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, 1996.
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.