Saturday, July 26, 2008

Review: Montague Summers' The History of Witchcraft and Demonology.

As man marched towards civilization it persisted, losing much that was monstrous but none of the horror, for the horror was part of the truth of it.”
- Montague Summers, The Vampire in Lore and Legend.

The bulk of the trials between 1400 and 1700 involved diabolism, Luciferianism, and acts relating to the Devil. Before 1400, the majority of trials (and there weren't that many) were focused on the use of magic to harm others, to practice treasonous divination and spells against a monarch.
It is my contention that most of the Witchcraft trials, from which we get terms like “Transvection” (witch’s flight); Ligature, a form of “Malefica”–or working of evil magic; Sabats and Esbats, which are used to refer to the diabolic orgies practiced by “Gothic” witches are based on the persecution of non-Pagans.”- Professor Marc Carlson (University of Tulsa).

Around a month ago Ms. Jez asked (demanded, whip in one hand; lollipop in the other) that I begin reviewing books I thought would aid others on the subject of European Witchcraft that I'd read in the last year.

Why I'd begin with Montague Summers' “tome of blasphemous glories” might be lost on some. However the reasons are quite simple:
  1. I like my witchcraft blasphemous and descending in part from post-Classical Pagan folklore, and in part from the Nigromantic elite demonology that led to the very trials which surround it. I'm a via sinistra kinda guy and I won't bother to lie about it. Unless it actively embodies a dark-side as well, it's useless to me as a form of whole-ism which exposes both the enchantment and shadow of the psyche of any given time period. If we view one means of occult technology as mapping the psyche then it must have both sides of the coin. Otherwise we've manufactured just one more lie.
  2. It will irritate Mr. VI and force snide comments out of him as only the British can come up with.
  3. It will piss off any Silver Ravenwolf lover lurking in the bowels of Chaoism that has yet to show themselves.

Before I even begin Mr. Summers' review, there are a few points to be clear on. The first of which is that his book was written in 1926, in response to Margaret Murray's The Witch-Cult in Western Europe. He explains this in his introduction as well as his divergent stance. In short, Summers is blatantly mocking Ms. Murray. Why?

Murray's contention with the Witch trials of Europe from 900 CE to 1690 CE is that they were caused by a resurgence or continuance of a 'cult of Diana' which failed to die out. She makes brilliant citations regarding such ideas, but also influences trial evidence for an Apologists' stance. It is Murray we can sadly thank for Silver Ravenwolf.

Summers, on the other hand, purports to take the hardcore Ecclesiastical stance of the Roman Catholic Church during that period:
Witches are real. They are agents of the devil, and the Sabbat was the agency of a wide-ranging conspiracy led by the Prince of Darkness himself. The Sabbat was an inherently blasphemous event, and tantamount to sanctimonious treason and implied an allegiance with the damned.

That said, the man was also friends with Aleister Crowley, made a 'Catholic Priest' in a very unorthodox ritual which would have led to Vatican proceedings against him had they found out, and dressed like a witch-hunter during the year of 1927 for... well, fun. To quote his biographer:
During the year 1927, the striking and somber figure of the Reverend Montague Sommers in black soutane and cloak, with buckled shoes – a la Louis Quatorze – and shovel hat could often have been seen entering or leaving the reading room of the British Museum, carrying a large black portfolio bearing on its side a white label, showing in blood-red capitals, the legend 'VAMPIRES'.”

He was also widely believed to have practiced Goetia in his youth, we know he did translate the first copy of the Malleus Malificarum, and was viewed in quite a few memoirs of the late Victorian era as a person who inspired horror. His interest in witchcraft and black magick was most likely more than academic, ranging from what little source material we have on the man.

None the less his introduction to The History of Witchcraft and Demonology clearly has the following lines:
A few authors have painted the medieval witch in pretty colours on satin. She has become a somewhat eccentric but kindly old lady, shrewd and perspicacious, with a knowledge of healing herbs and simples, ready to advise and aid her neighbors who are duller-witted than she; not disdaining in return a rustic present of a filth, meal, a poult or eggs from the farm-yard. And so for no very definite reason she fell an easy prey to fanatic judges and ravening inquisitors, notoriously the most ignorant and stupid of mortals, who caught her, swum her in a river, tried her, tortured her, and finally burned her at the stake. Many modern writers, more skeptical still, frankly relegate the witch to the land of nursery tales and Christmas pantomime. She never had any real existence other than as Cinderella's fairy godmother or the Countess D'Aulnoy's Madame Merluche.”

We know what we're getting from the start: whatever 'witch' that he's going to discuss, she isn't very politically correct. From there we head to the first chapter: The Witch: Heretic and Anarchist.

Summers' pulls no punches in denouncing the witch, going on record in the book and stating we should burn witches again (which I consider a ploy to get attention, and a good one at that) and then discussing the ecclesiastical attitudes towards witches. He discusses the Canon Episcopi, which was the first major theological standpoint on witches, and then goes on to discuss later viewpoints. What we're treated to is the first major transition points in Church hierarchy and stance on Paganism, though from their biased perspective. (Which I personally finally useful in uncovering the psyche of the periods in relation to belief in the supernatural, and one of the reasons I'm reviewing this book prior to Ginzburg, who I plan to review next.)

The Canon Episcopi in many ways is the big 'question mark' as to why the Inquisition began having witch trials at all; it stands in direct opposition to later beliefs in regards to witchcraft and the existence of witches. To quote:
It is therefore to be publically proclaimed to all that whoever believes in such things, or similar things, loses the Faith, and he who has not the right faith of God is not of God, but of him in whom he believes, that is the devil. For of our Lord it is written, “All things were made by Him.” Whoever therefore believes that anything can be made, or that any creature can be changed to better or worse, or transformed into another species or likeness, except by God Himself who made everything and through whom all things were made, is beyond a doubt an infidel.”

And that was how the Roman Catholic Church felt about witches and witchcraft for about 900 years. No small deal of time. Then came the turning point, ushered in by the Inquisition formed to squash the Cathari heretics in France. Very quickly the Inquisition turned it's eyes to heresy in the Church; the earliest documents after that period relate to heretical Priests, and not folk magic practicing peasants.

However, as evidence was massed regarding folk magic, the Inquisition became obviously concerned with 'witches'. And thus the period of witchcraft trials, to last for the next seven to eight-hundred years, begins.

Being able to see those two viewpoints, that of the Malleus Malificarum and the Canon Episcopi side-by-side in the same chapter is fascinating and shows how the power of the Church itself became central to the darker myths of witchcraft that would arise out of a conflation of Nigromantic practices – Malefica – and folk magic.

Having established these transition points, and claiming to be on the side of the Inquisitors, Summers proceeds to the next chapter: The Worship of the Witch. Now, to be honest, this chapter is more about Satanism than witchcraft. He uses some trial material to justify viewpoints, but central issues in witchcraft (such as a commonly arising goddes-like figure) are missing. We see far more devils than goddesses.

Following that is Demons and Familiars. This is where the book starts to get fun and Summers' unleashes his verbose glory, and occasional capacity to completely sidestep the 'reality' of Satanic witches. How common were succubi and incubi in witchcraft trials? Summers will give you a very, very good idea. He even includes excerpts from trials, and then expands upon them. For those wondering, some of my research on the 'black dog as familiar' came from this chapter. It's good. The woodcuts he includes in the chapter are also amazing and increase the aesthetic.

The Sabbat is just... sexy. If you're into blasphemy. Some of Summers' speculations on the organization of the Sabbat, in both popular culture's belief and possible reality, are also worthy of note. Included is his comments on speculations based in trial material that reoccurs throughout many of the trials, including witches that discuss the... genetalia of the Devil after they had hot, blasphemous sex with him. Summers' speculates that it's possible the Devil was a role akin to a 'Grand Master' in a secret lodge, and involved costumed masks, and that the 'rather large phallus' described in trial records that he had was actually... well, a blasphemous dildo of Satanic doom. He further postulates that the 'Queen of the Faerie' mentioned where the devil is not was a woman overseeing a coven which lacked a 'devil' as leader.

He continues on with The Witch in Holy Writ, discussing how Inquisitors saw the witch and how they 'found' witches to be tried. This is followed by Diabolic Possession, in which he discusses popular belief in exorcism and the roots of the ritual structure as well as midieval conceptions of when it should occur—and furthermore, how possession could come to take place in the belief of the church. This is all rounded out with The Witch in Dramatic Literature, which discusses how witchcraft evolved into a more 'fantastic' belief to enhance enchantment in drama and the arts.

Conclusions:
The History of Withcraft is a fairly fun read, especially if you want a dark-side view of witchcraft from the midieval periods. The writing style is more than fairly verbose. My one criticism is that he occasionally quotes authors in languages such as Greek, Italian, and French and German and then... refuses to translate the statements, leaving the reader more or less lost over what is being said or concluded. This isn't a constant theme, but occurs enough to force one to bust out an internet translator – which can be more than fairly annoying. When he's discussing subjects he obviously enjoys – ranging from Satanism to orgies – he devotes entire pages of practical poetry to the subject, clearly demonstrating something of a verbal fetish for his subject.

Overall, the book is a good read and paints one side of the 'witch trials' debate. His bias aside, it still has some interesting conclusions worth looking into. If you enjoy reading Chumbley and can stomach a bit of theology, I heartily recommend Summers tome of horror.

If not, I recommend the next book I plan to review, Ginzburg's Ectasies: Deciphering the Witches Sabbath. And if you like Murray at all, I don't want to talk to you. We're obviously not going to get along.

2 comments:

Monsignor Scott Rassbach said...

. My one criticism is that he occasionally quotes authors in languages such as Greek, Italian, and French and German and then... refuses to translate the statements, leaving the reader more or less lost over what is being said or concluded.

His audience would have known Greek, French, had passable German, and known enough French or Latin to stumble through the Italian. Why translate when EVERYONE knows it, and if they don't, they obviously aren't educated enough to be reading his book.

T.S. Eliot does the same thing, and numerous other writers from the period as well. Heck, even House of Leaves, with it's numerous footnotes, occasionally translates things partially or incorrectly.

And, if you like the dark side of things, you might like House of Leaves by Mark Z. Danielewski. It's an interesting work, and fiendishly difficult to read and/or understand.

Jack Faust said...

I actually love House of Leaves. The novel is an amazing example of current post-modern literature, and still remains one of my favorite 'horror-esque' works of the last ten years!

Thanks for the recommendation, however!