books about things that may or may not exist

book review

Malleus Maleficarum
by Jacob Sprenger and Henry Kramer

Full title: Malleus Maleficarum, Maleficas, & earum haeresim, ut phramea potentissima conterens. (The Hammer of Witches which destroys Witches and their heresy as with a two-edged sword).

Translated by Montague Summers
Createspace, 337 pages, no publication date. Original Latin version first publ. 1486

Reviewed by T. Nelson

Most historians place the start of the European Inquisition as a permanent institution around 1232, the year the first Dominican Inquisitor, Alberic, received the title of Inquisitor Hereticae prauitatis. But in his two introductions, dated 1928 and 1948, translator Montague Summers reminds us that draconian laws against witchcraft date back as far back as 319–321, when a haruspex, or Roman diviner, could be sentenced to the stake.

Summers says the Inquisition was more about politics than religion. He claims that many of the ‘witches’ of the time were actually revolution­aries who advocated abolition of the monarchy, private property, marriage, and religion. Those who got condemned were not just women, but men, children, peasants, choir boys, and other pawns rather than the political conspirators. Summers says that although there were many different sects of revolutionaries,

They were in reality branches and variants of the same dark fraternity, just as the Third International, the anarchists, the nihilists, and the Bolsheviks are in every sense, save the mere label, entirely identical. [p.8]

The actual text of this book, which is said to have been the second most popular book in Europe for almost 200 years, throws that assertion into doubt. Most of the crimes are either religious (heresy) or personal in nature: witches causing erectile dysfunction, marital problems, abortions, and exacting voodoo-doll style revenge on enemies, sometimes poisoning them outright, or inflicting sudden diseases, mental confusion, or death.

While political conspiracies did occur, as in England in 1324 when 27 defendants were tried for trying to kill King Edward II using witchcraft, and in Scotland in 1590, when over 200 people were accused of conspiring to assassinate King James VI, the victims were more often romantic rivals, babies, and animals: the authors say [p.181] “there is not the smallest farm where women do not injure each other's cows, by drying up their milk, and very often killing them.”

The Church turned Europe into a classic police state. Informers abounded, and torture created an endless supply of new suspects. Anyone espousing skepticism about religion, such as the philosopher Spinoza, or anyone disliked by a neighbor, was in danger. To be accused meant a good chance of conviction. If sentenced, their property was confiscated by the Church, which became fabulously wealthy. Depending on who does the counting, the number killed ranges from 6 thousand to 3 million.

Probably the most important lesson is that all the witch trials were legal, proving, in case anyone doubted, that what is legal is not necessarily moral. Of course, it was moral to them: to people who believed in an immortal soul and the devil and witchcraft, it makes sense that using witchcraft would be a crime—if nothing else, of conspiracy and attempted murder.

The meandering and proofreading-challenged introductions notwithstanding, the Malleus is much more than a masterpiece of misinformation. It is a valuable cultural artifact from a time when people in power attempted to protect their power from supernatural forces they believed to be real. Summers praises it as one of the world's few books written sub specie aeternitatis, under the aspect of eternity.

The Malleus consists of a series of questions, such as whether witches are real, how the question of personal enmity should be investigated, and whether incubi and succubi can have children. Arguments for each side are stated and refuted. This was the style of argument as it was taught in universities in those days. It's very much in the style of Aquinas, making this book sort of a cross between Thomas Aquinas and Buffy the Vampire Slayer.

This is what makes it important: despite its deranged conclusions, even these Inquisitors could not just state their dogma. They had to give reasons and arguments for their conclusions. It's as if science were waiting, ready to be invented. All that's missing is arguments based on empirical observations.

Instead of that, the authors cite authorities, including the Bible, Aristotle, and Augustine's City of God. In later parts, they also cite Aquinas.

But the questions asked here—why did God create angels with the capacity to sin, why are animals unable to sin while humans can, and how witches are able to fly—show that people were trying to deduce answers to questions of the day using whatever bodies of knowledge they believed were solid.

Of course this is no textbook on witch aerodynamics. The answer [p.139] is that witches make an unguent from limbs from unbaptized children they have killed, anoint it on a chair or broomstick, and immediately are carried up into the air.

Part 1 is the theoretical justification for what the Inquisitors are doing. Question II, for instance, asks whether the devil can do things by himself or whether he needs a witch as an intermediary. They argue that, according to the Bible, Job's house was blown down by the devil, and Albertus Magnus says if you throw rotten sage into running water, it will cause a storm. Augustine says the devil can bring about an effect of magic without needing a witch. Therefore, if the devil makes use of a witch, it's because he's seeking the perdition of the witch.

On the other hand, they say, since the devil is incorporeal, he has trouble affecting the real world. And just because something is not understood, like magnetism, it doesn't mean the devil has to be involved. But the mind always acts through a material agent. Conclusion: the devil acts through witches, but sometimes sh*t just happens. (I'm paraphrasing here.)

Part 2, which describes practices of witches, is full of stories about people who confessed, presumably under torture, and were “happy” to accept the death penalty; those who did not confess were tortured some more, and sometimes burned anyway, for only a witch could withstand that much torture. Not shedding tears was a sign too, but witches knew to fake tears by spreading spittle on their face. The stories are bizarre: witches cannibalizing unbaptized babies, demonic possessions, and—a repeated theme—stealing men's penises. Yet as crazy as the stories are, the Inquisitors never question their veracity.

Part 3 describes the legal procedures for trying witches: how many witnesses, what to say, how much torture they need, that sort of thing.

Some modern day writers consider this book to be misogynistic, because of weird sentences like this:

When a woman thinks alone, she thinks evil. [p.67]

Femina comes from the word Fe and minus. [p.68]

There is always jealousy, that is, envy, in a wicked woman. And if women behave thus to each other, how much more will they do so to men.

And I'm not sure what to make of these lines:

There is no doubt that certain witches can do marvellous things with regard to male organs. [p.80]

In fornication a young man sins, but an old man is mad. [p.100]

According to St Jerome, whatever we suffer, we deserve for our sins. [p.99]

But it should be remembered that the authors are prosecutors discussing their perps. For women not involved in witchcraft, the Malleus actually expresses a nuanced view:

But for good women there is so much praise, that we read that they have brought beatitude to men, and have saved nations, lands, and cities . . . . And all this is made clear also in the New Testament concerning women and virgins and other holy women who have by faith led nations and kingdoms away from worship of idols to the Christian religion.

In Question XII the authors come up with a unique explanation of why God allows evil in the world: evil is allowed because God can extract much good from it, such as by persecuting tyrants, or purgation of witches to prove the faith of the just.

The Inquisition might have been Christianity's way of trying to extirpate paganism. No doubt the horrors of the plagues also fed into their fear: fear does terrible things to the brain, disturbing the centers of judgment and making people callous about the lives of others. But what is most striking is the belief that they are incapable of error. They write:

[I]t has never been known that an innocent person has been punished on suspicion of witchcraft, and there is no doubt that God will never permit such a thing to happen. [p.171]

This is based on the belief that nothing happens save what is permitted by God [p. 51].

Today we would call these ideas paranoid delusions. But maybe we shouldn't get too smug. Even today there are many people who insist on the truth of phenomena that may or may not exist, invent oppressive rules and heresies, pronounce judgment on others, and prescribe treatments every bit as horrifying as the tortures prescribed here. What they have in common, and what makes them all dangerous, is that, like Sprenger and Kramer, they do it from an unshakeable conviction that they are doing good.

aug 06, 2017

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