Despite the ‘methodological agnosticism’ our discipline has been… constructively criticised for and despite the phenomenological egg-shells some of us still tread on with care, the exciting thing about being a religious studies scholar today is that one has the freedom to cross the boundaries between more established disciplines, such as theology, philosophy, history or psychology. Most of my students do this without even thinking, although with premeditated intent! They are stimulated by being able to ask the sort of questions that may not be interesting (nor possible) in other fields of study.
For example I have recently been talking about
witches with some of my students – witches of the very fictional and medieval
sort – and I found myself reading to them from none other than the infamous , the textbook of the
Inquisition. Better known in its English translation as The Hammer of Witches, this book aimed to justify the persecution of
hundreds of thousands of women – the use of the feminine gender for the adjective maleficus (feminine malefica/ maleficarum), Latin for wicked or criminal, being a clue for which of
the two sexes might have been considered more susceptible to demonic
Authored by two German clergymen in 1487 Malleus does not match what
literary critics call ‘the horizons of expectation’ of its age – the historical,
scientific or cultural context towards which a literary text naturally aspires and is in turn received and decoded by its readers.
Dogmatic and brutal, this is perhaps not the sort of popular text one would
expect to find in Germany, or Europe more widely, during the Renaissance. In
fact it may have just providentially ended up quarantined on some dusty old
shelf, had it not been concomitant with the development of the printing
press. As it turns out over the next two
centuries it was going to be reprinted almost thirty times. Alas, the printing
press was the Internet of its day: used for both good and evil.
Hammer of Witches is shocking
in many ways, but perhaps what is deeply unsettling about it is the extent of
its heretical beliefs about the human body. Although the authors pretend not to
be fooled by such ‘devil work and illusion’, we may still enquire into what
sort of processes may have allowed many educated clergymen and laymen alike to
entertain these sort of wild ideas? What
might be the reason or reasons for such an irrational fear as having one’s
sexual organs secretly stolen? What may be the emotional or social link (not
intended to mean a sequential link) between monasticism and the
inquisition? Religious traditions abound in norms, customs and symbolism about
human sexuality and it seems that the accompanying emotions have often been
sublimated in ways intended to leave no trace of their existence. Luckily
students always ask about what is missing or hidden from view.
so for those students out there who want to ask the ‘why’ and ‘how’ questions of social
sciences as well as the ‘yes but, what do they really believe?’ and the ‘what do
they do?’ or ‘what does it mean?’, I would say: come cross some boundaries in