The Second Section: A Primer on Witchcraft (fols. 49v-75r)


The Alberta manuscript, fol. 72v

Having raised this alarm, Tinctor turns in the second part of his treatise to the challenge of educating his readers about the witches and their evil. (To view this section of the treatise, access the digital version, begin at the first page of the table of contents, and click 48 times on the right-hand pane. Start with the illuminated capital [that is, the decorated capital letter] on the left hand side [fol. 49v].)

“It would be a good thing,” Tinctor muses, ”that [readers] should learn, in all moderation and sobriety of spirit, how these things happen” (fol. 49v). This will free them to contemplate and rejoice in God’s works; it will also empower them “to repulse, refute and confound those who seek to know these detestable vanities and thus hurl their precious souls into damnation” (fol. 50r). Tinctor directs his teaching at “simple folk” (fol. 51v), though it is clear that “the most intelligent” Christians (fol. 50r)—and, notably, judges and inquisitors involved in witchcraft trials (fols. 68r-70v)—are also presumed to be key audiences.

Appealing to scripture and, especially, to favoured sources such as Aristotle and Augustine, Tinctor lays out a classic scholastic overview of the problem—a kind of scientific primer on the most puzzling and important questions facing those struggling to understand diabolical witchcraft (and, in some cases, to prosecute it). Can a devil be summoned and constrained to do a person’s bidding (fols. 52r-54v)? What sorts of things can demons actually achieve in the physical world (fols. 54r-60r)? (The answer: among other things, they can make serpents [fols. 58r-58v], create storms [fols. 58v-59r], and carry people through the air [fols. 59r-59v]). What sorts of things do demons only appear to do by illusion, and how do such illusions work (fols. 59v-68r)? How can we know whether the witches’ crimes are real or only illusions (fols. 67v-71r)? And how are we to know whether illusions are produced by angels or by demons (fols. 70v-75r)?

Over the course of his treatise, then, Tinctor deploys his full range of professional weapons—rhetoric, logic, and Scholastic learning—in an effort to alarm, to provoke, to educate, and even to reassure his readers. Whatever we may think of its paranoid claims, the treatise stands as a remarkable piece of persuasive writing. As scholars have noted, it takes an important place in the growing corpus of scholarly texts that predated, and prefigured, the infamous Malleus Maleficarum.

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