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Martine Ostorero, Le diable au sabbat. Littérature démonologique et sorcellerie (1440-1460)

Florence, SISMEL-Edizioni del Galluzzo, Micrologus Library, 38, 2011, 806 p.
Luis González Fernández
Référence(s) :

Martine Ostorero, Le diable au sabbat. Littérature démonologique et sorcellerie (1440-1460), Florence, SISMEL-Edizioni del Galluzzo, Micrologus Library, 38, 2011, 806 p.

Texte intégral

1Martine Ostorero’s book, a reworking of her 2008 doctoral thesis, is an impressive study of demonology concerning the mid-fifteenth century, a period that has often been neglected by scholars whose interest has been centred on the end of the century and the publication of the notorious and highly influential Malleus maleficarum, printed around 1486, as well as a myriad of other texts related to the subject that came off the printing presses, such as Ulric Molitor’s frecuently printed De lamiis et phytonicis mulieribus (1489), to name but one.

2Ostorero studies in 800 well documented pages many aspects of demonology concentrating most of her research on three theologians that composed their works between 1440 and 1460. The three French authors under discussion are Jean Vinet, Nicolas Jacquier and Pierre Mamoris, the first two Dominican inquisitors, the third a secular clergyman: all of them wrote treatises on subjects related to the devil and the practice of witchcraft. The treatises are respectively: the Tractatus contra demonum invocatores (c. 1450-1452), the Flagellum hereticorum fascinariorum (1458), and the Flagellum maleficorum (before 1462). Thirty or so years before the Malleus, all three texts contain important aspects regarding demonology and witchcraft whose originality had been hitherto ignored or overshadowed by the more well-known end of century texts, Ostorero thus puts some received ideas as regards the Malleus into question, and advances some notable differences between her subject texts and later demonology such as the neutral treatment of witchcraft as regards questions of gender. The author states: «les textes examinés ici ne présentent encore aucune féminisation de la sorcellerie ; ces traités utilisent généralement la troisième personne du pluriel, à valeur neutre, pour désigner les sectateurs du diable» (p. 18, «the texts studied here do not present any degree of feminization of sorcery; these treatises use the third person plural, with a neutral value, in order to designate the followers of the Devil», the translation here and elsewhere is mine).

3Though the specified subject is the witches’ sabbath and the sundry practices of people involved in Satanic and other such heretical rituals and beliefs, the scope of the book is much wider and should interest scholars from other fields of knowledge. Agostino Paravicini Bagliani states in the ‘Preface’ that the subject undertaken constitutes «un champ de recherche aux croisements infinis» (p. xvii, «a field of study with multiple crossroads»); I cannot but agree, the ramifications and possibilities of further study are manifold, and the author herself has handled the crossing of intricate paths and information admirably.

4The Première Partie, «Décrire le Sabbat» (p. 21-76, «Describing the witches’ sabbath»), is a fine summary of demonological treatises prior to those studied in which there are descriptions of actions that can be seen to represent the main characteristics of the witches’ «sabbath», descriptions which according to the author stem from around 1428 and the writings of Hans Fründ and that are concentrated in a geographical area close to Western Switzerland and Eastern France. Texts written in Latin by Germans such as Jean Nider (author of the Formicarius) or French authors from the Dauphinois or nearby regions.

5Of particular interest, and certainly something of a welcome novelty, is Ostorero’s minute research (Deuxième Partie) on the manuscripts of the three texts that she studies and the hypotheses and conclusions concerning dates of composition and sources as well as the relationship with the printing press; some of these findings are furthermore condensed into tables for clearer or, at least, quicker reading. Variants from extant manuscripts are commented upon in detail worthy of a philological approach. All of the particular subjects treated are fully contextualized so that the author establishes as much as possible (p. 77- 198) the professional and political itineraries undertaken by the three men in order to offer the most plausible ideas as regards the way their everyday activities interacted with their intellectual production, in particular the three works mentioned above.

6The third part of the book is concerned with demonology in its most detailed aspects, the section begins with a «Petite synthèse en matière de démonologie» (p. 205- 249, «A brief account of demonology») which constitutes a very interesting and exact essay on essential demonology, which all readers, novice and learned, will appreciate per se. However, its placing in the work seems rather odd. While it unquestionably serves as introductory material for the subsequent chapters in which each of the three authors’ particular view of demonology is put to the fore, the (here) overlong essay on demonology interrupts the specific subject of her research. The essay is, as said, a clear summary of the main discussions surrounding demonology but should perhaps have been placed in the general introduction or omitted altogether. For the knowledgeable reader the individual chapters on each author (from p. 251 to 412) offer very detailed material which they may compare with their own readings on the subject, without having to refer to the essay proposed in the 44 preceding pages. Footnotes referring us to Aquinas, Patristic literature or other sources would have been sufficient to understand the major similarities and differences, since the author’s prose is sufficiently clear on most occasions. If Ostorero’s intention here is to offer the tools of understanding for a wider public, then the section is perhaps well placed, but the interruption of her general discourse is considerable, and one has the impression of beginning not a new section but a new book altogether. This is perhaps the sole problem with the enormous range of knowledge and research that her book in general contains. There is material in the 800 pages for three or four books (certainly one for each author, and one on general ideas on demonology in the mid fifteenth century and the impact on later demonology, which in fine is the real theme of the thesis). The choice of tackling the three authors in one volume makes for a great deal of repetition and a sense, as the book advances, of déjà vu, since some of the subject matter itself is very similar from one author to another and is thus rendered, though Ostorero takes great pains and generally succeeds in establishing the differences between them. The threefold approach, though most certainly necessary, given her choice of subject, based on three contemporary authors, has the inconvenience of a continual ‘tripartite structuring’ of the sections involved so that we have: demonology in Vinet, demonology in Jacquier, demonology in Mamoris, and so on for each particular subject. Considerable rewriting would have been necessary to approach the question otherwise, but a more synthetic approach might have avoided a certain degree of paraphrase and left a little more space for a greater textual presence of the original manuscripts and works, which is sometimes wanting. Ostorero describes in great detail the ideas of her three authors but with a tendency to paraphrase where translated quotes from the texts would have been altogether more satisfactory; the texts themselves are more often than not paraphrased rather than cited, although often given in Latin in the footnotes. Rather than long descriptions, an adequate number of choice quotations with the necessary explanations would have made the texts take on a greater degree of vivacity. In my opinion, the texts stay too much in the shadows of the footnotes or are hidden in the paraphrastic prose of the author. It is sometimes thus difficult to determine whether we are listening to Vinet, Jacquier and Mamoris, or whether it is Ostorero’s interpretation that comes to the fore. An often cited text would clarify this point.

7The fourth part «Sabbat et maléfices» (p. 413-563, «The witches’ sabbath and spells»), offers, as the author states, the real novelty of her research (though she is over humble here since much of the book is groundbreaking), because she demonstrates, once again by a methodological approach based on the smallest (but always pertinent) details, how the idea of the «sabbat» takes shape in these authors long before it became a commonplace in later demonological writings. The term «sabbat», first used it would seem by Mamoris, is duly explained as well as what it entailed. A fifth part (p. 565-720), examines in detail the approach towards the reality of the witches’ Sabbath, and the debate concerning the line upheld by the Canon episcopi. The section is followed by a general conclusion and an Annex with some extracts from treatises, a bibliography and index.

8Ostorero’s list of references is impressive and also has the merit of including and using profusely many recent contributions to the subject such as J.-P. Boudet’s Entre science et ‘nigromance’ (2006), which Ostorero’s book complements perfectly, as well as studies that stem from her own group of scholars working on the subject. Thus, the reader acquires page after page a state of the question on fifteenth century demonology and many related topics. One notable absence from her list, unless I am mistaken, is Rossell Hope Robbins’ Encyclopedia of Witchcraft and Demonology (1959), especially taking into account that Robbins mentions succinctly on p. 418 that Nicolas Jacquier is one of the authors that includes the «sabbath» in his writing. This omission in no way wrests any merit from Martine Ostorero’s book.

9Le diable au sabbat is, as far as I am concerned, one of the most profound and well documented recent studies on demonology, and an absolutely necessary title in any university or public library for that matter, a book that every scholar on demonology, or on the history of mentalities, writing, theology and a long etc. should be happy to posses in his own library for the quality of the research therein and the enormous interest of the multiple subjects encountered. Eight-hundred pages of very detailed history that manage to seize the complexity, divergence and convergence of ideas that were to be at the fore of social events for several centuries to come. An altogether fine piece of research.

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Luis González Fernández, « Martine Ostorero, Le diable au sabbat. Littérature démonologique et sorcellerie (1440-1460) », Les Cahiers de Framespa [En ligne], 15 | 2014, mis en ligne le 29 mars 2014, consulté le 23 mars 2017. URL :

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Luis González Fernández

Hispaniste spécialiste du Siècle d'Or et de littérature démonologique. MCF Université de Toulouse II. LEMSO- FRAMESPA UMR 5136 du CNRS. Directeur de la collection Méridiennes à FRAMESPA.

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