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“It is argued that a firm belief in witches is not a Catholic doctrine,” begins Heinrich Kramer in the Malleus Maleficarum, or The Witch Hammer. This defensive crouch reflects the fact that his contemporaries were hardly 100% sold on his vision of witchcraft in the world. (I say Kramer, although the book is attributed to two men, as scholars generally seem to agree that his was the driving creative force). Kramer’s is the hand behind “[this] infamous book, one of the wickedest books ever printed.”[1. Sarton, George. Review of The Medical Man and the Witch during the Renaissance by Gregory Zilboorg, Isis, Vol. 25, No. 1 (May, 1936), pp. 147-152.] It would be easy to attribute the genesis of the Malleus to a kind of gelling of a malignant climate, the apotheosis of hatreds and prejudices already in existence. But rather the opposite appears to be true: one man’s paranoia created a new way to explain and cope with common frights, sorrows, and discontents. “It is blood which moves the wheels of history,” said Mussolini (and later, Dwight Schrute).[2. Ed. and tr. Barone Bernardo Quaranta di San Severino.  Mussolini: As Revealed in HIs Political Speeches, November 1914 – August 1923.] It’s often entirely peaceful when someone gives the wheel a shove. A man writes in silence, alone. The wheel starts spinning, then the blood starts flowing.

It’s a strange irony that though Kramer himself was frequently met with skepticism, disbelief, and, (at least once, in Innsbruck), strongly-worded suggestions from the local bishops that he leave town, his magnum opus remained fatally influential for hundreds of years.  “While Kramer certainly did not invent hatred of women, it was thanks to his work that witchcraft became a gendered crime,” says Moira Smith in “The Flying Phallus and the Laughing Inquisitor: Penis Theft in the Malleus Maleficarum.”[3. Smith, Moira. “The Flying Phallus and the Laughing Inquisitor: Penis Theft in the Malleus Maleficarum.” Journal of Folklore Research, Vol. 39, No. 1 (Jan. – Apr., 2002), pp. 85-117.] The title of her article references one of the most notorious passages of the Malleus, Question IX in Part 1, which asks, “Whether Witches may work some Prestidigatory Illusion so that the Male Organ appears to be entirely removed and separate from the Body.”

Yes, one of the preoccupations of a book used in legal prosecutions was whether or not a dick could be made to disappear.  The concern itself is puzzling enough, made stranger still by how far Kramer had to reach for evidence that this had actually occurred.  Witches stealing your junk was not, apparently, a widespread fear at the time, but Kramer pursued the possibility just the same.

It is meditations like this, and their gleeful, popular reference in scholarship on the Malleus that prompted at least one writer to wonder, “Would the Malleus have become so widely reproduced if it had been less spicy?”[4. Davidson, Jane P. Review of The “Malleus Maleficarum” and the Construction of Witchcraft: Theology and Popular Belief by Hans Peter Broedel. The Sixteenth Century Journal, Vol. 36, No. 2 (Summer, 2005), pp. 586-588.] It is a valid question, since the book endured long past its expected shelf life.  Like The Starr Report, the Malleus is frequently titillating.  It explains why women are overwhelmingly more receptive to the temptations of witchcraft: “the natural reason is that she is more carnal than a man, as is clear from her many carnal abominations.”  Part of the making of a witch is copulation with the devil and/or an incubus, which is often described in graphic, albeit speculative, detail.

So is it just the sex stuff that made the Malleus so enduring? Walter Stephens suggested that “witchcraft theorists were obsessed with demonic copulation because this act made witches who engaged in it ‘expert witnesses’ to the corporeal reality of demons…one finds an almost desperate desire to use witches as proof of the real existence of demons in the face of terrible doubt.”[5. Bailey, Michael D. Review of Demon Lovers: Witchcraft, Sex, and the Crisis of Belief by Walter Stephens.  Speculum, Vol. 80, No. 1 (Jan., 2005), pp. 334-335.] It is hard now to imagine a time in Europe when witches were not seen as universally feminine, but in fact it was The Witch Hammer that forced this shift, and for its own strange reasons.  A literate person backed into a corner with something he desperately wanted to prove; that’s what it took to entrench the notion that women’s libido made them into witches, that any woman with a sex drive could be worthy of death.  That’s the chaos of history.

How could such a thing be believed, even in such believing times?  Plenty of readers have pointed out that the The Witch Hammer is “irrational”[6. Sarton, George.  Review of The Medical Man and the Witch during the Renaissance by Gregory Zilboorg, Isis, Vol. 25, No. 1 (May, 1936), pp. 147-152.] and “idiosyncratic,”[7. Broedel, Hans Peter.  The Malleus Maleficarum and the Construction of Witchcraft.] and even that Kramer’s contemporaries possibly considered him senile. Smith points out that “The historical record shows that it is men, not women, who collect phalluses–usually by removing them from the bodies of enemies during warfare. But in the Malleus…male castration fears are projected onto women.”[8. Smith, Moira. “The Flying Phallus and the Laughing Inquisitor: Penis Theft in the Malleus Maleficarum.” Journal of Folklore Research, Vol. 39, No. 1 (Jan. – Apr., 2002), pp. 85-117.] Men often actually did have reasons to fear castration, particularly during times of war (and there were always times of war). The passage in the Malleus is more of a misdirect than a wholesale invention. So the book continues walking the reader through why and how witches are behind what might otherwise look like mere accidents or sad twists of misfortune. Then Kramer turns up the heat:

All wickedness is but little to the wickedness of a woman. Wherefore S. John Chrysostom says on the text, It is not good to marry: What else is woman but a foe to friendship, an unescapable punishment, a necessary evil, a natural temptation, a desirable calamity, a domestic danger, a delectable detriment, an evil of nature, painted with fair colours! Therefore if it be a sin to divorce her when she ought to be kept, it is indeed a necessary torture; for either we commit adultery by divorcing her, or we must endure daily strife. Cicero in his second book of The Rhetorics says: The many lusts of men lead them into one sin, but the lust of women leads them into all sins; for the root of all woman’s vices is avarice. And Seneca says in his Tragedies: A woman either loves or hates; there is no third grade. And the tears of woman are a deception, for they may spring from true grief, or they may be a snare. When a woman thinks alone, she thinks evil.

It’s kind of sickeningly thrilling to see a little thing, a manuscript could have been lost on the way to the printers, or destroyed in a fire, or printed only once and forgotten, instead be grow stronger and more authoritative as time passes. Maybe it’s more like seeing an evolutionary fluke, the development of a new, unnecessary mutation that gets passed down unexpectedly through the generations. The Witch Hammer developed a renewed authority during its second, even more popular run a hundred years after its original publication.

So what were the crimes of witches, besides disappearing dudes’ junk?  Halting boners, facilitating abortions, preventing conception, enchanting men into adultery. Messing with cattle and with the weather, the kind of ordinary yet crushing disappointments anyone could experience in everyday life. It’s human to look for someone to blame for your misfortunes even when there isn’t anyone. Maybe providing that outlet was the simple genius that preserved The Witch Hammer.

It’s easy, from a modern perspective, to mock or dismiss something as obviously of its time as The Witch Hammer, but it’s more than a little disingenuous to do so. Plenty of people, women and men alike, are still persecuted for facilitating abortions, for preventing conception, for “enchanting” men into adultery.

The blame-shifting in the Malleus essentially sanctions all manner of shit to roll downhill where perhaps it wouldn’t have before. Horsley and Horsley write about how systems that had formerly protected the weak and the unusual in Kramer’s Germany, in which society protected the strange and helpless, were turned inside out by The Witch Hammer.  “[T]he most frequently recurring dynamic of the recorded accusations shows how the belief in the uncanny power of such persons [outcasts, the suspected witches] to defend their own interests could be turned against them when circumstances shifted and fostered the persecution of witches…”[9. Horsley, Ritta Jo and Horsley, Richard A. “On the Trail of the “Witches:” Wise Women, Midwives and the European Witch Hunts.” Women in German Yearbook, Vol. 3, (1987), pp. 1-28.] The powerless suddenly became the dangerously powerful. Normal people, good people, were under attack and had to protect themselves with violence. This is still a popular sleight of hand.

In the end, “witchcraft theory offered an astonishingly powerful set of proofs constructed of nothing more than words.” Kramer’s worldview needed witches to exist, so he insisted that they did.  He got lucky, and his need found legs and walked across the centuries.[10. Crawford, Katherine. “Privilege, Possibility, and Perversion: Rethinking the Study of Early Modern Sexuality.” The Journal of Modern History, Vol. 78, No. 2 (June 2006), pp. 412-433.] Mallory sent me the following C.S. Lewis quote after I proposed the Malleus as a topic:

Surely the reason we do not execute witches is that we do not believe there are such things. If we did–if we really thought that there were people going about who had sold themselves to the devil and received supernatural powers from him in return and were using these powers to kill their neighbours or drive them mad or bring bad weather, surely we would all agree that if anyone deserved the death penalty, then these filthy quislings did. There is no difference of moral principle here: the difference is simply about matter of fact. It may be a great advance in knowledge not to believe in witches: there is no moral advance in not executing them when you do not think they are there.

It’s not difficult to come up with instances in which the outcome of a trial has little to no relation to what actually happened.  It’s a common pattern that’s repeating still.

[Image via Wikimedia Commons]

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Catherine Nicholas is a writer living in Richmond, VA. You can follow her on Twitter and Tumblr.

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