Sunday, April 20, 2008

Mackay: Malleus Maleficarum in Translation, History, and Legacy

I recently became aware of a new scholarly translation of the infamous Malleus Maleficarum by Dr. Christopher Mackay of the University of Alberta. For those unfamiliar with the Malleus (translated as" The Hammer of Witches"), this is a medieval text that served as a resource for those in the church of the time as they sought to identify and address witchcraft. This text was extremely influential in the time, it would later inform the various witch trials and "burning times,"and it continues to exert influence in stereotypical notions of witchcraft and alleged connections to satanism in various aspects of pop culture.

Dr. Mackay agreed to an interview to discuss his translation, and the history of the Malleus in the past and the present.

Morehead's Musings: Dr. Mackay, thank you for providing some time to discuss the Malleus and your recent translation efforts. For those who may not be familiar with this work, who wrote it, what time frame was it composed in, and what is it's basic content?

Christopher Mackay: The book was published in 1486. The text itself refers to two unnamed authors, and in the public attestation that forms the approbation (certification of orthodoxy) provided by the theological faculty of University of Cologne in 1487, the Dominican inquisitor Henricus Institoris (known in the vernacular as Heinrich Kramer) states that he wrote the work along with another Dominican inquisitor named Jacobus (i.e., Jakob/James) Sprenger. The argument was made in the nineteenth century by a scholar hostile to what the Malleus stood for that the approbation was a forgery by Institoris and that Sprenger had nothing to do with the composition. The evidence for this is in my view very tenuous (and the main argument is clearly invalid). Nonetheless, once the argument was put forward, it took on a life of its own, and people continue to advance arguments in favor of the idea that Sprenger's involvement was a falsification perpetrated by Institoris, despite the fact that this argument was vitiated from the start.

Anyway, regardless of Sprenger's role in the composition, the work is meant to be a demonstration of a specific conception of witchcraft in order to rebut those whose disbelief in that conception was thought to obstruct the prosecution of witches in secular courts. The work is broken down into three sections (books). Book One is a demonstration of the existence of witchcraft in general and of the specific interpretation advocated for it. Book Two covers the practical details of the effects of witchcraft and is itself subdivided into two sections, the first dealing with the practices of witches and the second of the legitimate means to counteract these. Book Three treats the manner of investigating accusations and of dealing with the accused judicially.

Morehead's Musings: How influential was this document in Christendom in first few centuries following its composition?

Christopher Mackay: There are several ways to view this. In terms of the publication history of the book, it was reprinted numerous times until 1519. During this period, the book was apparently quite popular, and presumably it was read as an up-to-date manual on the topic. There is then a gap until 1574, when reprintings resume, continuing until 1669, the last year in which the book was published until the appearance in the early 1990's of two separate facsimiles of the first edition. There was something of a lull in witch hunting activities during the mid-16th century, when the disturbances associated with the Reformation were something of a distraction, and when things calmed down a bit later in the century and there was more free time to worry about maleficent witchcraft, the Malleus began to appear as part of "omnibus" editions of "great hits of witch hunting". Other books were by that time the "up-to-date" treatments.

By this standard, the Malleus was of comparatively short-lived significance, but I'd say that in the broader perspective, the Malleus was much more important. It presents a view of witchcraft known in modern scholarship as diabolism (satanism) that can't be traced before the early fifteenth century (though it builds on long-accepted concepts). Only one earlier work that sets out this notion, the Formicarium of Johannes Nider, appeared in print (remember that moveable-type printing began in Europe only a generation before the appearance of the Malleus in about 1450), and there the discussion is simply part of a discussion of moral reform in Christendom. The Malleus, on the other hand, is a full-fledged attempt to justify the new conception in terms of the scholastic discourse that was the dominant mode of intellectual argumentation in late-medieval Europe. Thus, I'd say that the Malleus was responsible for the acceptance of a new "paradigm" (in the sense advocated by Thomas Kuhn) about witchcraft. That is, the dissemination and widespread acceptance of the point of view (or world view) that underlay and instigated the so-called "craze" of witch hunting in the sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries can be attributed (ultimately) to the Malleus. Now, it is the case that some of the major elements of the craze are either downplayed in the Malleus (e.g., the so-called black sabbath) or entirely absent (e.g., the devil's mark), but all that shows is that people added, after their own fashion, to the paradigm that the Malleus did so much to help disseminate and make respectable.

Morehead's Musings: What portrait of Witchcraft was painted by the Malleus?

Christopher Mackay: In modern scholarship, the view advocated in the Malleus is known as the "elaborated theory of witchcraft". Belief in magic (however defined) goes back to long before Classical antiquity, and it was taken for granted in the earlier middle ages as a practice that in some way involved the participation of satanic forces, but this was not worked out in an elaborate manner. One particular form of magic/witchcraft related to the behavior of heretics (that is, groups of Christians who rejected fundamental principles of the orthodoxy recognized by the Church). Heretics were thought to meet in covert assemblies (conventicles or synagogues) that Satan himself attended as the sower of heresy. There the heretics were imagined as engaging in promiscuous (sometimes incestuous) sex and in particular in using pastes made from killing babies for various nefarious purposes. The elaborated theory of witchcraft took these associations of religious heresy with witchcraft and Satan a step further by arguing that there is a specific heresy that consists of nothing but practicing maleficent witchcraft. That is, instead of associating witchcraft (and other forms of despicable behavior) with heretics, it is now held that these heretics have no specific religious views on which they disagree with the established Church, and their heresy fundamentally consists of nothing more than rejecting the Christianity that they had taken on through infant baptism and carrying out evil through witchcraft for its own sake. Basically, this "heresy" is an element in Satan's attempt to subvert the true Church and to offend God as an end in itself. Thus, the evil that is believed to be caused by the adherents of this "heresy" needs no further explanation--it's simply something that Satan wants. This means that once this "paradigm" takes hold, there arises both a sense of urgency on the part of those who accept it, and no particular need to explain examples of the crime in terms of normal motives. It is a dangerous thing when you believe that heinous crimes are committed for "illogical" reasons and you can use judicial torture as a means of extracting confessions from those suspected of such crimes.

Morehead's Musings: Why did it finally disappear historically, and when did it resurface in translation?

Christopher Mackay: As I said, the Malleus was already "old fashioned" by the late 16th century, though it continued to be published as long as notions of witchcraft were still intellectually respectable. The issue of why the old "paradigm" about witchcraft broke down fairly rapidly in the early to mid-17th century is a very complicated one, but certainly by that time the intellectual and scientific underpinnings of the work were mostly incompatible with the overall understanding of how the world works as determined by the scientific discoveries of the 16th and 17th centuries.

As for its translation into English, the first translation only appeared in 1928. The translator, Montague Somers, is an interesting figure in his own right, but let's just say for present purposes that in terms of competence, his version is amateurish. He clearly didn't use the oldest edition, he garbles the many references to earlier authorities, and he not infrequently guesses when he doesn't understand something. Also, he writes in a crabbed, old-fashioned style that I think borders on the incomprehensible at times. Finally, he adopts the perspective of curmudgeonly Catholic from the Middle Ages who entirely believes in the view laid out in the work. In his history of witchcraft from the post-First World War period he equates Bolshevism and feminism (the main ills of his own world) with medieval witchcraft. This sort of thing is amusing, but not scholarship.

If I might be allowed to flog my own wares, let me add that as it is, my version only appears in a rather expensive two-volume bilingual edition, but by the start of next year (I hope), a stand-alone paperback edition of just the translation should be available at a much smaller price.

Morehead's Musings: By all means, feel free to promote your work of scholarship. You were recently asked to produce a new translation of the work, which has been released in a two-volume set with commentary. How did this retranslation and your involvement in the project come about?

Christopher Mackay: I was asked by a colleague mine and an MA student of his to come up with a new translation to replace Somers' obviously unsatisfactory version, and they were to provide this translation with an introduction and notes. Eventually, for various reasons the others dropped out, and so the work as it stands is just mine.

In working with a facsimile of the first edition, it soon became clear to me that a proper text of the Latin text had to be established, and this soon became my main focus, though obviously I also translated it. In working with the Latin text, I undertook the laborious task of tracking down as far as I could all the sources used in the text (the authors make it clear in their introduction, which Somers omitted, that to a large degree the substance of the work is copied from earlier texts). You get a much different impression of what's going on in the text from tracking down the sources. Basically, though nearly eighty sources or authors are cited, there are only three main sources, and all the other references come from the small number of main sources.

Morehead's Musings: In your view, how might the Malleus have continuing impact into the present in shaping pop cultural views of Witchcraft?

Christopher Mackay: Well, I think the Malleus is like the Necronomicon of the "crazed Arab Abdul Al-Hazred" in that it is frequently referred to but seldom read in its own right. I should explain that flippant remark by saying that the Necronomicon is a fictional work made up by the writer H.P. Lovecraft that gets referred to in later works as if it really existed (and I gather that someone actually has written a book by that name to make good the lack). Now, naturally, the Malleus really does exist, but it gets mentioned a lot in works of fiction by people (like Dan Brown) who I suspect have never read it (and who could blame them if the only translation available was Somers' version?). I hope that this situation will at least in part be corrected by my new translation (and coincidentally, right around the time of the appearance of mine, another translation also came out, but it's not a complete one, isn't based on the first edition, and doesn't involve all the work on the earlier sources that I've put into mine). As a matter of fact, I recently was reading a book about the role of notions of Satan in the Spanish understanding of the new world, and was surprised to see the Malleus characterized as a work in which witchcraft is conceived of as an offense against the community rather than as a form of idolatry. I don't see how anyone who's actually read the thing could think that in that the work goes on and on about how Satan wishes to promote the heresy of witches as means of angering God against the human race because Satan thereby "steals" people who belong to God via baptism. Apparently, this is a form of treason against the majesty of God, and in retaliation God will give greater permission for witchcraft to take place (peculiarly, the argument of the work is that since God is omnipotent, absolutely nothing can take place without God's authorization, so to some extent the increasing prevalence of witchcraft can be viewed as a penalty for the existence of any in the first place, in a sort of downward spiral of infidelity and retribution).

Anyway, from my perspective, the interest of the work is mainly historical, but in that regard, apart from the interest of why people in the past believed and acted as they did, I think that the witch craze, which is Malleus did much to promote, can give us lessons for understanding human behavior even today. What I mean is that one could readily compare the results of believing in the notion of diabolism, that is, the great witch hunts of the 16th and 17th centuries, with the major scare about child abuse in daycare centers that spread across the .U.S in the 1980's. At that time, because the notion had taken root that heinous crimes (often associated with devil worship) were being committed against children in some daycare centers, certain mild complaints that had nothing to do with such activity quickly snowballed into gargantuan legal cases that defied all rational interpretation of the evidence (I'm thinking of cases like those involving the McMartin and Little Rascals daycares). It was only in 2004 that the Commonwealth of Massachusetts managed to get around (very reluctantly, I might add) to partially remedying the injustice resulting from one such case when Gerald Amirault was finally released after spending eighteen years in prison for a crime that no rational human being should have believed in the first place, much less on the absurd evidence presented in the case. Now, the word "medieval" is sometimes used to mean "characterized by irrational and superstitious beliefs", but before we get on our high horse of feeling superior to the benighted past, it is worth remembering that all ages are subject to unwarranted and irrational behavior that is based on a deep-seated anxiety. The process that dislocates logical reason in both instances is the same, that is, an overriding "paradigm" delineating the sorts of crimes that are thought to go on in the world can cause people to act in defiance of the actual "evidence" because they form specific expectations in light of the overarching paradigm and then interpret what they "see" on the basis of what they expect.

From a religious point of view, I'm not the one to ask. But I can say that I've gotten two diametrically opposite reactions to the work from committed Christians. One person took me to task for undertaking the job of editing and translating the work at all on the following grounds: "Why is it you -or anyone- think that something as dreadful as the Malleus should be perpetuated? I see no reason for it and in the current climate of unbridled anti-religious bigotry to produce yet another edition seems to be just pouring fuel on the fire." Apparently, this person thinks that the "church" (I'm not sure whether he means Christianity in general or the Catholic Church in particular) looks bad through association with the work, which he strove to show (erroneously, as it turns out) was repudiated by the church. If it is the case that the Malleus makes the church "look bad," that's hardly my fault. On the other side of the spectrum, I recently received an email from a woman who took umbrage at views expressed in my introduction as laid out in an article published in my university's newspaper about the edition. Among other things, she wrote:

"It wasn't clear from the article, though, about the source documentation used for your critical introduction. In the article, you mention 'a place where demons inhabit the earth....and plot to ensnare them in their evil-doing and have sex with them....' as having no basis in reality and the Catholic Church concocted their ideas out of nothing. These are very strong statements and most difficult to prove. Indeed, it's always easier to prove a positive than a negative i.e. it would appear easier to prove that the Catholic Church contains the full deposit of the Truth, that there are witches and that Satan exists, that people do have sex with demons... My husband [cut] has a personal testimony that encompasses all of these subjects. He will be giving this testimony at the Edmonton Catholic Charismatic Prayer Breakfast..."
The text isn't entirely clear to me, but if I understand it rightly, she thinks it to be Catholic dogma (as laid out in the Malleus?) that not only do witches and Satan exist, but demons in fact walk the earth and have sex with humans, as her husband can attest, apparently through personal knowledge. I don't think I want to know what this personal knowledge could consist of. Seemingly, in this woman's mind, demons are a metaphysical reality in the world around us and the Malleus can still serve as a guide to understanding this phenomenon. For my own part, in the Edmonton that I live in, there aren't any demons. I guess it just depends on the paradigm you use to make sense of the world!

Morehead's Musings: Dr. Mackay, thank you again for making time to discuss this interesting historical document with far-reaching influences.

1 comment:

Steve Hayes said...

Thanks very much for that. Very useful for a project I'm engaged in right now.