Thursday, April 17, 2014
Malleus maleficarum (review)
In lieu of an abstract, here is a brief excerpt of the content:
Readers of this journal need no reminder of the significance of the Malleus maleficarum (1486), arguably the most infamous book on witchcraft ever written. Christopher Mackay's fine critical edition and English translation of the Malleus will be welcomed by anyone interested in the history of magic, witchcraft, and witch hunting. One hopes that Mackay's translation of the Malleus will replace the much criticized, ideologically motivated translation by Montague Summers (1928), which continued to be reprinted throughout the twentieth century and through which most students in the Anglophone world were hitherto introduced to this important text.
Another English translation of select sections from the Malleusby P. G. Maxwell-Stuart appeared in 2007, shortly after the publication of Mackay's translation. The almost simultaneous publication of these two translations certainly attests to the rising interest in early modern demonology in general, and in theMalleus in particular, in the English-speaking world. Unlike Maxwell-Stuart's abridged translation of selections from the 1588 Frankfurt edition of the Malleus, Mackay provides a full translation of the first printing of this work from 1486. Preceded by a detailed introduction, Mackay's edition and translation are, to my mind, the preferable gateway to the cumbersome world of the Malleus.
That said, Mackay's two volumes are not problem-free. Most deplorable is Mackay's unsatisfactory treatment of the Malleus's diatribe on the female sex, to which the work owes much of its notoriety. In the twentieth century, the virulent attack on women in Part 1, Question 6, of the Malleus became the epitome of what Diane Purkiss calls the feminist "myth of the burning times." Historical research casts doubt on the Malleus's impact on actual witchcraft trials, as well as on the originality of Kramer's tirade against women. Nonetheless, most scholars would agree that the Malleus became the most important reference point for subsequent demonologists, many of whom echoed its gendered view of witchcraft in their writings. The significance of the construction of witchcraft as an inherently female crime in the Malleus certainly calls for a more substantial and nuanced discussion than the two paragraphs that Mackay allots to the question (1:35–36), under the inadequate subheading of "Misogyny" ("witchcraft and gender" would have seemed more appropriate).
The significant number of male witches among those accused and executed in some European regions has received much scholarly attention in the last few years. Still, most historians of witchcraft today agree that the vast majority of the victims of witch persecutions in early modern Europe were women. For Mackay, however, the premise that "the prosecution of witches mainly involved women" is mistaken, and he refers readers to the study of male witches by Lara Apps and Andrew Gow (2003) as an "important corrective" of this erroneous view (1:36, n.49).
In his introduction to the Latin text, Mackay admits that "it is clear from the overall argument of the work that those who are principally guilty of belonging to the Heresy of Sorceresses are women" (1:178). Nonetheless, since the masculine formmaleficus-i, rather than the feminine malefica-e, sometimes appears in the original text, Mackay insists on translating these words as sorcerer-s or sorceress-es respectively, rather than using the English word witch, which is too "female-oriented," for both. In a similar manner, he translates maleficium as sorcery and not as witchcraft, because the former has the merit of being "a gender-neutral term for practicing malevolent magic" (2:7). These choices of translation are justified by the wish to keep as close as possible to the original meaning of the Latin text.
Mackay does make an effort to translate every Latin word referring to witches that appears in masculine form—even when this is evidently a typo, as when illorum rather than illarum is used in the middle of a sentence that clearly discusses only female practitioners of magic—as sorcerer(s) (for instance, 1:395, translated at 2:234). Preserving the literal gendered meaning of the words that actually appear in the Latin text should also have been maintained in cases in which the equivalent of a Latin word in the feminine form...