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Overview

The fifteenth century is more than any other the century of the persecution of witches. So wrote Johan Huizinga more than eighty years ago in his classic Autumn of the Middle Ages. 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. 1438), a Dominican theologian and reformer who alternately persecuted heretics and negotiated with them--a man who was by far the most important church authority to write on witchcraft in the early ¹fteenth century. Nider was a major source for the infamous Malleus Male¹carum, or Hammer of Witches (1486), 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 ¹fteenth 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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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher

“This is a brief, but interesting book.”

—James Given, Speculum: A Journal of Medieval Studies

“Bailey has written a book that should be read by everyone interested in witchcraft and late medieval religion.”

—James Given, Speculum: A Journal of Medieval Studies

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780271022260
  • Publisher: Penn State University Press
  • Publication date: 1/1/2002
  • Series: Magic in History Series
  • Edition description: New Edition
  • Edition number: 1
  • Pages: 214
  • Sales rank: 704,543
  • Product dimensions: 0.49 (w) x 6.00 (h) x 9.00 (d)

Meet the Author

Michael D. Bailey is Visiting Scholar at the Medieval Institute of the University of Notre Dame.

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Read an Excerpt


Battling Demons

WITCHCRAFT, HERESY, AND REFORM IN THE LATE MIDDLE AGES



By MICHAEL D. BAILEY
THE PENNSYLVANIA STATE UNIVERSITY PRESS
Copyright © 2003

The Pennsylvania State University
All right reserved.



ISBN: 0271022264



The Life of Johannes Nider

On the twenty-seventh of July 1431 a great procession took place in the city of Basel and a mass was celebrated in the cathedral high over the Rhine. Four days earlier the great ecumenical Council of Basel had officially convened after much delay. Now, on the first Friday after that event, formal ceremonies were being held, and during these celebrations Johannes Nider delivered an opening sermon to the laity who had come to witness the spectacle. Given the importance of the council as a gathering of ecclesiastical leaders from across Western Christendom and the role it was intended to play in the governance of the entire church, as he stood before the assembled crowd Nider may well have felt himself to be standing at the very center of the Christian world.

Throughout the early years of the great synod at Basel, Nider was a leading figure within the council. This is to say that he was a leading figure within the church as a whole at this time. He was also a high-ranking member of the Dominican order, a respected religious reformer, and a skilled theologian. To have risen so high in the church, especially from such humble origins as his (he was the son ofa cobbler in a small town in Swabia), marked Nider as a remarkable man, as his contemporariesand near-contemporaries seem to have recognized, for in a world where few people aside from kings and saints could expect to see their lives chronicled, he attracted two early biographers. The Dominican Johannes of Mainz, who served briefly under Nider in Basel, included a long section on his former prior in a history of the Basel Dominicans that he wrote between 1442 and 1444. A generation later, in the 1460s, the Dominican Johannes Meyer discussed Nider in two histories of the reform movement in the Order of Preachers.

Nider himself also seems to have had something of an autobiographical impulse, although, as befitted his severe religious humility, he kept it extremely muted. Nevertheless, much information about his life can be gleaned from his great work, the Formicarius. This large treatise takes the form of a dialogue between a theologian and a curious but lazy student, and the theologian is obviously intended to be Nider himself. Questioned by his pupil on a wide array of issues, he always begins his answers, as any good theologian should, by citing earlier authorities-the Bible, the early church fathers, Thomas Aquinas, Bonaventure, Saint Bernard, and so forth. His lazy student, however, always tires of these complex and colorless explanations. He demands contemporary examples that illustrate the points the theologian is trying to make. Thus Nider supplies himself with an excuse to relate edifying stories that he has heard and events that he has witnessed, and many of these accounts present some brief but direct glimpses into his own life. "I learned of the following while I was a student in Cologne," he would write as an entree into one tale, or "While I was in Regensburg with Juan of Palomar I witnessed the following," or "While at the Council of Constance in my youth ..."

Revealing as these nuggets of information sometimes can be, the reader will understand, of course, that Nider was hardly concerned to present a clear and coherent account of his life. Neither were his two early biographers, Johannes of Mainz and Johannes Meyer. Both men were fervently committed observant Dominicans, members of the reform movement of which Nider had been a leader. Their primary purpose in recounting his life was to praise the noble character and many virtues of one of the heroes of their movement, not to provide a coherent chronology of his life. Still, countless medieval lives have vanished entirely from the historical record, and we are fortunate when we can still see one in any detail at all, even if it is, as it were, through a dark and somewhat fragmented glass.

The primary focus of this book is on Nider as a thinker. My main concern, therefore, has more to do with his ideas and the written works in which he expressed those ideas than with his "lived experience." In fact, many of the events of his life can appear somewhat dull in comparison with the important and often disturbing ideas that occupied his mind. For all his preoccupation with witches, for example, Nider was never a witch-hunter. Indeed, so far as I know, he never personally encountered anyone he regarded as a witch, although he did know at least one necromancer-that is, a learned demonic sorcerer-in Vienna. On only one recorded occasion did he function as an inquisitor of heresy, and even then not in a formal sense. He certainly was active, as a preacher, as a prior, as a professor, and as a member of the Council of Basel, but for the most part, his life revolved around ideas, not acts. Still, ideas are influenced by actions and experiences. Nider's own exposition of ideas in stories drawn from his life in the Formicarius provides ample evidence of that. Thus any study that purports to offer an understanding of Nider's thought must first try to come to an understanding of the man, to outline the course of his life, and to examine those events that influenced and shaped him. This story, never before told in any detail in English, is a fascinating and remarkable one. It is the story of a young boy from an out-of-the-way corner of the German empire who rose by dint of skill, intelligence, and devotion until he stood at the center of the religious world in his day. He dealt with emperors, popes, and heretics. He addressed himself to a broad range of ecclesiastical and religious issues. And he helped to formulate some of the darkest ideas that ever sprang from a medieval mind.

NIDER'S EARLY LIFE AND EDUCATION: ISNY TO THE UNIVERSITY OF VIENNA

For all that we know of Nider's life, we can do no more than guess at the year of his birth. Since he entered the Dominican order in 1402 and since early constitutions of the Order of Preachers called for priors not to admit men who were under eighteen years of age, we can estimate that he was born sometime before 1385. He grew up in the small Swabian town of Isny (about sixty miles southwest of Augsburg and some twenty miles inland from the eastern end of Lake Constance), but little is known of his early life or family, only that his father was a poor cobbler who died sometime before his son completed his university education and that his mother never remarried, preferring to live as a chaste widow. The family was almost certainly very pious and encouraged, if not pushed, their son into a religious life. His early schooling most likely took place in the local Benedictine monastery.

While Nider was still in his first years in Isny, three hundred miles to the east, in Vienna, an event occurred that would shape the course of the rest of his life. In 1388 a movement for reform was launched within the Dominican order. Throughout the later fourteenth century, many devout clerics, not just Dominicans but those in other orders as well, were growing concerned with what they perceived to be increasing corruption, lax discipline, and moral decline in religious orders. Several reform movements emerged spontaneously, all calling for a return to strict observance of the original rules and constitutions of the orders as a way to combat this perceived decadence. Thus they came to be known as "observant" movements. Initially the Dominican movement was unorganized. Individual friars sought to adhere to strict observance in convents where the general observance was lax, but this endeavor proved extremely difficult. Then in 1388, at the general chapter meeting of the order in Vienna, Konrad of Prussia, a friar from Cologne, approached his master general, Raymond of Capua, with a simple proposal: each province of the order should establish at least one reformed house, to which friars seeking a strict observance could go. Raymond approved, and by the end of the next year, 1389, the first such house, the Dominican priory in Colmar, was reformed under Konrad's direction.

We do not know when in his youth Johannes Nider first came into contact with the ideas of the Dominican reform movement, but he chose to enter the order at Colmar sometime shortly after April 8, 1402, when this convent was still one of only two reformed Dominican houses, along with the Nuremberg priory, in German lands. Sometime after completing his one-year novitiate, he was sent to Worms for confirmation and ordination. Although Strassburg was the episcopal see nearest to Colmar, the bishop of Worms, Eckhard of Dersch, had a reputation for piety and his office was free from any hint of simony, factors that obviously appealed to the morally strict reformers. It was probably at this point, as a full Dominican friar at Colmar, that Nider met and traveled with another of the early leaders of the Dominican reform in Germany, Johannes Mulberg. Mulberg had been an early disciple of Konrad of Prussia, and by 1400 he was in Basel, just south of Colmar on the Rhine, preaching zealously against corruption in the church and among the laity. In the Formicarius, Nider stated that he served for a time as Mulberg's socius itineris, his official traveling companion (Dominicans were required to go in pairs whenever they left their convents to travel or to preach), but did not indicate when or for how long the two men were together. In 1404 and 1405, however, Mulberg delivered sermons in Strassburg, and the journey from Basel down the Rhine would have taken him directly past Colmar. Nothing could have been more natural than for Konrad to send his bright new friar to travel as a socius of his old friend and companion in reform.

The years after 1405 are a blank in Nider's life, and we have no certain information about him until he appears as a theology student at the University of Cologne sometime before 1413. Typical Dominican practice, however, was for a new friar to undergo two or three more years of training at his home convent after his novitiate. Often this training involved traveling as the socius of an experienced older friar, as Nider did with Mulberg. Only then could a Dominican begin his long course of formal studies. Nider had already learned grammar, most likely from the Benedictines in Isny, but he would still have had to complete five years of schooling in the liberal arts at a Dominican studium before he could undertake the study of theology. In all, these seven or eight years of training and schooling would account for the period between the end of Nider's novitiate and his appearance in Cologne.

We can easily surmise what sort of training Nider was undergoing during the years before his initial study of theology in Cologne, but we cannot be so sure where this training took place. In his Formicarius, Nider seems to indicate that at least some of his preliminary education took place in Vienna, where he would later complete his degree in theology, for he writes at one point of "the time when I first studied arts at the University of Vienna." Since the basic liberal arts education had to precede the study of theology, this statement would indicate that Nider left Colmar and traveled first to distant Austria for several years before returning to the Rhineland to begin his theological education at Cologne. Two strong pieces of evidence, however, suggest that Nider did not begin his studies in Vienna. First, the matriculation records of the university show no sign that Nider studied there at any time before 1422. Second, when Nider did petition for admission to the University of Vienna in 1422, he was required to undergo a public examination, since he was "not well known" to the faculty there, hardly an indication of his having been a student in Vienna only a decade earlier.

The course of Nider's life becomes only slightly more certain after he arrives in Cologne to undertake his training in theology. He mentions on several occasions in the Formicarius that he studied in Cologne, but gives no information that could be used to give a firm date to his time there. We do know that when he later studied at Vienna, he almost immediately began to lecture on Scripture and then on the Sentences of Peter Lombard. Thus he must already have completed his initial studies in theology, which would have taken at least two or three years. In view of the time necessary for his preliminary education and training in the Dominican order, he may have matriculated in Cologne as early as 1410 and remained there until around 1413. If he had encountered any delays in his early training, however, he might have matriculated a year or even two years later, and thus continued to pursue his studies until 1414 or even 1415, a possibility that might help explain some of the chronology that follows.

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Excerpted from Battling Demons by MICHAEL D. BAILEY Copyright © 2003 by The Pennsylvania State University
Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

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Table of Contents

Contents

Acknowledgments

Abbreviations

Introduction: Witchcraft, Heresy, and Reform in the Fifteenth Century

1. The Life of Johannes Nider

2. Witchcraft in the Writings of Johannes Nider

3. The Threat of Heresy: Hussites, Free Spirits, and Beguines

4. Reform of the Orders, Reform of the Religious Spirit

5. The Reform of the Christian World: Johannes Nider's Formicarius

6. Witchcraft and Reform

Conclusion: Witchcraft and the World of the Late Middle Ages

Appendix One: Chronology of Nider's Life and Datable Works

Appendix Two: Dating of Nider's Major Works Used in this Study

Appendix Three: Manuscript Copies of Nider’s Treatises

Select Bibliography

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