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Follow-Up: The Hammer of Witches

March 9, 2010

In “The Hammer of Witches” I posed the question, “Why can’t witches cry?”  The question was based on two things.  First was this, from the Malleus Maleficarum Part 3 Question XV:

Of the Continuing of the Torture, and of the Devices and Signs by which the Judge can Recognize a Witch; and how he ought to Protect himself from their Spells. Also how they are to be Shaved in Parts where they use to Conceal the Devil’s Masks and Tokens; together with the due Setting Forth of Various Means of Overcoming the Obstinacy in Keeping Silence and Refusal to Confess. And it is the Tenth Action

If he wishes to find out whether she is endowed with a witch’s power of preserving silence, let him take note whether she is able to shed tears when standing in his presence, or when being tortured. For we are taught both by the words of worthy men of old and by our own experience that this is a most certain sign, and it has been found that even if she be urged and exhorted by solemn conjurations to shed tears, if she be a witch she will not be able to weep: although she will assume a tearful aspect and smear her cheeks and eyes with spittle to make it appear that she is weeping; wherefore she must be closely watched by the attendants.

And the second was based on my assumption that the above claim, “if she be a witch, she will not be able to weep” was essentially based on fact.  That is, I assumed that since (as it seems to me) the Malleus was designed to ensure that those accused were indeed found guilty (a “So when did you stop beating your wife” type thing), that there was some real, physiological reason that witches could not cry while being tortured.  There may or may not be a real physiological reason (more on that below), but what’s most interesting/troubling/embarrassing to me is that it now seems that I’ve asked a lopsided and/or misguided question.

Tom Lutz is a professor at the University of California, Riverside, where he teaches creative writing.  He’s also the author of several books, to include “Crying: A Natural & Cultural History of Tears“.

Shortly after the “Hammer” post, I sent Tom an e-mail asking him the same question I asked in the post; “Why can’t witches cry”  Tom was kind enough to reply, and to grant me permission to post said reply below:

“Sorry, I have trouble with the question. The only related question I could answer would be: ‘Why would the authors of Malleus Maleficarum suggest that witches cannot cry?’ And my answer to that would be that since tears are a prime sign of being human (human beings are the only animals that weep emotional tears), to suggest witches don’t cry is to suggest that they are not human or not fully human.

The option that the witch might be pretending to cry, using spittle, etc, shows that they weren’t confident they could find a woman to kill who wouldn’t cry.

There are many recorded cases of what Wordsworth called grief too deep for tears, and in my book, I suggest that tears are often the sign of mixed emotions, not pure ones; thus there are many explanations for why someone wouldn’t weep under extreme duress, on an emotional level.

The only physiological part of the explanation for why someone wouldn’t weep under extreme duress (again, a very diff question than ‘why can’t witches cry’!!) is that tears are triggered by the parasympathetic nervous system–the sympathetic nervous system sets in motion all the systemic excitation of emotion–the hormones for the fight or flight response, etc, while the parasympathetic system brings us back to homeostasis, and to the extent that under torture there may be no moment of relaxation in which the body begins to return to normal (inciting tears), the victim under constant, unrelenting duress might remain tearless until death.”

GIGO is an acronym for “Garbage in, Garbage out”, whose interrogative counterpart is “Ask a poor question…”

Tom asked a better question than I did, and in retrospect it’s a little embarrassing for me to (1) criticize a book for its blatant disregard for reason while (2) granting a critical claim made by said book the status of assumed fact. I know better than that.  So while Mr Lutz did point out some of the “real world” physiological stuff going on beneath the surface, the real lesson – for me – is to never get too comfortable with my assumptions.

Easier said than done.

At any rate, my apologies if this has been a depressing “series”, but it’s been interesting to me and I hope it has been for you as well.



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