Rare book was catalyst for witch hunts

Medieval tome warns that malevolent beings will bring on "end times".


Covered in weathered velvet, bound with wood and studded with heavy iron rivets, Johannes Tinctor’s book holds a malevolent distinction in the annals of witchcraft folklore. Scholars of the 15th-century manuscript say it is one of the first texts to combine far-flung beliefs about witches — broom-riding, crop-destruction, Satan-worship — into a coherent picture. It’s a familiar picture now, but in the 1400s the then-new classification not only served to justify witch trials in Europe, but it may have fuelled savage witch hunts resulting in thousands of deaths.

Only four copies of Tinctor’s Invectives Contre la Secte de Vauderie (Invectives Against the Sect of Waldensians) still exist, and what is likely the oldest of them is held at UAlberta. But until recently, nobody — not even the book’s owners — knew what they really had.

When it was first donated to the Bruce Peel Special Collections Library in 1988, Tinctor’s “foul” book was mistaken for a run-of-the-mill manuscript of medieval sermons. It was noteworthy for its age and condition but it sat for years, largely unread.

Unread, that is, until Robert Desjardins, ’91 BA(Hons), ’00 BEd, ’03 MA, ’10 PhD, showed up. Back in 2005, Desjardins was a grad student working on the history of Burgundy, a region in east-central France. The subject isn’t exactly popular on this side of the Atlantic. “There are relatively few Burgundian manuscripts in North America,” Desjardins says, “let alone Western Canada, let alone Edmonton.” Yet while taking a tour of the Peel, just such a manuscript caught his eye.

Desjardins wasn’t sure what to expect from the book, which librarians had catalogued as sermons against an esoteric religious sect. As soon as he opened it, however, he realized it was something much darker. “When I looked at what is effectively the table of contents, it’s making reference to ‘diabolical illusion,’ and ‘the fall of angels,’ and ‘Antichrist,’” Desjardins says. He thought to himself: What is this?


Desjardins' thesis supervisor, Andrew Gow, was able to solve the mystery. It turned out the manuscript was written in the 1460s, by an intellectual named Johannes Tinctor, in response to a series of witch trials in the city of Arras. Tinctor’s book was at once a history of scholarly beliefs about witchcraft and an urgent, direct plea to the Duke of Burgundy to take action against these diabolical beings and the spread of their evil.

At the time, accusations of witchcraft were becoming more frequent in the Burgundian court. Tinctor was an intellectual participating in larger philosophical discussions about witchcraft that were taking place across Europe. His book is divided into three parts: it opens with a scholarly history of angels, and concludes with a metaphysical consideration of how creatures like angels and witches might actually operate. Both, Desjardins says, are fairly traditional. It’s the second part of the book that gets scary.

The middle of Tinctor’s book is “a shrill, vituperative appeal to princes,” Desjardins says. “‘Oh my god, they’re all around us. These people are multiplying. They’re going to bring on the Antichrist, the end times. You need to do something about it.’” According to Desjardins, nobody else at the time was writing direct appeals to royalty — which may explain why, despite multiple books about witchcraft at the time, Tinctor’s is the only one to turn up in royal libraries. The guy knew his audience.

The copy of Tinctor’s manuscript held in the Bruce Peel is noteworthy for several reasons. Of the four known copies, the Alberta manuscript is the only one that made it to North America. (The others are held in national libraries in Paris and Brussels and in the Bodleian Library in Oxford.) And scholars believe UAlberta’s to be the oldest of the batch. Desjardins says the manuscript’s true value is almost incalculable. “It’s one of the earliest articulations of an ideology that came to result in tens of thousands of deaths.”

Another mystery surrounding the manuscript is how it arrived at the university in the first place. Judging from the book’s inscriptions, it appears this copy fell into English hands very early on; Desjardins and his colleagues, Gow and doctoral candidate Francois Pageau, '09 BA, '13 MA, believe it may have belonged to King Edward IV himself. From there it was passed down through Welsh landowners and parliamentarians, with some large gaps yet to be accounted for. Desjardins says that John Lunn, a longtime Alberta bureaucrat and antiquarian, donated the book to the university. He likely purchased it in his native England and brought it with him to Canada. Lunn died in 2001, many years before the true — and truly creepy — significance of his donation came to light.

The Digital Book of Horrors

Delve into Tinctor’s “foul treatise” by visiting the online exhibition at Bruce Peel Special Collections. The full English translation of the manuscript can be purchased online.

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