Ideas Looks at an Early Witch-Hating Treatise

This Thursday, CBC Radio’s Ideas ran a show on the discovery of a copy of Johannes Tinctor’s Treatise against the Sect of Waldensians, one of the earliest witch-hating treatises, at the University of Alberta. Tinctor’s academic invective first appeared in 1460, twenty-five or so years before the far more famous Malleus Maleficarum (or Hammer of the Witches). The U of A copy is a Old French translation of Tinctor’s original Latin, one of old four known copies in the world. According to the historians who found it, its probably the oldest of the four and the one from which others may have been copied. (Translated excerpts are available via the Edmonton Journal here)

The Middle Ages gets a bad rap for hunting witches, mostly because of things like Monty Python and the Holy Grail. In fact, though medieval penitentials are full of condemnations of all sorts of pagan and folk magic, organized and paranoid witch-hunting is really an early modern phenomenon (Tinctor’s treatise falls into the grey area between the eras).

If there’s one thing to take away from this story, though, it’s that we shouldn’t assume that easy digital access to more information than we can process means we actually have access to the full range of what’s out there. After 150 years of cataloging, 100 years of systematic text editing, and more than 60 years of major microfilm projects, we still haven’t fully analysed the limited number of medieval European manuscripts out there. For other areas, like medieval West Africa, we’ve only just started the process. What’s available at Google Books and archive.org, or even the more specialized digital repositories, is only the tip of the iceberg.

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