Malleus Maleficarum by Jacobus Sprenger and Heinrich Kramer

Malleus MaleficarumMalleus 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.

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Horace Walpole and the Strawberry Hill Press 1757-1789 By Munson Aldrich Havens

Horace Walpole and the Strawberry Hill Press, 1757-1789Horace Walpole and the Strawberry Hill Press, 1757-1789 by Munson Aldrich Havens
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

What a fantastic read, especially for those fond of old books and printing. How often do you get to follow a press from birth to death? Read about every piece that came from it? I’ve been fascinated with Horace Walpole and reading about his private press was just a blast.

I also liked a quote from Walpole upon hearing of the death of a close friend (the poet Thomas Gray): “Methinks as we grow old, our only business here is to adorn the graves of our friends, or to dig our own” (p. 52).

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Horace Walpole’s Library by Wilmarth Sheldon Lewis

Horace Walpole's LibraryHorace Walpole’s Library by Wilmarth Sheldon Lewis
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

What a fun romp through the history of Horace Walpole’s library! I knew Walpole from his work The Castle of Otranto, the first gothic novel. I also have a strong passion for book porn, and this volume fit the bill.

This book is based on the 1957 Sandars Lectures by Wilmarth Sheldon Lewis, given at the University of Cambridge. The Readership in Bibliography is a fantastic idea, created with a £2,000 bequest from Samuel Sandars. He created an appointed position to Cambridge that funded a person to study bibliography and to deliver one or more lectures a year on “the subjects of Bibliography, Paleography, Typography, Bookbinding, Book Illustration, the science of Books and Manuscripts and the Arts relating thereto” (p. ix).

Lewis gave three lectures. The first focused on the books in Walpole’s library. What they were, where he got some of them and where they were physically placed within his library. The second lecture covered how Walpole read and used these books. The final lecture dealt with the 1842 sale of the library and what became of some of the volumes. This sounds like it could be boring or only for hardcore bibliophiles, but Lewis’s talks draw one in with anecdotes, contemporary gossip, links to history and persons, etc.

Speaking of the physical library, Lewis writes that “… books that have stood unmoved for years acquire a presumptive right to their place on the shelves, which their owner violates at his own peril” (p. 19). This is something I can relate to, although I don’t have quite the size of library that Walpole had. In my opinion, books must be more than pieces of art, they must be used. Walpole believed that, his was a working library. But, they are also living beings and they have their places where they, and we as readers, find them best suited to be.

In discussing the variety and specifics of the books that Walpole amassed, Lewis makes a great point: “Close as we may feel ourselves to be to the eighteenth century, merely reading the names of these books and authors, which were the standard works in all eighteenth-century libraries of any pretension, makes us realize how much we have not looked at that was common knowledge to the well-read man of that day” (p. 33). So many books have been lost, not physically, but to the tastes of readers and reviewers. Several of the volumes I have in my own library aren’t popularly read or even remembered. But, they were important at one time, or at least popular, and reading them now helps me to connect to the past. My understanding of the Gothic and Romantic movements has grown as I’ve slowly moved outside the modern canon of those genres.

As I said, Lewis throws little things into his lectures that make them fun. He notes the sleaziness of some booksellers, who soaked off prized Walpole book plates from poor condition books and attached them to other volumes to pass off as from his original library (p. 56). He also mentions how even though some books from the original library have been rebacked or rebound, some still have their press-marks (notation as to where they belonged physically in the library) and book plates underneath (p. 60). They may be lurking on a shelf near you.

I love that Lewis covers the “pedigree” of Walpole’s volumes, referred to as their provenance. How he acquired them, what he did with them and what became of them. Some books are valuable because they are rare or because they are extremely old. Others are valuable due to who owned them or their history. I like knowing that a book I have came from somewhere, whether that somewhere is considered important or not. It makes the volume more three-dimensional, more whole. From what Lewis writes, Walpole felt the same way, as do many collectors and bibliographers. Speaking of that, Lewis relates a fun history of two books that Walpole bought in the 1730s that were sold together, then separated and eventually brought back together at the time of the lectures, more than 200 years later (p. 63)!

Overall, a fantastically entertaining, informative and fun read. I highly recommend it.

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Mazeppa by Lord Byron

MazeppaMazeppa by George Gordon Byron
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I have wanted to read Byron and add a book of his to my collection for awhile now. But much of it never grabbed my heart when I browsed through it. Maybe it was my mood, maybe the time, or maybe I simply wasn’t a Byron fan. But, I was always drawn back, partly because of how he lived his life and partly the company he kept. I came to Mazeppa by a roundabout route. It wasn’t the title poem but “A Fragment”, a short piece included when it was first published in 1819. That was my hook. The title poem then exerted its power over me, and the deal was complete with “Ode”, a poem on Venice.

The title poem is a story recounted by a much older Mazeppa, a military commander with a Swedish king, retreating after the Battle of Poltava. He recounts how he learned his horse riding skills during his youth when he was a page in the Polish royal court. At that time, he fell in love with the wife of one of the Counts and they met secretly to make love. They were caught and he was strapped naked to a wild horse and set off into the country, presumably to die. Mazeppa survived the ordeal, but oh the writing as the horse flies through the countryside, forest and water. I felt like I was on the horse, with the language and flow of the meter. A very exciting poem that touches on many Romantic themes. I loved the descriptions of nature, the horse Mazeppa is on as well as a band of wild horses he encounters. Despair, wonder, excitement, passion, loss: all swirl round. Byron was also a vegetarian and his love of animals comes out in one section on the wild horse

With flowing tail, and flying mare,
Wide nostrils– never stretched by pain,
Mouths bloodless to the bit or rein
And feet that iron never shod,
And flanks unscarr’d by spur or rod” (lines 679-683)

“Ode” is an ode on Venice, lamenting the decay of Venice, the loss of freedom and the tyranny of rulers in a post Congress of Vienna world One section that stood out to me was:

“Ye men, who pour your blood for kings as water,
What have they given your children in return?
A heritage of servitude and woes,
A blindfold bondage, where your hire is blows” (lines 67-70)

Finally, “A Fragment” is Byron’s contribution to the ghost writing contest from the summer of 1816 on Lake Geneva. The contest, conceived of by Byron, invited Mary and Percy Shelley, John Polidori and himself to write ghost stories to pass the time during a very rainy summer. Byron only wrote a tiny opening, just over 10 pages. The fragment is dated June 17, 1816 and is one of the first vampire stories. It features a narrator and his companion, Augustus Darvell, who are traveling to the East in the 1700s. The story starts off very slowly, but by the time they reach a cemetery in Turkey, it is flying and I was caught. And then, just as quickly, it ends. Byron never developed it afterwards, and intended the fragment to be published in a magazine, not appended to Mazeppa. John Polidori, inspired by Byron’s fragment, published his own vampire novel in 1819, entitled “The Vampyre.” The main character is modeled on Byron. Interestingly, when Polidori’s work was first published, it was erroneously attributed to Lord Byron.

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Greek Epic Fragments, edited and translated by Martin L. West

Greek Epic Fragments: From the Seventh to the Fifth Centuries B.C. (Loeb Classical Library, #497)Greek Epic Fragments: From the Seventh to the Fifth Centuries B.C. by Martin West
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

As a fan of the Iliad and Odyssey, I was very excited to pick up this book. I was also interested since I studied some classical Greek in university and still have a yearning to retake up those studies. The Loeb series is a perfect solution. The left hand page includes the original text (in Latin or Greek) and the right hand page is an English translation.

The Iliad and Odyssey were part of the Trojan epic cycle, a collection of eight related epic stories. The lost six pieces only remain in fragments, summaries or commentary from various scholars writing much later than when the stories were composed. Sadly, this is all we have, but it is really exciting stuff that fills in the blanks, for me at least.

We have the Cypria, which covers the origin of the Trojan war and goes up to the beginning of the Iliad. Next is the Aethiopis, which starts after the end of the Iliad. It details the death of Achilles, his funeral games, the fight between Odysseus and Ajax Telamon and then the latter’s suicide. Next up is the Little Iliad. This covers the death of Paris, also known as Alexander. (That little alternative name fact I did not know.) This is also the story that has the Trojan horse and the sack of Troy. After that, we have The Sack of Ilion, an alternative telling of the sack of the city. It syncs up more closely with how the fate of Troy is described in the Odyssey. The fifth lost epic is called The Returns, which runs concurrently with the Odyssey. It covers the drowning of Ajax the Lesser due to some sacrilege he had committed earlier, as well as the murder of Agamemnon and other returns. The final lost piece is the Telegony, which is the sequel to the Odyssey. In it, we learn of three more sons of Odysseus, one born of Penelope, one of an inland queen he married after the Odyssey timeline, and one child born of the god Circe, where Odysseus stayed for a year on his roundabout way home from Troy. This last child ends up unknowingly killing his father, bringing closure to a prophecy about Odysseus’ end.

This volume also includes fragments from the Theban cycle, poems on Heracles and Theseus, other related epics and some fragments that have a claimed, though not necessarily proved, connection to Homer.

It’s a fine collection, although by its very nature, it is fragmentary. This is not a book to pick up for an introduction, but it is a welcome addition and an absolutely fun read.

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A Canticle for Leibowitz by Walter M. Miller, Jr.

A Canticle for LeibowitzA Canticle for Leibowitz by Walter M. Miller Jr.
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

I think I might have liked this story more when I was a kid. It’s classic-era science fiction, meaning to me it has a great premise but weak plot, poor character development and simplistic morality. It’s the type of book I devoured as a kid. I loved adventure and didn’t think about the motives or actions behind those who were positioned as good and bad, I just accepted it.

Miller has the opportunity to explore how, and why, people and organizations make the decisions they do. He assumed one group would do it right, his Catholic church, and the other groups (governments) would do it wrong. His only case seemed to be that governments are run by people, who are always fallible. But, his church is made up of and run by people. He also misses an opportunity to explore the relationships within the abbey, between it and Rome and between the various factions in Rome. He could have kept the church his greatest good, but complicated the situation. That hurt the book for me. There’s also the offensive use of the antisemitic myth of the Wandering Jew used throughout the novel.

Typical for the era and genre, one dominated by male writers, there were very few female characters. I counted four: “Lady Reporter”, Sister Helene, Mrs. Grales and an unnamed woman with radiation sickness. They are all one-dimensional and the only two are given more than one scene. Mrs. Grales is the only one who starts to be seen in a bigger light, but only when her main personality is killed and a childlike figure becomes animate.

While not quite the same premise, I much prefer Asimov’s The Foundation Trilogy for how to preserve and foster knowledge through a long-duration crisis.

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History of a Six Weeks’ Tour … by Percy Shelley & Mary Shelley

History of a Six Weeks' Tour Through a Part of France, Switzerland, Germany ...History of a Six Weeks’ Tour Through a Part of France, Switzerland, Germany … by Percy Bysshe Shelley
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I’m a big fan of Mary Shelley and her husband Percy Bysshe Shelley so I had to read their travelogue of two separate trips to Europe in 1814 and 1816. I was a little disappointed, mostly by their condescending remarks about the people they met in France, Germany, Switzerland and Holland. They also weren’t too happy with the towns and accommodations along their trip. It reminded me a little of Mary’s mother’s travelogue: Letters Written in Sweden, Norway, and Denmark.

However, the descriptions of nature are striking, especially Percy’s thoughts in his second letter about Mont Blanc and the glaciers around Chamouni (called Chamonix today). Of Mont Blanc, he writes “Nature was the poet, whose harmony held our spirits more breathless than that of the divinest” (p. 152). And reflecting on a glacier, “there is an awful grace in the very colours which invest these wonderful shapes” (p. 155). I actually enjoyed Percy Shelley’s prose descriptions of nature more than his poem, Mont Blanc: Lines Written in the Vale of Chamouni, which closed out this volume.

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