Witchcraft and Montague Summers

Augustus Montague Summers (1880 ā€“ 1948) was an English author who claimed to be a clergyman, known for his scholarly studies on the occult, and notoriously claiming to believe in the existence of demons, vampires, and werewolves. A serious scholar, he produced the first English translation in 1928 of the 15th century manual, the Malleus Maleficarum, providing instructions for religious inquisitors for interrogating the many unfortunate elderly women accused of witchcraft. This very accusation was often itself considered evidence of demonic possession, and denial led to cruel tortures forcing confession, followed by exorcism, so absolution could then be kindly offered before execution. Thus their “souls” could be admitted to “heaven”.

In his study of the late middle ages, Dutch cultural historian Johan Huizinga described the XV century as the apogee of the persecution of witches, and was noted mostly to occur in remote mountainous regions like Switzerland and Scotland, the latter suggesting the origin of scenes with witches in Shakespeare’s Macbeth.

Summers was a bizarre example of the eccentric queer Englishman like the author of Hadrian VII Frederick Rolfe, considered himself clergy, and dressed as a Catholic priest, though was never ordained as such. He only possessed the minor title of deacon in the Church of England, and worked in Bristol before being accused of pederasty. Nevertheless he was a serious scholar, and his translation from the original Latin of the Malleus was considered accurate by experts.

His primary religious interest however was in occult subjects and this eccentricity is displayed in his books The History of Witchcraft and Demonology (1926), The Vampire: His Kith and Kin (1928), and The Werewolf (1933), all written in a bizarre and unusual style, openly displaying his belief in the reality of these subjects.

His biographer, Father Brocard Sewell observed: “During the year 1927, the striking and somber figure of the Reverend Montague Summers in black soutane and cloak, with buckled shoes, could often have been seen entering or leaving the reading room of the British Museum, carrying a large black portfolio bearing on its side a white label, showing in blood-red capitals, the legend ‘VAMPIRES‘.”

He was elected a fellow of the Royal Society of Literature in 1916, and was known for producing important studies of the Gothic fiction genre. Unlike his predecessor Frederick Rolfe, his eccentricity was not associated with a severe personality disorder, though in the prudish words of the biographer of Rolfe by A.J.A. Symons, both of them were “unlucky men in whom the impulses of passion were misdirected.”

June 21, 2021

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