Touching Evil: Demonology and the Malleus Maleficarum

Demonology, or the study of abnormal behavior as an effect of evil, began to rise again during the Medieval period after a long lull between the collapse of primitivism in Europe and the rise of the Greek and Roman civilizations. As the dark curtain of ignorance fell over Europe following the rise of organized Christianity, the efforts of such scientists as Galen and Hippocrates either fell out of favor or were completely forgotten as his works were burned. Abnormal behavior was compared to what was considered normal behavior in the way in which a cowboy in a white hat was seen as a good guy and the cowboy in the black hat was the villain. The human mind was seen not as a complex organism, but rather as a battlefield over which spirits of good and evil fought for control.

The devil, whether known as Satan, Lucifer or the Tempter, was the spiritual leader of all that was evil. The God of Abraham, of course, was the king of all that is good. It is interesting to note that modern Puritan views on sexuality are the domain of the twin spin-offs of Judaism, Christianity and Islam. The Greeks and the Romans both celebrated sexuality as something to be valued beyond its utilitarian procreative uses. Sexuality was quite literally demonized. The devil’s plan to control the human mind was often accomplished by manipulating the sex drive. For instance, spirits known as incubi were seriously thought to sneak into bedrooms at night and engage in sexual intercourse with women. The alternative for men were spirits called succubi. One can only imagine what would happened when a man claimed he was visited by an incubus or a woman by a succubus.

In the 15th century what might be termed a demonology textbook was issued called the Malleus Maleficarum, which is Latin for The Witches’ Hammer. The Malleus Maleficarum was co-written by two German Dominican friars and it quickly became the second Bible of Christianity. For well over two hundred years the Malleus Maleficarum was the demonological equivalent of the DSM IV handbook for psychologists today. Part one of the book undertook to offer evidence of the existence of witches, while part two engaged in surprisingly uninteresting text used to describe ways in which witches could be detected. What were some of these symptoms? Believe it not, things as simple as certain types of spotted pigmentation on the skin that were known as “the devil’s claw” because they were considered evidence of the pact that all witches were forced to sign with evil one. The third part is really the most fascinating section of the Malleus Maleficarum; it explained the legal procedures involved in examining suspected witches and sentencing those found guilty.

The fact that more women than men were suspected of being witches might stem from this rather typical excerpt from the Malleus Maleficarum. Part I, Question IV asks such incisive queries as “Why it is that Women are chiefly addicted to Evil Superstitions?” It then goes on to answer with a section titled “Why Superstition is chiefly found in Women.” As you might expect, the answer has much to do with all those wicked woman found from the Bible, and the fact that women have slippery tongues. Now as we all know, women have it different from men. Once a month they get a little visit that affects the hormones of even the hardiest of them; others, of course, suffer serious effects of PMS. Even today some might well think that a woman under the influence of extreme PMS might be acting as she were under the influence of demons. Imagine how they reacted in the Dark Ages. It is certainly no accident that most people who were accused of being a witch—whether male or female—were the victims of some type of mental or emotional disorder. Women had it worse, of course, because the effects of menstruation can be so stressful. If a woman or man acted strange, unusual or out of the ordinary they were the objects of fear and suspicions. The more bizarre and outlandish one’s behavior, the more likely one would become an outcast. Making things worse, these people who were obviously suffering mental or emotional disorders were often cast out by family and friends. Homeless, their appearance usually deteriorated along with their behavior. More often than not these people were actually in the throes of hysteria, making them prone to accept the accusations tossed their way that they were in league with the devil, adding delusion to their many problems. When the actions of these poor unfortunate souls became too problematic, they were subject to being brought in for examination.

For every man who was ever examined for signs of signing a pact with the devil there were fifty women. This is probably not nearly as strange as it might sound when you hear how the procedure went. These women were brought for the judges and stripped naked to be quite comprehensively searched for even the smallest and most hidden marks of the devil. Their hair would be completely cut off so that no evil spirits could hide in their tresses. When they entered the courtroom, they did so walking backwards so they could not cast the evil eye on their judges. Almost all were eventually convicted and most convictions resulted in execution. The common wisdom is that all European witches were burned at the stake. Indeed most were, though some were hanged or stoned to death. What is less well known, however, is that many witches were actually decapitated or even mutilated before being burned!

It would not be until the 16th century that demonology finally began to be called into question. Famous historical personages such as Paracelsus and Montaigne raised their voices against the practices, becoming the first to suggest that those accused of being witches were actually the victims of a mental problems rather than the invasion of Satan’s forces.