In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Witchcraft

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Anthologies
  • Journals and Series
  • Collections of Sources
  • Witchcraft Trials
  • Witchcraft and Gender
  • Demons, Medicine, and Bodies
  • Inquisition
  • Magic
  • Superstition
  • Witchcraft and Heresy
  • The Murray Thesis
  • Witchcraft and Shamanism

Medieval Studies Witchcraft
Nancy Mandeville Caciola
  • LAST REVIEWED: 22 December 2020
  • LAST MODIFIED: 29 September 2015
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195396584-0190


The classic era of the great witch hunts was not the medieval, but the Early Modern period of the 16th and 17th centuries. However, the Middle Ages saw the formation of the image of the witch over the course of the centuries between 1000 and 1500. By the end of the 15th century, there existed an extensive literature that described witches as dedicated enemies of humankind who paid homage to the devil. Witches were said to gather regularly with others of their kind in debauched meetings, or “sabbats,” flying to these events with the help of magical ointments, enchanted brooms or logs, or simply “in spirit” on their own. There they feasted, enjoyed sexual trysts (sometimes with the devil himself), murdered any infants who resulted from these unions, and planned harmful acts against their neighbors. The latter nefarious deeds often involved impeding human, animal, or crop fertility. The notion of the sabbat, which emerged in the 1430s, permitted witchcraft to be imagined as a vast conspiracy; and the close association between women and witches likewise was cemented in the European imagination by the end of the medieval period. All these ideas found their most forceful expression in the late medieval witch-hunting manual known as the Malleus Maleficarum, or Hammer of Witches. The gradual coalescence of the above stereotype represents the confluence of many different areas of culture. Scholars of witchcraft not only examine witchcraft trials, but also theological treatises and grimoires (books of magic spells); elite medical theory and the traditional folklore of illiterates; and demonologies, inquisitorial handbooks, and antiheretical tracts. In consequence, the student who wishes to gain a clear understanding of the medieval history of witchcraft must consult several different bodies of scholarly literature. Scholars have long debated the relative importance of each of these areas to the history of witchcraft. While some have argued that witches really did exist as marginalized women and men who worshipped the devil, others suggest that witchcraft was an illusion, a dark fantasy of the intelligentsia that fed off deep-seated cultural fears of the devil and of women. Some historians trace the genesis of witchcraft accusations to village tensions and beliefs about magic and maleficium (occult magical harming practices); others note that the presence of an inquisitor in a region often corresponded with an outbreak of trials, suggesting that witchcraft trials chiefly were instigated by elites. A few researchers have pointed to medieval ideas about demonic possession as forming an important prelude to the formation of the witch stereotype, while others foreground the medieval battle against heresy as a leading factor in fostering anxieties about a conspiracy of human beings dedicated to evil. Lastly, a vigorous strand of contemporary scholarship has excavated elements of pre-Christian folklore in the witchcraft trials, and most scholars now agree that witchcraft beliefs in many areas referenced traditional shamanic folklore. In sum, few areas of historical study are as rich in scholarly debate and interpretation as witchcraft studies. This trend has only accelerated in the early 21st century.

General Overviews

The works in this section represent broad introductions to the topic of witchcraft in the Middle Ages. Golden 2006 is a handy encyclopedia. Klaniczay 2010 provides a useful historiographical essay on the development of witchcraft studies as a field: though many of the references concern the Early Modern rather than the medieval period, the general trends identified there may guide the reader through the subject. General studies of medieval witchcraft include Kieckhefer 2011, Cohn 2000, and Russell 1984. Jolly, et al. 2001 presents in-depth, yet introductory, essays that are useful in the classroom. Two excellent studies with a regional focus are Duni 2007, for Italy, and Mitchell 2011, for Scandinavia. Though based in restricted locales, both the foregoing works have broader implications.

  • Cohn, Norman. Europe’s Inner Demons: The Demonization of Christians in Medieval Christendom. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2000.

    First published in 1975 in a slightly different form and without the subtitle, this provocative book traces connections between the prosecution of heresy in the Middle Ages and the formation of the witch stereotype as the ultimate enemy of Christendom.

  • Duni, Matteo. Under the Devil’s Spell: Witches, Sorcerers and the Inquisition in Renaissance Italy. Syracuse, NY: Syracuse University Press, 2007.

    The interpretive sections of this book present a good guide to Renaissance Italian witchcraft, supplemented by translations of several witchcraft and sorcery trials dating from the 15th to the 17th centuries.

  • Golden, Richard. Encyclopedia of Witchcraft: The Western Tradition. 4 vols. Santa Barbara, CA: ABC-CLIO, 2006.

    A compilation of brief articles on a wide variety of people, texts, and themes related to the history of European witchcraft.

  • Jolly, Karen, Catharina Raudvere, and Edward Peters. The Middle Ages. Volume 3 of Witchcraft and Magic in Europe. Edited by Bengt Ankarloo and Stuart Clark. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2001.

    This is part of a set of six volumes spanning the history of European witchcraft from the ancient world to the end of the 20th century. This overview is suitable for classroom use.

  • Kieckhefer, Richard. European Witch Trials: Their Foundations in Popular and Learned Culture, 1300–1500. New York: Routledge, 2011.

    First published in 1975, this book was the first carefully to categorize, and to disentangle, learned and popular elements in the witch trials.

  • Klaniczay, Gábor. “A Cultural History of Witchcraft.” Magic, Ritual, and Witchcraft 5.2 (2010): 188–212.

    An overview of the historiography of witchcraft, identifying trends in the development of the study of witch beliefs as a scholarly subspecialty.

  • Mitchell, Stephen A. Witchcraft and Magic in the Nordic Middle Ages. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2011.

    A case study of witchcraft and sorcery beliefs in a society that converted relatively late to Christianity. Mitchell analyzes what can be known of pre-Christian divinatory and magical practices, and assesses the impact of conversion upon these cultural traditions.

  • Russell, Jeffrey Burton. Witchcraft in the Middle Ages. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1984.

    This study of medieval witchcraft argues that socially marginalized people likely did worship the devil as an expression of dissent. Though older, it still has some useful elements.

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