[Incunabula] [Occult and Esoterica - Witchcraft and Demonology]

Johannes Nider


Augsburg: Anton Sorg, ca. 1484. Third edition.

$14,000   INQUIRE

This is a complete, wide-magined example of the rare 3rd edition of this fascinating and immensely influential work, preserved in its original German monastic binding of blindstamped pigskin over wooden boards with a pair of brass clasps, and with an interesting provenance.

Formicarius ("The Anthill"), the most famous work of by Johannes Nider (ca. 1380 - 1438), a German Dominican theologian, was written in Vienna in 1436-1438 during the Council of Basel and first printed by Ulrich Zell in Cologne (not after Sept. 1473).

The Formicarius was the second book ever printed to discuss witchcraft, and is of great importance for the study of the origins of the witch trials in Early Modern Europe, as it sheds light on their earliest phase during the first half of the 15th century. Along with the Malleus Maleficarum (1486),the Formicarius is widely considered as "one of the two GREATEST MONUMENTS OF FIFTEENTH-CENTURY WITCHCRAFT LITERATURE" (H. Parish (ed.), Superstition and Magic in Early Modern Europe, p.316).

Nider deals specifically with witchcraft in Book V of Formicarius, although references to various occult and supernatural subjects are scattered throughout the entire text. In Book V Nider recounted the experiences of Peter of Greyerz, an Inquisitor active in and around Bern from 1390s to 1410s. Peter claimed to have interviewed a captured a male witch, who described in detail the practices of witchcraft. The book discusses dealings between witches and demons, gatherings of witches, and the association of magic with women. This association between women and witchcraft would come to characterize much of the witchcraft hysteria of early modern Europe.

The Formicarius was circulated at the Council of Basel in 1437, and later became a major source for the infamous Hammer of Witches (1486), the manual of choice for witch-hunters in late medieval Europe. "Nider's Formicarius [...] has long been known as a precursor and source for the Malleus maleficarum." (Nancy Caciola, Discerning Spirits: Divine and Demonic Possession in the Middle Ages, p.315)

"Nider['s] best known work [is] the long treatise on theology and moral and ecclesiological reform, the Formicarius (The Ant-Colony); the title is based on Proverbs 6:6 and holds up the disciplined ant colony as a model for human society, with each book connecting a feature of human life to some real or imagined feature of the ant community. [...] The work takes the form of a dialogue between a theologian and a doubter, and its format is highly anecdotal. The first two books deal with good works and revelations, the third with falsities and wicked acts, and the fourth with the deeds of virtuous people. The fifth book deals with the nature and practice of witchcraft under the general heading of works of evildoers and deceivers. Nider does not simply reinterpret earlier theological and inquisitorial models. He cites his informants: the Bernese patrician Peter von Greyerz, who had worked as iudge in the Simme Valley between 1392 and 1407; a monk at Vienna named Benedict, who had earlier been active in the peripheral world of sleight-of-hand tricks, court entertaimnents, and, as Nider says, necromancy; and an inquisitor from Autun."

"The Formicarius was by far the most important of all his writings. [...] Nider clearly invested more of himself in the Formicarius than in any other work. As we have seen, it featured the character of a Dominican theologian who instructed and enlightened a lazy but curious student of his order [...] Although unnamed, the theologian clearly represented Nider himself, and in this guise he related stories he had heard and events he had witnessed throughout his life, from his earliest youth, down to his time in Basel and Vienna. Thus the Formicarius served as a kind of personal summa collecting a lifetime of religious experience and observation. None of Nider's other works was to achieve the same level of baleful influence attained by his accounts of witchcraft in the fifth book of the Formicarius, especially when they came to be broadly quoted in the infamous Malleus maleficarum, written some fifty years later. Indeed, the entire fifth book was later included in several early printings of the Malleus, and thus helped to shape European thought on witchcraft for centuries to come" (Michael D. Bailey, Battling Demons: Witchcraft, Heresy, and Reform in the Late Middle Ages, p.91)

"Employing the distinct notions of heretical witchcraft and the earlier conception of demonic sorcery, the Formicarius presented witches as members of an organized sect, performing the most evil kinds of magic." (R. Golden, Encyclopedia of Witchcraft: the Western Tradition, Vol. IV, p.1064)

Nider was one of the first to transform the idea of sorcery to its more modern concept of witchcraft. Prior to the fifteenth century, magic was thought to be performed by educated males who performed intricate rituals. In Nider's Formicarius, the witch is described as typically uneducated and more commonly female. The idea that any persons could perform acts of magic simply by devoting themselves to the devil scared people of this time and proved to be one of the many factors that led people to begin fearing magic. The idea that the magician was primarily female was also shocking to some. Nider explained that females were more prone to such acts due to what he considered their inferior physical, mental and moral capacity.

"Not only do Formicarius and Malleus establish diabolism as a constituent element of witchcraft, but they also agree that women are especially likely candidates for its transaction, and accordingly for its punishment. Since Formicarius preceded Malleus by fifty years, Johannes Nider is the first clerical authority to state that women are more inclined to sorcery than men, and it has been demonstrated that Kramer lifted Nider's ideas almost directly into Malleus, at times almost verbatim." (J. Mitchell, Killing Women - Gender, Sorcery, and Violence in Late Medieval Germany, p.4)

"Johannes Nider was by far the most important single authority to treat the subject of witchcraft in the early fifteenth century, in respect to both the amount of material he produced and the influence his writings would have. Taking up this notion at almost the very moment it first appeared in Western Europe, he played a key role in its construction, codification, and spread. His major work, the Formicarius, survives in over twenty-five manuscript copies from the fifteenth and early sixteenth centuries and went through seven printed editions from the 1470s to 1692, thus covering the entire period of the great European witch-hunts.

"Writing at the very beginning of the so-called witch craze in Europe, Nider is a critical source for understanding the early development of this new phenomenon. During the early fifteenth century, the crime of witchcraft no longer entailed just the practice of harmful sorcery against others, but took on terrible demonic and indeed diabolic overtones. Ultimately witches were accused of worshipping demons, renouncing their faith, and surrendering themselves completely to the service of the devil. Thus they were guilty of idolatry and apostasy, and, believed to be in league with Satan, they were regarded as a serious threat to the entire order of the Christian world." (Bailey, Op. cit., p.3-4)

"Certainly the most graphic tales of witchcraft in the Formicarius involve detailed descriptions of witches' sabbaths. Two of these tales were drawn from the testimony of Peter of Bern, the first concerning specifically how and why witches would devour babies. Nider wrote:

It was, moreover, generally known, the aforesaid judge Peter told me, that in the territory of Bern thirteen infants had been devoured within a short period of time by witches, wherefore public justice was indeed inflamed harshly against such murderers. When, moreover, Peter had questioned a certain captured witch as to the means by which the infants were devoured, she responded, 'The method is thus: With infants not yet baptized, or even baptized ones, especially if they are not protected by the sign of the cross and the prayers, these ones, through our ceremonies, we kill in their cradles or lying at their parents' sides, who afterwards are thought to have been crushed or to have died in some other way. We secretly remove them from the graves. We boil them in a cauldron until, with the bones having been torn out, almost all the flesh is made into a liquid draft. From the more solid matter we make an unguent suitable for our desires, and arts, and transmutations. With the more liquid fluid, we fill up a flask or a leather bottle, [and] he who drinks from this, with a few ceremonies added, immediately is made a member and a master of our sect.'

"Here we see a clear picture of witches organized into a malevolent and threatening cult. Focusing only on the murder and cannibalism of children, this account does not describe any of the other stereotypes of the sabbath, but Nider immediately presented a second account, also drawn from Peter of Bern, which does offer a fuller picture [...] [in which] we see the developed idea of witches operating as an organized sect directed by a demon and focusing on apostasy and devil worship in exchange for magical powers." (Bailey, Op. cit., p.41-2)

Physical description:

Chancery Folio; dimensions of leaves: 282 mm x 192 mm. Bound in contemporary German blind-tooled pigskin over wooden boards, paneled with floral and foliate rolls, and with two brass clasps and two engraved brass catchplates. Pastedowns renewed in early 19th century. Fragments of a 14th-century (?) manuscript on vellum used as spine-liner, visible at gutters.

192 leaves (forming 384 pages), unfoliated.
Signatures: a-s10 t-v6 (a1, v6 blank).
Collated and COMPLETE, including the front and rear blanks.

Printed in single volume 33 lines and head-line, in large gothic letter (Type 2:118 (120)G; 3:140G); capital spaces with guide-letters (first five leaves rubricated in contemporary hand with red lombard initials supplied, red paragraph marks and underlining to headlines).

Author's Prologus on a2r; table of contents on a2v-a6r; text of the Formicarius occupies a6r-v5v. Colophon on leaf v5v.


Good antiquarian condition. Complete, wide-margined example, unpressed and unwashed, and preserved in an attractive contemporary (probably original) binding. Binding rubbed, some wear to extremities with minor loss at head and foot of spine. One clasp slightly defective, another fully functional. Hinges slightly strained, but firm; binding solid. Both pastedowns replaced in early 19th century. Front and rear blank slightly chipped at edges; light fraying at top edge to a few leaves at the beginning and at end of the volume. Occasional light to moderate damp-staining to top portion of some leaves: mostly confined to margins, slightly affecting text on a few leaves only; light discoloration to the first three leaves. Traces or remnants from early bookmark tabs formerly attached at fore-edges of the initial leaves of each of the work's five books, occasionally causing small marginal tears. Several leaves with manuscript marginalia (mostly in English, probably in William Knighton's hand). Early monastic ownership inscription by the Regensburg Franciscans to top margin of leaf a2r. Occasional light soiling, mostly marginal.


Franciscan Convent of Regensburg (South-East Germany): with "F[ratrum] Minor[um] Con[ventus] Ratis[bonensis]" stamped in black on front cover, and with their manuscript possession note (in 16th- or 17th-century hand) to top margin of a2.

Sir William Knighton (1777-1836), with his armorial bookplate to front pastedown, and with his bibliographical notes on this edition of Formicarius on both pastedowns (including "A most amusing book, full of most extraordinary stories, etc."), as well as some marginalia in English. (Knighton was Physician to the Prince of Wales in 1810, then auditor of the Duchy of Lancaster, and from 1821 to 1830 he was Private Secretary to King George IV and Keeper of the Privy Purse. In an almost unprecedented move, the King surrendered control of his financial affairs to Knighton in 1822, on account of his enormous debts. After three years, Knighton declared that the King was free of debt. He had an unparalleled influence over the King, and letters from George IV to Knighton were addressed "M[y] D[ear] F[riend]".)

A clipping from an old (19th-century?) bookseller's catalogue in French affixed at bottom of front pastedown.

Bibliographic references:

Hain-Copinger 11832; BMC II, 351; Goff N-176; GW M26845; Proctor 1696; Bod-inc N-077; IGI 6889; Walsh 573, 574; Oates 925; Coumont, Demonology and Witchcraft, N23.4.

Please click on thumbnails below to see larger images.

About the author:

Johannes Nider (1380 - 1438) was a Dominican friar and a prominent theologian, diplomat, reformer, as well as a celebrated preacher throughout Germany and Switzerland at the beginning of the 15th century. Nider entered the Order of Preachers at Colmar and after profession was sent to Vienna for his philosophical studies, which he finished at Cologne where he was ordained. He gained a wide reputation in Germany as a preacher and was active at the Council of Constance. After making a study of the convents of his order of strict observance in Italy he returned to the University of Vienna where in 1425 he began teaching as Master of Theology. Elected prior of the Dominican convent at Nuremberg in 1427, he successively served as the vicar of the reformed convents of the German province. In this capacity he maintained his early reputation of reformer and in 1431 he was chosen prior of the convent of strict observance at Basel. He played an important role in the Councils of Constance (1414-18) and Basel (1431-49).

Nider became identified with the Council of Basel as theologian and legate, entrusted with the task of converting the Hussites of Bohemia. He made several embassies to the Hussites at the command of Cardinal Julian. Sent as legate of the Council to the Bohemians he finally succeeded in pacifying them. He journeyed to Ratisbon (1434) to effect a further reconciliation with the Bohemians and then proceeded to Vienna to continue his work of reforming the convents there. He resumed his theological lectures at Vienna in 1436 and was twice elected dean of the university before his death. As reformer he was foremost in Germany and welcomed as such both by his own order and by the Fathers of the Council of Basel.