Crossing Boundaries in Religious Studies: take for instance that detestable ‘Malleus Maleficarum’…


Despite the ‘methodological agnosticism’ our discipline has been… constructively criticised for and despite the phenomenological egg-shells some of us still tread on with care, the exciting thing about being a religious studies scholar today is that one has the freedom to cross the boundaries between more established disciplines, such as theology, philosophy, history or psychology. Most of my students do this without even thinking, although with premeditated intent!  They are stimulated by being able to ask the sort of questions that may not be interesting (nor possible) in other fields of study.

For example I have recently been talking about witches with some of my students – witches of the very fictional and medieval sort – and I found myself reading to them from none other than the infamous MalleusMaleficarum, the textbook of the Inquisition. Better known in its English translation as The Hammer of Witches, this book aimed to justify the persecution of hundreds of thousands of women – the use of the feminine gender for the adjective maleficus (feminine malefica/ maleficarum), Latin for wicked or criminal, being a clue for which of the two sexes might have been considered more susceptible to demonic influences.

Authored by two German clergymen in 1487 Malleus does not match what literary critics call ‘the horizons of expectation’ of its age – the historical, scientific or cultural context towards which a literary text naturally aspires and is in turn received and decoded by its readers. Dogmatic and brutal, this is perhaps not the sort of popular text one would expect to find in Germany, or Europe more widely, during the Renaissance. In fact it may have just providentially ended up quarantined on some dusty old shelf, had it not been concomitant with the development of the printing press.  As it turns out over the next two centuries it was going to be reprinted almost thirty times. Alas, the printing press was the Internet of its day: used for both good and evil.

The Hammer of Witches is shocking in many ways, but perhaps what is deeply unsettling about it is the extent of its heretical beliefs about the human body. Although the authors pretend not to be fooled by such ‘devil work and illusion’, we may still enquire into what sort of processes may have allowed many educated clergymen and laymen alike to entertain these sort of wild ideas? What might be the reason or reasons for such an irrational fear as having one’s sexual organs secretly stolen? What may be the emotional or social link (not intended to mean a sequential link) between monasticism and the inquisition? Religious traditions abound in norms, customs and symbolism about human sexuality and it seems that the accompanying emotions have often been sublimated in ways intended to leave no trace of their existence. Luckily students always ask about what is missing or hidden from view.

And so for those students out there who want to ask the ‘why’ and ‘how’ questions of social sciences as well as the ‘yes but, what do they really believe?’ and the ‘what do they do?’ or ‘what does it mean?’, I would say: come cross some boundaries in religious studies!

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