Saturday, September 13, 2008

Uncomfortably Familiar...

Have you ever sat down and read The Malleus Maleficarum? It's a 15th century witch-hunter's manual, and while a lot of people have heard about it, I rather suspect that most people haven't actually read it at length. It was written under the authority of the Catholic church by an ill-tempered pair of fellows by the names of Heinrich Kramer and James Sprenger. The two were members of the Dominican Order and both had made names for themselves as Inquisitors in the years before the order came down to write the Malleus. By all accounts they were bad enough on their own, but together, like some dour Voltron of Misogyny, they managed to generate a treatise on witchcraft that has remained famous for more than half a millennium as one of the hateful screeds ever committed to the page.

While modern sensitivities and popular culture have neutered the word "witch" such that it can now be applied unflinchingly even to cherubic, prepubescent boys such as Harry Potter, in Kramer and Sprenger's time the charge of witchcraft was almost invariably leveled against women. The very title of the Malleus Maleficarum is sexed - while the title is often translated as "The Hammer of Witches", the "maleficarum" is rooted in the word "malefactress". Thusly the title is perhaps better translated as something along the lines of "The Hammer of Evil-Doing Women". (So says Dr. Henry Ansgar Kelly of the University of California, anyway.) Glancing through the book even casually will reveal the predispositions of the authors quite clearly. The Malleus is written as a question and answer book, an early FAQ about how to identify, counteract, subdue, torture, and dispose of witches. Consider for example the following quote (I regret that I must edit this for length - brevity seemed far from the minds of the authors), presented as the answer to Question VI, "Why is it that Women are chiefly addicted to the Evil Superstitions?":

And the first [reason] is, that they are more credulous; and since the chief aim of the devil is to corrupt faith, therefore he rather attacks them...The second reason is, that woman are naturally more impressionable, and are more ready to receive the influence of the disembodied spirit...The third reason is that they have slippery tongues, and are unable to conceal from their fellow-women those things which by the evil arts they know; and, since they are weak, they find an easy and secret manner of vindicating themselves by witchcraft.

Having solemnly intoned that women are in general daft, evil-minded gossips, our friends continue:
...if anyone is curious as to the reason, we may add to what has already been said the following: that since [women] are feebler both in mind and body, it is not surprising that they should come more under the spell of withcraft...But the natural reason is that she is more carnal than a man, as is clear from her many carnal abominations.

Our friends then go on to discuss how the nature of biblical creation reveals that women are fundamentally defective, since the first woman "was formed from a bent rib...through this defect she is an imperfect animal, she always deceives." It's interesting that the prevailing attitudes of the day were such that Kramer and Sprenger were able to freely claim that Almighty God completely botched the creation of womankind such that, ever after, they would easily and happily use evil magic to avail themselves of even petty slights.

Other lurid details abound, such as an extended section on how sexual relations between demons and humans can produce offspring even though the devil has no ability to actually create anything. If you're curious, the answer is that a demon takes the form of a woman, seduces a man, keeps the collected semen (It's unclear where.), then assumes the form of a man, seduces a woman, and uses the original fellow's semen to impregnate the woman. Obviously. Another section, in the back third of the book that also lays out the most efficient methods of torture, explains "how They are to shaved on the parts where they use to Conceal their Devil's Masks". This means exacty what one would assume, for "the hair should be shaved from every part of her body. The reason for this is the same as that for stripping her of her clothes..."

I think we can agree that that last part, at least, is true, though not for the reasons our dear authors would have us accept. You see, witches were meant to stripped naked and shaved bare of all body hair so that they couldn't hide any magic items on their person that they could use to resist the tortures being applied to them. Right. I'm sure the fact that cloistered, allegedly celibate churchmen had suddenly found themselves with the opportunity to thoroughly examine (with absolutely no fear of any legal retribution from the victim) the body of any woman they saw fit to level an accusation against played no role in this practice at all. No, I'm sure the ability to pick a woman at random, arrest her, torture, sexually humilate and "examine" her, and ultimately blame her for the whole thing was never, ever misused by our pious Inquisitors.

Right, and if you believe that, I've got some oceanfront property in Montana to sell you.

Buy the Malleus Maleficarum and read it. It's a tedious, brutally long-winded work of unthinking piety, scrawled down by a pair of sociopaths to give voice to a synthesis of their backwards, chauvinistic religion and their sadistic sexual proclivities, but it's worth reading, if only because without actually reading it you'd be inclined to think that I'm exaggerating about it. It may also give you a chance to reflect on the practices of the modern church, such as its favored habit of calling the "righteous" ire of the faithful down on the least popular members of society even as it flaunts the rule of law to hide its grotesque crimes from the public. In a troubling way, it all seems uncomfortably familiar.

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