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Een ketterse arts voor de heksen. Jan Wier (1515-1588)

06 June 2011

PhD ceremony: Ms.  V.M. Hoorens, 13.15 uur, Academiegebouw, Broerstraat 5, Groningen

Dissertation: Een ketterse arts voor de heksen. Jan Wier (1515-1588)

Promotor(s): prof. J.W. Renders, prof.dr. C.G. Santing

Faculty: Arts


For many generations now, the Dutch-born physician Jan Wier has been known as the first serious opponent of the witch persecution. In his books De praestigiis daemonum (On diabolic delusions) of 1563 and De lamiis (Book on witches) of 1577 he called it nonsense that old women made a pact with the devil, flew to witches’ Sabbaths, produced witches’ ointments, and possessed magical powers by which they caused harm to others. In his view, the witch trials were unlawful because they dealt with non-existing offences and because suspects were tortured, humiliated, confined in degrading circumstances and subjected to the water ordeal. Because he described some witches as mentally ill, he counts as a founder of modern psychiatry. His plea for a human treatment of (some) suspects has even won him a reputation as a champion of human rights avant-la-lettre. Not surprisingly, throughout the ages Wier has known numerous admirers including Karl Marx and Sigmund Freud and various organisations in the domain of psychiatry and human rights have been named after him.

At the same time, critics of Wier point out that he did not end – and that he perhaps even inadvertently stirred up – the witch persecution. They argue that he could not possibly be influential because his thinking was unsystematic, undisciplined, and flawed by the belief in devils and magic that transpired it. In addition, they claim that Wier wrongly counts as a figure-head of psychiatry. Some researchers argue that De praestigiis daemonum does not contain a coherent theory or innovative conceptualization of mental illnesses. In the second half of the twentieth century, anti-psychiatrist Thomas Szasz even stated that Wier had unfavourably influenced psychiatry because he was the founder of a health care system that confined and silenced troublesome individuals.

Who was Jan Wier and what made him develop views that were in his time all but popular? What is his societal and scientific legacy? Where do the remarkably contradictory views on his importance come from and how come that the public at large has next to forgotten him? The present biography addresses these questions drawing on Wier’s works, his correspondence and the correspondence of his relatives, friends, and acquaintances. It also draws on the biographies of his contemporaries and the scholarly literature on the witch craze, occult traditions, university history, medical history, history of science, the Dutch Revolt, the (Counter-) Reformation and the climate in the sixteenth century.


Last modified:13 March 2020 01.12 a.m.
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