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Essays in Medieval Studies 19 (2002) 136-148



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To Preserve the Manly Form from so Vile a Crime:
Ecclesiastical Anti-Sodomitic Rhetoric and the Gendering of Witchcraft in the Malleus Maleficarum

Hans Peter Broedel
Hamilton College


Late in 1485, the German Inquisitor Heinrich Institoris retired from Innsbruck in disgrace. He had arrived early the previous summer, armed with a freshly minted papal bull supporting his efforts to prosecute suspected witches, and had launched a vigorous investigation. To his dismay, he found a town rife with witches and, perhaps worse, with local officials obviously reluctant to do anything about them. Nonetheless, he pressed forward and by October was prepared to begin formal trials. From the outset, however, Institoris was stymied by the skepticism and hostility of local magistrates and that of the bishop, Georg Golser, in particular. During a preliminary interrogation, Institoris's attempt to link feminine sexual deviance with witchcraft proved especially offensive to his hosts, who were plainly reluctant to accept the existence and immediate presence of witches as he understood them; as Golser later succinctly commented, Institoris claimed much that he could not prove. 1 This skepticism, combined with the machinations of a lawyer and Institoris's own procedural errors, ruined his prosecutions; and, despite Institoris's persistent attempts to revive them, he was met only with curt dismissals, culminating in a rude and threatening order from the bishop to quit the town without delay, lest Institoris suffer the wrath of the men whose wives and daughters he had insulted. Institoris's response to this shabby treatment was a systematic and comprehensive treatise on witches: an argument for their reality, an explication of their character and behavior, and a summary of the legal and spiritual remedies against them. 2

Institoris's treatise, otherwise known as the Malleus Maleficarum, or The Hammer of Witches, is unquestionably the best known late medieval witch treatise and perhaps deservedly so, but it is also an extremely idiosyncratic text with a view of witches which, as Institoris's reception in Innsbruck illustrates, was by no means generally accepted. An especially striking feature of Institoris's witch was [End Page 135] that she was exclusively female, for, while other authors agreed that women were prone to superstitious observances, that their weaknesses in body and spirit rendered them liable to the devil's snares, and that they were thus often to be found among witches, Institoris was unique in his insistence that witches, as a matter of practice, were always women and that witchcraft was a crime linked to the point of identity with feminine sexuality. 3 Other contemporary inquisitors and witch-theorists agreed that although women were especially inclined toward witchcraft men were perfectly capable of being witches, and, in fact, often assumed roles of leadership within the sect. 4 That witches were women, however, Institoris accepted as a simple fact, verified by his own experience and common consensus alike, and any evidence to the contrary he assiduously brushed aside.

Male magicians in the Malleus are thus pointedly minimized, and when they do intrude upon the author's argument, they are classed carefully as things other than witches. Learned magicians, for example, are not witches either because they employ natural occult powers or because they are fooled into thinking that they command or influence demons. In any case, unlike witches they are never linked to the devil by an explicit pact sealed with sexual intercourse. 5 Similarly, Institoris prefers to call men who work more popular forms of magic superstitiosi or magi rather than witches (malefici). One man, named Hengst, Institoris tells us, was so famous as a curer of magical ills that crowds of poor folk flocked to visit him even in the dead of winter. Since Institoris has just explained that the devil sometimes grants witches the power only to remove effects of witchcraft, not cause them, one might reasonably expect Hengst to have been a witch, but no, Institoris designates Hengst a superstitiosus instead. 6 In...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1538-4608
Print ISSN
1043-2213
Pages
pp. 136-148
Launched on MUSE
2003-03-17
Open Access
No
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