A rare copy of the medieval manuscript Invectives Against the Sect of Waldensians, which, alongside the later published Malleus Maleficarum, detailed how to recognize, question, torture and burn witches, is possibly being resurrected at the University of Alberta. The originally miscatalogued book is one of only four copies in the world, with the other three housed in libraries in France, Brussels, and Oxford, and is a stunning historical artifact.
History professor Andrew Gow, who is now working on translating the work from medieval French to English, describes its content as “atrocious”.
“If I were to describe this book, I’d say, well, think of all of the most evil books in Harry Potter and the Malfoy’s library, well those were imaginary evil. This is real evil, right here,” he says.
The Waldensians were medieval heretics who disavowed the power of the priests and allowed women to preach. But for the author of this book, Dominican inquisitor Johannes Tinctor, “Waldensian” was a synonym for “witch”.
Due to the timing of the book’s creation around 1460, ahead of mass state-sponsored witch hunting in Europe, Gow also considers the text to be a priceless cultural artifact that holds great insight into the history of Europe, and perhaps explains much of what came later.
“It wasn’t until books like this appeared and spread the idea that witchcraft is actually a form of Satan worship, a form of service to the devil, that witchcraft becomes a capital crime,” he explains.
Twenty-six years before the publication of the infamous Malleus Maleficarum, Tinctor (also known as Jean Taincture) had pulled together various folk beliefs and ancient myths to concoct his own paranoid propaganda fantasy, a work that would fuel homicidal witch hunts for centuries, and bring to the world much of the Halloween imagery that still haunts our collective imaginations.
“It’s called the elaborated theory of witchcraft and this is its beginning,” explains Gow’s former PhD student, Rob Desjardins. “This is where a stew of ideas finally congealed into a coherent picture. This is where we get the first thorough statement of what witches do and why ‘we’ should persecute them.”
In addition to changing the way witchcraft was looked at in medieval Europe, the work may also be responsible for a common image we associate with witches: the riding of brooms.
“This is one of the first three known depictions of women riding on brooms,” Gow says. It’s also one of the first detailed descriptions of witches having sex with the devil. “It’s a mix of misogyny and prurient sexual imagination, and of course, sexual transgression is one of the things that frightened male clerics most.”
Before the mid-1400s, the medieval Church had, for the most part, been tolerant of “wise women” who offered folk cures or practiced pagan rituals that were mostly half-forgotten by the general populace. But in 1459 a witch hunt swept the city of Arras, where Tinctor was a canon at the cathedral in nearby Tournai (in today’s Belgium). Tinctor seized upon the chance to make his name and denounce witchcraft as Satanic heresy:
“It is certain that this crime is entirely new nor was its like ever heard of, and I dare well say that this sin of witchcraft is worse and more execrable than all the detestable errors of the pagans,” Tinctor wrote.
Witches, Tinctor insisted, summon storms, destroy crops and are “so caked in the mud of vile thoughts” that they “do not even shrink from having carnal intercourse with the devil transformed into the guise of an animal.”
Tinctor’s original 1460 text was published in Latin. The edition at the University of Alberta is a 1465 translation in medieval French, beautifully illuminated with gold leaf. It’s one of only four known copies in the whole world. The others are in the national libraries of France and Belgium, and Oxford’s Bodleian Library. Gow believes the University of Albera’s version is the oldest of the four. Yet until a few years ago, it was effectively considered to have been lost.
John Lunn donated it to the U of A in 1988. Lunn, who emigrated to Canada from England in 1957, was Alberta’s assistant deputy minister of historical resources in the late 1970’s, and later served as executive director of Alberta’s museums.
Gow and his grad student, Francois Pageau, hope to release the manual to the public once they finish translating it.