The Three Sorceries Rejected


In his Summa contra gentiles, Aquinas takes great pains to emphasize and refer to the inefficacy of the utterances of magicians and proves his point by exploring two main precepts which are required for any credence to be given to a spell or other verbal mechanism: that of human creative power and that of visual manifestation. He addresses the first by exploring the ability of man to manipulate his world in relation to how the heavens are enabled to manipulate him. To evaluate the remaining precept, Aquinas presents his reader with a vignette of forms, seeking to dispel the potency of magical imagery and representation, and replace it with the harmony of the appearance of natural order, painted through man’s intellect.

Man’s intellect is the cornerstone of the argument which Aquinas uses to synthesize both notions. The significance of his claims lies in this synthesis: that man’s intellect is borne of experience and created rather than a blessing man receives or is born with; further, Aquinas even posits that the heavens do not bestow any power to earthly beings. Everything is earned in due course. This contradicts the view of magic contemporary to the Aquinian worldview, which suggests that magic is the quick-fix that assures skill without practice or deserving efforts. If knowledge is the synthesis of man’s perception of his encounters with earthly works created by the heavens, then the influence of an otherworldly power on human toil is indirect to say the least. Essentially, this is all Aquinas requires to dispel any notion of magicians wielding power heretofore unknown to man. Examples from the text itself will follow to illustrate this summary.

The argument begins with a definitive title, serving technically as a subtitle in the much larger work that is the Summa contra gentiles, laying out his thesis: “[w]hence the works of magicians derive their efficacy[,]” already questioning the origin of whatever power magicians might claim to have, and casting an initial doubt on such claims (Thomas Aquinas, “Summa contra gentiles,” in Witchcraft in Europe, edited by Alan Charles Kors and Edward Peters, 93).

Aquinas, from the start, assumes that magicians and their claims have no validity. After briefly prefacing the contemporary notions associated with such men, their main tenet being that “in the practice of their art they make use of certain significative words to produce certain definite effects . . . the voice serving to convey, as it were, this thought to the things that are to be produced[,]” Aquinas is quick to counter such a claim by showing “power follows essence, diversity of power indicates diversity of essential principles . . . man’s intellect is invariably of such a disposition that its knowledge is caused by things, rather than that it is able by its mere thought to cause things” (Aquinas, 93). So it is established that knowledge is not borne of itself and that it cannot create; the world not merely creates knowledge, but in its continual offer of sensations and images to the view of man, allows him to synthesize such experience into what is termed intellect. Magicians falsely claim they are exempt from this natural order.

. . . By learning we acquire, not the power to do a thing, but the knowledge of how to do it. Yet some, by learning, are rendered able to perform these magical works. Therefore they must have not only knowledge but also the power to produce these effects (Aquinas, 93).

Since Aquinas has by now established that man cannot inherently create that which gives him knowledge, and can rather only synthesize such forces in order to seek more, it is perverse to posit that one’s self is capable of producing such effects—“these effects cannot all be produced by the power of the stars” because the stars (or heavens) have no need to give their abilities to the men of earth who are subordinate to them (Aquinas, 93).

What does create what the magicians can not, however, is the power of the heavenly over the earthly; following his examples, Aquinas continues, “[n]either, therefore, can anyone by the power of the stars receive the power to produce those effects” (Aquinas, 93). In his utterances, which are actions overstepping his earthly bounds, the magician through such “significative words . . . commands as though he were addressing another[,]” which, in the natural order of things, man—magician or not—is unable to do; the heavens do not lend an open ear to receive the voice of those subordinate (Aquinas, 93). It is this subordination which makes the claim of Aquinas significant, for aside from its reinforcement of Christian ideology, serves as the basis of the subjugation of magicians and witches to come, cleverly emphasizing the authority of one class over another, which leads to the cumulative concept.


Nicholas Jacquier objects very strongly to the tenets of the Canon Episcopi by laying out a four-fold description of its inadequacies in addressing what is the contemporary and very real nature of the treat of witchcraft in is day. Though each of Jacquier’s four objections is uniquely significant to for the development of the cumulative concept in great specificity of depth, overall, their significance in the concept’s development is that of blame.

Responsibility is transferred, in a revolutionary manner, by Jacquier from the unconscious, innocent slumber of supposed witches—for the Canon Episcopi bases its argument in actions occurring while witches sleep—to the coherent, waking choice of witches. Witchcraft in Jacquier’s A Scourge for Heretical Witches takes on less of a supernatural bearing and more of premeditation; essentially, this is all the differentiation required to ignite the inferno of the cumulative concept which serves to suppress entire social classes and communities. Witchcraft leaves the realm of the ethereal in Jacquier and enters the climate of fear necessary to turn Europe upside down and brought witches from the level of community deviance to full-blown heresy. With such a vast significance as this, the four objections are pioneering components of a tradition highly-steeped in ulterior motives among those in power.

The first of Jacquier’s objections to the Canon Episcopi deals exclusively with those “venereal practices and the passions of carnal voluptuousness” which, in the Canon Episcopi are actually said to be “consummated by sleeping people,” a notion which Jacquier notes, “as experience makes clear . . . cannot be accomplished” (Nicholas Jacquier, “A Scourge for Heretical Witches,” in Witchcraft in Europe, edited by Alan Charles Kors and Edward Peters, 171).

Simply enough, the Canon Episcopi seeks to claim something which is rather physically impossible, and, regardless of whatever supernatural power a witch may possess, the Canon Episcopi goes further, according to Jacquier, to say that not only can witches engage in sexual acts while sleeping, they can do so also without feeling any physical sign of it nor exhaustion afterward. Jacquier attests precisely to the opposite, saying that to “engage so voluptuously in such inordinate and vehement carnality that for several days” over which a Sabbath occurs, and at which such debauchery is partaken of, not for pleasure, but to “practice the cult of the devil[,] . . . it is clear that these apparitions are real, not those of sleeping people, but of people who are fully awake” (Jacquier, 172). Jacquier bases his objection on what is obviously physical evidence he has witnessed or has read of being witnessed at trials contemporary to his writing. If the suspected witches bear veritable marks of passion, then the Canon Episcopi must be wrong in its assertion of the contrary.

The second objection Jacquier makes to the Canon Episcopi is that it presents too weakly and too sparingly the cases of suspected witches “who imagine that they ride in obedience to Diana [and other pagan deities]” (Jacquier, 172). The importance of this absence from the Canon Episcopi proves to Jacquier its invalidity; he argues that the work is worthless if it fails to recognize what he and so many of his counterparts can see plainly: “not only women, but also men, and, which is even worse, clerics and religious visibly stand before the demons and speak with them. . . . [t]here is nothing at all about this in . . . the Canon Episcopi” and with this, Jacquier opens up a whole new can of worms which eventually becomes the cumulative concept (Jacquier, 172). Jacquier posits that not only women, but men and the clergy can be in league with the devil, and keeping with the theme established by the first objection, are involved in a very literal and physical manner with evil, flying by night “in that fantastic congregation and illusory association with Diana” (Jacquier, 172).

The final two objections posed by Jacquier in the forms of the physical reality of the third “in which the . . . heretics assemble . . . with the demons, appearing visibly and really speaking[;]” and likewise, in the fourth, where “heretics are obliged to perform actual homage to the devil and . . . deny god” (Jacquier, 172). He points out that both of these physical feats are not capable of being “done by those deluded, sleeping women of whom Episcopi speaks” (Jacquier, 172). With his critical emphasis on the lucidity of witchcraft, Jacquier literally awakened Europe to a new conception of what it meant to be a witch. In so doing, the cumulative concept fought the crisis in a whole new, very corporeal way.


The significance of the attempted seduction of a young woman in the account of Ralph of Coggeshall lies in its overt sexuality. While much of the witch hunt came to focus to varying extents on the sexuality of those it prosecuted, notions of the feminine ideal in Coggeshall are astonishing in the implication which led ultimately to the same phenomenon of targeted women. Numerous authors since Coggeshall have explored the duality of the perceived weakness and the insatiability of women, but it is Coggeshall’s account which really brings it into the early modern era from the patriarchal primitiveness of the middle ages and before.

The account is one which is prosaic and with perhaps only one level, but that it can be adapted to fit with virtually any view of the female witch is where its remarkable value is found. By refusing to give in to the advances of the sophisticated, and likely spoiled, young man, the mysterious and virtuous young woman poses a threat far greater than mere demonic contract. She is a free-thinking being for starters, and sexually independent. While authors contemporary to Coggeshall and certainly after have asserted the women they have accused of witchcraft were certainly possessed of sexual independence, that pertained not to choice but to nature; women had no choice and rather, were independent among the two genders, in their insatiability; earthly men could not possibly satiate the troubled and demonic women.

Theirs is an undesired and uncontrollable independent need of sorts; what is mind-blowing in the case of the chaste young woman in Coggeshall is that she is in full control of her mind and of her physical desires. She, according to Coggeshall, is arrested for having views sympathetic to the Publican insurrection of the day, and so is more than capable of picking a side for herself politically, and in refusing the advances of the noble, able to control her body. If not a witch, then what is she? She is danger, and that is all they can discern at the time of their encounter with her. The men then suppress her and even execute her.

What all of this story holds significantly for the history of witchcraft beliefs is that existing structures of thought and identity were radically changing. Examples such as Coggeshall’s serve to balance the upheaval and put women in their place, so to speak, and restore to men the power threatened by their free choice. Coggeshall’s account took witchcraft out of the bedroom—where Jacquier’s seemed quite comfortable to remain—and thrust it into the political debate chamber, and even, as Coggeshall demonstrates, the vineyard. It is this issue of cultural fruition and gender fermentation that defines the significance of the story to witchcraft beliefs.

“She was much abashed, and with eyes cast down, she answered him with simple gesture and a certain gravity of speech: “ . . . the Lord does not desire me ever to be . . . the friend of any man[,]’” the young girl coolly answers when aware that her seduction is being attempted (Ralph of Coggeshall, “The Heretics of Rheims” in Witchcraft in Europe, edited by Alan Charles Kors and Edward Peters, 79). Clearly, women are no longer serving at the whims of men in power, and the necessity of a tight hold on the situation is apparent. It becomes manifest in the cumulative concept which sought indirectly to impose cultural and societal restrictions while seeking out witches, such as this young lady, who rebelled against its suppression.


Aquinas, Thomas. “Summa contra gentiles.” In Witchcraft in Europe, edited by Alan Charles Kors and Edward Peters, 90-96. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2001.

Coggeshall, Ralph of. “The Heretics of Rheims.” In Witchcraft in Europe, edited by Alan Charles Kors and Edward Peters, 78-80. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2001.

Jacquier, Nicholas. “A Scourge for Heretical Witches.” In Witchcraft in Europe, edited by Alan Charles Kors and Edward Peters, 169-172. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2001.