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.
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felis_ultharus

September 2011

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