Fugitive and Cloistered Virtue

The new translation of the famous Malleus Maleficarum, or ‘The Hammer of the Witches’ that has recently become available, illuminates the mind of the writer and the subsequent persecutions. Written in 1486, the Malleus became the bible of the witch hunters and used ‘blasphemy’ as a point of entry to terrorize and torture their victims. An extremely disturbing book, the advocacy of violence towards women in particular is shocking. This highly controversial book is said to have sent mostly women, many men, gypsies and anyone who didn’t fit into to the norm to their death. Although debate is still rife as to how many were killed, the trials at Salem in America are famously documented and illustrate the extent of what one human being can do to another.

Blasphemy played a key role to accuse and punish, and if you look closely at the word blasphemy, break its Latin components down, I believe it reads ‘stupid woman’. And since the roots of blasphemy are inherently about doubting the interpretations of the word of god or the sheer act of transgression, the word manages to travel effortlessly across all religions. And women have historically been dealt the card of being at the root of all evil, so that explains the construction of the word.

As words evolve they take on a character and standing, managing to strike a blow when called upon. Men and women throughout history have stood up against oppressive forces, questioning their interpretation of religious texts. Many of these opposing voices ended up being crushed or silenced.

“Estimates of the death toll during the Inquisition worldwide range from 600,000 to as high as 9,000,000 (over its 250 year long course); either is a chilling number when one realizes that nearly all of the accused were women, and consisted primarily of outcasts and other suspicious persons. Old women. Midwives. Jews. Poets. Gypsies. Anyone who did not fit within the contemporary view of pious Christians were suspect, and easily branded “Witch”. Usually to devastating effect.”  Introduction to the online edition available at www.malleusmaleficarum.org

Although our world is far from that of the 1400’s but on reflection what can future generations’ highlight about our understanding of the need for freedom of speech? The brutality of regimes throughout the world employs both sophisticated and crude methods of weeding out the non-conformist. Communalism, ethnic cleansing, censorship of anyone who would want to doubt and question scriptures are rife. Although no one has been burnt alive due to being a witch, many are killed for reasons of going against religious and cultural beliefs.

Writing almost 200 hundred years after the publication of the Malleus, John Milton, the poet was still pleading against censorship. An extraordinary poet and visionary and a devout Christian of the puritanical strain – he wrote passionately about the dangers of censorship: ‘I cannot praise a fugitive and cloistered virtue, unexercised and unbreathed, that never sallies out and sees her adversary.’

And in another work he wrote: “Though all the winds of doctrine were let loose to play upon the earth, so Truth be in the field, we do ingloriously, by licensing and prohibiting, to misdoubt her strength. Let her and Falsehood grapple: who ever knew Truth put to the worse in a free and open encounter?”

Cleverly using the idea of truth in the feminine, Milton clearly understood and demonstrated how easy it was to crush that voice. Merely questioning or uttering what might appear to be blasphemous even today can still cost a life; in many parts of the world a ‘medieval’ state of being exists. Perhaps we have to wait for another four hundred years before we reach the enlightened state that John Milton possessed with such intelligence and grace.

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