Starting this month and through early 2015 the British Museum will exhibit the portrayal of witches and their craft in artwork. The show will feature artists ranging from Durer to Goya and their interpretations of witches that haunted the night and cavorted with the Devil.
The exhibit piques my interest for several reasons as it returns my thinking to the idea of the advance of the printing press and the growth of belief in witchcraft. With the creation of the movable type, books became more widespread and could immediately influence populations. While the ability to read and write, literacy, varied from nation to nation there were always literati that could help disseminate new ideas. These new books also provided the first opportunity for widespread artist portrayals of the unholy acts ‘witches’ were accused of.
The infamous misogynist witchcraft treatise Malleus Maleficarum saw its first printing in 1486. By 1520 the work by Kramer and Sprenger was reprinted 14 times. Until the late 15th century ecclesiastic prosecutors had little central guidance on how to deal with witches until printing ideas and procedures more readily. The Malleus became the most well known guidebook of witch prosecution. The consolidation of European witchcraft views also came as works like chapbooks and pamphlets filled with sensational tales became more widely consumed. One such example was the case of the Chelmsford Witches, their trial and its sensational content, was printed for a wider audience than that which lived within ear shot. In the case of Matthew Hopkins, England’s self-proclaimed Witchfinder General, produced The Discovery of Witches in 1647 and his colleague, John Stearne contributed his tales of witch-hunting in 1648’s A Confirmation and Study of Witchcraft. The ideas spread in salacious and sensational ways were given credence by clever addition of “facts” such as in the case of the Malleus which tacked a Papal Bull on it’s introduction as pseudo-sanctioning.
In a span of five centuries ‘witches’ were either women deluded into thinking they were flying in the night, according to the Canon Episcopi, or simple practitioners of low magic; to devil cavorting heretics. It is this shift from harmless low, village magicians or healers to heretics that thrust witches into the forefront of public imagination. With the creation of the printing press, the stories, images and rules engraved the heretical activities as fact and punishable by torture or death. While it would be simplistic to claim the spread of printed materials caused the witch craze, what it did do was make “evidence” readily available and illustrated by images that thrilled and terrified.
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