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Demon Lovers

Witchcraft, Sex, and the Crisis of Belief

On September 20, 1587, Walpurga Hausmännin of Dillingen in southern Germany was burned at the stake as a witch. Although she had confessed to committing a long list of maleficia (deeds of harmful magic), including killing forty—one infants and two mothers in labor, her evil career allegedly began with just one heinous act—sex with a demon. Fornication with demons was a major theme of her trial record, which detailed an almost continuous orgy of sexual excess with her diabolical paramour Federlin "in many divers places, . . . even in the street by night."

As Walter Stephens demonstrates in Demon Lovers, it was not Hausmännin or other so-called witches who were obsessive about sex with demons—instead, a number of devout Christians, including trained theologians, displayed an uncanny preoccupation with the topic during the centuries of the "witch craze." Why? To find out, Stephens conducts a detailed investigation of the first and most influential treatises on witchcraft (written between 1430 and 1530), including the infamous Malleus Maleficarum (Hammer of Witches).

Far from being credulous fools or mindless misogynists, early writers on witchcraft emerge in Stephens’s account as rational but reluctant skeptics, trying desperately to resolve contradictions in Christian thought on God, spirits, and sacraments that had bedeviled theologians for centuries. Proof of the physical existence of demons—for instance, through evidence of their intercourse with mortal witches—would provide strong evidence for the reality of the supernatural, the truth of the Bible, and the existence of God. Early modern witchcraft theory reflected a crisis of belief—a crisis that continues to be expressed today in popular debates over angels, Satanic ritual child abuse, and alien abduction.

478 pages | 16 halftones, 2 diagrams | 6 x 9 | © 2001

History: European History

Literature and Literary Criticism: Romance Languages

Medieval Studies

Religion: Christianity, Religion and Society


“This book fills an important gap by exploring the often-tangled thought processes of the first generation of ‘witchcraft theorists’ . . . [who] constructed the essentials of the early modern notion of the witch. . . . This provocative, often fascinating, book poses an original and important perspective on the meaning of the witch-figure in the history of late-medieval and Renaissance theology. It is essential reading for those interested in the witch hunts, as well as those with a general interest in fifteenth- and sixteenth-century thought.”

Elspeth Whitney | Renaissance Quarterly

“Scholars of religion must be highly indebted to Walter Stephens for providing a responsible reading of witchcraft theorists. . . . His thesis is well supported, persuasive, and a welcome antidote to sensationalist accounts of witch persecution. . . . Demon Lovers is fascinating and instructive reading for anyone who notices and fears the gulf between human intentions and their effects.”

Margaret R. Miles | Journal of the American Academy of Religion

“This important book moves witchcraft from the periphery to the center of late-medieval and early-modern intellectual and religious culture, challenges the very distinction between medieval and early modern, and forces us to reconsider seriously some basic categories of premodern European thought and life.”

Michael D. Bailey | Speculum

“The book is valuable not only because of its focus on witchcraft theoreticians and witchcraft in a theological context, but also because Stephens focuses on influential, but little-studied, early thinkers. . . . The book is essential reading for all serious students of the subject. It is a major contribution to the rehabilitation of the literature of witchcraft theory.”

Edward Peters | The Historian

Table of Contents

List of Illustrations
Note on Translations
Introduction: Sex Fiends
1. Witchcraft Theory: Copulation with Demons as Carnal Knowledge
2. Why Women? The Malleus maleficarum
3. Sexy Devils: How They Got Bodies
4. Incredible Sex: Confronting the Difficulty of Belief
5. From Dreams to Reality: Why Witches Fly
6. Experiments with Witches
7. The Theory of Witchcraft Power
8. "This Is My Body": Witches and Desecration
9. Witches, Infanticide, and Power
10. Illusion and Reality, Part One: Crib Death and Stealthy Cats
11. Illusion and Reality, Part Two: Witches Who Steal Penises
12. Interview with the Demon: From Exorcism to Witchcraft
13. Witchcraft, Body, and Soul
Conclusion: Talking around the Unspeakable
Works Cited


American Academy of Religion: American Academy of Religion Awards for Excellence

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