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This Portland Professor Spent the Pandemic Studying a 500-Year-Old Witch Hunting Guide

No students were cursed in the taking of John Ott's medieval history class—that we know of.

WW presents "Distant Voices," a daily video interview for the era of social distancing. Our reporters are asking Portlanders what they're doing during quarantine.

No students were cursed in the taking of John Ott's medieval history class at Portland State University.

It's worth clarifying, because when you hear they were studying an actual copy of a 500-year-old witch hunting manual called the Malleus Maleficarum, or "The Hammer of Witches," you assume anyone who gazed upon it would soon start turning into lizards or getting lost in the woods.

That the college obtained the book—which actually consists of two texts bound together, the other being a "history of the world" first published in 1490—from an antique bookseller in Paris makes the backstory sound even more like the premise of a Sam Raimi film.

Related: Portland Is the Best Place in the Country to Be a Witch.

But Ott didn't encourage the university to purchase the codex because he was suspicious of one of his neighbors. The idea was to give his students a hands-on experience in "the thrill that comes with getting a sense for how an early book moved through the world."

Of course, the pandemic put the kibosh on the "hands-on" part. Thanks to digital scans, though, his class was able to trace the history of the object, using watermarks to figure out where it was printed and studying the marginalia to identify its previous owners.

But we'll be honest: Given the time of year, we really wanted to know about the witch stuff.

In this interview, Ott explains how the Malleus Maleficarum helped establish the enduring witch stereotype, the feminization of witchcraft, and why 15th century Europeans thought witches would make their penises disappear. Wait, what?

See more Distant Voices interviews here.