Will the Real Johann Weyer Please Stand Up?

Thomas J. Schoeneman

Lewis and Clark College

"The fervent, revolutionary humanism of Weyer stands out as a phenomenon which must be assessed not merely as a striking episode in medical history, but as a momentous step in the whole history of man."--Gregory Zilboorg

"But there is another side to the picture. Weyer's book is crammed full of what we should now-a-days regard as the grossest superstition".--George Lyman Kittredge

Johann Weyer was recently introduced to readers of these pages (1) by Peter J. Swales ("A Fascination with Witches," November 1982). Swales argued that Weyer, a sixteenth-century physician who courageously condemned the witch hunts of his day, may have been an unacknowledged influence in Freud's abandonment of the seduction theory of neurosis. Swales's article is a fascinating contribution to the history of psychoanalytic thought, but there is another, hidden idea in this history of ideas. It is known as the psychopathological interpretation of witch hunts, and it has caused some mischief in its time. Johann Weyer was one of its victims.

In this essay I want to show that there are two rather different portrayals of Weyer extant in the historical literature and to describe the reasons for these discrepant presentations. Weyer is a hero to proponents of the psychopathological interpretation of witch hunts; these scholars were psychiatrists and psychologists who turned their efforts toward writing histories of their professions. The second camp appraises Weyer more critically and includes social historians interested in the European witch hunts and historians of science (including a few historians of psychiatry) who have been influenced by Thomas Kuhn. For the sake of brevity, and at the risk of some overgeneralization, I will call the first faction psychiatric historians and the second social historians. Before I present their differences over Weyer, let me first summarize the psychiatric historians' analysis of the witch hunts and its current status.

The psychopathological interpretation states that the witch hunts of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries were a horribly misguided persecution of the mentally ill. People who were executed for the crime of witchcraft confessed to all sorts of impossible and grandiose deeds: these included causing misfortune and catastrophe, flying away to witches' sabbaths, conversing and copulating with demons, necrophagia, and more. Psychiatric historians interpreted such confessions as symptoms of schizophrenia, senile dementia, hysteria, and a host of other mental disorders; they became convinced that the insane were rarely correctly identified and treated. An apparent exception was the physician-hero Johann Weyer, whose crusade against the mistreatment of poor deluded women brought the light of reason to these dark times. This view has a long and distinguished pedigree: Swales noted its endorsement by Pinel, Esquirol, Charcot and Freud. It flourished in a number of widely-read books in the middle decades of this century, and it continues to be a standard feature of textbooks of abnormal psychology. It has also been thoroughly discredited.

In the last twenty years there has been a surge of interest in the witch hunts and a general reconsideration of the history of insanity. Social historians have found that demonology did not supplant rival conceptions of insanity in the Middle Ages and Renaissance, but that there was a coexistence of naturalistic, theological and magical etiologies and therapies throughout this period. Furthermore, painstaking investigations of civil and judicial records have suggested two conclusions. First, the typical accused witch was an impoverished woman with an argumentative disposition, often unmarried and middle aged or older. Second, witchcraft accusations often mirrored local social and political tensions. For instance, Alan Macfarlane and Keith Thomas have argued that English accusations assuaged guilt over unneighborliness in a time when the "good neighbor" ethic was losing ground to individualism; thus, the usual pattern was for a householder to refuse aid to an old woman, suffer some subsequent misfortune, and accuse the old woman of using witchcraft to avenge her grievance.

There has been very little evidence that the mentally ill were singled out as suspected witches. Psychiatric historians often failed to realize that many confessions were produced under torture, social coercion, or deceit. Nor were apparently spontaneous confessions evidence of insanity. On the one hand, interrogations were carried out in an atmosphere charged with tension and uncertainty for the accused; under skillful questioning, many suspects could become convinced that perhaps they really had caused harm to others. On the other hand, many women had reputations as witches that they fostered; such a status often served as the only source of social influence and recognition available to them. In a society that firmly believed in the reality of witchcraft, a person didn't need to be crazy to present herself as a witch or to believe that her curses and spells were effective. The more bizarre and impossible actions suggested by the inquisitors were frosting on a bitter cake; why not go out with a flourish?

All of this has left Weyer's ghost with a rather severe case of historical identity crisis. In standard psychiatric histories, Weyer was "the father of modern psychiatry," a heroic figure some 400 years ahead of his time: Driven by a compassionate humanism and a desire for the truth, he systematically demolished an ideology that preyed on deluded women. He did so with deference to theological authority, however, taking care to support himself with a Biblical literature review and using demonological terms as a kind of shorthand for illness, suffering and mental disorder. His devastating arguments evoked a heated response and inspired future generations of skeptics, who eventually succeeded in crushing the witch hunts. To social historians, however, Weyer was a horse of a different color, an anti-Catholic polemicist who was nevertheless fascinated by demonology; Weyer actually assigned more power to the Devil than his witch-burning adversaries ever had. His style of argument, while occasionally incisive, was characteristically illogical, contradiction-laden, and myopic. Weyer's case was so weak that the opposition was astounded when he dared to republish it; their response demolished his contentions, and the net result of his efforts was to exacerbate an already tense situation.

We can begin to understand these discrepant biographies by noting that authors of psychiatric histories, Weyer's lionizers, were medical and psychological professionals first and historians second. I am not arguing that the picture of Weyer-as-hero was a product of historical amateurism; as Swales mentioned, the works of nineteenth-century rationalist historians such as W.E.H. Lecky presented Weyer in a similar fashion. My contention is that historians' constructions of the past are shaped by their present reasons for studying history. Psychiatric historians and their rationalist ancestors were writing history for the sake of the present.

Consider first the self-perceptions and values of mental health professionals in this century. Psychiatrists and clinical psychologists take pride in their relatively young disciplines. They value scientific knowledge, progress, and healing, and they prefer to focus on individual intrapsychic processes in their work. These scientist practitioners often admit to an exciting sense of progress and possibility for their professions, despite occasional self-doubt and external criticism that they have never kept pace with such "mainstream" pursuits as internal medicine and experimental psychology. They soon discover, as have countless members of other disciplines, that history can serve a self-congratulatory function: writing the history of one's discipline can be a stimulating way to validate its progress and advertise it.

Given this starting point, the main research questions became: Who contributed to the progress that led up to our present truths? Who anticipated us? What were the stumbling blocks? About half a century ago, Herbert Butterfield identified the typical product of this line of investigation. He called it the "Whig interpretation of history," after a group of liberal English historians who construed the past as affirming their current political beliefs.

In the psychiatric realm, Whiggish history rested on a pair of assumptions. First, past actions (such as witchcraft confessions) that do not conform to present concepts of normality must be pathological. Second, past ideologies (such as demonology) that fail to match present scientific constructions of reality are sure indicators of ignorance, malice, or both.

This approach has drawn a lot of fire. George Stocking, a historian of anthropology, has composed a litany of the pitfalls of history written for the sake of the present: it includes neglect of context, distortion, misinterpretation, anachronism, and oversimplification of process. This list precisely summarizes criticisms that have been leveled against the entire psychopathological interpretation of witch hunts. It seems to me that the issue of neglect of context has been a particularly glaring shortcoming in light of psychiatric historians' focus on the mental processes of individuals. Thus, we find that in accounting for witchcraft confessions, these authors attended mainly to the mental status and physiology of the suspects and slighted the interpersonal context of accusations, interrogations and confessions. We also find Johann Weyer presented as a modern doctor living in the sixteenth century, a man out of time. Weyer's preoccupation with the Devil became an embarrassment that needed to be reinterpreted, dismissed, or ignored entirely.

The alternative, non-heroic view of Weyer proceeds from the work of social historians, whose purpose is, largely, the examination of the past for its own sake. For these authors, historical and social contexts are of paramount importance, and their efforts parallel Thomas Kuhn's "attempt to display the historical integrity of [a] science in its own time." As a result, Weyer becomes a resident of the sixteenth century again; his demonology is treated as a reflection of the age, not as colloquial circumspection; and his arguments receive critical scrutiny, not just from a twentieth century standpoint, but from the point of view of his contemporaries also.

Let us now review Weyer's work with more of an eye toward its context. To begin with, social historians have agreed with their psychiatric colleagues on some points. Weyer's magnum opus, De praestigiis daemonum, did contain eloquent criticisms of the witch hunts: Weyer exposed all sorts of cruel practices, he made some powerful pleas for lenience, and he argued for a thorough rethinking of the conception of witchcraft as a crime and a heresy. Weyer also promoted the medical profession by arguing that a doctor was a more appropriate consultant than a priest in many cases and by scorning fellow physicians who blamed treatment failures on supernatural interlopers. Weyer offered more than these "forward-looking" ideas, though. The entire first book of his six-volume work was a rather enthusiastic demonology. Weyer described, in great detail, the horrifying powers of Satan and his demonic minions in order to set up his major contentions: In the first place, there is a grave threat to society from evil magicians who carry out their studies with the aid of demons. These magi are far more prevalent than the so-called witches, although they deserve only a fine as punishment. Secondly, the Devil is so powerful that he doesn't need to use human agents. He does, however, enjoy deluding simple old women. Since women are constitutionally the weaker sex, they are susceptible to melancholy. The Devil merely superimposes demonic fantasies onto these women's melancholic broodings. These "witches" deserve pity, not punishment. I might note here that melancholy was considered to be a disorder of the intelligentsia and the upper crust, so that Weyer's usage was far outside the usual, accepted application of the term. Finally, Weyer believed that there was only one witchcraft practice that merited capital punishment: murder by poisoning.

Unfortunately, Weyer did not support his contentions very well. Social historians have been much less impressed than psychiatric observers by Weyer's polemical style. His arguments were often vague and internally inconsistent, and his contemporary opponents saw his weaknesses and capitalized on them. For instance, Weyer's critics couldn't imagine why the Devil wouldn't use human agents if he was as horrible and potent as Weyer claimed. By way of analogy, imagine some present-day commentator who argues that the Soviet Union is far more dangerous than we imagine it to be, but that it doesn't use spies, and furthermore, anyone who admits to spying is really mentally ill. Weyer's polemical foibles (and strengths) are well-catalogued by Christopher Baxter in The damned art: Essays in the literature of witchcraft (edited by Sydney Anglo). Suffice it to say that Weyer argued himself into corners at least as often as he mounted effective broadsides, and that he could unmask a fraud just as readily as he swallowed a second-hand whopper of a tall tale.

In the portrayals offered by social historians, then, Johann Weyer emerges as a complex personality. His work appears to be inconsistent both in terms of its content (medicine and demonology) and its rhetorical style. I would argue, though, that the stylistic variability is the real inconsistency and that the roles of doctor and Devil-watcher are not diametric opposites when viewed in context. If Weyer were really a modern physician trapped in the 1500s, he might have argued the nonexistence of the demonic realm; he was not, however, a twentieth-century man and he did not remove himself from the metaphysics of his age. Medieval and Renaissance cosmology located humanity at the intersection of natural and supernatural orders. Weyer's medical and theological theories ranged across a hierarchy of powers, from the Divine to the angelic and demonic, through the human, animate, vegetative and inanimate. Viewed from within this framework, Weyer is quite intelligible. Stripped of his context, he becomes one of those "contradictory" figures that have so bedeviled Whiggish historians: the Renaissance scholar and humanist who believed in all kinds of "supernatural claptrap" (cf. Paracelsus and Weyer's mentor, Agrippa). I do not want to leave the impression that present-day investigators of the European witch hunts are in harmonious accord on all aspects of the topic. Nor do I want to overstate the purity of the anti-Whiggish approach. It is, quite frankly, impossible for a modern scholar to entirely cast off twentieth-century language and concepts and become a sixteenth-century thinker. It seems to me, however, that an ideal historian would be similar to a good Rogerian psychotherapist, whose goal is to see the world from the client's perspective as closely as is possible. The historian, like the therapist, can aspire to be mindful of the hazards of egocentric (or ethnocentric) absolutism. It is this stance that could save us from the misunderstanding that occurs when we project our hopes and prejudices onto a figure such as Johann Weyer.


1. This paper was commissioned and accepted by The Sciences (published by the N.Y. Academy of Sciences) as a reply to a previous article. It was not used when the magazine was switched from a monthly to bimonthly publication schedule.

Created by schoen@lclark.edu

Updated: 26-June-02