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

In 1484, the Dominican monk and Inquisitor, Heinrich Kramer, was expelled from the city of Innsbruck after failing to prosecute Helena Scheuberin for using witchcraft to kill a nobleman with criminal charges against his own sinful deeds. Undaunted, the furious Kramer got to work on his masterpiece, the Malleus Maleficarum (‘hammer of witches’), a treatise on the identification and prosecution of witchcraft which became a bestseller upon its publication in 1487. Indeed, it was second only to the Bible in popularity, and was widely disseminated across the Renaissance courts of Europe.

The Malleus became the definitive text on witches, and contained an exhaustive list of lurid examples of witchcraft, means of interrogation, and even how to kill witches in the most theologically-sound manner. Kramer’s text is brimful of misogyny, and this matches what little we know of his character: at the Innsbruck trial, he was condemned for showing too much interest in the suspect’s’s sex life. Here we will examine twelve ludicrous beliefs about witches from the Malleus, but remember: despite its absurd content, the book led to the execution of around 60, 000 people in Europe, mostly women.

12 Suprising Beliefs from the Malleus Maleficarum, the Witchfinder’s Guidebook
Witches meet with devils, Compendium Maleficarum, Milan, 1608, Wikimedia Commons.

The Pact

When a man or woman becomes a witch, they must first make a pact with the devil. The Malleus is very clear on this point: stereotypical witch magic, such as flying on broomsticks or blighting livestock, cannot be perpetrated without the devil’s assistance. This point has a biblical basis: ‘for you have said: We have entered into a league with death; we have made a covenant with hell’ (Isaiah 28:15). The pact involved gaining powers and worldly prosperity from Satan at huge personal cost: ‘she give[s] herself to him, body and soul, forever’ (Malleus Part II, Question 1, Chapter 2).

Kramer gives several examples of the pact. At some, the cunning Satan is not present for fear of scaring the novice making the covenant, but at others he appears in bodily form, often as a handsome man as extra persuasion for sinful women. Here Kramer is drawing on a history of the devil appearing in human form to trick those who are contemplating sinning: in Chaucer’s The Friar’s Tale, for example, the devil appears as a young man all in green to an avaricious summoner (an employee of the church tasked with summoning people to ecclesiastical court).

Sometimes the devil makes a fixed-term contract for a few years of worldly power in exchange for the witch’s soul and the promise that he or she will commit terrible sins on earth. However, he was in no position to make such promises, given God’s superior power and eternal hatred of His former ‘Son of the Morning’. One woman from Basel, Kramer recounts, was promised seven years of witchcraft ‘but God provided mercifully’ (Malleus, Ibid.) and she was discovered, tried, and burned at the stake after only six years. Immolation obtained her pardon from God.

Ascribing the witch’s power to Satan effectively rids them of all personal agency, lest their great powers be admired by other susceptible and foolhardy people. This point is memorably reproduced in Christopher Marlowe’s late-sixteenth-century play, Dr Faustus. The eponymous character is a great intellectual from the University of Wittenburg who has run out of disciplines to master, and now seeks to become a practitioner of magic and necromancy. After the learned man’s many attempts in the field of magic, it is comically only after making the sort of pact available to ill-educated dolts that he gains any power.

12 Suprising Beliefs from the Malleus Maleficarum, the Witchfinder’s Guidebook
Witches on broomsticks, The History of Witches and Wizards, England, 1720, Wikimedia Commons

Flying Ointment

Witches flying on broomsticks (as in the woodcut above) are a common trope in popular culture, but for Kramer this presented a problem. Through a series of theological arguments drawing on the Church Fathers, he ‘proves’ that such a thing is possible, since although flying is unnatural to man the devil is permitted to operate under God’s permission, and offering such powers is a way to test the purity of people before their place in the afterlife is decided. Having established the possibility of witches flying, Kramer goes further in elaborating how this feat is actually achieved.

Witches simply make a special flying ointment. ‘They make at the devil’s instruction from the limbs of children, particularly of those whom they have killed before baptism, and anoint with it a chair or a broomstick; whereupon they are immediately carried up into the air, either by day or by night, and either visibly or, if they wish, invisibly’ (Malleus Part II, Question 1, Chapter 3). The reason for unbaptised children being selected is that in Catholicism all those that die without being baptised are condemned automatically to hell, and most churches refused to bury them in consecrated ground.

As if his logical arguments were not enough, Kramer also has several real examples of flying witches in his archives. The main attraction of flying to witches was to allow them to be more efficient in their evildoing. A witch living in the Rhineland was not invited to a wedding, and so she was carried through the air by a devil to a nearby hill to enjoy a grandstand view of her own urine raining from the skies onto the revellers (Ibid.). Her flight was witnessed by local shepherds, and the party-pooper witch was burned at the stake.

Sometimes the witch does not wish to be bodily transported, as for example to an inconvenient coven meeting, or has run out of unbaptised infants to make flying ointment, and so instead can watch what is going on elsewhere by a form of conference-call. A witch of Breisach told Kramer that to achieve this witches must lie down on their left side, ‘and then a sort of bluish vapour comes from their mouth, through which they can clearly see what is happening’ (Ibid.). This anecdote, extracted under torture, was seen as unequivocal proof by Kramer.

12 Suprising Beliefs from the Malleus Maleficarum, the Witchfinder’s Guidebook
Witches at a Sabbath, The History of Witches and Wizards, England, 1720, Public Domain Review.

The Sabbath

As part of the covenant with Satan, witches must promise to encourage others to follow the evil path, and in this way become instruments of Satan’s sin: ‘the devil demands… [that s/he] do her utmost to bring others of both sexes into his power’ (Malleus Part II, Question 1, Chapter 2). In an infernal parody of the evangelising spirit of Christianity, witches are required to recruit others hungry for power or revenge and fearless of eternal damnation. Often this took place within families, and it was at gatherings of local witches that Satanic oaths were most often made.

Sabbaths were occasions for great celebration and Dionysian-indulgence. They usually took place on important Christian feast days, as not celebrating them and sinning on the same day was an act of heresy that would please Satan greatly. Kramer links the Sabbath to pre-Christian festivals at which ‘the Pagans made much boisterous revelry, and were very merry among themselves, holding various dances and feasts’ (Malleus Part II, Question 1, Chapter 5). Isidore, who Kramer quotes here, was an early Church Father writing at a period when the Church was fighting to spread the faith in the face of widespread paganism.

Even in 1487, Isidore’s writing was antiquated. However, these allusions to the activities of witches at Sabbaths were seized upon and expanded by Renaissance readers to be regular and well-attended events, which many people were executed for supposedly attending. At some, it was claimed that thousands of witches were present, which only served to increase paranoia at the height of the European witch hunt. The Sabbath was also embellished to include wild music and dancing, possibly as gloss for Kramer’s likening of Sabbaths to ‘bad Christians [who] imitate these [Pagan] corruptions, turning them to lasciviousness… at the time of Carnival’.

Along with the general festivities, the point of the Sabbath is to discuss which evil should be perpetrated with other witches, and the commitment to Satan could be renewed: ‘witches meet together in the conclave on a set day, and the devil appears to them in the assumed body of a man, and urges them to keep faith with him, promising them worldly prosperity and length of life’ (Malleus Part II, Question 1, Chapter 2). By taking on a bodily form, the devil would also satisfy the carnal lust of the assembled witches (see the next page).

12 Suprising Beliefs from the Malleus Maleficarum, the Witchfinder’s Guidebook
A witch performs the osculum infame (filthy kiss) on a devil’s anus, Compendium Maleficarum, Milan, 1608, Wikimedia Commons.

Demonic Sex

In line with Kramer’s apparent interests at the Innsbruck trial, where he drew censure for vigorously cross-examining a suspected witch on her sexual history, the Malleus is packed with descriptions of fornication. Amongst the acts described the most shocking (and implausible) is witches having sex with devils, and sometimes becoming pregnant by them. To argue this, Kramer had a theological difficulty: demons were known from a number of esteemed sources including the Bible to be incorporeal, and so how could they possibly have sexual intercourse with flesh-and-blood people? Furthermore, how could they also impregnate women without physical members or biology?

Using what was then cutting-edge science, Kramer’s argument is that devils are incorporeal, but use the air’s water vapour to take their seemingly-corporeal form: ‘devils and disembodied spirits can effect this condensation by means of gross vapours raised from the earth, and by collecting them together into shapes in which they abide’ (Malleus Part II, Question 1, Chapter 4). As for the semen, it is simply related that demons assumed the form of women, copulated with men, and preserved the semen, later to impregnate women who had sex with them in a male form, a theory taken from Thomas Aquinas.

Kramer’s unfamiliarity with sexuality is clear in the accounts. He describes a woman, on her way to have sex with her lover, who met a devil disguised as a young man. ‘I am the devil’, he said, ‘and if you wish, I will always be ready at your pleasure, and will not fail you in any necessity’. Despite already having a lover, and presumably preferring not to burned alive for eternity, the woman apparently agreed, and ‘continued for eighteen years, up to the end of her life, to practise diabolical filthiness with him’ (Malleus Part II, Question 1, Chapter 1).

‘It is common to all of them to practise carnal copulation with devils’, (Malleus Part II, Question 1, Chapter 2) says Kramer, and he has the facts to back this up. The Inquisitor of Como had to burn 41 witches in 1485 alone. Bear in mind that this statistic preceded the publication of the Malleus and the maelstrom of accusation and paranoia it caused. As well as satisfying their lust, witches are said to be ‘bound to indulge in these lewd practices in order that the ranks of their perfidy might be increased’ through offspring and bragging to other women.

12 Suprising Beliefs from the Malleus Maleficarum, the Witchfinder’s Guidebook
The Witches of Bottesford, depicted on an English pamphlet of 1619, Wikimedia Commons.

Women are more likely to become witches than men

Kramer’s revolting misogyny is so great that even he feels the need to explain why most of his examples of ‘real’ witchcraft concern women, rather than men. Part I, Question 6, represents a litany of misogynistic commentary from sources as diverse as the Bible, Classical Literature, and the Church Fathers, to back-up Kramer’s evident disgust at the state of women. Although a brief passage describes women who ‘have brought beatitude to men, and have saved nations, lands, and cities’, Kramer argues that the natural inferiority of women to men makes them far more liable to become witches.

Women, according to Kramer, are far more foolish than men. Quoting Seneca, he does not even think they are capable of successfully operating alone: ‘when a woman thinks alone, she thinks evil’. Thus, they are easy targets for the legions of hell: ‘they are more credulous; and since the chief aim of the devil is to corrupt faith, therefore he rather attacks them’. Most dangerously, given the obligation to recruit more witches for Satan, ‘they have slippery tongues, and are unable to conceal from the fellow-women those things which by evil arts they know’.

The fairer sex is described as inherently evil, which is traced back to Eve, ‘the first temptress’, and the Forbidden Fruit. Even the appearance of women infuriates Kramer: ‘let us consider also her gait, posture, and habit, in which is vanity of vanities… there is no man in the world who studies so hard to please the good God as even an ordinary woman studies by her vanities to please men’. ‘As she is a liar by nature’, a woman will lead men astray: ‘they kill [men] by emptying their purses, consuming their strength, and causing them to forsake God’.

Most of all, women are naturally more carnal, and obsessed with sex. According to the historian Anne Barstow, one-fifth of the Malleus constitutes ‘a tirade against women’s sexual powers’. ‘All witchcraft comes from carnal lust, which is in women insatiable’, fumes Kramer. Using Proverbs 30, he states that ‘the mouth of the womb… is never satisfied’, equating maternal desire with sexual impropriety, and concluding that ‘for the sake of fulfilling their lusts they consort even with devils’. Hence, women are easy targets for the devil, and make the most effective instruments for carrying out his evil.

12 Suprising Beliefs from the Malleus Maleficarum, the Witchfinder’s Guidebook
A witch feeds her toad familiars, A Rehearsall both Straung and True, of Hainous and Horrible Actes Committed by Elizabeth Stile, England, 1579, Public Domain Review.


As well as bequeathing the witches power and sometimes wealth on earth, the devil also chucks some trusty helpers into the bargain. Known as familiars, these creatures were demons, sometimes assuming the form of an animal, tasked with doing the witch’s bidding: ‘[the] familiar… always works with her in everything’ (Malleus Part II Question 2 Chapter 14). Like the pact, ascribing the witch’s evil deeds to the familiar, one of the minor demonic legions of hell, robs the perpetrator of all agency. Although the term ‘familiar’ eventually became more popular, Kramer mostly uses ‘Incubus’ and ‘Succubus’ to describe demonic helpmeets.

The witches whose confessions provide illustrative examples in the Malleus often speak of their familiars in terms of friendship: ‘when that man used abusive words to me, I was angry and went home; and my familiar began to ask the reason for my ill humour. I told him, and begged him to avenge me on the man… the devil went away and afflicted the man even beyond my asking’ (Malleus Part II Question 1 Chapter XI). There is a sense of pathos in these words: under duress, the woman draws comfort from fantasising about her imaginary-power over a churlish oppressor.

The idea that these familiars could take on animal-form led to the persecution of many vulnerable men and women who had made the dreadful mistake of owning pets. At the height of the witch panic, anyone seen stroking a beloved pet could be accused of having a familiar, and hence being a witch. Other commonplace animals, such as toads and hares, seen hopping around the vicinity of someone’s home could also result in the inhabitant being accused of witchcraft. Anything unusual about the animal’s appearance, such as colour or size, could then be exaggerated without censure in court testimony.

12 Suprising Beliefs from the Malleus Maleficarum, the Witchfinder’s Guidebook
Nuns harvest penises from a tree, marginalia to a manuscript of Le Roman de la Rose, France, Fourteenth Century, Wikimedia Commons.

Penises as Pets

One specific anecdote of Kramer’s is so absurd as to merit its own category: witches stealing penises and keeping them as pets, or hiding them in birds’ nests. Daft, one may suppose, but Kramer’s logic within the credulous context of the Catholic fifteenth-century is sound: ‘it was a greater thing to turn Lot’s wife into a pillar of salt than it is to take away the male organ’ (Malleus Part I Question IX). Kramer also has several tales of penis-stealing and, were that not sufficient evidence, expert eyewitness testimony from clergymen, to back up his claims.

The most notorious account is of witches making a nest of penises up a tree: ‘sometimes [witches] collect male organs in great numbers, as many as twenty or thirty members together, and put them in a bird’s nest, or shut them up in a box, where they move themselves like living members, and eat oats and corn, as has been seen by many and is a matter of common report’ (Malleus Part II, Question 1, Chapter 7). Incredibly, Kramer is most concerned with whether the removal and reappearance of penises up a tree is a physical phenomenon or an illusion.

In case you were wondering, it is an illusion, which can be ascribed to the devil’s expertise in deceit and exploiting man’s fears. Nevertheless, it is a convincing one, for an unfortunate victim of the penis-stealing witches tells of climbing a tree, supervised by a helpful witch who instructed him ‘that he might take which he liked out of the nest in which there were several members’ (Ibid.) The tale has an unintentionally comic ending: ‘when he tried to take a big one, the witch said: you must not take that one; adding, because it belongs to a parish priest’.

12 Suprising Beliefs from the Malleus Maleficarum, the Witchfinder’s Guidebook
Witches blight cattle, Newes from Scotland, England, 1591, Wikimedia Commons.

Witches’ Curses on People and Livestock

The devil’s chief method of promoting witchcraft is through inflicting weariness on beleaguered people. Thus a common activity of witches in the Malleus is to cause sickness, and even death, to other people and their livestock. Chiefly, this is to fulfil the witch’s desire for vengeance on those who have wronged them, which is another apparent reason for the propensity of women towards witchcraft: ‘when she hates someone whom she formerly loved, then she seethes with anger and impatience in her whole soul, just as the tides of the sea are always heaving and boiling’ (Malleus Part I, Question 6).

Cattle-blighting was often carried out through the familiar (see above). Most commonly, witches will cause cattle to stop producing milk: ‘a witch will sit down in a corner of her house with a pail between her legs, stick a knife or some instrument in the wall or a post, and make as if to milk it with her hands… she summons her familiar… [and] suddenly the devil takes the milk from the udder of that cow, and brings it to where the witch is sitting, as if it were flowing from the knife’ (Malleus Part II Question 1 Chapter 14).

Witches blight cattle not merely for their own gratification but to cause others to bring about their own damnation: ‘devils, therefore, by means of witches, so afflict their innocent neighbours with temporal losses, that they are to beg the suffrages of witches, and at length to submit themselves to their counsels’ (Malleus Part II Question 1 Chapter 1). Kramer recounts the tale of a man from Augsburg who had lost all his horses: ‘his wife, being afflicted with weariness by reason of this, consulted with witches’, such remedies blasphemously requiring ‘that they would promise something to some spirit’ (Ibid.).

In terms of people, ‘they can bewitch them by a touch and a look, or by a look only’ (Ibid.), and ‘there is no bodily infirmity, not even leprosy or epilepsy, which cannot be caused by witches’ (Malleus Part II Question 1 Chapter 11). Witches could be blamed for everything. In Kramer’s examples, people become ill and automatically relate their sickness to an encounter with a cantankerous local, whom they recall muttered a few words under their breath (clearly a spell). It is easy to see how the Malleus, linking all misfortune to witchcraft, caused such widespread and virulent paranoia.

The root cause of people being bewitched is, of course, often fornication. ‘When girls have been corrupted, and have been scorned by their lovers after they have immodestly copulated with them in the hope and promise of marriage with them, and have found themselves disappointed in all their hopes and everywhere despised, they turn to the help and protection of devils’ (Malleus Part II Question 1 Chapter 1). Encouraging lechery was thus another important tactic from the devil for harvesting more souls to immolate for all eternity, again playing on the natural behaviour of women (according to the ever-preposterous Kramer).

12 Suprising Beliefs from the Malleus Maleficarum, the Witchfinder’s Guidebook
Witches boil and roast children, Compendium Maleficarum, Milan, 1608, Wikimedia Commons.

Child Eating

The most heinous of all crimes alleged to have been committed by witches in the Malleus is undoubtedly eating children. In addition to the universal horror of such an act, children are celebrated in Christianity for their purity (eg. the continuing popularity of Jesus depicted as an infant), and Herod’s Massacre of the Innocents is seen as a particularly lamentable atrocity. To accuse witches of child-cannibalism, Kramer was using the most potent weapon in his arsenal. The supposed danger of witches to children was particularly alarming at a time when infant mortality was high, doubtless increasing the Malleus‘s influence.

One convicted witch revealed how they killed and ate children: ‘with our spells we kill them in their cradles or even when they are sleeping by their parents’ side, in such a way that they afterwards are thought to have been overlain or to have died some other natural death… then we secretly take them from their graves, and cook them in a cauldron, until the whole flesh comes away from the bones to make a soup which may easily be drunk’ (Malleus Part II Question 1 Chapter 2), the rest being used for the flying ointment (see above).

Kramer also reveals a wider conspiracy, of course amongst women. ‘We must not omit to mention the injuries done to children by witch midwives, first by killing them, and secondly by blasphemously offering them to devils’ (Malleus Part II Question 1 Chapter 13). Untold numbers of infants were believed to have been killed by midwives: ‘in the diocese of Basel at the town of Dann, a witch who was burned confessed that she had killed more than forty children, by sticking a needle through the crowns of their heads into their brains, as they came out from the womb’ (Ibid.).

Midwives, with their unquestioned access to newly born (and hence unbaptised) children, at a time of high infant mortality, were an easy target for conspiracy theories. Kramer’s repulsive misogyny is also an important factor in this accusation. Men largely had no part in the birthing of children in this period, leaving a group of women unattended: clearly, they must be up to no good. With the unrelated statistics of stillborn children and those for whose condition at birth science had yet to find a remedy, to a misogynistic and witch-fearing mind no further proof was required of the midwife conspiracy.

12 Suprising Beliefs from the Malleus Maleficarum, the Witchfinder’s Guidebook
Witches trample an image of the cross, Compendium Maleficarum, Milan, 1608, Metal on Metal.

General Blasphemy

The devil delights in blasphemy, and is said to be present at any such act: Dr Faustus only manages to summon a demon by incidentally blaspheming in frustration. Blasphemy is a contractual obligation when for witches making a pact with the devil: ‘the devil asks whether she will abjure the Faith, and forsake the holy Christian religion and the worship of the Anomalous Woman (for so they call the Most Blessed Virgin MARY), and never venerate the Sacraments’ (Malleus Part II, Question 1, Chapter 2). In so doing, the witches are angering God, and hence pleasing their master, the devil.

It may come as a surprise to learn that witches were still known to attend Mass, despite their allegiance to Satan. Mass however gave them an opportunity to please their master: ‘they are bound to observe certain other abominable ceremonies at the command of the devils, such as to spit on the ground at the Elevation of the Host, or to utter, either verbally or otherwise, the filthiest thoughts’ (Malleus Part II, Question 1, Chapter 4). This particular claim is especially dangerous: even regular churchgoers, not merely those known to skip Mass, were under suspicion of witchcraft.

Witches (thus especially women) were to be observed closely when taking the Eucharist: ‘they receive the Lord’s Body under their tongue instead of on the top… the reason is that they never wish to receive any remedy that might counteract their abjuration of the Faith… and because in this way it is easier for them to take the Lord’s Body out of their mouths so that they can apply it… to their own uses, to the greater offence of the Creator’ (Malleus Part II, Question 1, Chapter 5). Other sacred objects could also be stolen and defiled for black magic.

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.