12 Suprising Beliefs from the Malleus Maleficarum, the Witchfinder's Guidebook
12 Suprising Beliefs from the Malleus Maleficarum, the Witchfinder’s Guidebook

12 Suprising Beliefs from the Malleus Maleficarum, the Witchfinder’s Guidebook

Tim Flight - April 4, 2018

12 Suprising Beliefs from the Malleus Maleficarum, the Witchfinder’s Guidebook
King James VI of Scotland (later James I of England) tries witches in an illustration to his own Daemonologie, Scotland, 1597, The Scotsman.

Prosecution of Witches

It is one thing knowing to be fearful of witches, but quite another to be able to find and prosecute them. Kramer dedicates the third part of Malleus to just this, despite his lack of success at Innsbruck. Prosecution begins with an accusation but, Kramer warns, this ‘is full of danger to the accuser, because of the penalty of talion… if he fails to prove his case’ (Malleus Part III Question 1). In practice, however, few false accusers were ever prosecuted for slander, as definitive signs of witchcraft were so nebulous and unsubstantiated that almost anyone could be convicted.

The advice is very specific. Although Kramer does not allow for ‘mortal enemies’ to be called as witnesses for the prosecution, he makes an exception for women (all being naturally vengeful), and effectively legitimises mob rule when he says that biased witnesses may be used if there is general consensus of the suspect’s guilt. The accused can then be interrogated, having sworn on the Four Gospels, about their life, before being asked about the rumours of witchcraft. Disbelief in the existence of witches is a particular sign of guilt, along with any denials that run contrary to popular consensus.

The alleged-witch’s house must then be thoroughly searched, sometimes with the accused, who must not be allowed into their own room, because they often ‘bring away with them, some object or power of witchcraft which procures them the faculty of keeping silent under examination’ (Malleus Part III Question 8). The suspected witch must be carried on wooden planks to stop them touching the ground and thus regaining any witch-powers. The Inquisitor must then be satisfied that there is a foundation to the accusation, having examined the witnesses and considered the suspect’s defence, and can then proceed to the torture stage.

The torture process defies logic. ‘Common justice demands that a witch should not be condemned to death unless she is convicted by her own confession’ (Malleus Part III Question 13), demurs Kramer. But if common consensus is against the accused, Inquisitors can resort to torture. If the terrible pain is too much for the suspect, and they confess, this shows that God is on the side of the justice: ‘unless God… compels the devil to withhold his help from the witch, she will be so insensible to the pains of torture’ (Ibid.). Anyone universally-loathed was thus guilty before torture.

Whilst torturing the accused, the Inquisitor must take precautions. Witches, for example, cannot shed tears, so must be keenly-observed. The Inquisitor must also avoid being touched, lest he be bewitched in this way. The accused must also be shaved, so that magical objects preventing confession cannot be concealed. The torture must also be peculiarly horrible to each case, giving dangerous licence to particularly cruel Inquisitors: ‘if the sons of darkness were to become accustomed to one general rule they would provide means of evading it as a well-known snare set for their destruction’ (Malleus Part III Question 15).

12 Suprising Beliefs from the Malleus Maleficarum, the Witchfinder’s Guidebook
The Witches of Durnberg are burned at the stake, Germany, 1555, Spiegel.de.

Execution of Witches

Once a witch had been found guilty, an appropriate sentence had to be passed. The Inquisitor is instructed on all manner of circumstances, from those found guilty but not confessing to others condemned by fellow witches without formal evidence, with punishments ranging from public penance to death. The main achievement of the Malleus was to elevate witchcraft to the crime of heresy, which was already established as punishable by death (NB the Knights Templar, who were convicted of heresy in the early fourteenth century, and executed en masse). In practice, the vast majority found guilty of witchcraft were executed.

The Malleus justified its strict punishment of witches with Exodus 22:18: ‘thou shalt not suffer a witch to live’. The most common method of killing witches was to burn them, which was the established method of despatching heretics. The idea was that the horrible method of execution would lessen the heretic’s suffering in the afterlife, and even purge them of sins if accompanied by a penitent confession. Most of the witches whose confessions make up the text’s anecdotal evidence were burned at the stake, and so it is no surprise that those closely following Kramer’s advice seldom showed any clemency.

A typical burning involved tying the convicted witch to a stake surrounded by bundles of wood and straw, which were set alight. Although inhaling the smoke killed most by suffocation, there were reported cases in which people suffered horrendous injuries and unimaginable suffering before succumbing. The town of Como, at which Kramer says 41 witches were burned in 1485, again burned so many people in 1523 that travellers described the town appearing as if surrounded by a forest. Once the witch was reduced to ashes, Kramer instructs Inquisitors to try members of their family, since covens often comprised relatives.

In England, witches were hanged, rather than burned, and this raises an interesting point. Since witches not only sinned against the Church but destroyed property and murdered people, witch trials were matters for both civil and ecclesiastical courts (Malleus Part III Question 16). Unless guilty of murdering their husbands or attempting to murder the reigning monarch, English witches were hanged as common criminals, rather than burned as heretics like many Catholics and Protestants during the horrors of the Reformation and Counter-Reformation. Taking much of its law from England, witches in early America were also hanged rather than burned.

To conclude, behold the most shocking fact of all about the Malleus Maleficarum: there is not a shred of evidence that anyone was actually guilty of Satanic witchcraft during the witch craze. People were convicted on the basis of malicious gossip, natural phenomena such as animals and children dying, animals appearing near their houses, the use of traditional herbal remedies, and the exchange of cross words. The accused would frequently say anything to escape the agonies of torture, which undermines all first-hand accounts. Witches existed in Early Modern Europe, but only in superstition and the perverted minds of the Inquisitors.

Where did we find this stuff? Here are our sources:

Barstow, Anne. Witchcraze: A New History of the European Witch Hunts. London: Pandora, 1994.

Kramer, Heinrich. Malleus Maleficarum. Translated by Montague Summers. London: J. Rodker, 1928.

Pickering, David. Cassell’s Dictionary of Witchcraft. London: Cassell, 1998.

Stokes, Laura. Demons of Urban Reform: Early European Witch Trials and Criminal Justice, 1430-1530. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2011.

Trevor-Roper, H. R. The European Witch-Craze of the Sixteenth and Seventeenth Centuries: and Other Essays. London: Harper and Row, 1969.