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Who needs Oxford or Cambridge?

By Staff | Jun 12, 2009

I have been researching the world of Martin Luther for a little over a decade. Most of my resources come from places like Oxford or Cambridge. Recently, however, I met Hans Broedel, a UND professor and author of The Malleus Maleficarum and the Construction of Witchcraft.

Broedel’s work adds layers of understanding to a document integral to Luther’s world. This document is the Malleus Maleficarum, meaning ‘Hammer of Witches’. Printed three years after Luther’s birth, the Malleus, as it is nicknamed, is a manual for witch hunters. It is among the most important – and silly – documents of the period.

In the medieval mind, witchcraft explained destructive storms, cows not giving milk, butter not turning out, crop failure, sudden pains, death, or the disappearance of loved ones.

Belief in witchcraft was normal at all ranks of society from peasantry to nobility. Martin Luther related his mother’s experience, “She was compelled to treat her neighbor with deference and try to conciliate her, for the neighbor had through witchcraft caused her children such sharp pain that they cried themselves to death.”

During Luther’s childhood, unless the Inquisition was in the area, a woman believed to be a witch was not necessarily in danger. As did Luther’s mother, people endured so-called witches and tried not to irritate them.

Broedel illustrates the power of the Malleus in transforming the popular view of witchcraft. Before the Malleus, witchcraft was seen as an heretical sect of men and women often capable of rehabilitation through penance. Adherents to witchcraft could be male or female, and they did not necessarily have to die for their heresy. After the Malleus, witchcraft became a specifically female phenomenon. No longer solely heresy, witchcraft was now a pact with the Devil. So dangerous was this new witch that whether she repented or not, she had to die. By the end of Luther’s life, he too held this view.

To give you an idea of what witch hunters thought witches did in their spare time, I’ll open randomly to a page in the Malleus. I encounter the case of a young man at a seaport. On his way to board a ship, he bought boiled eggs from a woman who took a suspiciously long time preparing them. After eating them, he “became mute and virtually senseless” and believed he had been turned into a donkey. Apparently the illusion affected everyone else too, for the people on his ship “beat him off with walking sticks” and shouted about the “donkey”. When the ship departed, he watched helplessly from the shore. He had no choice but to return to the woman whom he then served as a beast of burden, enslaved to the illusion she had conjured.

The Malleus contains even more absurd things, such as when witches stole living people’s organs, hid them “in a bird’s nest, or shut them up in a box.” Naturally, witches kept the organs alive by feeding them “oats.”

Mainstream belief in witches was bolstered by the fact that women confessed to the most bizarre things under torture. They would say anything to make the pain stop. They confessed to the above and to flying on broomsticks, having Hollywood style parties with demons, and all sorts of other delightful things.

Hilarious but tragic, the Malleus is just one of many documents from Luther’s world that cause me to seek the guidance of scholars like Hans Broedel. How I would love to simplify the issue by reducing the authors of the Malleus to lunatics. Sadly, witch hunters were, by and large, perfectly sane and even upstanding citizens who believed they were protecting Christendom. The Hans Broedels of the world keep me honest by forcing me to see historical figures through the eyes of their world and not mine.

What a delight it is to see, nestled on my shelf between Cambridge and Oxford volumes, a work as scholarly and competitive as its neighbors, and the author is one of our very own at the University of North Dakota.

Skjelver is a Rugby author.

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