Sunday, November 2, 2008

Malleus Maleficarum

Malleus Maleficarum. The Latin title translates as 'Hammer of Witches' and it is known somewhat sarcastically as 'How to Burn a Witch.'
It is also known as the Inquisitor's Handbook. Written by two influential Dominican monks taking part in the Inquisition, it is a detailed instruction guide for locating, identifying and executing witches. The above link will take you to an online translation.

The fear, paranoia and single minded zeal of the authors is a study in psychosis and mob psychology. Right from the start the Church alternated endorsing it and turning a blind eye. While the lunatics involved hands-on in the torture and death of an unknown number* of people were no doubt passionate believers in their just cause, the higher ups in the Church were taking a larger world view and attempting to bring a wandering population to heel.

By the 20th century the Church had long ago swept this unsavory history under the rug and Malleus Maleficarum was banned reading for all good Catholics with the exception of religious scholars. When two of my high school Franciscan priest teachers brought this book into the curriculum, there was quite a stir over it. Enough to appeal to the bishop to tell them to stop. The bishop, being unfrightened of discussing the Church's past, declined.

I was truly horrified at this new look at the Inquisition, which I had previously been taught was a war waged by the heroic religious leaders against the 'Evil Empire' du jour.

Even with a decidedly Catholic slant and justification of these times, there is no denying the fact that it was mass murder for political maneuvering and that it went on and on and on. What better way to whip any dissenting voices into compliance than the very real threat of a grisly death? What better way to distract and control the masses than by whipping up hysteria and fear and then pointing them at a victim offered up to appease the mob?

Mob psychology has been used by the strong to control the weak (minded) since before recorded history and continues today.
The degree of control and the extended period of time that the Inquisition went on is testimony to the abilities and tenacity of the controllers.

I found that this information was something that I just couldn't get past. While I had been willing to believe that the victims of this time were indeed in league with the devil and so deserved their fate; a more realistic portrayal of human fear and guilt and greed and manipulation painted a picture of a Dark Ages indeed and one of a system of combined religion/government run amok.

I might have been more able to reconcile this history with what I believed the Church to be had I been aware of a more realistic portrayal of the past right from the start. But I had learned and believed what I had been taught. Devoutly believed it.
The betrayal of my own loyalty, faith and trust was as shattering as learning a bit of history.

My god had feet of clay.
* Estimates of the number of people killed in the combined Inquisitions, which lasted over 500 years, vary wildly from tens of thousands to millions. Scholars generally agree that millions would have decimated the population, which obviously did not happen. The numbers I see most often are between 30,000 and 300,000. Part of the difficulty is in the record keeping. Relatively small numbers (thousands to approx 30,000) were executed by Church officials. While vast numbers may have been executed by civil courts. Turning victims over to the local authorities was a common way of distancing the Church officials from the murders when they really wanted people removed but needed the complicity of the locals to avoid recrimination.

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