Witch Beliefs and Witch Trials in the Middle Ages: Documents and Readings by P. G. Maxwell-Stuart (review)
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Maxwell-Stuart, witch belief, witch trial, witch hunting, Medieval witchcraft, magic, Malleus Maleficarum

P. G. Maxwell-Stuart. Witch Beliefs and Witch Trials in the Middle Ages: Documents and Readings. New York and London: Continuum, 2011. Pp. 228.

The introduction of Maxwell-Stuart’s collection of sources, Witch Beliefs and Witch Trials in the Middle Ages: Documents and Readings, begins with his description of a world that has been substantially lost to our modern minds. He describes a universe (called universum) created by a rational act of God, where heaven, the earth, and hell were linked together in a meaningful purpose. Living among us humans, according to this worldview, were magical creatures, ghosts, faeries, and hobgoblins, some of whom sought to harm, others to help. Magic and religion offered two methods to control these potentially dangerous spirits. The Church considered its methods of interaction with the divine as licit while condemning other more magical approaches concerning the supernatural (such as worshiping demons) as illicit superstition at first, then as idolatry and apostasy. Maxwell-Stuart cautions us today against dismissing demon worship as “fantasy, lies, or gossip” (p. 7). Instead, we should see magic as “rational and logical” (p. 12) ways of understanding God’s plan for the universum.

Maxwell-Stuart goes on to assert that nineteenth and early-twentieth-century scholars of witchcraft belonging to the so-called “rationalist” school rejected the old rational and logical universum as irrational in a postindustrial [End Page 104] age based on science and anticlericalism. Among those scholars was the German Joseph Hansen, who assembled a large compendium of extracts, Quellen und Untersuchungen zur Geschichte des Hexenwahns und der Hexenverfolgung im Mittelalter (published 1901, available online, e.g., through Google Books or the Internet Archive) focusing on German, French, Italian, and Spanish sources in Latin from the thirteenth century to about 1540. Maxwell-Stuart now offers his selection of primary source documents from Hansen’s tome translated into English. The first part contains full translations of twenty-three papal letters, decrees, and the like, along with brief summaries and snippets of several more of the same from between 1258 and 1526. The second presents eighteen more translations of Hansen’s accumulated scholarly treatises and observations about demonology and witchcraft, with many more summarized. Maxwell-Stuart skips Hansen’s sections devoted to the Malleus Maleficarum (of which he has published a good abridged English translation) and Johannes Nider (whom Hansen blames for the strong streak of misogyny in the hunts). Hansen’s Part 6 supplies both Maxwell-Stuart’s Part 3, containing seventeen records from courts of various inquisitions, as well as his Part 4, presenting thirty-three proceedings of “secular” courts (although these include courts of prince-bishoprics).

With these translations, Maxwell-Stuart offers a great service for the interested reader trying to understand witch-hunting. Papal documents exhibit leadership from above, crowds of townspeople show pressure from below (e.g., Part 4, no. 17), while payments to guards and executioners demonstrate the mundane routine of persecution of witches (e.g., Part 4, no. 10). Most of the documents are short, two pages or fewer, and to the point. A major exception is the extended “Recollectio,” an anonymous tract of 1460 about “Waldensians” (Part 2, no. 11), which provides an in-depth examination of most aspects of witch-beliefs, accusations, and criminal procedures. Oddly, Maxwell-Stuart does not give the tract its title, yet refers to it later by that name in a commentary on another source. Another fascinating long example is the detailed trial of Antoinette, wife of Jean Rose (Part 3, no. 13). It is almost heartbreaking to follow how torture breaks her will.

Explaining such persecution still remains a challenge for scholars of the witch hunts and probably always will. Maxwell-Stuart, as his introduction indicates, seems to think that in its fear of people choosing an alternative of magic to control the supernatural world, the Church went from disdaining magic as superstition into seeing it as a full-fledged heresy. The documents here confirm that general progression of events, but still leave unexplained [End Page 105] why many clergy came to see a reality in...