Cover image for Demon lovers : witchcraft, sex, and the crisis of belief
Demon lovers : witchcraft, sex, and the crisis of belief
Stephens, Walter, 1949-
Personal Author:
Publication Information:
Chicago : University of Chicago Press, 2002.
Physical Description:
xv, 451 pages : illustrations ; 24 cm
Format :


Call Number
Material Type
Home Location
Item Holds
BF1572.S4 S74 2002 Adult Non-Fiction Non-Fiction Area

On Order



On September 20, 1587, Walpurga Hausmannin 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 Hausmannin 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.

Author Notes

Walter Stephens is the Charles S. Singleton Professor of Italian Studies at the Johns Hopkins University

Reviews 4

Booklist Review

The common view of witch hunters as wildly otherworldly zealots disintegrates in Stephens' stunning investigation into the motives and methods of these much-misunderstood inquisitors. Through careful scrutiny of fifteenth-and sixteenth-century witch trials, Stephens lays bare a peculiar inversion of judicial dynamics that made the accusers in these proceedings strangely dependent upon the accused for proof of their own imperiled beliefs. Desperately craving empirical evidence to buttress their metaphysical doctrines, the witch hunters struggled to secure tangible proof of human dealings with demons--most sensationally, of women's liaisons with devils. As fascinating as the primitive empiricism of the witch hunters is the tangled psychology of those (mostly women) who genuinely believed they had trafficked with devils--and were defying the Church in so doing. In their voluntary confessions, the reader glimpses a profound social alienation. Stephens finds that the story of the witch doctors has continued relevance today, in a world in which covens of self-proclaimed witches clamor for headlines, frantic parents accuse day-care providers of Satanic child abuse, and reports of alien abduction stir popular fascination. Unsettling and compelling. --Bryce Christensen

Publisher's Weekly Review

Throughout the centuries of witch trials in Europe, many Christian thinkers were interested (perhaps a little too interested) in a certain recurring theme of the witches' testimonies: their stories of sex with demons. A Johns Hopkins Italian studies professor, Walter Stephens, looks at this preoccupation in his scholarly but accessible work, Demon Lovers: Witchcraft, Sex, and the Crisis of Belief. Perusing 15th- and 16th-century writings on witchcraft from various European countries, Stephens argues that theories of demon copulation are more than just misogynistic expressions of ambivalence toward female sexuality: they were vital to Christian thought, a way for theologians to resolve perennial questions about the existence of God and the supernatural. (Mar. 14) (c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved

Library Journal Review

Rosemary's Baby fans be forewarned: there is little entertainment but much ponderous discussion about theological history in this book on the Christian obsession with sex and demons during the 15th and 16th centuries. To explain this phenomenon, Stephens (Italian, Johns Hopkins; Giants in Those Days: Folklore, Ancient History and Nationalism) turns his attention to the witchcraft treatises written during that time rather than to accounts of the trials themselves. A conscientious historian and writer, he places his work in the context of what has already been done and is careful to point out the dangers of foisting the concerns of one's own era on the goings-on of another. Instead, Stephens attempts to show at great length and with considerable scholarship that this preoccupation had to do with nothing less than theologians' uncertainty about the realness of demons, without whose existence the very precepts of Christianity could be called into question. Recommended for academic libraries. Ellen D. Gilbert, Princeton, NJ (c) Copyright 2010. Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.

Choice Review

In the "age of faith" witches and demons embodied evil and all that was destructive. Few people doubted their existence. In this erudite and tightly written book, Stephens (Italian studies, Johns Hopkins Univ.) examines witchcraft theory from the 15th and 16th centuries as articulated in several important philosophic writings, including Heinrich Institoris's Malleus Malificarum (Hammer of Witchcraft). Both Malleus and Stephens's book emphasize the perversion of one of man's greatest joys--sex--into a twisted, heinous pastime between female witches and male demons. Trying to maintain his footing along the slippery corridor between fantasy and fact, Stephens gives readers a remarkable look at two of the great debates of the middle ages: the nature of evil and the genuineness of the supernatural world. He also includes readings of sources from Aristotle to Aquinas, a miscellany of viewpoints from some of the great Western thinkers. This solid, learned study offers those who know witches only from the story of Salem or from Hansel and Gretel a window into the deep and troubled discussions from a time when most people still believed that this world featured more things unseen than seen. All collections supporting the serious study of medieval thought at the upper-division undergraduate level and above. P. W. Stine Gordon College

Table of Contents

List of Illustrationsp. xi
Acknowledgmentsp. xiii
Note on Translationsp. xv
Introduction: Sex Fiendsp. 1
1 Witchcraft Theory: Copulation with Demons as Carnal Knowledgep. 13
2 Why Women? The Malleus maleficarump. 32
3 Sexy Devils: How They Got Bodiesp. 58
4 Incredible Sex: Confronting the Difficulty of Beliefp. 87
5 From Dreams to Reality: Why Witches Flyp. 125
6 Experiments with Witchesp. 145
7 The Theory of Witchcraft Powerp. 180
8 "This Is My Body": Witches and Desecrationp. 207
9 Witches, Infanticide, and Powerp. 241
10 Illusion and Reality, Part One: Crib Death and Stealthy Catsp. 277
11 Illusion and Reality, Part Two: Witches Who Steal Penisesp. 300
12 Interview with the Demon: From Exorcism to Witchcraftp. 322
13 Witchcraft, Body, and Soulp. 343
Conclusion: Talking around the Unspeakablep. 365
Notesp. 373
Works Citedp. 421
Indexp. 443