The Malleus Maleficarum
The Malleus Maleficarum was one of the most influential books in early modern culture. It was written by two Dominican monks sent to investigate rural areas. They claimed that there was widespread use of witchcraft. What this most likely amounted to was a confrontation between the part of the Western world that was fully Christianized and the other part that was only partially Christianized. Also known as the Hammer of Witches, the Malleus showed the connection between women and the devil and was used to prosecute witches by both Catholicism and Protestantism. Persecution would have happened anyway, but it would not have happened on such a large-scale without the Malleus.
The Compendium Maleficarum
The Compendium Maleficarum was also very popular and describes in detail the steps to becoming a witch…
- Sign a pact with the Devil. Satan offers you something you want: wealth, power, knowledge, revenge… The pact is written in blood and placed in a crossroads. Crossroads were thought to be frequented by devils. Crosses were placed in the crossroads to scare away the devil.
- Receive the mark of the Devil. You are branded with a small mark in the form of a bat or a toad found in your genitalia, armpits, etc. (probably a birthmark that looks similar.) The marks are insensitive to pain – they don’t hurt when they are pricked with a needle. (What a great job pricking must have been!) A third nipple could also be a mark, but this was sometimes a bit tricky because people would testify that they had seen a third nipple on someone, but when investigators would look for themselves, it would be gone! Magic, no doubt!! There was a sexual connotation to being branded with a mark. Slaves began to be branded on the forehead to indicate ownership during this time period, too.
- Abjure your faith.
- Cast away your rosaries and scapulars.
- Pay homage to the devil or his representatives. Witches were said to kiss the devil in his behind while the devil emitted a cold, fetid, filthy wind.
- Sacrilegious baptism. You are given new godparents and a new name. Naming is very important because it gives power.
- Cut a piece of clothing or hair and give it to the devil. This gives the devil power over you.
- Enter into the magic circle. (The Pentagram.)
- Promise to perform sacrifices for the Devil.
The Gathering of Witches
Of course, the Compendium Maleficarum is a hostile source. Not only does it describe how to become a witch, it describes the places where witches gather (known as Sabbath which comes from Sabazius Phyrigian deity and is not related to the Jewish Sabbath.). These were nocturnal gathering of witches and there are many books written about these gatherings. This can be linked with agrarian cults, too. It is well-accepted that people in Europe during this time period truly believed that at certain times of the weeks, the witches gathered to engage in orgies, do evil deeds, and worship the devil.
The Eve of May Day is the night of the witches. May Day is a very important day in ancient Europe because it marks the end of winter and the beginning of spring. The Eve of May Day was considered "the night of terror". Other important days for witch gatherings were the Eve of St. John’s Day, June 23rd, Christmas Eve. (Basically the Eve of any big Christian celebration was considered an important day for witch gatherings.
According to the hostile sources, during these witch gatherings, people are dressed in animal skins (usually goats). They eat great amounts of foods prepared without salt and they drink monsie, a sweet wine considered to be an aphrodisiac. They engage in orgies. The devil will provide an incubus or succubus which will satisfy everything you want sexually. It takes the form of a little cat or other small animal and can turn into a human form. There is orgiastic dancing. The use of artificial phalluses is common. (Artificial phalluses were quite popular in Europe during this time period.) Children were sacrificed, their blood shed, and they were made into pies and eaten.
Murder and Cannibalism
People were often accused of cannibalism and child murder. These accusations were typically made against midwives because children died regularly during the time period. These same charges were made against the Jews, Native Americans, Gypsies… Those who are said to commit murder and cannibalism are easily identified as being utterly different from you. They have gone beyond the boundaries of humanity and therefore do not deserve to live.
Child sacrifice lies at the very roots of our civilization for Westerners. Judaism and Christianity are based on child sacrifice. (Think Abraham and Isaac/God and Jesus.) At the very roots of these accusations, is a series of charges that are as old as humanity, itself.
Witches of Loudon
Ruiz presents the case of the witches of Loudon as an example of how politics, new sexual mores, and handy accusations of witchcraft could be used to get rid of an enemy. It is also a good example of how witch trials functioned in early modern Europe when the witch craze was beginning to wane.
France, as elsewhere, was experiencing radical social, political, and cultural shifts. France, as well as other parts of Western Europe, had fully entered the post-Renaissance world of the Baroque. This was a culture of luxury and sensuousness. France had offered premier places of learning for the intellectual elite during this time period. Urbain Grandier was an intellectual elite who attended La Flèche, the same school Descartes had attended.
The Scientific Revolution and the Cartesian Method were creating new cultural fields and new cultural production that challenged the established order. The Counter-Reformation had created new standards for clergy and laity.
Loudon was a small city in France that was deeply divided between Protestants and Catholics. It was experiencing conflict with the Crown and was facing economic transition. The Protestants were literate and middle class. The Catholics were the lower illiterate classes and upper class elites.
Urbain Grandier was ordained a Jesuit in 1615. He felt that becoming a clergyman would be more promising so left the Jesuits and became a priest at Loudon. He was a personable and handsome man who was very popular with the fashionable female parishioners. He had several sexual liaisons, getting the daughter of the local persecutor pregnant. This got him into trouble. The scandal was put aside, but he made powerful enemies.
A young, rich, beautiful widow who was much sought after by powerful men, fell in love with Grandier. He performed a marriage ceremony for the woman and himself, which also angered many people. Grandier obviously openly opposed celibacy (writing papers on it), which went counter to Church views. Another mistake was snubbing a young man who later became Cardinal Richelieu. Richelieu never forgave Grandier for the snub.
In 1629, Grandier was imprisoned for sexual improprieties. He appealed to the higher court in Paris and was released back to clerical duties. Meanwhile, a new Ursulines convent opened in Loudon where middle class and impoverished aristocratic women became nuns. The head nun liked Grandier and asked him to become the nun’s confessor. He refused, which created another enemy.
Young novices at Ursuline, partly as prank, partly as constructed allegations, began to claim demonic possession. Grandier was accused of being the devil’s representative and imprisoned. Grandier was found guilty. He was tortured and condemned to death by burning. After terrible torture, he was burned in Loudon Square, pleading his innocence.
After his death, demonic possessions and lurid public exorcisms continued for 3 years, which delighted the onlookers of all denominations, and especially the Protestants who saw it as an example of Catholic misbehavior.
Essex Shire in the 17th century was experiencing many of the major transformations that other areas were experiencing. Beggars were under attack. Peasants were taking to the streets to look for work and they were mistrusted. Authorities in Essex began persecuting witches in earnest. There was no torture in England, but the accused confessions were similar to those who were tortured. (The accused were not burned, although their bodies could be burned after death.)
Those accused as witches were primarily women who were past child-bearing years. Those doing the accusing were evenly divided between men and women. Many were in-laws of the accused. The accused were usually of a lower social class than their accusers, and were usually people who were lewd, begged for food, or had a propensity for cursing.
Salem Witch Trials
In 17th century Salem, a small colonial town in Massachusetts, the accusations and trials for witchcraft created an atmosphere of fear and mistrust. In Salem, unlike Essex, the accusers were of a lower socioeconomic status than the accused. Salem marks the conclusion of two centuries of the witch craze.
Pre-Christian Agricultural Cults
As mentioned previously, there is much evidence to support the survival of pre-Christian agricultural cults in Europe. In Italy, there are the "good walkers" of Friuli. They were believed to be born with the inner fetal membrane of higher vertebrates and have unusual powers. When the harvests were at stake, they would go out to the fields and march with fennel stalks to do battle against the witches who were armed with sorghum stalks. It was believed this would save the crops.
When the inquisitors encountered this behavior, it was accused of witchcraft. The "good walkers" refused to admit guilt and claimed they were good Christians, too. The proceedings lasted for decades. After many years, they began to confess. Most were punished, but not executed.
Deep and Mysterious Past
Another influential tradition in the making of Western culture is the belief in a deep and mysterious past. Celtic lure is an excellent example. Many Druidic beliefs survived, including the power of mistletoe, the fabled golden bough. It was supposed to have healing and magical power so was placed on the door to defend against the power of witches. May Day is related to mistletoe. The Maypole is a phallic symbol and celebrations are related to fertility rites and the renewal of life in spring.
Another influential tradition is the belief in magical places that offer portals into a different world of nature and imagination. This was a pre-Christian belief that made its way into Christianity. Other folklore that survived was the belief in fairies, trolls, dragons, wizards, etc. This is not a widespread belief, but was quite popular in Celtic homelands. Celtic lore remains a powerful cultural motif.
The Golden Bough by James Frazer is an extraordinary record of Celtic folklore. Celts are a remarkable people. They brought their Druid religion and the sense of the mysterious which entered 12th century literature through Courtly Love.
From the Golden Bough, we learn of great fire festivals. The building of fires on the top of mountains probably goes back to human sacrifice. Man was sacrificed as a way to replenish the fertility of the earth. We also learn about the use of Mistletoe. Mistletoe is a parasitic plant that grows on the oak tree. It is the most important anti-witchcraft plant, the plant of the gods. The Oak Tree is the sacred tree of the Indo-European people and other groups. On the solstice and equinox, the fire festivals take place. When you burn the oak, you return the fire. It was believed the sun resides in the heart of the oak. This guarantees that the sun will burn brightly for another year.
Today, May Day is Labor day because a group of workers in Chicago were killed on May Day while demonstrating. May Day had long been a day off for Europeans. Labor Day harkens back to a day no one worked. (It was eventually moved to September in the U.S. for political reasons.)
Today, there are still places so sacred that people flock to them. Pantheon in Rome. Stone Circles in England (Stonehenge). Cathedral of Chartres built on an old Celtic sacred place (you travel a maze in the building to the very center of the world).
The making and construction of ideas are the ways in which human beings deal with the terror of history. It isn’t just a medieval and early modern tradition. It lives on with us. There has never been a more cruel and irrational century than the 20th century. We’ve had one genocide and after another, without end.
History is made by the elites. It is written by those on the top. History is constructed. It is a way in which we try to explain what is often unexplainable. It is a way to give reason to things that are not reasonable. We live at the very edge of doom. We live in danger all the time. Around us is the uncertainty and irrationality of the world. It is our own actions that terrorize us. In order to deal with this and make meaning of it, we create religion, scapegoats and sacred places.
The terror of history remains with us. And as in earlier periods, society continues to formulate responses that seek an escape from history.