Rare Book Highlights: Hammer of Demons

Alexandro Albertino. Mallevs daemonvm, siuè, quatuor experimentatissimi exorcismi, ex Euangelijs collecti : in fine erunt due Benedictiones, & vna vulgaris deprecatio pro ignaris, & mulierbus, vt possint semetipsos praeseruare, & liberare Deo auxiliante : si non habuerint sacerdotem. Veronae: Typis Bartholomaei Merli, 1620. (Call number: BF1555 A38x )

The demon-possessed woman. Obscure Latin verses causing the possessed to writhe in agony. Familiar scenes to any fan of exorcism movies, or to any TV channel surfer this time of year.

That is why I couldn’t resist choosing Malleus Daemonum (or Hammer of Demons) for this month’s Rare Book Highlight after discovering this book while perusing our shelves recently. While works on demonology, or even religion more broadly, are not a collecting area here in Special Collections, we do have a few interesting books to be found on subjects such as these from an earlier era of less discriminate collecting.

Title page of Malleus Daemonum, 1620.

Title page of Malleus Daemonum, 1620.

Malleus Daemonum appears to be a very rare book on the subject of exorcisms. Trying various searches in WorldCat (an online union catalog that includes items from libraries in 170 countries), I found only 4 other copies of the 1620 edition like we have (one at the University of Illinois here in the United States and three at libraries in the United Kingdom), and another five copies of the 1624 edition in the United States, Australia, and in Rome.

First page of the litany section of Exorcism I

First page of the litany section of Exorcism I

As the subtitle implies (quatuor experimentatissimi exorcismi, ex Euangelijs collecti, or Four Most Experimented Exorcisms Collected from the Gospels), the book explores the subject of exorcisms in the context of the four Christian gospels. The main part of the text is divided into four sections, Exorcismus I, II, III, and IIII. Written in Latin, each begins with a litany, or series of formulaic petitions, along these lines: “Kyrie eleison, Christe eleison, Kyrie eleison, Christe audi nos, Christe exaudi nos. Pater de Coelis Deus, libera hanc Creaturam tuam ab omnibus malis, et vexationibus Daemonium.” (Lord have mercy, Christ have mercy, Christ have mercy, Christ hear us, Christ graciously hear us. God the Father of Heaven, God, deliver this creature of thy family, from all evils, and vexation of evil spirits.) The litany continues for several pages, calling on the Trinity, the apostles, and the saints, to drive away demons. It culminates in a prayer, beginning, “Oremus” (We pray…) Next, are long sections discussing or perhaps quoting specific selections from each of the four gospels, Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. The book ends with what appear to be three testimonials from priests, testifying to the book’s orthodoxy.

Oremus ("we pray")

Oremus (“we pray”)

To put this book in context, I looked at a number of recent scholarly works exploring witchcraft and demonic possession in early modern Europe and North America, roughly from the late 15th century to the late 18th century. In her book Demonic Possession and Exorcism in Early Modern France, Sarah Ferber explains that the high number of cases of demonic possession and exorcism of that period took place in the context of the Protestant Reformation of the 16th century, which brought a great deal of turmoil to Europe. She writes, “…in this context, public displays of battles with Satanic forces became a showcase for rival strands of Christianity. Exorcism – the ritual invocation and controlling of possessing demons, using prayer, sacred texts and exhortation – took place among every western Christian group, to varying degrees, in Europe and in its colonies” (3). The belief in demonic possession, or that spirits can take up residence in a person’s body in order to control it, has scriptural authority for Christians, specifically the gospel account of Jesus’ driving out the “Legion” of spirits from the man in Mark 5, essentially the first performance of exorcism in Christianity (Levack 11).

The proliferation of exorcism during the period was viewed as problematic by the Catholic Church, according to Ferber. Exorcists were sometimes viewed as having made a pact with the devil themselves, in their development of rituals to drive out the possessing demons, but the rite of exorcism also had its defenders. Most famously, Girolamo Menghi, an Italian Franciscan priest, published an authorized exorcism manual by the title Flagellum daemonum (Flail of Demons–it seems to me that our author Albertinus likely had this book in mind when titling his own) in 1576. Exorcists, both those viewed as genuine and those believed to be charlatans, used this work to establish their legitimacy (Ferber, “Demonic” 579, and Ferber, Demonic 38-39). In order to systematize the practice of exorcism, Pope Paul V approved an exorcism ritual that was published in 1614 in the Rituale Romanum, the priest’s service manual (Ferber, Demonic 38-29).

Malleus Daemonum on the shelf with its neighbors. See faint markings of previous letters on the spine.

Malleus Daemonum on the shelf with its neighbors. See faint markings of previous letters on the spine.

Examining the book beyond its text and historical milieu, it shows some interesting binding features. It is bound in limp vellum, meaning that the vellum is not stretched around a board, but is simply attached to the spine and folded around the text block, providing a flexible cover. On the spine is written, “E | V | Alberti | Malleu |Daemo | 23.” Beneath that are traces of previous writing that has been removed. This is what is known as a palimpsest, familiar to scholars of medieval manuscripts. Parchment and vellum were expensive to produce, so they were made reusable by scraping or washing the ink from a page. I am not experienced enough to know if this is a common feature of vellum used for bindings, but it is not something I have come across before. I cannot quite make out what was written underneath the current title.

Front cover of Malleus Daemonum in limp vellum with scribblings in ink.

Front cover of Malleus Daemonum in limp vellum with scribblings in ink.

Further of interest, there is more writing, not so thoroughly erased, on the front cover of the binding. It is more messily written, as if it were used to scribble some notes, and makes me wonder if this book was bound with a piece of reused parchment. Again, I cannot make out much more than “Ergo” (therefore). More of a student of paleography than I can currently claim to be would need to take a look at it.

Works Cited

Ferber, Sarah. Demonic Possession and Exocism in Early Modern France. Routledge, 2004.

–. “Demonic Possession, Exorcism, and Witchcraft.” The Oxford Handbook of Witchcraft in Early Modern Europe and Colonial America, edited by Brian P. Levack, Oxford University Press, 2013, 575-592.

Levack, Brian P. The Witch-Hunt in Early Modern Europe. Pearson, 2006.

2 thoughts on “Rare Book Highlights: Hammer of Demons

  1. Thank you for this interesting post about a very rare book! I can add copies at Leiden University and the Vatican Library to your list of copies of the 1620 edition. I have tried to decipher more words on the cover, but even with my training in palaeography many words are just too faded or seem indeed to have been scraped off. With some kind of spectral lighting you migh be able to discover more legible text.

    Best wishes,

    Otto Vervaart, Utrecht, Netherlands

    • Amy

      Thank you for your comment, Otto! It is good to know about the other copies of the work. And thanks for your efforts with the writing on the cover. It may be an interesting research project in the future.

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