In our rare book collections we have a number of curious works by Montague Summers (1880-1948), an eccentric Catholic clergyman, occultist and authority on English Restoration drama. Summers read theology at Oxford University and worked as a teacher of English and Latin before turning to writing, producing well-received scholarly works on 17th century theatre and publishing new editions of neglected plays by William Congreve, John Dryden and others.
After drama, Summers’ other great interest was in the occult. During his unusual career as a priest he assumed the persona of a modern-day Catholic witch-hunter and produced meticulous studies of witchcraft, vampires, and werewolves, all of which he professed to believe in. In 1928, he was responsible for the first English translation of Heinrich Kramer’s and James Sprenger’s Malleus Maleficarum (“The Hammer of Witches”), a notorious Latin treatise on witch-hunting, first published in Germany in 1487.
The stated purpose of the original text was to educate courts on the procedures for identifying and convicting witches, to refute arguments that witchcraft does not exist and to discredit those who expressed disbelief. Assisted by the rise of the printing press, the Malleus spread throughout Europe to become a major influence on the witch crazes of the 16th and 17th centuries. As many as 30 editions of the book were published between 1487 and 1669, even though the Catholic Church condemned the Malleus as false just three years after its first appearance and even the Spanish Inquisition dismissed the work as pagan superstition.
In contrast to the scepticism of modern Catholicism, Montague Summers insisted that the reality of witchcraft is still an essential part of Catholic doctrine, and declared the Malleus Maleficarum to be an accurate account of witchcraft and the methods needed to combat it. His History of Witchcraft and Demonology (1926) begins, “In the following pages, I have endeavoured to show the witch as she really was – an evil liver: a social pest and parasite: the devotee of a loathly and obscene creed: an adept at poisoning, blackmail, and other creeping crimes.”
Summers’ own volumes on witches and vampires brought him considerable renown and critics admired the obvious depth of his learning, while not necessarily sharing his credulity. As a notable eccentric who walked the streets of London in the sweeping robes and buckled shoes of an 18th century cleric and was an acquaintance of Aleister Crowley, a self-proclaimed witch, Montague Summers has inspired numerous legends, both malevolent and benign, which only add to his curious character.
In the Cardiff Rare Books Collection, we hold numbered copies of both Summers’ translation of the Malleus Maleficarum and his 1930 edition of Scot’s Discoverie of Witchcraft. They all feature in our current Special Collections and Archives exhibition on Shakespeare, magic and witchcraft.