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Portland State University shares story of 'witch-hunting' manual

Staff and students say the 530-year-old text presents important lessons from history for critical thinking today.

PORTLAND, Ore. — Ahead of Halloween, Portland State University (PSU) is sharing the story of a book in its vault, which is the oldest known guide to witch hunting.

"The Malleus Maleficarum, also known as 'The Hammer of Witches," said John Ott, a professor of medieval history and department chair at PSU. "One of the more famous and better known witch-hunting manuals."

PSU acquired the book two years ago from a Parisian rare book store, with help from an endowment.

This past spring, Ott helped guide a student practicum analyzing the book, which was published in 1490. Students in remote classes used digital scans to study from a distance, even tracing watermarks in the pages back to specific paper mills.

Text, illustrations, and handwritten notes in the margins of the book detail how to spot witches and ways to persecute them without falling under their witchcraft.

"Really brought to life for me some of things I had learned in other classes," described former student Sarah Alderson. Alderson recently completed her master's degree in history at PSU after taking the course about the Malleus Maleficarum.

"You can kind of learn about the mistakes people made in the past," Alderson said.

Some of those mistakes had big consequences.

People following the book's example believed so-called "witches" could prevent crops from growing or make the weather bad. Many people contributed to hysteria, thinking witches also had to power to control life and death.

"It was a period of about two centuries in which anywhere between 40 to 60,000 people, mostly women, were put to death," Ott said.

Ott said thinking and culture at the time classified women as more vulnerable to witchcraft. Because women were seen as more passionate and true to their faith, they were also seen as more easily seduced by the devil.

Ott and students said the text's impact in history presents important lessons today. "The power of systems—legal systems and thought systems—believed to be so intellectually ironclad that they justify and perpetuate their own ways of seeing the world through exclusion of other viewpoints," Ott said.

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