11 December 2017


Gordon Napier. Maleficium: Witchcraft and Witch Hunting in the West. Amberley, 2017.

"There is a modern saying that the greatest trick the Devil pulled was convincing the world that he doesn’t exist. One might well wonder whether an equally great trick of his was to convince the authorities that a witch cult existed, causing churchmen and jurists to torture and kill fellow Christians whom they falsely suspected of satanic witchcraft." So says author Gordon Napier in his Preface, setting the tone nicely.
Here we have a book by an academic, though apparently not specifically for an academic audience, which approaches the whole vexed subject of historical western witchcraft with thought and, seemingly, a subdued but – in my view - largely healthy scepticism. But not entirely…

Perhaps Napier’s greatest triumph lies in his use of language – after all the most immediate link between author and reader. He is direct, concise and accessible. (There’s only one use of ‘trope’ in the entire book, which is otherwise mostly innocent of ‘memes’ and other irritating trendy terminology.)

We are taken, often meticulously, through the shocking history of witch-hunting (and duly disabused of the usual mistakes: the pinnacle of this reign of terror was not in medieval times, but much later, when the west was tipping over into the Enlightenment, for example).

And shocking it was, those in charge of the tortures and executions – basically, the Church – descending to levels of depravity that might even turn the stomachs of luminaries of the so-called Islamic State. Or more likely, would provide inspiration for yet more imaginative crimes against humanity.

Both alleged witches and heretics found themselves the target of the religious establishment – not the most hopeful situation. No one was safe, not even the most vulnerable members of the community. As Napier writes: "When conventional preaching failed to eradicate heresy, the Inquisition adopted a more aggressive way of doing things. If a frail old lady with hours to live was denounced for heresy, these Inquisitors apparently thought nothing of having her burned in public tied to the bed she was too weak to leave."

Under the Inquisition, the accused had no right to appeal. Huge numbers were summoned to be tried, almost all imprisoned and "put under pressure to name fellow heretics". We see in the later case of Johannes Junius, the mayor of Bamberg, Germany, how the terrible pressure caused by torture can very swiftly rob a human being of their normal morals. Put to the thumbscrews and other devices of terror and agony repeatedly, this normally honourable man invented all sorts of highly-embroidered stories of cavortings with demons that involved his neighbours. As he managed to write to his daughter, "… whoever comes into the witch prison must become a witch or be tortured until he invents something out of his head and – God pity him – bethinks him of something." Then, heartrendingly, Junius wrote: "Dear child, six have confessed against me at once [he names them] – all false, through compulsion, as they have all told me, and begged my forgiveness in God’s name before they were executed… They know nothing but good of me. They were forced to say it, just as I myself was…"

The author insists Junius was executed with a sword – a great mercy as he was a man of some social standing, being the mayor – but most sources have him being publicly burnt. His wife had already died in the flames. No one knows whether his daughter ever received his letters, though it seems unlikely as they were found with his trial records, implying they had been intercepted. One can only hope she managed to escape.

At the height of the witch hysteria, even the dead were exhumed and their bones publicly burnt. (They, of course, were the lucky ones.) Even this caused great suffering to the living, because their surviving families could be imprisoned – or worse – and in any case most were given hefty fines. Perhaps it goes without saying that anyone accused of witchcraft or heresy in these courts had all their money and property confiscated. Witch-hunting, apart from all other considerations, was big business.

It was also the near-perfect excuse to rid yourself of your enemies. Just breathe their names to the Inquisition or the local court and their terrible suffering was nearly as good as done – and all, horribly, terminally within the law. There was, however, a potential problem. As we saw with the case of poor Herr Junius, reporting people to be in league with the devil almost always had a domino effect, especially when torture was applied. All too often, the accusers became the accused. What went around, came around. And usually this involved appalling agony.

The euphemisms made it worse. Napier notes that, "… there was general support for 'relaxing' the accused to the 'secular arm', the Inquisition’s euphemism for handing condemned prisoners to secular authorities, usually for execution by burning at the stake." The author adds drily, "(One struggles to think of a less relaxing experience.)" Being relaxed by the Inquisition sounds rather akin to being massaged by the Gestapo.

The author does a good job of alerting us to the facts, as opposed to the assumptions, though sometimes he seems to miss the point. For example, while it is true to say that the accused were not all toothless hags from the bottom of the social pile – Herr Junius was a comfortably-off pillar of his community, after all – even the most cursory glance at Malleus Maleficarum (The Hammer of the Witches, the notorious witch-hunting manual by Kramer and Sprenger) reveals a hatred and fear of women that drove much of the witch-hunting mentality. That can’t simply be ignored or sidelined, but doesn’t figure much here.

In fact, given the title of this book, surely we could have had more from the Malleus: Kramer and Sprenger’s sick and twisted minds are there in every word. Little explanation would have been necessary.

Still, we are carried – often rather too quickly – through all the classic cases, including Salem and the Pendle witches, through the anti-witch fixation of King James and the depredations of the Witchfinder General. We learn that, while Germany killed the most ‘witches’ – around 20,000, decimating whole swathes of the population - Ireland was virtually free of such persecutions.

Well-written and engaging though most of this book undoubtedly is, it has some very irritating traits. For example, topics and people are mentioned briefly but only properly introduced – described in context – later, sometimes much later, such as Agrippa and the nuns of Loudun. By the time you get to any detail, you’ve forgotten what was said about them earlier, in passing.

Sometimes you never get any serious information, even about key people. Though Aleister Crowley gets a name check occasionally in the sections about modern Satanism, you search in vain for a single other mention. If you were unacquainted with him, you’d simply be baffled – or buy someone else’s book, of course.

(And it’s a bit poor that the usual dismissal of Crowley’s apparently ragingly hedonistic axiom: ‘Do what thou wilt is the whole of the law’ is given without the quintessential riders: ‘Love under Law. Love under Will.’ This changes the implications somewhat radically.)

Also, somewhat mystifyingly, Alex and Maxine Saunders – ‘King and Queen of the Witches’ of the 60s and 70s – get precisely one line, alerting us to the fact they existed. And that’s it. Maxine Saunders is still around, so if Napier had been desperate for information, he could have interviewed her.

On the other hand, sensationalist author Dennis Wheatley gets a whole page, though he, too, is missing from the index.

Something that does feature in it, however, appears at the very end of a chapter, and reads in its entirety: "… leaving aside recent interest in blood-splashed 'Spirit Cooking' events…" Indeed, the subject is duly left aside. I would have liked to know more – or anything, really. (Somehow I doubt ‘spirit cooking’ is a recipe book for paraffin burners.) Clearly, though, this book isn’t going to enlighten me.

But surely the most perplexing example of this infuriating delayed-explanation syndrome concerns the Malleus Maleficarum, which after all gives the book its title. It is mentioned in passing on page 46 but only properly discussed a full 25 pages later, presumably because the author assumes his readers will already be familiar with it. (In which case, do they need to consult this book at all?) And it is only when that witch-hunting manual is introduced that we discover what the maleficarum of the title means (‘concerning witches’). It might have been more useful in the otherwise interesting enough Preface.

Please note I’m not getting drawn into an argument about the Templars, though I seriously challenge Napier’s line about their involvement with heresy. Basically, he quotes the fashionable line that there was none. In fact, not so. (A couple of clues: Johannitism, learned from the Mandaeans in the Middle East, but practised only by the Templar inner circle, not the rank and file.)

Napier clearly doesn’t believe in the paranormal, so any ‘real’ witches – as opposed to those just picked on out of malice or more or less randomly – must, he suggests, have suffered from psychosis. They probably did, but one does wonder sometimes if, in a world where even agnosticism wasn’t even considered to be an option, but where Christ’s Church did such terrible things to the innocent, might some people think genuinely siding with Satan was the only sane alternative? If the followers of the ‘Good’ behaved like devils, perhaps, no doubt they thought, it made sense to align oneself with the other lot. (This is pretty much the rationale of many modern Satanists, though their insistence on ignoring or even seeking to destroy ‘useless’ members of society, such as the vulnerable, might remove any vague sympathy one might feel for their basic ethos.)

Napier writes from a very twenty-first century perspective, which disallows any consideration of what the people of the day suffered spiritually. If you were an innocent and devoted Christian, but were dragged into the mire of the witch hunters, not only would you suffer in this life but, you were repeatedly informed, your soul would also be damned in the next. Not only would you suffer the pains of Hell for all eternity, you would also be removed from the love of the Christ you genuinely worshipped. This was real to them. Not only were these thousands upon thousands of good Christians hideously tormented by physical torture and the worst possible death at the stake, but they were removed from the possibility of all hope for the life to come. In this way, they were tortured psychologically, even spiritually, beyond imagining. That whole side of the witch-hunts is almost entirely missing from this book, a sad failure to truly engage with the real people behind the stories. – Lynn Picknett.


Michael Redmond said...

Error in headline! Maleficium, NOT Maleficarum.

andycher said...

The correct quote is 'Do what thou wilt shall be the whole of the law' which implies it will take effect in the future or under new management.


Magonia said...

Thanks, now corrected.