Imagining 'Witchcraft': A Book of Horrors

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The Alberta manuscript, fol. 7r.

One of the most unusual, most beautiful—and most sinister—items held in the University of Alberta’s Bruce Peel Special Collections is a velvet-clad, wood-bound volume dating from the middle of the fifteenth century. Donated to the university in 1988, it is one of just a few surviving manuscript copies of an essay written by a French intellectual seeking to convince his countrymen to find and persecute witches.

The text, Johannes Tinctor's Invectives contre la secte de vauderie ("Invectives against the Sect of Waldensians"), predates the famous Malleus Maleficarum (or “Hammer of Witches”) by some 26 years. It offers important insights into the early history of the witch-hunts that plagued late medieval and early modern Europe.

The book itself is a beautiful—if tattered and damaged—example of the luxury volumes produced for the wealthiest princes in late medieval Europe. (View a full digital version of the manuscript here.)

The book’s contents, by contrast, are vile. They testify to the ways that intellectuals, fired by good intentions and emboldened by institutional power, have sometimes arrived at truly inhumane conclusions (see A Call to Arms, above). 

To read the full story of Johannes Tinctor, the witch-craze that led him to write his foul book, and the travels of the manuscript from Flanders to England and finally to Alberta, follow the prompts on the menu above. To learn about the historical significance of the treatise, click here.

A full English translation of the manuscript, suitable for students, researchers and interested members of the public, was published in May 2016 by the Pennsylvania State University Press. The publication, this online exhibition, and a number of other initiatives are part of the Arras Witchcraft Project, based here at the University of Alberta.

 

The Historical Significance of the Treatise