Talking with Demons?

Written by: Christopher Mackay


Translating The Hammer of Witches

The Malleus Maleficarum, first published in 1486-7, is the standard medieval text on witchcraft. Its descriptions of the evil acts of witches and the ways to exterminate them continue to contribute to our knowledge of early modern law, religion and society. Christopher Mackay discusses the challenges of translating the Latin text and understanding flying witches.


My academic background is in Classical philology (the careful linguistic study of ancient Greek and Roman texts), and I never imagined back when I was studying Theocritus and Cicero that I would someday produce a massive text and translation of an important late medieval text on witchcraft (the Malleus Maleficarum). But to prove the adage that fortune often has in store for us a future that no one would have imagined, that is exactly what circumstances would lead me to do.

For the most part, my philological background was sound preparation for the task. In studying a dead language, you have to use comparanda (comparable passages) both from the work in hand and other works by the same author and from works by others in the same language to try and “ferret out” the sense of passages whose sense isn’t entirely clear (or even to learn more about passages whose sense seems clear but which may have meant something other to the author than what the modern reader assumes it to mean).

But there is one aspect of the methodology of Classical philology that can lead you astray when dealing with a text in late medieval Latin. The texts of antiquity were written in a living language, and it must be assumed that they were written in a grammatically correct form (even if the manuscripts that we have have garbled this during the transmission of the texts over the centuries). It is true that the language of the ancient texts is at times very stylized, but the very technique of philology makes it possible to determine what is or isn’t linguistically correct Greek or Latin in a stylized genre.

But the Latin spoken in the late medieval universities was not a “natural” language acquired at birth. Instead, everybody had to pick up Latin either in boyhood or even later in life, and such a language will not be bound by the native speaker’s unconscious understanding of a natural language, which is based on rules that were assimilated in early childhood. Instead, the speaker of medieval Latin picked up the linguistic rules with varying degrees of “correctness.” And indeed the sort of Latin that the speaker was attempting to acquire could itself vary. While some people of a more intellectual bent tried to pick up an idiom modelled more or less directly on the language of the texts of Classical antiquity, the spoken idiom of the university was more of a Latinized version of the vernacular or a version of Latin strongly influenced by the idioms of the western European languages (both Romance and Germanic) spoken as the natural languages of the university Latin speakers.

Now, the great majority of the text of the Malleus is borrowed from earlier writers (mostly Thomas Aquinas, but there are a few others as well), the original text sometimes being copied over verbatim and sometimes adapted to a greater or lesser degree to the new context. Very seldom is the text entirely new material composed ex nihilo by the author (Henricus Institoris rather than his collaborator Jacobus Sprenger). And it was such passages for which a sound philological background can be most unhelpful.

I remember one passage in particular that drove me crazy (section 87C in Book Two). Institoris is describing an incident that had taken place in his earlier inquisitorial career. Two woman were arrested by him in the city of Ravensburg, and during the night he woke up with a massive headache. He got up and opened the window, only to see the two women flying around on the backs of goats jabbing needles into their heads (which, in a form of sympathetic magic, caused Institoris’s headache, though I imagine he didn’t find the act very sympathetic!).

There is one sentence that makes absolutely no grammatical sense at all. I tried to use my philological acumen to piece it together (“Well, okay, X must be the subject, but when you get to the verb, it’s in the wrong number. And what’s that dative up at the start doing, and where exactly is the main clause anyway?”). Sometimes I could go along happily translating large amounts of text without any problem, but then some issue like this one would arise, and things would grind to a halt. I’d refuse to leave the matter until it was resolved to my satisfaction. With the flying witches passage, I spent many hours spread over two days racking my brains for a solution. And then it came to me.

Instead of using the logical process of philological analysis to figure out what the text has to mean from a grammatical point of view, I should instead take a more holistic approach. There wasn’t any doubt about the meaning of the words. It was their relationship to each other that was at issue. So by reading the passage through without bothering too much with the abstract grammar, but instead concentrating on the natural flow of events from the point of view of an inquisitor thinking he was under demonic attack I quickly and readily came to an understanding of the passage. “Oh, well, now it’s all perfectly clear!”

There’s a modern academic work about early modern demonology entitled Thinking with Demons (by Stuart Clark). The book argues that in considering early modern thought on witchcraft, we have to ignore the issue of whether or not demons actually existed and should instead take the words of the theorists at face value. The title refers to the notion that they thought people did talk with demons. For my own part, I don’t believe in the existence of demons, and think that the issue of whether they do has some bearing on what went on during the “witch hunting” of the early modern period.

But regardless of that, the title of the book does pertain to the task of translating a work like the Malleus. Instead of “thinking with demons,” however, what you have to do is “think with inquisitors.” In trying to sort out a passage like the one about the flying witches, I had to “enter the mind” (as it were) of Henricus Institoris, and “sympathetically” think about the situation from his point of view. By “sympathetic” I don’t mean that I have any sympathy for the thoughts involved. Rather, I simply have to adopt his point perspective on the situation in order to figure out what he was trying to convey.

Back in graduate school, when I was studying the more or less “humanistic” ideas and ideals expressed by the authors of Classical antiquity, I’m sure I would have laughed if anybody had told me that I’d have to become conversant with the parts of the dreaded Book Five of the various collections of canon law (the parts dealing with burning heretics alive) or to learn so much about the ways in which demons were thought to corrupt weak-willed females into committing unspeakable depravity.

But that’s what comes of “thinking with inquisitors.”

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About the Author: Christopher Mackay

Christopher Mackay is the translator of Malleus Maleficarum, or The Hammer of Witches....

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