew, for example, not to dismiss a servant woman whose facial hair made her colleagues suspicious of her; if her character was good, he argued, she deserved to keep her job—a remarkable argument at a time when Siamese twins and unusual calves were exhibited in the streets and described in elaborate pamphlets as signs of divine vengeance to come.

Calcagnini read Pico’s Screech-Owl as soon as it appeared, even before the complimentary copy sent by the author arrived. And he told his friend, quite frankly, that though he admired the book’s elegant style, varied content, and vast learning, and had believed Pico’s arguments while he read them, once he put the book down, he returned to his skepticism. Calcagnini could not bring himself to believe that demons “can deceive us with such illusions, or mock men with miracles.” Jesus had cast out Satan, oracles had ceased; how then could demons command the powers that Pico attributed to them? If anyone—not just an ignorant woman, but Calcagnini himself—really experienced strange doings “through shadows and images,” he protested, Aristotle rather than demonic agency could best explain it: black bile (melancholy) was disturbing the victim’s mind.11 So much, from this reader’s standpoint, for the reality of demonic experience—which, as Stephens shows, was the central point of the treatises.

Henry Cornelius Agrippa, the greatest of the Renaissance magi, certainly accepted that demons existed and worked in the world. His enormous On Occult Philosophy of 1533, which became the magical desk reference of John Dee and dozens of others, offered detailed instructions on how to contact demons and use their powers. But he despised the witch hunters and their belief that men and women had direct bodily intercourse with demons, which he saw as higher beings that inhabited air and the heavens. When an inquisitor accused and jailed a woman in Metz, insisting that she had brought a diabolical child into the world, Agrippa struck at the root of the witch hunters’ illogic: the child, he pointed out, had been baptized. The ritual of baptism included exorcism (as it would until 1969). If the exorcism were effective, then even a child born from a demon could not retain any diabolic spirit—after all, the semen that engendered children came from human beings.12 Questions like these show that at least some contemporaries read the witch-finders’ treatises as critically as Stephens does—though most learned men remained imprisoned within an iron cage of fears, desires, and assumptions that gave the texts an appearance of rigor and plausibility.13

And there were those few who dispensed with the whole system altogether. In 1593, the heretic philosopher Giordano Bruno, consigned to Inquisitorial prison in Venice (and destined to die at the stake seven years later), told his cellmates

that neither Hell nor Purgatory existed, but if one of them had to exist, it would be Purgatory, which was more reasonable than Hell… because in the end everyone would be saved, and that God’s wrath was not eternal. He cited [Jeremiah 3:5] “Will he reserve his anger forever?” and also said that at the end of the world even the demons would be saved, because [Ps. 36:6] “O LORD, thou preservest man and beast.” And if I argued with him, he said that I was a beast and goatherd, and that I knew nothing.

Walter Stephens writes, in effect, as Agrippa’s and Bruno’s successor, using the tools of reason to explain why corrupt authorities wrought endless violence on the souls and bodies entrusted to their care. He could have made his rich book yet richer by engaging in a dialogue with these early critics, as well as in the merciless scrutiny of their enemies.

Still, Demon Lovers levels Bruno’s argument, elegantly reformulated, on behalf of every man, woman, cat, cow, and other living creature who ever died unjustly at the hands of misguided piety, and in doing so it proves once again that philology, in certain contexts, can be a moral art. For all their learning, Stephens shows, for all the arcane texts they cited and the bizarre anecdotes they retailed, the hunters of witches knew nothing about what they most wanted to know. That insidious fact was at once their goad, their problem, and their grievous sin.

This Issue

September 26, 2002