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Lady Margaret Hall Library: Demonology

This is a previous exhibition, but if you are interested in viewing one of the objects you can make an appointment (email Exhibitions in the library rotate once or twice a year. Have a look at our current exhibitions to see what's on at the moment.


Demonology is the study of demons. In this exhibition, launched at Halloween 2016, we look at selected items from LMH's Special Collections relating to three broad demonic subjects: witchcraft and witch trials, where people were accused of making deals with demons; illustrations of the demons described in Dante's Inferno; and the view of demons in Milton's Paradise Lost.

By Jamie Fishwick-Ford and Tom Cook

Witchcraft and Witch Trials

The titlepage to the Malleus Maleficarum

1 of 6 | The Hammer of Witches

The Malleus Maleficarum was published in 1487 by two German Catholic Dominican Inquisitors, near the start of the main period of the witchcraft trial phenomenon. The Malleus is a detailed guide to the terrors of witchcraft, first proving that witchcraft does exist, that witches actually make deals with devils in order to gain magical powers, and should thus be prosecuted for heresy. It goes on to discuss how witch cults gain new members, and finally sets out how to perform a witch trial and torture a suspected witch. It is famously one of the most misogynistic books on witchcraft, emphasising that the majority of witches are women, seduced into carnal acts by the devil.

The Malleus proved hugely popular, and was reprinted a vast number of times, but it was also controversial. It was condemned by the Inquisition a few years after it’s publication as being inconsistent with Catholic doctrine, and areas with strong Inquisitions and homogenous Catholic beliefs (Spain and Italy) had far fewer witch craft trials. However, in religiously and politically divided German and French areas the Malleus became a key (if contentious) reference text on witchcraft for Catholics and Protestants alike: when people argued if witches existed or not, it was the Malleus’ definition of a witch which was the topic of debate.

Heinrich Krämer & Jacob Sprenger, Malleus Maleficarum (Frankfurt, 1588)

Titlepage for La Demonomanie des Sorciers

2 of 6 | Demon-Mania

Jean Bodin (1530–1596 ) was a French Catholic jurist and political philosopher, who lived through the turbulent times of the Reformation and the French Wars of Religion. He believed in a strong sovereign monarch, answerable only to God, as the only figure capable of uniting a country like France. Whilst he was a Catholic, he argued that the church should not have power over the monarch.

Bodin’s ‘demon-mania’, first published in 1580, is an argument for the existence of witchcraft, and a guide to how to prosecute witches. It argues for a relaxation of the normal safeguards of justice, as in Bodin’s view rumours about sorcerers are almost inevitably true. It was written in response to Johann Weyer’s De Praestigiis Daemonum, which argued that although demons were entirely real, witchcraft was a delusion and witches did not actually have evil powers. Bodin, on the other hand, sides with the Malleus and believes that witches exist, do make deals with devils for magic powers, and are a genuine threat. It was published during the height of the witch hunts, as was our copy of the Malleus.

This book and our copy of the Malleus were both donated by Katharine Mary Briggs (LMH 1918–22).

Jean Bodin, La Demonomanie des Sorciers (Paris, 1598)

Pictures showing how magic tricks are done

3 of 6 | Secrets of the Magic Circle Revealed!

Reginald Scot (c. 1538–1599) was an English Protestant MP, who wrote this book in 1584 to demonstrate the falsity of belief in witchcraft, which he viewed as an irrational and un-Christian Catholic doctrine. He vigorously denounces the views of Bodin and the Malleus Maleficarum (the ‘witchmongers’, as he calls them), exposing their unjust methods of trial and their ‘absurd lies’ regarding the witches’ supposed bargains and powers. It is a masterful summary and refutation of all the evidence on witchcraft, an encyclopaedic guide to 16th-century views on magic. Like all the books displayed here, it was also hugely controversial, with many English Protestant authors attacking it to restore the conventional view of witchcraft—King James I described Scot’s opinions as ‘damnable’!

In his analysis of the truth behind reports of magic and witchcraft, Scot became the first person to publish how to perform magic tricks using stage props and sleight of hand, as these illustrations show.

This copy is the 1930 fine press edition, edited by the Rev. Montague Summers. It was donated to us by Sir William Cash.

Reginald Scot, The Discoverie of Witchcraft (London, 1930)

Titlepage for Saducismus Triumphatus

4 of 6 | The Last Witch Trials

As the books in this case demonstrate, the existence or non-existence of witchcraft was a topic of numerous books and debates in the 15th to 17th centuries: Weyer refuted the Malleus, Bodin refuted Weyer, Scot refuted Bodin, and this book by Glanvill was written to refute Scot.

Joseph Glanvill (1636–1680) was an English Puritan writer, clergyman, and, as a Fellow of the Royal Society, a keen advocate for the scientific method. In Saducismus Triumphatus he argued that people like Scot who denied the existence of witchcraft were as bad as the Sadducees who denied the immortality of the soul. To prove the existence of witchcraft he combined a mixture of Biblical evidence and contemporary stories, such as the ‘Drummer of Tedworth’ and the ‘Witches of Mohra’ (where huge numbers of adult witches were identified based on the testimony of children who claimed they had been taken to dances with devils).

Glanvill’s book, and the trial at Mora, are said to have inspired and influenced the famous Salem witch trials in 1692–3. However, they were also the last gasp of the witch trial craze—the last execution for witchcraft in England was in 1712, and the Witchcraft Act 1735 made it clear that witchcraft did not exist: instead it became illegal to claim that someone was a witch or had magical powers.

Donated by Cynthia Mabel Borough (LMH 1919–22).

Joseph Glanvill, Saducismus Triumphatus (London, 1689)

Page of illustrations of folk dances and tradition

5 of 6 | The History of Witch Trials

The history of the period in which the witch trials occurred has been very contentious. Were the trials an organised and systematic attempt to persecute a genuine cult of witches? Were they a symptom of a society riven with internal dissent during the Reformation? Were they an organised attempt to crush women’s rights, or a form of class warfare against the poor? Were confessions genuine testimony of what the suspects had done, or were they created by leading questions under torture?

One of the most dramatic theories is Margaret Murray’s ‘Witch-Cult Hypothesis’, which combines Frazer’s Golden Bough and the transcripts of evidence at witch trials to suggest that the witches were actually surviving practitioners of an ancient pan-European religion, worshipping a Horned God and a Mother Goddess. This idea was hugely popular in the early- to mid-20th century, finding an interesting feminist middle-ground between the rationalist’s view that there was no such thing as witchcraft and the idea that there was an actual Satanist conspiracy. It greatly influenced Neo-pagan and Wiccan views, although it has been largely discredited academically.

Margaret Murray, The God of the Witches (London, 1933)

The cover of the play

6 of 6 | The Salem Witch Trials

In the Salem witch trials of 1692–3 the testimony of a group of young girls lead to three poor women being accused of witchcraft, of leading the children in rituals to summon the devil and cast curses. Under questioning, one of the women broke and accused others, and the case spiraled until over 100 people were accused and 20 killed. Even at the time there were many doubts about the trials, and pardons and apologies starting to be issued within a few years.

The Salem witch trials have become some of the most famous of all of the historical trials, despite them being a relatively peculiar phenomenon: they were later than the majority of witch craft trials, and took place in America rather than France and the Holy Roman Empire. Their fame can be attributed to many causes, from the vigorous debates about the justice of the trials at their time to this dramatised version of them, Arthur Millar’s The Crucible. First performed in 1953, it was an allegory of Joseph McCarthy’s attempts to root out Communists in American society, using accusations from acquaintances and shaky evidence.

Arthur Millar, The Crucible (New York, 1954)

Illustrating Dante's Inferno

1 of 8 | Dante's Inferno

Dante Alighieri (1265–1321) was the first major Italian poet to compose in the vernacular rather than in Latin, writing his Commedia in the Tuscan dialect. This was a major innovation, which shaped the future of Italian literature and even helped establish the national language of Italy. His greatest work, which many call the greatest work in the Italian language, is his Commedia, known as the Divine Comedy. It is a three-part epic poem depicting Dante travelling through the Inferno, Purgatory, and Paradise, and seeing the souls that live in each region.

He was a major influence on numerous later authors, especially Chaucer’s use of the vernacular and Milton’s use of epic verse to depict religious themes. He was also the direct inspiration for numerous artists, as these cases show.

Dante Alighieri, Opere del Divino Poeta Dante (Venice, 1512)

Dante's Inferno Canto XXI, published in 1544

2 of 8 | Corrupt Politicians Get What They Deserve

The first printed edition of La commedia dates from 1472, and the first fully illustrated edition from 1491. Our two earliest editions, shown here and the slide before, are both partly illustrated and date from the early 15th century. LMH has a major Dante collection, including over 100 editions of his works and almost 300 books by or about him. The core of this collection was the gift of Lucy Ethel Willock in 1919, which included both of these early editions.

To aid comparison, all of the copies in the exhibition are depicting Inferno Canto XXI, in which Dante and Virgil cross the Fifth Pouch of the Eighth Circle of Hell. This is where 'barrators' (corrupt politicians) are cast into a pitch-black river. There they are tortured by the ‘Malebranche’, jet-black evil-clawed devils armed with grappling hooks and pitchforks.

Dante Alighieri, La Comedia (Venice, 1544)

Dante's Inferno Canto XXI, drawn by Botticelli

3 of 8 | Sandro Botticelli

Sandro Botticelli (c. 1445–1510) was an Italian Early Renaissance painter, most famous today for his Birth of Venus, Primavera, and Venus and Mars. He was also fascinated by Dante, producing illustrations of the Inferno for the edition printed 1481 and a spectacular complete illustrated Divine Comedy on sheepskin for Lorenzo di Pierfrancesco de' Medici (reproduced here). Sadly this last work was never fully completed: outline drawings were made for most cantos but only a few were coloured. They are famous for their faithful and detailed reproduction of the scenes as described by Dante.

Sandro Botticelli, Drawings for Dante’s Divina Commedia (London, 1896)

Dante's Inferno Canto XXI, illustrated by Blake

4 of 8 | William Blake

William Blake (1757–1827) was working on a set of Dante illustrations for John Linnell from autumn 1824 to his death. He completed the series of designs, but sadly most of them were only preliminary sketches and only seven had been turned into engravings nearing completion. Design 37, shown here, illustrates the stages which Blake undertook: Dante, Virgil, and the corrupt politician have only been loosely added in pencil; the demons in the foreground have been slightly more worked on; whilst the central demon on the rock is much further advanced, but only the area around his right eye is nearing completion.

Albert Roe, Blake’s Illustrations to the Divine Comedy (Princeton, 1953)

Dante's Inferno Canto XXI, illustrated by Flaxman

5 of 8 | John Flaxman

John Flaxman (1755–1826) was a sculptor and artist who worked for Wedgwood and designed monumental graves but gained the most fame producing illustrations for books. After producing illustrations of the works of Homer for Georgiana Hare-Naylor he was commissioned by Thomas Hope to produce this series of the Divine Comedy. These illustrations were hugely important as a reference for many 19th-century artists.

John Flaxman, Compositions by John Flaxman, from the Divine poem of Dante Alighieri (London, 1807)

Dante's Inferno Canto XXI, illustrated by Dore

6 of 8 | Gustave Doré

This edition was illustrated by Gustave Doré (1832–1883), who is seen by many as the greatest 19th-century woodcut engraver. He started work as a caricaturist for Le Journal pour rire, and also worked on editions of Byron, the Bible, Milton, Dante, Cervantes, Coleridge, and Tennyson, among others.

Dante Alighieri, La Divina Commedia (Milan, 1868)

Dante's Inferno Canto XXI, illustrated by Batten

7 of 8 | John D. Batten's illustrations for George Musgrave

Whilst the original core of our Dante collection was donated by Lucy Ethel Willock, George Musgrave (1855–1932) is responsible for giving us the bulk of our illustrated editions of Dante, including those by Batten, Botticelli, and Doré in this exhibition. George Musgrave published a translation of the Inferno in Spenserian stanza in 1893, and was working on a second edition and an edition of the Purgatorio. He commissioned John D. Batten (1860–1932), a noted illustrator of folk tales, to produce a set of woodcuts for his new edition. These were completed in 1900, but ill-health overtook Musgrave and both men died in 1932, with the book unpublished. It was hurried through the press by Musgrave’s executor, E.A. Parker, in 1933.

Musgrave bequeathed his magnificent Dante collection to LMH, including books, Batten’s original woodcuts, and a series of fine prints of the woodcuts. For many years Batten’s illustrations were displayed in LMH along Hell’s Passage, giving it its name.

John D. Batten, Illustrations of for George Musgrave's translaton of Dante’s Inferno (England, 1900)

Dante's Inferno Canto XXI, illustrated by Phillips

8 of 8 | Tom Phillips

The Divine Comedy remains a popular subject for artists. This 21st-century edition was translated and illustrated by the British artist Tom Phillips (1937–), who often works with collage and experiments with relationships between text and image.

Donated by Professor C. Grayson, 2002.

Dante Alighieri, Inferno (London, 1985)

Milton's Paradise Lost

Satan's address from Paradise Lost

1 of 4 | Satan Speaks

John Milton (1608–1674) is most famous for his Biblical epic poem Paradise Lost, first published in 1667. The poem recounts the Fall of Man, and pays particularly close attention to the role of Satan, whose inner feelings are central to some of the most dramatic scenes. Milton invented the capital of hell, Pandemonium, making it his setting for the opening of Book II: Satan, Mammon, Beelzebub, Moloch and other well-known rogue angels scheming to overthrow of God’s new Eden above.

This larger edition of Milton’s Works was published in 1720; notice the traditional long S, and the catch-words (the first word of the following page) at the foot of the text. The open pages show Satan’s highly rhetorical address to the gathered dark ‘Progeny of Heav’n’:

            Satan, whom now transcendent glory rais’d
            Above his fellows, with monarchal pride
            Conscious of highest worth, unmov’d thus spake.

Donated by Katharine Mary Briggs (LMH 1918–22).

John Milton, Poetical Works (London, 1720)

Dore's illustrations of Paradise Lost

2 of 4 | Depicting the Devil

Milton’s work has long been attractive to painters and engravers, who find in Paradise Lost’s expansive, dramatic world no short supply of visual marvels; this is particularly interesting when one considers Milton’s blindness in later life. Our large 1866 edition of the poem was published in London by Messrs Cassell, Petter and Galpin, and features the illustrations of Gustave Doré (1832–1883).

Donated by Joseph Churchill.

John Milton, Paradise Lost (London, 1866)

Blake's Illustrations of Paradise Lost

3 of 4 | Blake illustrating Milton

This 1926 Nonesuch edition of Paradise Lost features illustrations by the Romantic poet and engraver William Blake (1757–1827). It was printed and bound on Oxford India paper, and typeset in Blado italic, a font designed by Walter Lewis, official printer to Cambridge University at the time. The pages above show the scene from Book VI in which Christ defeats Satan’s legions single-handed:

                                                the monstrous sight
            Strook them with horror backward, but far worse
            Urg’d them behind; headlong themselves they threw
            Down from the verge of Heav’n, Eternal wrauth
            Burnt after them to the bottomless pit.

It’s interesting to notice the way Blake, born a century and a half later than Milton, portrays the fallen angels: Renaissance artists, under the influence of Dante, tended to portray Satan and his consort as wholly monstrous or wholly angelic; Blake’s engraving shows them as hybrids—recognizably human, but disturbingly ‘other’ too.

John Milton, Poems in English: Paradise Lost (London, 1926)

Blake's illustrations of Paradise Lost

4 of 4 | Blake Inspired by Milton

William Blake was considered mad in his lifetime: he believed not only in demons, but in angels, the souls of small creatures (such as a flea, whose ‘spiritual’ portrait he painted in c.1820), and in a global conspiracy against freedom and the imagination. He also believed in the greatness of his predecessor Milton.

In the first decade of the 1800s, Blake composed and illustrated an epic poem of his own: Milton: A Poem in Two Books, in which, among other weird happenings, a chorus of visionary characters debates the morality of Satan’s actions in the world. (As well as invoking muses and otherworldly spirits, the poem gives us one of our best-known anthems, the hymn ‘Jerusalem’, which takes as its lyrics four quatrains from Blake’s preface.)

This copy of The Writings of William Blake, published by the Nonesuch Press in three volumes in 1925, contains the poet’s own depiction of Satan and his horde.

William Blake, Writings (London, 1925)

Contact the Library

LMH Special Collections are open to visitors by appointment (email during staffed hours, Monday to Friday, 9.30 a.m. to 12:30 p.m. and 2 p.m. to 5 p.m.

Lady Margaret Hall Library
Norham Gardens
United Kingdom


Telephone: (01865) 274361

The librarian, Jamie

Jamie Fishwick-Ford

(Librarian, they/them)

Sally Hamer

(Assistant Librarian, she/her)