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Malleus Maleficarum: The Hammer of Witches

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Have you believed or have you shared a superstition to which some wicked women claim to have given themselves, instruments of Satan, fooled by diabolical phantasms?  During the night, with Diana, the pagan goddess, in the company of a crowd of other women, they ride the backs of animals, traversing great distances during the silence of the deep night, obeying Diana’s orders as their mistress and putting themselves at her service during certain specified nights.  If only these sorceresses could die in their impiety without dragging many others into their loss. Fooled into error, many people believe that these rides of Diana really exist. Thus they leave the true faith and fall into pagan error in believing that a god or goddess can exist besides the only God.  — Canon Episcopi ca 906 AD

Some Historical Perspective on Witches and Witchcraft

Halloween is a couple of days from now.  Before you send your daughter out dressed as a Witch be aware that at a certain point in history being suspected as a Witch was some pretty serious business.  The document quoted in part above is one of the earliest references to Witches that exist as part of the history of the Christian church.

The Hammer of Witches

Things really got going in the later medieval period with a fairly comprehensive text called Malleus Maleficarum.  Translated from Latin meaning “The Hammer of Witches”  This text written in 1486 by Heinrich Kramer, an Inquisitor of the Catholic Church, is a sort of handbook of the late medieval period defending the reality of witchcraft, describing the power of witchcraft, and giving step by step instructions on how to conduct a witch trial replete with a description of cases.

But by what authority could these trials and inquisitions be done.  Another pivotal point in history was December 5, 1484 when Pope Innocent VIII issued a papal bull ( Summis desiderantes affectibus )

Papal Bull of Pope Innocent VIII on December 5, 1484

This papal bull written in response to the request of Dominican Inquisitor Heinrich Kramer for explicit authority to prosecute witchcraft in Germany, after he was refused assistance by the local ecclesiastical authorities.  ( Read more here )

Here it is in part

… It has recently come to our ears, not without great pain to us, that in some parts of upper Germany, as well as in the provinces, cities, territories, regions, and dioceses of Mainz, Ko1n, Trier, Salzburg, and Bremen, many persons of both sexes, heedless of their own salvation and forsaking the catholic faith, give themselves over to devils male and female, and by their incantations, charms, and conjurings, and by other abominable superstitions and sortileges, offences, crimes, and misdeeds, ruin and cause to perish the offspring of women, the foal of animals, the products of the earth, the grapes of vines, and the fruits of trees, as well as men and women, cattle and flocks and herds and animals of every kind, vineyards also and orchards, meadows, pastures, harvests, grains and other fruits of the earth; …

   … We therefore, desiring, as is our duty, to remove all impediments by which in any way the said inquisitors are hindered in the exercise of their office, and to prevent the taint of heretical pravity and of other like evils from spreading their infection to the ruin of others who are innocent, the zeal of religion especially impelling us, in order that the provinces, cities, dioceses, territories, and places aforesaid in the said parts of upper Germany may not be deprived of the office of inquisition which is their due, …

… do hereby decree, by virtue of our apostolic authority, that it shall be permitted to the said inquisitors in these regions to exercise their office of inquisition and to proceed to the correction, imprisonment, and punishment of the aforesaid persons for their said offences and crimes, in all respects and altogether precisely as if the provinces, cities, territories, places, persons, and offences aforesaid were expressly named in the said letter.

The Hammer of Witches is an amazing historical document that gives insight into the theology and Cosmography of the period.  The book is divided into 3 sections of 33 chapters.  Here is a sampling

Section 1 (The reality of witchcraft )

  • Whether the Belief that there are such Beings as Witches is so Essential a Part of the Catholic Faith that Obstinacy to maintain the Opposite Opinion manifestly savours of Heresy.
  • If it be in Accordance with the Catholic Faith to maintain that in Order to bring about some Effect of Magic, the Devil must intimately co-operate with the Witch, or whether one without the other, that is to say, the Devil without the Witch, or conversely, could produce such an Effect.
  • Whether Children can be Generated by Incubi and Succubi.
    Concerning Witches who copulate with Devils. Why is it that Women are chiefly addicted to Evil superstitions?
  • Whether Witches may work some Prestidigatory Illusion so that the Male Organ appears to be entirely removed and separate from the Body.

Section 2 ( The power of Witchcraft )

  • Of the several Methods by which Devils through Witches Entice and Allure the Innocent to the Increase of that Horrid Craft and Company.
  • Of the Way whereby a Formal Pact with Evil is made.
  • How, as it were, they Deprive Man of his Virile Member.
  • Of the Manner whereby they Change Men into the Shapes of Beasts.
  • How Devils may enter the Human Body and the Head without doing any Hurt, when they cause such Metamorphosis by Means of Prestidigitation.
  • Prescribed Remedies; to wit, the Lawful Exorcisms of the Church, for all Sorts of Infirmities and Ills due to Witchcraft; and the Method of Exorcising those who are Bewitched.

Section 2 ( The method of trial )

  • Who are the Fit and Proper Judges in the Trial of Witches?
  • The Method of Initiating a Process
  • Of the Number of Witnesses
  • How the Trial is to be Proceeded with and Continued. And how the Witnesses are to be Examined in the Presence of Four Other Persons, and how the Accused is to be Questioned in Two Ways
  • In Which Various Doubts are Set Forth with Regard to the Foregoing Questions and Negative Answers. Whether the Accused is to be Imprisoned, and when she is to be considered Manifestly Taken in the Foul Heresy of Witchcraft. This is the Second Action
  • Of the Points to be Observed by the Judge before the Formal Examination in the Place of Detention and Torture. This is the Eighth Action
  • Of the Continuing of the Torture, and of the Devices and Signs by which the Judge can Recognize a Witch; and how he ought to Protect himself from their Spells. Also how they are to be Shaved in Parts where they use to Conceal the Devil’s Masks and Tokens; together with the due Setting Forth of Various Means of Overcoming the Obstinacy in Keeping Silence and Refusal to Confess. And it is the Tenth Action
  • Of Common Purgation, and especially of the Trial of Red-hot Iron, to which Witches Appeal
  • Finally, of the Method of passing Sentence upon Witches who Enter or Cause to be Entered an Appeal, whether such be Frivolous or Legitimate and Just

At this point, you can skip down to the resources section and read any of the parts of The Hammer that interest you.

For the few what continue to read this, there are a large collection of descriptions of torture that survive.  Here is one example cited by Paul Carus in the book, The History of the Devil.

Last chance.  Included in deference to George Santayana:  “Those who don’t learn from history are doomed to repeat it”

A description of the first day of torture from “The History of the Devil” by Paul Carus

This is not barbarous, this is not bestial, it is satanic. And such deeds could be done in the name of God, for the sake of the religion of Jesus, and by the command of the highest authorities of the Christian Church!  From the great number of prosecutions for witchcraft we select one instance only, which, however, is neither typical nor extraordinary in its horrors.

The hangman binds the woman, who was pregnant, and places her on the rack. Then he racked her till her heart would fain break, but had no compassion. (2) When she did not confess, the torture was repeated, the hangman tied her hands, cut off her hair, poured brandy over her head and burned it. (3) He placed sulphur in her armpits and burned it. (4) Her hands were tied behind her, and she was hauled up to the ceiling and suddenly dropped down. (5) This hauling up and dropping down was repeated for some hours, until the hangman and his helpers went to dinner. (6) When they returned, the master-hangman tied her feet and hands upon her back; brandy was poured on her back and burned. (8) Then heavy weights were placed on her back and she was pulled up. (9) After this she was again stretched on the rack. (10) A spiked board is placed on her back, and she is again hauled up to the ceiling. (11) The master again ties her feet and hangs on them a block of fifty pounds, which makes her think that her heart will burst. (12) This proved insufficient; therefore the master unties her feet and fixes her legs in a vise, tightening the jaws until the blood oozes out at the toes. (13) Nor was this sufficient; therefore she was stretched and pinched again in various ways. (14) Now the hangman of Dreissigacker began the third grade of torture. When he placed her on the bench and put the I shirt’ on her, he said: ‘I do not take you for one, two, three, not for eight days, nor for a few weeks, but for half a year or a year, for your whole life, until you confess: and if you will not confess, I shall torture you to death, and you shall be burned after all. (15) The hangman’s son-in-law hauled her up to the ceiling by her hands. (16) The hangman of Dreissigacker whipped her with a horsewhip. (17) She was placed in a vise where she remained for six hours. (18) After that she was again mercilessly horsewhipped. This was all that was done on the first day.


Watch this TED talk by Dan Dennett on the spread of dangerous ideas

An easy to read version of Hammer of Witches by chapter
The Hammer web site – one stop shopping
The full text of the Hammer of Witches (1486) –

The full text of Paul Carus’ The History of the Devil –

The Medieval Source Book – A collection of texts from the Middle Ages

Canon Episcopi (about 906 AD)  – One of the very earliest documents of the Christian church on Witchcraft ( read )

Some stats on the Witch Trials gleaned from the Internet

Numbers of People *tried* in Witchtrials (1300-1700)

All dates give refer to dates of the trials for those areas.  Where recorded numbers have been unspecific 3 estimates have been given: the minimum of 2 required to make the plural “witches”, an estimate of 13 and a (to me) maximum probable estimate of 100 per trial (since trials that large are generally noteworthy enough to be better documented.

In direct contradiction to that statement, however, the trial of the Templars is NOT included in the figures listed below, although charged with witchcraft, since the figures for the trials vary so much. However, included below are 2 Popes, 7 Bishops & Cardinals, many failed Papal Assassins, Joan of Arc, several cross dressers, 12 women who weren’t tried, but simply lynched by their neighbors, Anne Bolyne, the Spanish Inquisition’s direct victims, etc.  And lest I forget, one woman who actually WAS charged for consorting with the spirits of Diana, Oriente, and Erodiade (in 1390).

Note that some of these trials may be redundant (referring to the same trial or defendant in more than one place) but this can not be clearly determined.  In cases where things and numbers were unclear I opted to err on the side of increasing the number of victims as far as seems reasonable. These estimates are noted.


England, Essex (1560-1680)     290  92.1% Women
England, Home Circuit (1552-1722)     456  89% Women; 23.9% executed.
England, York (1567-1640)     117
Scotland (1510-1727)     1739 86% Women;
New England (1645-1662)     58  75% Women; 36.6 executed
New England, Native Americans – Unspecified Number (1645-1662)
 *Minimum Estimate:       2
 *”Coven-sized” Est.:    13
        *Estimate of 100:      100
New England (1663-1692)     250+ arrests; 19 executed, 3 died in prison, 1 under torture.
New France  (    -1700) *3  (The MAXimum estimated in the sources I had.  Canada it seemed wasn’t
         as interested in trying people as othr places were)
Jura (1365-1683)     1365 77.7% Women
Alsace (1640-1695)     94
Castillian Inquisition (1540-1685)     456  71.1% Women
Belgium, Namur County (1509-1646)     366  92.1% Women
France, Nord (1542-1679)     260  81.2% Women
Ajoie (1574-1659)     150 95% Women
St. Ursanne (1571-1670)     40  95% Women
Neuchatel (1568-1675)     318 81% Women
Montebeliard (1554-1661)     71  86% Women
Besancon (1584-1660)     38  84% Women
Saarland (1575-1632)     439 72% Women
Nassau-Dillenburg (1629-1659)     231 88% Women
Franche-comte, Parlament (1599-1668)     181  75% Women; 39.8% Actually executed.
Finland, Ostrobothnia (1665-1684)     152  78.3% Women
Switzerland, Geneva (1527-1681)     285  75% Women; 22% Actually executed.
Switzerland, Solothurn (1541-1720)     137  81% Women 
Germany, Southwest (1562-1684)     1288 81.5% Women
Venetian Inquisition (1552-1722)     549  78.3% Women
“Europe” (1300-1500)
     (Based on notes and chronology in Kieckhefer)
     Total Trials Specified:
 Executed:  1398
 Banished:    41
 Specifically Aquitted:  37
 Tried for Defamation (Falsely accusing someone of Witchcraft): 18
 Consorting with Witches: 1
 Other trials, outcome unclear: 1434
     Total Trials, unspecified number or outcome:  57
 *Minimum estimated average for unspecified trials: 2 -> 114
 *Coven-sized estimate for unspecified trials: 13     -> 741
 *Estimated 100 per unspecified trial:                -> 5700
     Total Trials (1300-1500, based on estimates):
 *Minimum:            3043
 *Coven-sized:        3670
 *Estimated 100 per:  8629
“Europe” Fudge factor (based on 1300-1500 figures) (1500-1550)
 *Minimum:             761
 *Coven-sized:         918
 *Estimated 100 per:  2157
 *Minimum:          13,139
 *Coven-sized:      13,934
 *Estimated 100 per:20,219
Rounded up to 14,000 to 23,000 between 1300 and 1700.

Sources Include:

Kieckhefer, Richard.  European witch trials, their foundations in popular and
 learned culture, 1300-1500.  Berkeley: University of California Press,
Nemec, Jaroslav.  Witchcraft and medicine, 1484-1793, published in conjunction
 with an exhibit at the National Library of Medicine, March 25-July 19,
Levack, Brian P.  Articles on witchcraft, magic, and demonology. vols 5-8.
 New York: Garland Pub., 1992
Rosenthal, Bernard.  Salem story, reading the witch trials of 1692
 Cambridge [England], New York: Cambridge University Press, 1993.

Written by frrl

October 30, 2010 at 12:16 am

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