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Rare manuscript offers a guide to hunting witches

But mystery surrounds how the centuries-old book ended up at the University of Alberta.

BY MICHAEL DAVIES-VENN | NOV 21 2012

A rare manuscript in the University of Alberta’s Bruce Peel Special Collections Library, recently discovered by U of A researchers, is likely one of the early sources for our common image of witches that led to the infamous witch hunts in the Middle Ages.

The manuscript, Invectives Against the Sect of Waldensians, written in 1460, is one of only four copies in the world. It details how to find, hunt, punish or even execute witches in Europe, says history professor Andrew Gow, who was recently mining the libraries for old books when he found it.

Just how it ended up at U of A, and why is it missing a valuable portion, are amongst questions Dr. Gow has been trying to answer. “Someone at some point ripped out the most interesting and the most exciting piece of the whole manuscript, which is the frontispiece,” he says.

It is from other images like it, and from the text itself, that we today have a visual image of witches, says Dr. Gow. The piece would probably have depicted witches “flying to some kind of a meeting at night” on their brooms, “where they pay homage to the devil, and they dance, feast, drink and have sex,” he says. “This is one of the very first times that this idea is translated into an image.”

The bound volume of animal hide, which might have belonged to King Edward IV of England, is probably the most valuable of the four, says Dr. Gow. “Ours is the source of one of those other manuscripts and is probably the oldest. … It’s luxuriously bound, illustrated and carefully written.” The others are at the Royal Library in Brussels, La Bibliothèque nationale de France and Oxford University.

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  1. Paul Laverdure / November 26, 2012 at 08:50

    Professor Gow is not the first to mine libraries for old books. More unscrupulous book hunters have been known to search out just such books and carefully razor out frontispieces, maps, and illustrations to sell. A rare book, cut into pieces, can often fetch more money than the entire book itself, and the individual pages are far easier to steal than the entire book, which is often bugged, tagged, or stamped but not each and every page.