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  • Satan the Heretic. The Birth of Demonology in the Medieval West
  • Sophie Page
Satan the Heretic. The Birth of Demonology in the Medieval West. By Alain Boureau. Translated by Teresa Lavender Fagan. (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press. 2006. Pp. 216. $30.00, £19.00.)

In this book Alain Boureau argues that a new obsession with the Devil and demons among theologians in the late thirteenth and early fourteenth century was a crucial stage in the origins of the witchcraft persecutions. He shows that the period 1280-1330 was a turning point in theological attitudes to human-demon interaction, with a significant event being Pope John XXII's consultation of ten theologians and canonists in 1320 on the categorization of magical practices as heretical. The causes for the new anxiety about magical practices and the heightened scholastic interest in demons included the influx of learned magic texts translated from Arabic into Latin in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries and the perceived threat to orthodoxy posed by dualist heresies.

The discipline of demonology emerged in a context of changing attitudes to the efficacy of magical rituals. In the thirteenth century there was a shift from skepticism about the reality of magical transformations to a widespread belief that magical practitioners could produce real effects in the physical world with the assistance of demons. Boureau argues that in the period 1280-1330 the fear of demons grew as stories about the ways humans and spirits could be bound together through possession, invocation, and pact became more credible and significant. These three types of interaction with spirits had different implications. Boureau draws attention to the openness of the human subject in the Middle Ages. It was thought to have the potential to undergo [End Page 624] incorporation and inhabitation with the divine, but also to be vulnerable to possession by the Devil through a mere word or ill-judged wish. A second development, which is not discussed in detail but which supports Boureau's argument about the theological anxiety about demons, was the new emphasis found in learned magic texts on the ability of humans to compel, persuade, and manipulate spirits. This was particularly significant in the genre of necromancy, which involved the explicit summoning of demons and was mostly practiced by male clerics. The third development was the concept of a strong and heretical pact between human and demon which, as Boureau shows, acquired a "fearsome actuality" in the thirteenth century.

For theologians, possession highlighted the particular susceptibility of female bodies to supernatural influence, while necromancy strengthened the notion of alliances between humans and demons in the practice of magic. The concept of a Satanic pact provided justification for treating magical practices as heretical and brought them more explicitly under the aegis of inquisitors. Boureau explains the century-long gap between the development of these concepts and the first witchcraft persecutions of the early fifteenth century by arguing that there were initial weaknesses in the procedures of repression. Yet he also suggests that the social, economic, and religious crises of the fourteenth century provided a vivid context for imagining a terrible demonic enemy bearing down on the Christian community through the susceptible bodies of women who had bound themselves to Satan with heretical pacts.

As Boureau himself notes, his book provides only one strand of explanation for the origins of the witchcraft persecutions, but it is a convincing one. At times the organization of the book and its imprecise terminology (for example, the terms "personality" and "sorceror") are confusing, and not all of his examples are as fully explained as one would wish. But this is a valuable addition to the history of medieval demonology and magic.

Sophie Page
University College London