The ‘Malleus Maleficarum’ Witching Evident Authority

Sydney Anglo
Sydney Anglo

It is thus that Henri Boguet introduces his ‘Examen of Witches’ (1602): a manual based upon his own experiences as a judge concerned with the trial, torture, and burning of numerous victims of the witch scare in Burgundy towards the end of the sixteenth-century. Boguet knows that witches exist because he can cite both learned authority and factual evidence to prove his case conclusively.

The study of witchcraft has recently enjoyed a boom at all levels, extending from the popular and merely sensational to the erudite and technical.

The majority of serious modern studies have concerned themselves with a number of difficult problems. They have considered the extent to which witchcraft practices at the folk level really existed in the Middle Ages and the Renaissance, and how these might be illuminated by comparison with the beliefs of modern primitive societies.

They have pondered the relationship, or irrelation, between popular and learned magic. Or they have attempted to explore and to elucidate the popular mentality of past societies.

Attention has accordingly been focused upon witch trial records rather than upon literary sources; and when such studies have attempted to explain the witch craze they talk about social tensions, economic pressures, and alienation; endeavour to psychoanalyse the past; and even seek to quantify the development of persecution.

The temptation of such impossibilities is considerable; and their undertaking may be of value, though all attempts to reconstruct the inchoate prejudices of the illiterate multitude are hampered by the fact that they leave so few written records.

However unfashionable, it is sometimes worthwhile to consider the beliefs of educated men who actually took the trouble to argue their case to posterity: and it is not unreasonable to address oneself to questions which admit of answers, and to study evidence which is clearly written on, rather than between, the lines.

It appears to be tacitly assumed by many scholars that discursive arguments by the learned have little relevance to the reality of witch persecution.

It is usual to pass over long, and often elaborate, treatises with a few casual remarks; to summarise their intricacies within a single paragraph; or to cope with their obscurities by ignoring them.

Many of these books are well known and frequently cited; yet there has been little analysis of their structure, arguments, language, and interrelation. For example, every student of witchcraft knows of the ‘Malleus Maleficarum’: but, in England, there is not a single study devoted to this text.

Weyer and Scot were famous opponents of the witchcraft persecution in the late sixteenth-century, and are constantly referred to; but significant work on the former is exclusively German and Dutch, while the substance of Scot’s arguments has received no attention whatever.

Perhaps the most distinguished name in the literature of witch persecution is that of Jean Bodin: but there has been only desultory study of his ‘Demonomanie’ in relation to his other writings. The ‘Daemonologie’ of King James I is a familiar text: yet it is only very recently that historians have troubled to read it in the light of James’s political works.

De Lancre’s account of the sabbat is often plundered for lurid detail, but his work, as a whole, has scarcely been considered within its historical and literary context.

From such indifference to some of the most notable texts in the witchcraft debate, it is not difficult to deduce the treatment accorded to less famous tracts. The fact that these works were published, and do not lie buried in archives; that they are discursive arguments, and not fragmentary records; that they are literary rather than ad hoc documentation, does not render further comment superfluous.

The content of books is not absorbed by some process of historical osmosis.

Books have to be read and pondered; and, just as their arguments demand closer analysis and elucidation than the endless sordidities of trial records and the trivia of folk beliefs, so do they offer considerably richer rewards to the historian of ideas.

The present volume, therefore, approaches witchcraft and demonology on the basis of their literary remains: treatises which deal, in various ways, with the theories underlying persecution.

The majority of the following essays treat works specifically devoted to establishing the reality of a demonological system, to the elaboration of witchcraft beliefs, and to establishing the need for retribution.

The others deal with authors who were trying to subvert such theories: but even their arguments illustrate both the limitations of sixteenth-century scepticism, and the compelling nature of the material ranged against them.

The principal purpose of this first essay is to comment upon the ‘Malleus Maleficarum’. But, by way of introduction, I wish to develop the ideas raised in the brief opening quotation from Boguet: for, though it is customary to treat witchcraft as a separate study, it does not constitute a self-sufficient body of doctrine.

Quite the contrary, for it is firmly rooted in a complex of interrelated magical ideas which informs many aspects of medieval and Renaissance thought.

How were these ideas treated by trained thinkers? Why were educated professional men such as Boguet so convinced about the reality and the horrors of witchcraft? In other words, what constituted a conclusive argument in the period between the fifteenth- and late seventeenth-centuries?

Certainly, for the most part, it was something very different from what scholars now regard as a valid argument: that is the deliberate attempt at objectivity; inductive reasoning; the evaluation of evidence rather than its mere accumulation; conscious scepticism of received authorities; and, above all else, the process of constantly testing hypotheses by controlled experiment.

The application of such critical techniques to the fabric of magical belief has tended to shred it asunder. But such techniques were scarcely known in the Middle Ages; only slowly developed in the Renaissance; and can hardly be deemed general in modern times.

That magic, as an explanation for everything, has been largely set aside is due more to fashion than to a comprehension of any alternative theory of causation.

Ernest Jones long ago suggested that the average modern man unhesitatingly rejects “the same evidence of witchcraft that was so convincing to the man of three centuries ago, though he usually knows no more about the true explanation than the latter did”. And Keith Thomas, who cites this observation, himself goes on to remark that “most of those millions of people who today would laugh at the idea of magic and miracles would have difficulty in explaining why”.

They are, he says, “victims of society’s constant pressure towards intellectual conformity”. To this one could add what are perhaps even more fundamental observations: the first being the limited capacity of the human intellect.

Given the vast multiplicity of information increasingly available — and the paradox that the further knowledge is advanced, and the more avenues opened up for exploration, so the greater becomes the distance between actual and potential knowledge — the more assertions we are obliged to take on trust.

In addition, there remains the human need to reduce the infinite to finity; the divine to the anthropomorphic; the incalculable to the mensurable; and the unknowable to the comprehensible. Hence the creation of deterministic historical systems enabling man to foretell the future from his past. Hence the creation of number mysticisms empowering adepts to become prophets.

Astrology may be rejected as untenable, and numerology dis/ missed as an arcane absurdity. Yet modern states do not hesitate to implement the recommendations of statistical prognosticators, despite the existence of the very factors which undermined earlier divinatory superstitions: the fact that the figures are susceptible to as many conflicting interpretations as there are experts; and that the predictions are frequently wrong.

If we remain abject before our own seers, it is not difficult to comprehend the force of those beliefs with which this volume is concerned: beliefs which fashioned a world where magic was not merely possible but normal; and where witchcraft was simply its most lurid manifestation.

Scholarship has tended to separate the witch from the magician, and to treat, as discrete, low magic and higher magic. But witchcraft beliefs arose from the blurring of such distinctions and from a cosmic vision which saw witch and magus operating within a single system.

At its lowest level magic could be expected to operate through love potions, charms, secret cures and harms, as employed by “cunning folk” and “wise women”, but a problem arose when any attempt was made to explain how such cures and harms actually functioned, for such explanations could only be propounded by professional thinkers who provided a system of occult relationships which subsumed the witch.

Few doubted that it was possible for someone to bring about transitive effects upon other people, beasts, or inanimate objects; and various methods of achieving these ends were recognised and commented upon.

Macrocosmic and microcosmic imagery was commonplace, and it was generally accepted that the entire universe was composed of a vast system of correspondences and harmonies, so that anything carried out on one level must inevitably affect other levels of existence.

Astral influences were postulated, where the spirits or essences of the planets held sway over lower levels of creation; and the cosmos was filled with demonic and angelic intelligences, all capable of affecting human affairs.

Correspondences and harmonies, astral influences, demonic and angelic activity: all offered explanations as to the functioning of the universe.

Given such explanations, it was also possible to suppose that knowledge of these functionings might, in turn, lead to their manipulation. Harmonies might be sympathetically exploited; the power of the stars might be attracted and harnessed; angels might be persuaded to lend their aid; and demons might be exhorted and even compelled. In short, the magician might be able to utilise superhuman powers for his own ends.

Such a conviction was strengthened by another closely related magical mode which depended upon the innate properties of material things. Such properties might be easily comprehended as, for example, was the case with certain herbs and minerals possessing curative or harmful powers.

On other occasions, they might be less readily apparent as, for instance, the alleged efficacy of the emerald in restraining sexual passion, where the virtue was said to be occult. Nevertheless, all such innate properties could be described as natural; and their exploitation was categorised as natural magic.

As we shall see, natural magic could be a powerful intellectual weapon; and in the hands of Pomponazzi it became a distinct threat to all other magic, including religion. Pomponazzi explains every kind of magical effect and marvellous event by “natural” causes, and thereby eliminates direct divine, demonic, or angelic agency.

In the main, however, natural magic reinforced rather than undermined other magic. The efficacy of talismans provides an obvious example. Since stones were held to receive their innate qualities from the planetary influences, it was theoretically possible to attract the power of a particular celestial body by engraving the correct image at the correct time on the appropriate gem — a recondite skill which could only appertain to the learned magus. But what of the witch?

She, too, was deemed to operate largely through the exploitation of natural magic and was commonly accused of employing drugs to procure effects such as love and the recovery of health, or, conversely, poisoning and death. How did she master knowledge which cost the magus a lifetime of arduous study? Such abilities could not be innate.

Instead, they were attributed to demonic pacts; and this arrangement, in effect, opened up all magical arts to the terrestrial partner since the devil and his demons know infinitely more than even the most learned mortal.

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