Saturday, January 19, 2008

Essential works about fanaticism

Alan Charles Kors, a professor of history at the University of Pennsylvania and editor in chief of the recent Encyclopedia of the Enlightenment (Oxford), named a five best list of "essential works about fanaticism" for the Wall Street Journal.

One title on the list:
Malleus Maleficarum
By Heinrich Kramer and Jacob Sprenger

The great Enlightenment "Encyclopedia," edited by Denis Diderot (1713-84), defined "fanaticism" as "a blind and impassioned zeal, born of superstitious opinions, which makes men commit absurd, unjust, and cruel acts, not only without shame and without remorse, but, indeed, with a kind of joy and consolation." For Enlightenment minds, the European witchcraft crazes and prosecutions of the 15th through the 17th centuries stood as the most striking symbol of such fanaticism. We use the term "witch hunt" still. No work expressed beliefs about witchcraft more deeply or influenced more zealous behavior than the "Malleus Maleficarum," or "The Hammer of Witches." (A superb critical edition and translation by Christopher S. Mackay was published in 2006 by Cambridge University Press.) Written by two Dominican inquisitors, the "Malleus" never enjoyed the high, official church approval it claimed, but it was used for centuries by both Catholic and Protestant witch-hunters and judges. They relied on its explanations of the unspeakable supernatural horrors that witches performed and on its advice for identifying witches, for torturing or tricking them into confessions, and, finally, for convicting and killing them. The "Malleus" reflected -- and, above all, spread -- a terror of witches, mostly women, who slept with the devil and set about to produce evils that ranged from afflicting men with impotence to causing catastrophic harm and destruction.
Read more about Kors' list.

--Marshal Zeringue