Saturday, December 5, 2020

The year was 1484. We remember the Papal Bull "Summis Desiderantes Affectibus." The reading is from Dietrich Bonhoeffer, a favorite quote from his "God Is In the Manger: Reflections on Advent and Christmas."

It is the 5th of December 2020. Welcome to the Christian History Almanac brought to you by 1517 at I'm Dan van Voorhis.

The year was 1484.

Today's story's events inspired the famous "witch" scene from Monty Python and the Holy Grail. Without repeating the lines verbatim, here's the quick rundown. The medieval villagers believe they have found a witch, and so they take her to the Knight to help determine if she is, in fact, a real witch. "How do you know she's a witch?" the Knight asks. The people reason that they know that witches burn. "What else burns?" asks the Knight. "Wood," the people respond. Thus, we would know if the woman was a witch if she was, in fact, made of wood. "How would we determine that?" The people wonder. "What else floats?" asks the Knight. The people respond: bread, apples, very small rocks, cider, gravy, churches, lead, or perhaps a duck. The people then determine that if the woman weighs the same as a duck, she must be made of wood and therefore a witch. Such twisted logic might be good for a laugh, but that most historically literate comedy team knew that there was something much more sinister behind the twisted logic.

Female malefactors have long been a particular target for scapegoating, but the medieval question was: against whom do such so-called witches sin? Was witchcraft a religious offense or a civic offense? And depending on that answer, well… several new questions arise. In Northern Germany, the late medieval and early Modern center of discontent, questions of authority would often pit local rulers against the Emperor or Pope. In the early 15th century, folk religion and superstition led to the killing of a few people suspected of witchcraft. The question of jurisdiction was raised, and the Pope was quick to jump on this long-simmering question.

On this day, the 5th of December in 1484 that Pope Innocent VIII proclaimed the Papal Bull "Summis Desiderantes Affectibus" but you can call it the "witchcraft bull." It is remarkable for a few reasons: it officially recognized the existence and actions of witches and led to printing one of the most controversial books of the era. It called out those who have been seduced by the Incubi and Succubi, those who have received the Devil's Mark and by his power have slain people, cattle, and destroyed crops. (It seems right out of Grimm's Fairy Tales.) The men who brought the issue to the Pope's attention were two Dominican theology professors, Heinrich Kramer and Jacob Sprenger. It was this Papal pronouncement that led them to write the "Malleus Malificorum." This handbook on recognizing, catching, and killing witches was banned, but that may have only helped its popularity. Soon Inquisitions and tribunals popped across Europe. It is supposed that the Bull, the book, and the ensuing craze led to the deaths of 10s of thousands of Europeans.

Of course, those arrested and suspected of witchcraft would be asked to confess and repent. If they did not, this was evidence of a pact with the devil. How else would the church know if witches were in their presence? The "Malleus Malificorum" put forth a test. If the accused is thrown in the water and drowns, she was never, in fact, a witch. If she doesn't drown, she is obviously a witch and must be burnt at the stake. Let this then be a lesson to all of us: the church isn't infallible. Also: witches aren't real. Also: The Python's weren't just making a joke. They were slyly reflecting the late Medieval world created by that Papal Bull, "Summis Desiderantes Affectibus" proclaimed on this, the 5th of December in 1484.

The reading for today comes from Dietrich Bonhoeffer, a favorite quote from his "God Is In the Manger: Reflections on Advent and Christmas."

"...And then, just when everything is bearing down on us to such an extent that we can scarcely withstand it, the Christmas message comes to tell us that all our ideas are wrong, and that what we take to be evil and dark is really good and light because it comes from God. Our eyes are at fault, that is all. God is in the manger, wealth in poverty, light in darkness, succor in abandonment. No evil can befall us; whatever men may do to us, they cannot but serve the God who is secretly revealed as love and rules the world and our lives."

This has been the Christian History Almanac for the 5th of December 2020 brought to you by 1517 at The show is produced by Christopher Gillespie, who was once turned into a newt by a witch… thankfully, he got better. The show is written and read by Dan van Voorhis. You can catch us here every day, and remember that the rumors of grace, forgiveness, and the redemption of all things are true…. Everything is going to be ok.

Subscribe to the Christian History Almanac

Subscribe to the Christian History Almanac

Subscribe (it’s free!) in your favorite podcast app.