Thursday, February 16, 2012

The Malleus Maleficarum: A Synthesis of Discourse

[NOTE: Heinrich Kramer published a demonology by the name of Malleus Maleficarum, "Hammer of Witches," in 1486 that is widely credited as a major contributor to the formation of the early modern concept of the witch as female. The following reflection was prepared in answer to the question of to what extent Kramer's perspective can be viewed, not as the expression of a sole individual, but a result of wider religious and social assumptions and concerns. Unfortunately, citations were not documented in the preparation of this exercise, but the arguments are based on The Malleus Maleficarum and on Dr. Yvonne Petry's Winter 2012 lectures at the University of Regina, Luther College.]

The formation of the witch as outlined in Heinrich Kramer's 1846 Malleus Maleficarum was the result of a synthesis of late medieval philosophical discourse concerning religion and gender and the fears of society at large. 

Kramer devotes Part I of the Malleus to proving that witches are real, in league with the Devil, and primarily female. While Kramer himself was viewed as peculiar by his contemporaries,  his vision was directly in line with the late medieval/early modern worldview of Christian theology and the tradition of ancient Greek philosophy dominant in Europe at the time of his writing.

The worldview of medieval Europe asserted that the Devil was a real and present threat. Reality comprised of natural, preternatural, and supernatural worlds that were intrinsically connected. God had supreme authority over these realms and intervened directly in human affairs. The Devil was likewise constantly at work attempting to thwart and/or overthrow God.

The Flammarion Woodcut

Kramer is working out of a widely held belief, firstly, that magic is real, and, secondly, that it is bad. According to the mechanics of the preternatural world, demons and angels exist as powerful beings with the ability to affect the natural world. People can fall victim to the actions of demons and can also call on their powers to commit unexplainable acts - that is, to commit sorcery. To manipulate demonic powers - to do magic - was considered sinful, even if the intention was to do good, as humans should put their faith in the power of God, not in demons. The infliction of harm by magical means was termed "maleficium." Kramer names witches as those who cohort with demons and commit maleficium against their neighbours.

Witches brewing up a rainstorm; Ulrich Molitor, 1493.

Kramer's Europe in the late fifteenth century was on the brink of drastic political, social, economic, and religious changes that resulted in a heightened atmosphere of tension among the people and an increased fear of conspiracy. The uncertainty of this transitional period created an apocalyptic mentality, part which emphasized the role of the Devil in actively seeking people to do his work.

Marginalized groups, such those who differed racially or religiously from the white Christian masses, became targets of their paranoia and were persecuted by having European society's greatest fears projected onto them. In the late fifteenth century, the female sex became the next marginalized group targeted for persecution. Kramer's third point in Part I of the Malleus - that the witch is primarily female - contributed significantly to the gendered nature of the European witch panics.

The Church taught that the Devil targeted the weak in body and spirit for his recruits. Women as a sex were the Devil's most likely targets, as religion and philosophy dictated them to be physically and intellectually inferior to men. 

According to the humoural system of Hippocrates and Galen that served as the authoritative medieval and early modern biological model, if a dispositionally cold female was not  sufficiently heated up during intercourse by her dispositionally hot male sexual partner, the resulting child would be imperfectly formed as a female. 

Early modern attempt at understanding the mysteries of the female anatomy

 The abnormally cold female body, with its sex organs unnaturally tucked up inside, was a human deviation from the perfect male form and, by definition, inferior to man both in mind and body. This inferiority, says Kramer, makes women vulnerable to the Devil's influence, as their weak minds are more "credulous" and "impressionable." 

The Church additionally ascribed moral weakness to the  female sex based on the aforementioned assumptions. The cold female body is afflicted with an insatiable craving for the heat it receives from the male body in sexual intercourse. This abnormality means that women are more carnal in nature than men - a reprehensible defect in a theological tradition that emphasizes the value of celibacy and chastity. The Church warned that the Devil could take advantage  of women's sexuality to attack the morality of men, as demonstrated by the example of Adam and Eve. Kramer expands on these ideas to claim that the female weakness for sex makes them easy prey for the Devil's seduction.

Devil embracing a woman

As the new targets for social persecution, females would come to be accused, as did other marginalized groups before them, of blasphemy, sorcery, sexual deviance, and cannibalism. These fears culminated in the concept of the witch.

 Kramer, in Part II, describes the activities of the witch as making a formal pact with the Devil, copulating with the Devil, and interfering with the process of reproduction. These charges essentially represent an attack on the institutions of the Church and that of marriage and family. These institutions maintained the structure of everyday life in which people worked, lived,  provided for themselves, and perpetuated society. 

Apparent in Kramer's work is a system of many discourses becoming one. Religion dictates that there is a Devil targeting the weak for evil. Philosophy asserts that the weak members of society are women. At the same time, society is concerned for the stability of their everyday lives, specifically, a conspiratorial attack on livelihood and social normality.

The result is the concept of a woman in league with the Devil who harms people by posing a threat to their offspring, reproductive capacity, agriculture, and health, and who transgresses social norms by engaging in alternative religious and sexual practices. These fears were exacerbated by the conditions of heightened political and social tension that characterize the early modern European experience and were expressed by the creation of the "witch" and the obsession with her destruction that ensued in the witch panics of the following century.

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