Book Review: the Malleus Maleficarum

I don’t have time to write a post today, but from Scott Alexander at Astral Codex Ten:

Did you know you can just buy the Malleus Maleficarum? You can go into a bookstore and say “I would like the legendary manual of witch-hunters everywhere, the one that’s a plot device in dozens of tired fantasy novels”. They will sell it to you and you can read it.

So Scott bought a copy and read it. This is his review, posted for Halloween.

I was only dimly aware that the Malleus Maleficarum was a thing. But this is an interesting (and long, of course, because this is Scott Alexander we’re talking about here) review. Here we go …

I myself read the Malleus in search of a different type of wisdom. We think of witch hunts as a byword for irrationality, joking about strategies like “if she floats, she’s a witch; if she drowns, we’ll exonerate the corpse.” But this sort of snide superiority to the past has led us wrong before. We used to make fun of phlogiston, of “dormitive potencies”, of geocentric theory. All these are indeed false, but more sober historians have explained why each made sense at the time, replacing our caricatures of absurd irrationality with a picture of smart people genuinely trying their best in epistemically treacherous situations. Were the witch-hunters as bad as everyone says? Or are they in line for a similar exoneration?

And then, later (much later), toward the end:

I’m not especially interested in rehabilitating Henry Kramer, at least not in the same way Montague Summers is. But I think there’s a tragic perspective on him. This is a guy who expected the world to make sense. Every town he went to, he met people with stories about witches, people with accusations of witchcraft, and people who – with enough prodding – confessed to being witches. All our modern knowledge about psychology and moral panics was centuries away. Our modern liberal philosophy, with its sensitivity to “people in positions of power” and to the way that cultures and expectations and stress under questioning shape people’s responses – was centuries away. If you don’t know any of these things, and you just expect the world to make sense, it’s hard to imagine that hundreds of people telling you telling stories about witches are all lying…. … …

This is how I think of myself too. As a psychiatrist, people are constantly asking me questions about schizophrenia, depression, chronic fatigue, chronic Lyme, chronic pain, gender dysphoria, trauma, brain fog, anorexia, and all the other things that the shiny diploma on my wall claims that I’m an expert in. In five hundred years, I think we’ll be a lot wiser and maybe have the concepts we need to deal with all of this. For now, I do my best with what I have. But I can’t shake the feeling that sometimes I’m doing harm (and doing nothing when I should do something is a kind of harm!)

They say the oldest and strongest fear is the fear of the unknown. I am not afraid of witches. But I am afraid of what they represent about the unknowability of the world. Somewhere out there, there still lurk pitfalls in our common-sensical and well-intentioned thought processes, maybe just as dark and dangerous as the ones that made Henry Kramer devote his life to eradicating a scourge that didn’t exist.

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2 thoughts on “Book Review: the Malleus Maleficarum”

  1. Ronald Hutton’s “The Witch” is a fascinating book. There are witchcraft beliefs all over the world, and the funny thing is that people with very different ones can live in close proximity.

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