Saturday, 22 July 2017

Reflection: Gutenberg's printing press and the Malleus Maleficarum

The following is an extract from a post I wrote for my INF404 Foundations of Information Studies class at CSU. I was reading an article and started thinking back to a paper I wrote back in my undergraduate days.

Reading Rayward (2014) and his discussion on Gutenberg's printing press, I'm reminded of previous research I undertook on the feminisation of witchcraft and rise of misogyny in late medieval and early modern Europe (published in this blog). In my paper, I analysed the scholarly discourse around the two witch-hunting treatises by Johannes Nider, and Heinrich Kramer and James Sprenger, respectively titled, the Formicarius (1437), and the Malleus Maleficarum (1486).
Printed in 1486, the Malleus Maleficarum (translated as "The Hammer of the Witches") sought to prove the existence of witches and witchcraft, and in particular, drew a connection between women and witchcraft (Tillack, 2013). The treatise linked witchcraft to uncontrolled female sexuality, which supposedly sprung from the insatiable carnal lust in women. The authors argued that women were spiritually weaker than men, so more susceptible to evil (think of the Eve myth). I also covered this argument in another paper on the aetiology of evil, which compared the Eve and Pandora myths.
So, what does this have to do with Gutenberg's printing press? The Malleus was printed some fifty or so years after the invention of Gutenberg's press, and has been argued to be one of the most important factors in driving the witch craze and the concomitant persecution of women in the witch hunts across Europe in the late 15th and early sixteenth centuries. The treatise was immensely successful with between twenty-five to thirty-five editions, and it was reprinted at least twenty times between 1574 and 1669. At one time it was the second most popular book after the Bible. Bev (n.d) claims that, 'with-out [sic] the printing press the distribution and multiple printings would not have been possible.' 
To say the printing press was the cause of the European witch craze would be reductive and open to arguments of technological determinism. However, it can be said that the technology helped facilitate 'the mass production of material that was instrumental in the dissemination of information that fed the witch-hunt craze (Bev n.d.). 
Bev (n.d). Unintended Consequences [Blog post]. Retrieved from
Rayward, W. (2014). Information Revolutions, the Information Society, and the Future of the History of Information Science. Library Trends, (3), 681-713.
Tillack, T. J. (2013). Essay: The feminisation of witchcraft and rise of misogyny in late medieval and early modern Europe [Blog post]. Retrieved from:

1 comment:

  1. Interesting parallel to the role of internets and satellite comms in spreading terror panic post 9/11


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