A user’s guide to witches
Harry Potter should be glad he practices his wizarding in the modern world. European sorcerers had a much less pleasant time of things in 1486, when the Malleus Maleficarum - “The Hammer of Witches” - was first published.
The lengthy tome was medieval Europe’s definitive guide to recognizing and prosecuting witchcraft, the justification for a wave of burnings-at-the-stake - largely of peasant women - that took place from the late 1400s to about 1520. And it helped spread the paranoid notion of a vast satanic conspiracy: a world where demons roamed freely, enticing women to cast spells, kill babies, interfere with procreation, and try to delay the fast-approaching End Times. (At the time, many thought the Earth’s sell-by date was 1535.)
Written largely by a Dominican friar from Germany named Henricus Institoris, republished broadly in its day, the Malleus was last translated from Latin to English in the 1920s. This month Cambridge University Press published a modern translation in a one-volume paperback, “The Hammer of Witches.” We spoke to the translator, Christopher Mackay, a professor of history and classics at the University of Alberta.
Ideas: One thing that occurred to me, reading this book, is that human nature hasn’t changed much in 450 years.
Mackay: The thing that I find most relevant to today is how you view the world around you. You see what you think you’ll see and you don’t see what you don’t think you’ll see. On “CSI,” Grissom says that the facts speak for themselves, but the facts don’t speak for themselves. It’s how you interpret the facts. [Institoris] talks about things like, you can stick a knife into a beam into your barn and you pretend to milk it, and through some razzmatazz you steal the milk from your neighbor’s cow. This is what people really thought. Onto that kind of stuff, he wants to impose this notion of this sect of heretics who are presided over by Satan.
Ideas: Was there a lot of superstition in daily life in Europe in those days?
Mackay: It depends on what you mean by superstition, because, after all, the church itself performed miracles. It’s a matter of degree. The Church has a store of magic at its command that is acceptable - that comes from God and is good - on the one hand. And you can invoke Satan to do similar things, and that’s bad.
Ideas: Was there a hue and cry against witchcraft before the religious inquisitors got involved?
Mackay: It depends on what you mean by hue and cry. People believed in witchcraft, but they didn’t know about satanism. Whether you think you’re just some kind of wise woman and you’re able to say a few spells on some herbs is one thing. Thinking that that person is involved in a conspiracy with Satan is another thing. In terms of the big witch-hunting trials, they were inquisitions that were conducted by the authorities rather than things that happened out of the population. You wouldn’t have crowds of people like in “Frankenstein” with pitchforks and whatnot demanding that so-and-so were killed.
Ideas: Institoris takes a pretty dim view of women’s role in all of this.
Mackay: Oh, he’s got a terrible attitude towards women. He thinks they’re less mentally capable and they’re more emotional and they’re therefore more susceptible to influence by Satan. One of his big notions of how women get involved in this is by being sluts, being dumped, and being recruited not by Satan directly but usually by an old woman. He says it’s old women who recruit young women. The way he presents it on the surface sounds a little bit sympathetic.
Ideas: It seems like he takes anything in the culture - rumors, peasant magic, jokes - and imagines it’s part of a satanic cult.
Mackay: Yeah. To write a book like that you have to be really convinced. And so he’s taking whatever evidence he can and working it into his world view. It’s hard to know what the people who practiced this kind of stuff actually thought. But some of his anecdotes reflect actual practices, like the thing about sticking the knife in and milking it. How does stealing milk have anything to do with subverting the natural world?
Ideas: Were his ideas adopted widely, or were these witch hunts just imposed from outside by a small group of inquisitors?
Mackay: One of the reasons why the Malleus is important is that it’s published 35 years after the invention of movable type, which made the dissemination of ideas much easier than it had been. The point is that it made this stuff fashionable, gave it a very elaborate intellectual underpinning. If the bishop of Bamberger or someone like that gets a hold of this idea and he takes it into his head, he’s going to apply it.
Ideas: Part of that application process was torturing the accused. But the book doesn’t go into the gory methods.
Mackay: Not only does it not go into the methods, but there’s a passage about how you shouldn’t do fancy stuff and you shouldn’t act like you enjoy it. The procedure was, you simply tied people’s hands behind their backs and you attached them to a pulley. Then the weight of their body pulled on their shoulders. Institoris argues that it’s much better to use these fancy intellectual methods that he propounds rather than to use a totally unreliable method of torture.
Ideas: But if a woman confessed, she was guilty. If she said she was innocent, that was proof of her guilt. No matter what you said, it seemed, you were burned at the stake.
Mackay: Once you’ve used your conjecture to figure out who’s guilty, what’s the point of hearing them anymore?
Joanna Weiss can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.