Saturday, November 24, 2012

Rare Witch-Hunting Manual Uncovered

The most famous witch-hunting manual used by secular courts during Europe's "witch craze" was the Malleus Maleficarum, or "Hammer of the Witches." It outlined various ideas about witchcraft drawn from the popular culture of the day and detailed the general procedure used for witchcraft prosecutions. However, the Malleus, published in 1487, was not the only such book in use, but rather the most widely disseminated and thus the most well-known today. It drew on more obscure works such as Johannes Nider's Formicanus published fifty years earlier, and despite its fearsome reputation in fact rejected some of the most fanciful and ridiculous claims regarding the activity of witches.

Recently a more lurid and detailed witch-hunting manual was found in the University of Alberta library. This book was published twenty years before the Malleus in 1465 and is extremely rare, with only three other copies known. Its claims are also considerably more far-fetched. It includes descriptions of the supposed powers possessed by witches such as flying on broomsticks and conjuring lightning along with a comprehensive guide to extracting confessions from them under torture. Andrew Gow, the medieval history professor who discovered the book, admitted that he finds its contents so distasteful that he does not even like to come near it.

Entitled, Invectives Against the Sect of Waldensians — a name for a Christian sect that was confused with witches in 15th-century France — the manuscript is thought to have been written around 1465 by a monk in what is now France’s Burgundy region, possibly for England’s King Edward IV, said Gow. It is exceedingly rare — one of only four copies known to exist — and is thought to be one of the founding texts in the modern conception of witchcraft.

Its pages describe cackling wenches sailing across the night sky on broom sticks, frolicking in nocturnal orgies of twisted delight and casting Satanic spells to doom crops with lightning and hail. “It’s this long, involved, complex litany of imaginary crimes,” said Gow, “which were cooked up in the fevered literary imaginations of these small-time church men.”

The purpose of the book, Gow explained, was to instruct witch hunters on how to identify and prosecute supposed servants of the devil. Ominously, it describes how one should “ratchet up the pain” to force suspected witches to confess, said Gow. "It’s an early expression of ideas that later become solidified and lead to the massive witch panics and witch hunts of the next 200 years.”

The flying broomstick idea, as silly as it is, has stood the test of time. Some have claimed that the literal idea is based on an actual practice involving the use of hallucinogens that are now sometimes billed as "flying ointment," but my guess is that the explanation is much more prosaic. Most of the victims of witch-hunters were women, and just about every woman of the period owned a broom. With something so ubiquitous serving as evidence against an accused witch, the job of the prosecutor becomes especially easy. Many of the trials that went on during the European witch craze were a lot like the persecutions that are still happening in Africa and parts of Asia today - less about detecting real workers of magick and more about finding convenient excuses to get rid of members of the community that nobody really likes.

Technorati Digg This Stumble Stumble


Jack Faust said...

Those targeted by witch accusations varied by location and the timeline of the hunts. In some places, males were more common targets versus women.

Scott Stenwick said...

That certainly is a fair point. In the post I was speaking more generally.

In fact my comment about the broom as "evidence" of witchcraft could correspond to male targets as well, since just about every household would have one. It's kind of like if a modern Inquisition were to decide that vacuum cleaners had a particular occult use, and therefore finding one in the home of a targeted family was evidence of guilt.

Hypnovatos said...

O Ye Grande Hoover of the Abyss, i call upon you to destroy all dust bunnies which find themselves in your path. remove from me all obsticales on my path to holy cleanliness, lest the demons of dirt attack me and make me gay...

Scott Stenwick said...

@Hypnovatos: There you go! The vacuum cleaners are for chasing away the gayness! Though I can't see why any church of the sort that would ever contemplate unleashing a modern inquisition would have any problems with that.