felis_ultharus: The Pardoner from the Canterbury Tales (Default)
[personal profile] felis_ultharus
So, yeah. Among the books I have on my pile to review is the strangest thing I've ever read - and I speak as a fan of manga, and someone who's read Beautiful Losers, Nightwood, and parts of Finnegan's Wake.

I'm talking about The Malleus Mallificarum, of course - the greatest witch-hunter's manual of the Middle Ages.

Actually, scratch that. Weird doesn't quite cut it as a descriptor. The word for what this is hasn't been invented yet.

Sometimes it is entertaining. It frequently descends into the unintentionally funny. The medical information about bodily humours is pretty hilarious - though at least now I know that comets passing over kill rich men by unbalancing the yellow bile in their systems. Rich men eat too many hot and dry foods, you see, and comets have a hot, dry nature.

Weirder still is their answer to the question of what witches do with stolen genitalia. But I promised not to be responsible for putting that information on the internet.

A lot of The Malleus Mallificarum is dull legalese, though - jurisdictional stuff, primarily, and templates for court forms.

But the thing that really kills the laughter here is the nightmare just in the background of this treatise - that is, the hundreds of tortured women. The legal systems of mainland Europe at that point allowed for torture in capital offences. The ecclesiastical courts made liberal use of that, and that's where most of the "testimony" in Malleus Mallificarum comes from. The inquisitors who wrote it - Fathers James Sprenger and Henry Kramer - are quite clear on that fact, and they don't consider that to taint the data in the least.

In addition to the legal treatises, much of the book concerns what passed for science in the Middle Ages. How do incubi impregnate women? How do devils possess people? Do charms and herbs work? Can witches teleport? Can they polymorph someone? Are there powers only male witches have? It's a crash course in medieval science - useful for me, since I read this stuff to help me write the Middle Ages. But mostly it's just dull techobabble, helpful but unexciting.

There were some things that intrigued me, though. Particularly when it came to the parts about goddess-worship.

Anyone who came to Wicca in the mid-1990s (like myself) came right when the backlash against the "Burning Times." For those who don't know, early Wicca was strongly influenced by the theories of anthropologist Margaret Murray, who believed that the witchcraft medieval inquisitors were hunting was actually a Pagan survival, a Pagan faith that had gone deep undercover.

Margaret Murray has since been discredited - she's now considered a joke in anthropology and the history of religion. In the mid-1990s, this news hit the Pagan community hard, and the backlash began. Anyone who still took the idea of late-surviving Pagan religions seriously became mocked and sometimes ostracised. I was one of the ones doing the mocking.

Since then, though, I've gradually tempered my views. The more medieval and late-antiquity history and literature I read, the more I've begun to wonder if there wasn't a small kernel of truth after all to Murray's theories. It's helped that my readings have debunked much of the "debunking" I was given early on.

For instance, I was informed in no uncertain terms that Robert Graves had invented the idea of a Mother/Maiden/Crone triple goddess - but actually, I found that in Geoffrey Chaucer.

I was told that the ancients never saw goddesses as facets of a single Goddess, but it turns out that was common - particularly in things such as the Isis cult, as exemplified in The Golden Ass.

I was told Paganism was an exhausted faith, a way for the elites to hold power, and that it evaporated as soon as Constantine took power. Yet it survived and was openly practised by ordinary people into the 8th century - long after the elites abandoned it - in spite of widespread and brutal persecution.

And after that?

Well, some areas in eastern and northern Europe didn't Christianize until the 13th and 14th centuries, and even then there were patchworks. Samogitia (in modern Lithuania) didn't Christianize until conversion was forced at swordpoint in 1410. And who knows how long it took for that conversion at swordpoint to become anything resembling sincere religion.

And even in the officially Christianized areas, there could easily have been survivals. From what I know now of medieval law enforcement - I've been reading a lot of medieval crime stories - the church and the secular courts weren't the powerful machines we imagine them today, capable of crushing out any resistance wherever it was found. They were actually haphazard systems staffed by untrained and corrupt constables who were at the mercy of poorly kept-up roads. People could (and did) get away with murder with much greater frequency than today.

Not just murders, but heresies too. Inquisitors, ecclesiastical judges, and secular judges squabbled with each other and among themselves, and the Inquisitors complained constantly that lack of vigilance meant witches and heretics got away scot free.

Remote towns operated pretty much on their own, it seems, in matters of both secular crime and heresy. The church was well aware of this, and kept lamenting the failures of local authorities to stamp out minor and major failures of faith. For instance, the Inquisition could not even stop a French town from venerating a dog as a saint (Saint Guinefort). That kept on until the 1930s!

Which brings me back to The Malleus Mallificarum. The two inquisitors who wrote it sound weary, exhausted, overextended - they wrote the book so that others could take up their work and possibly relieve their heavy workload. I was told it was Margaret Murray again who came up with the idea of a vast conspiracy of witches, but again that's not true - Father Sprenger and Father Kramer were convinced in the 1400s that a network exists, with its own organization, proverbial secret handshakes, and codes.

All that might just be chalked up to the paranoid imagination of the Inquisitors. But what really intrigued me was the constant talk of by torture victims about goddesses. They get called Diana in the Malleus Malifarum, though other medieval texts render any forest goddess as a "Diana," so we're not necessarily talking Artemis here.

The inquisitors kept getting confused by this talk of goddesses, because they were expecting stuff about the devil. All their leading questions were designed to produce a conversation about a very male devil. But some of the women being tortured kept coming out with Dianas instead. And the inquisitors had to concoct somewhat convoluted logic to tie these goddess-stories in with the devil-worship they were expecting.

The question for me, how were these illiterate peasant women with no ancient history - and supposedly no religious education but their catechism - coming up with night-journeys shared with forest goddesses? That wasn't what the Inquisitors were trying to get out of them, so how did that happen? It's frankly amazing they even knew the word "goddess" - it isn't part of a medieval peasant's religious upbringing. Memory of something seems to have survived in some places, though whether that something translated into actual, conscious worship is probably something we probably can't ever know.

Unless of course they really were visited by goddesses in visions, a possibility I'm not prepared to rule out either.

Anyway, all this is just to say that I no longer think that the idea of pockets of late-surviving Paganism is really all that farfetched, if not necessarily true. Even if admitting just the possibility has become, well, something of a heresy in our community. The evidence is just too scanty to draw any solid conclusions.

So, yeah. A useful historical text, and good for any writers trying to build a realistic Middle Ages. I wouldn't exactly recommend it as pleasure-reading, though.

In infinitely more pleasurable entertainment, I saw the Scott Pilgrim movie last night with good friends. I'll talk more about the series when I get to reviewing the graphic novel, but I will say this - I'm startled by how well they adapted such a potentially hard-to-film work.

I wasn't thrilled with the choice of actors - I was sceptical more for their appearance and voices than their acting talents - but they all interpreted their parts excellently. Kieran Culkin made a (surprisingly) perfect Wallace Wills.

The ending hadn't been written yet when the film was made. The graphic novel ending is much better. But that's a very high bar and the movie was still really, really good. I highly recommend.

(no subject)

Date: 2010-08-14 09:58 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile] sheherazahde.livejournal.com
You make many good points.

I feel very strongly that the only way one could honestly say that Pagan religion did not survive in Europe into the present is to define religion in the very narrow sense of organized religious institutions (churches). Books that boldly state that "Pagan Religion" did not survive are quite willing to admit that pagan "beliefs and practices" did.

I would like to point out that 1486 is not really "the Middle Ages" it is the very beginning of the Early Modern period. And the beginning of the Witch craze in Europe which was mostly in the 16th and 17th centuries.

There are two major mistakes people make when talking about the Burning Times. The first is that it happened during the Middle Ages. It was really more of an Early Modern Problem. The second is that it was the fault of the Catholic Church and it's Inquisition. It was much more common in Protestant countries and rarely happened in Church Courts. The Catholic Church was never very interested it persecuting village herb women.

The Salem Witch Trials are a good example: 1692 well into Modern times, in Protestant New England, in a secular court. All of which is typical of the European Witch Craze.

Or look at the modern "Witchcraft" scares in Africa and India. They usually involve traditional religions or Protestant missionaries.

I recommend "Satanic Panic: The Creation of a Contemporary Legend" by Jeffrey S. Victor as a good introduction to Moral panics (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Moral_panic)

(no subject)

Date: 2010-08-14 10:35 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile] felis-ultharus.livejournal.com
The precise end of the Middle Ages is one of those scholarly games that meant very little to the average peasant :)

For what it's worth, the most common date I hear is 1492 (Columbus's journey). England traditionally used 1485 as the date, and the rise of the Tudors. But this is really academic, because the dates are really artificial markers to separate trends that had started centuries ago and would continue to develop for centuries more.

In that, 1486 is a bit problematic for me because the real changes that undid the medieval world - the expansion of the world for Europeans after Columbus, the Reformation beginning with Martin Luther, the Age of Reason - were still in the future.

As for the time frame of the persecutions, there's a bit of a problem there, too, because there's nothing like criminological statistics for the Middle Ages. Does an increase in reported executions mean an increase in executions, or an increase in reporting? Modern archaeological methods might shed some light on the question, but I don't know of any archaeologist who's studied this.

There's also the issue of population sizes. Populations began rising in the Early Modern Era - did executions rise proportionally, or exceed proportionality?

(I encountered this problem in researching LGBT history. For most jurisdictions, there's no history of executions at all - in most of those that remain, all evidence is anecdotal.)

Salem looms large in American history, I know, but it's a blip in witch-hunting history. Nineteen killed only. Kramer and Sprenger had claimed to have had discovered and had executed a lot more than that.

What really interests me is not folk practices - everyone agrees that some of those survived - but belief in old gods and spirits. How long did that last? In the Lithuanian situation, it turns out that priests of the old religion were still practising openly there into the 17th century.

Meanwhile, Julius Pomponius Leto's academy was raided in 1468 because the church believed it harboured ex-Christians who were so in love with Classical antiquity that they's returned to the religion of Greece and Rome. Which means that the church was hunting what we'd now call Neo-Pagans in Rome while it was still trying to convert Paleo-Pagans in eastern Europe.

So the first glimmers of Neo-Paganism overlaps temporally with the last glimmers of Paleo-Paganism. And that's the uncontroversial part. I wonder if there were more direct connections.

(no subject)

Date: 2010-08-14 11:52 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile] sheherazahde.livejournal.com
"The precise end of the Middle Ages is one of those scholarly games that meant very little to the average peasant :)"

I agree. Which is why I think it is more relevant that Witch persecutions were more widespread and common during the Early Modern period than the Middle Ages.

As for the time frame of the persecutions, there's a bit of a problem there, too, because there's nothing like criminological statistics for the Middle Ages.

But there is historical documentation (http://www.wicca-chat.com/burning.htm) and court records. The time frame is not an issue that any historian disputes.

I know that Salem is a blip but it is a typical blip.

Beliefs are hard to measure. Archeology won't help you there. Archeologists can figure out what people did, but they can't know what people were thinking.

I'm not terribly interested in "direct connections". I don't think they are necessary.

I'm quite happy to assert that Wicca is a pre-Christian paganism of Europe on the basis that that is what it's practitioners believe it to be. Much as modern Christians believe that they are practicing the "religion of Christ" despite all the evidence to the contrary. (à la "Lost Christianities" by Bart D. Ehrman)

The more I learn about paleo-paganism the more obvious it seems to me that Wicca is more "authentic" than most Re-creationist pagan traditions. We don't have the same rituals that they did in the past but we have the same attitude toward religion. Which is very different from the Christian attitude.


Have you read "Pagan Theology" by Michael York? or "New Age Religion and Western Culture: Esotericism in the Mirror of Secular Thought" by Wouter J. Hanegraaff? Hanegraaff discusses how Wicca fits into the past 500 years of Western Esoteric thought. He doesn't go back to the Middle Ages but he does cover Early Modern.

(no subject)

Date: 2010-08-15 12:58 am (UTC)
From: [identity profile] felis-ultharus.livejournal.com
That list actually mentions the incompleteness of the records, and estimates the numbers as vastly higher than the number of people on the list (250,000).

The idea of an unbroken line of detailed written legal records is very much an anachronism even in the 14th century. In many places, laws were only beginning to be written down in the 14th century, collected into books called customs. The civil law of Paris wasn't written down until 1510.

London criminal courts kept good rolls, but that sort of thing changed from jurisdiction to jurisdiction. If no criminal records were kept for X jurisdiction, we can't assume there were no criminal cases. They may not have kept records there. Or the records could've been lost to fire.

Witchcraft was a legal grey area, because it was both a violation of ecclesiastical law (apostasy) and secular law (damage to goods and property). And the third legal system - the Inquisition - was usually called in to deal with witches though (as Kramer and Sprenger point out) technically witches didn't fall under the Inquisition's purview. So while ecclesiastical courts did keep good records, there's no guarantee that an executed witch was convicted under that system.

As for archaeology, I wasn't suggesting that as a means of getting at individual belief. I was suggesting that it might be a way to gauge the completeness of records of execution at different periods. We could use archaeology at known execution sites to perhaps determine the prevalence of execution at that spot in different periods, and see how that matches existing records. It would give us a sense of how much of a written record survives for each period. A larger number of executions in an era with few records means they aren't reliable as a source of statistics.

Post 1960s, there's been a turn toward the statistical in historical research. While it does seem more scientific, it comes with a serious built-in problem of what to do with the incompleteness of records.

A few years ago for instance, it became popular to "debunk" the idea that marriages of girls ages 12, 13, or 14 were common in the Middle Ages. The study that produced this was based on dowry records in Florence. Florence was chosen simply because it had a solid body of historical material to build statistics out of.

The problem is, Florence was an atypical city. The cultural differences between it and the rest of the Italian peninsula were vast, never mind the peninsula's difference with northern Europe (where most of the anecdotes of child brides comes from). It would be like saying that child marriage is not a problem today in Kandahar, Afghanistan, because statistics show it is rare in New York City.

Assuming all the numbers on the linked list are accurately reported in the original source material - and the large numbers and vague estimates are worrying - those are just what we know. No list can take into account what we don't know, obviously, and any number put into the blank - 200,000 in this instance - is a number pulled out of thin air. It has the comfort that numbers offer, but it doesn't tell us anything real.

Filling the gaps with random numbers will never make us know how much persecution there was in the 15th versus the 17th centuries, and how those stack up proportionally to the growing populations.

Ultimately this is irrelevant to my initial point, though, of why these women felt they were running with Pagan goddesses that (officially) they should never have even heard of.

I'm quite happy to assert that Wicca is a pre-Christian paganism of Europe on the basis that that is what it's practitioners believe it to be. Much as modern Christians believe that they are practicing the "religion of Christ" despite all the evidence to the contrary. (à la "Lost Christianities" by Bart D. Ehrman)

The more I learn about paleo-paganism the more obvious it seems to me that Wicca is more "authentic" than most Re-creationist pagan traditions. We don't have the same rituals that they did in the past but we have the same attitude toward religion. Which is very different from the Christian attitude.

(no subject)

Date: 2010-08-15 12:59 am (UTC)
From: [identity profile] felis-ultharus.livejournal.com
On that we definitely agree. I've often wondered what catacomb-dwelling Christians, or the Galilean Jews before them would make of a Southern Baptist barbecue fundraiser.

And ditto on the reconstructionist religions. I do respect their scholarship - it opens up so much that's lost. But any attempt to police the borders of the faith and ensure its authenticity looks more Abrahamic religions than the richly syncretic traditions of old Europe.

Ultimately, my stake in this is mostly historical curiosity. If the Goddess chose to reveal herself now with no historical precedent, that's fine by me.

The most personal stake I have is probably my discomfort at how self-righteous I've been in the past to the Burning Times-ers. Back in the 1990s, we were all so scared for our credibility as a religion that we were pretty cruel to anyone who's interpreted things differently. Now I'm finding out that there's room for their interpretation too, in the primary sources.

(no subject)

Date: 2010-08-16 06:43 am (UTC)
From: [identity profile] bronnyelsp.livejournal.com
I just want to thank you both for this fascinating discussion. :)

(no subject)

Date: 2010-08-24 08:50 am (UTC)


felis_ultharus: The Pardoner from the Canterbury Tales (Default)

September 2011

11 12 1314151617

Most Popular Tags

Style Credit

Expand Cut Tags

No cut tags
Powered by Dreamwidth Studios