From Magic to Maleficium: The Crafting of Witchery in Late Medieval Text

From Magic to Maleficium: The Crafting of Witchery in Late Medieval Text

Paper by Rochelle E. Rojas, Duke University

Given at the 2012 Vagantes Conferences at Indiana University

“When a woman thinks alone, she thinks of evil things” ~ Johannes Nider 

In 1437, theologian Johannes Nider warned about a new threat to the Christian world – witches. He described their debased religious rites and heinous perversions. For the innocent reader, he was unmasking a secret sect of sorcerers.

Magic clashed with the Church since Antiquity however, at first this wasn’t a problem until the later Middle Ages and Early Modern period when the preoccupation with witchcraft exploded. The 15th century was the turning point for this change. Fewer than 100 witch trials were recorded prior to 1420; just 10 years later, this number jumps to hundreds of accusations and the burning of at least 200 people.


How did these fears of magical practitioners morph into the witch trials of the fifteenth century? Nider’s Formicarius did not cause the witch craze but his text-enabled witch hunts in two ways: 1.) It detailed the schematic of organized witchcraft. 2.) Nider located this sect within the Christian community. This combination of this presentation of an organized sect and one working within the Christian community gave the clergy the tools and means to pursue witches, a.k.a “maleficos” .

Nider concerned himself with a multitude of clerical issues – he preached against corruption in the Church and about heresy. There are two significant aspects to Nider’s work that makes him unique to other contemporaries writing on witchcraft; 1.) Nider does not portray random witches, they are an organised, cohesive sect. 2.) They are able to do their evil because of careless believers, i.e., parental failure to watch over children, failure to baptise them, or teach them about God. Nider drew on the well-known knowledge of ritual magic and stereotypes commonly used against early Christians, Jews, Pagans and Cathars.


Nider has also been credited with feminizing witches, i.e., making the image of the witch inherently female. However, at no point does he equate witches with women directly. Nider remarks that good women have praise and have sanctified men, therefore he was aware of sanity women and their goodness. There is a definite correlation between feminity and witchcraft, but he did not make women witches. Nider does not initially include the witches night flight even though a contemporary of his wrote about this phenomena. Nider includes nocturnal navigation but not in book five. Belief in night flight had deep roots and was very popular in Europe being well entrenched in the witchcraft stereotype.

Nider was a reformer? He wrote about various religious movements and religious treatises. The imagery of blood libel against the Jews and the stories of witches eating 30 babies in one night spoke to the absolute inversion of Christian rites, and the most heinous crimes. However, Nider does not address Jews in this text and focuses solely on Christian heretical texts.

Was Nider’s text a perversion of folk medical treatises and healers? Nider’s descriptions of witches is a perversion of this, however not entirely for this purpose. Many functionalist explanations of witches have been debunked. They were accused of being witches because they were witches, not so much that they were healers, or usurping masculine power, or because there weren’t Jews around to persecute. There was some of this prevalent but not the sole reason for his treatise.

The beginning of the 15th century ushered in a new era of the meaning of witchcraft. While The Formicarious created a cohesive notion of the witch and provided the means to hunt witches, it did not invent them.


Rochelle Rojas is now an Assistant Professor of History at Kalamazoo College. Click here to read her Ph.D. dissertation Bad Christians and Hanging Toads: Witch Trials in Early Modern Spain, 1525-1675 

Top Image: Marginal decorations of “des vaudoises” in Le champion des dames, by Martin Le France, 1451