The Historical Significance of the Treatise


Sinister look, sinister contents: The Alberta manuscript

In the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, parts of Europe—most notably the territories of the Holy Roman Empire (modern Germany)—witnessed epidemic waves of paranoia and fear. Tens of thousands of people were accused, tried, and executed as “witches.” The word referred to a complex set of crimes: “witches” were suspected not only of practising hostile magic, but also of flying through the air to secret nocturnal gatherings at which they worshipped the devil and took part in unspeakable rites.

This bundle of outlandish ideas, known to scholars as the “elaborated theory” (or "cumulative concept") of witchcraft, has murky origins. Those who articulated it did not “invent” it per se; rather, they seem to have combined traditional literary tropes, which had been levelled against feared outsiders for centuries, with ideas stemming from peasant or folk roots.

The first category included such fantasies as the “witches’ sabbath”—a kind of anti-mass at which participants were said to adore the devil in the form of various beasts, to desecrate the Eucharist and other Christian symbols, and to feast and fornicate with demons. This was an old and well-worn story; similar charges had been levelled against Jews and heretics (including Cathars and Waldensians) in previous centuries, and against Christians themselves in late antiquity. The second category of ideas included the notion that witches flew through the sky on shafts of wood or brooms—an idea that seems to have had roots in the pagan “wild hunt,” a nocturnal journey of the unsettled souls of the dead that fascinated and terrified some believers in Medieval Europe.

Scholars differ as to the precise point at which these various ideas coalesced into a single stereotype—that of the devil-worshipping, crop-destroying, child-killing, night-flying witch. What is clear is that the intelligentsia of Catholic Europe, including its learned inquisitors, began to codify and systematize it within the framework of scholastic science and philosophy in the early fifteenth century. In the 1430s, a group of writers connected with the Council of Basel produced the first wave of treatises (or academic essays) on the subject; other writings followed in subsequent decades.


Detail from the table of contents, fol. 7r

Johannes Tinctor’s Invectives contre la secte de vauderie was one of the later writings influenced by the Council of Basel. Tinctor was a former rector of the University of Cologne, a prominent academic who had indirect ties to the Basel scholars. (His academic mentor had been present at the Council.) In 1460, while he was serving as a canon in the city of Tournai, he became directly tied with one of the most infamous witch-hunts of the late-medieval era: the Vauderie d’Arras (1459-61). The affair in nearby Arras was one of the first large-scale witch-hunts in Europe to focus on the “elaborated theory” and to investigate “witches’ sabbaths”; Tinctor, who was involved in investigating allegations against suspects living in his city, took the opportunity to pen his own treatise on the problem of diabolical sorcery.

The treatise that he produced is a fascinating—and sinister—study of an imaginary crisis that speaks as much to the culture and mentality of its author as it does to the world he inhabited. Shrill and vituperative yet clever and manipulative, the treatise calls upon Christians, and especially princes and prelates, to extirpate the imaginary sect for its imaginary crimes. This was a potentially explosive injunction in the years shortly after the Muslim conquest of Constantinople: a time when xenophobia, crusading zeal, and apocalyptic anxiety were widespread in the Burgundian territories and beyond. 

The treatise did nothing to preserve the reputations of the bloodthirsty inquisitors who murdered thirteen people at Arras. It did, however, attract a wide readership. It was copied and circulated amongst noblemen and printed for distribution to wealthy burghers. It thus made a significant contribution to the “elaborated theory,” giving support to a movement that would be buttressed 26 years later by the publication of the famous Malleus Maleficarum (“Hammer of Witches”). 

Next: Editing and Analyzing the Text: The Arras Witchcraft Project