Malleus Maleficarum by Jacobus Sprenger
My rating: 2 of 5 stars
This was an impulse buy of a fine binding (Folio Society) with a local connection (Baltimore librarian and collector) based on a translation by Montague Summers, who wrote the Gothic Bibliography I consult regularly. I can’t say this purchase was really worth it, but I’m glad to have read it.
The editor of the series, Pennethorne Hughes, attempts to whitewash the Catholic Church’s action in murdering “witches”, predominately women. He says that while maybe many of the women killed were not witches, there still was something going on, hence the need to be vigilant. He claims that the Inquisitors and their overlords had nothing to gain by pursuing frivolous trials. He says they were only acting as best they could. This is disingenuous and simply fails to see the power that the Church had at that time and all the efforts it went to to sustain and grow that power from its founding up to the present. And he ignores human nature and how some people use a judicial process to punish those who they dislike or feel wronged them in some way.
The text itself is broken up into three parts. The first and third are only summarized in this edition. The first covers the “scientific” basis of witchcraft while the third covers the “trial”, torture and execution of the condemned. The editor notes that he has summarized the methods of torture in order to not offend or be sadistic. In some sense, I think he should have included it to further show how horrible this whole project was. He does give enough for me to wonder if the Malleus Maleficarum is being used as the foundation legal document for the US military tribunals at Guantanamo Bay. By that I mean that the accused shouldn’t be allowed access to competent legal representation, they should be mentally then physically tortured, lied to, promised salvation and then executed since by definition they were guilty before proceedings began. Sadly, not much has changed in 529 years.
The second section focuses on what witches can do and how to undo their acts. It is a testament to Christian misogyny. Women are weaker, less spiritual, easily deceived, subverters of god and man, etc. Women who defy men for whatever reason are by definition under the influence of the devil. The logic of the writers is also very convoluted. Evil is all powerful, but only when god lets evil work. So, the god they are protecting and worshiping is childish, spiteful and sadistic and willing to harm even the just. How people didn’t rise up earlier from this religion boggles the mind.
The editor tries to end in a good way, noting how the situations that led to the Malleus in the first place are still present today (1968). He sees it in communism, fascism, the Red Scare of McCarthy, the Holocaust, the violence during Algerian independence, etc. He says while he cannot condone the violence, he hopes that after reading this edition, we may begin to understand how it came about. This effort raised the book for me from 1 to 2 stars. He could have gone a lot further, perhaps with an afterward, but maybe that should be saved for a different work.