Book Review: Malleus Maleficarum
Witches get stitches
I. To The Republic, For Witches Stand
Did you know you can just buy the Malleus Maleficarum? You can go into a bookstore and say “I would like the legendary manual of witch-hunters everywhere, the one that’s a plot device in dozens of tired fantasy novels”. They will sell it to you and you can read it.
I recommend the Montague Summers translation. Not because it’s good (it isn’t), but because it’s by an slightly crazy 1920s deacon every bit as paranoid as his subject matter. He argues in his Translator’s Introduction that witches are real, and that a return to the wisdom of the Malleus is our only hope of standing against them:
Although it may not be generally recognized, upon a close investigation it seems plain that the witches were a vast political movement, an organized society which was anti-social and anarchical, a world-wide plot against civilization. Naturally, although the Masters were often individuals of high rank and deep learning, that rank and file of the society, that is to say, those who for the most part fell into the hands of justice, were recruited from the least educated classes, the ignorant and the poor. As one might suppose, many of the branches or covens in remoter districts knew nothing and perhaps could have understood nothing of the enormous system. Nevertheless, as small cogs in a very small [sic] wheel, it might be, they were carrying on the work and actively helping to spread the infection.
And is this “world-wide plot against civilization” in the room with us right now? In the most 1920s argument ever, Summers concludes that this conspiracy against civilization has survived to the modern day and rebranded as Bolshevism.
You can just buy the Malleus Maleficarum. So, why haven’t you? Might the witches’ spiritual successors be desperate to delegitimize the only thing they’re truly afraid of - the vibrant, time-tested witch hunting expertise of the Catholic Church? Summers writes:
It is safe to say that the book is to-day scarcely known save by name. It has become a legend. Writer after writer, who had never turned the pages, felt himself at liberty to heap ridicule and abuse upon this venerable volume. . . He did not know very clearly what he meant, and the humbug trusted that nobody would stop to inquire. For the most part his confidence was respected; his word was taken.
We must approach this great work - admirable in spite of its trifling blemishes - with open minds and grave intent; if we duly consider the world of confusion, of Bolshevism, of anarchy and licentiousness all around to-day, it should be an easy task for us to picture the difficulties, the hideous dangers with which Henry Kramer and James Sprenger were called to combat and to cope . . . As for myself, I do not hesitate to record my judgement . . . the Malleus Maleficarum is one of the most pregnant and most interesting books I know in the library of its kind.
Big if true.
I myself read the Malleus in search of a different type of wisdom. We think of witch hunts as a byword for irrationality, joking about strategies like “if she floats, she’s a witch; if she drowns, we’ll exonerate the corpse.” But this sort of snide superiority to the past has led us wrong before. We used to make fun of phlogiston, of “dormitive potencies”, of geocentric theory. All these are indeed false, but more sober historians have explained why each made sense at the time, replacing our caricatures of absurd irrationality with a picture of smart people genuinely trying their best in epistemically treacherous situations. Were the witch-hunters as bad as everyone says? Or are they in line for a similar exoneration?
The Malleus is traditionally attributed to 15th century theologians/witch-hunters Henry Kramer and James Sprenger, but most modern scholars think Kramer wrote it alone, then added the more famous Sprenger as a co-author for a sales boost. The book has three parts. Part 1 is basically Summa Theologica, except all the questions are about witches. Part 2 is basically the DSM 5, except every condition is witchcraft. Part 3 is a manual for judges presiding over witch trials. We’ll go over each, then return to this question: why did a whole civilization spend three centuries killing thousands of people over a threat that didn’t exist?
II: Thou Shalt Have Witches In Heaven
Almost half the Malleus is devoted to purely philosophical questions surrounding witchcraft. Paramount among these: why would a perfectly just God allow witches to exist?
The answer probably has something to with the Devil. And you can probably get part of the way by saying that God has a principled commitment to let the Devil meddle in human affairs until the End of Days. But then you get another issue: the Devil was once the brightest of angels. He’s really really powerful. Completely unrestrained, he can probably sink continents and stuff. So why does he futz around helping elderly women kill their neighbors’ cattle?
Put a different way, there’s a very narrow band between “God restrains the Devil so much that witchcraft can’t exist” and “God restrains the Devil so little that witches have already taken over the world”. Prima facie, we wouldn’t expect the amount God restrains the Devil to fall into this little band. But in order to defend the existence of witchcraft, Kramer has to argue that it does.
His arguments ring hollow to modern ears, and honestly neither God nor the Devil comes out looking very good. God isn’t trying to maximize a 21st century utilitarian view of the Good, He’s trying to maximize His own glory. Allowing some evil helps with this, because then He can justly punish it (and being just is glorious) or mercifully forgive it (and being merciful is also glorious). But, if God let the Devil kill everyone in the world, then there would be no one left to praise God’s glory, plus people might falsely think God couldn’t have stopped the Devil if He’d wanted to. So the glory-maximizing option is to give the Devil some power, but not too much.
Meanwhile, the Devil isn’t trying to maximize 21st century utilitarian evil. He’s trying to turn souls away from God. So although he could curse people directly, what he actually wants is for humans to sell their soul to him in exchange for curse powers. So whenever possible he prefers to act through witches.
The rest of this part is just corollaries of these basic points. But there sure are a lot of corollaries, like:
Question III: Whether Children Can Be Generated By Incubi And Succubi
So, we all know that sometimes demons who look like hot men come and have sex with women in the middle of the night. But can these demons make a woman pregnant? It would seem that the answer should be no, because the Bible says God created Man in His own image, which suggests the conception of new humans is pretty holy, which makes it sound kind of blasphemous to suggest demons could do it.
On the contrary side, we know that demons can have kids with humans. The Bible says so: Genesis 6 talks about nephilim, children of “the sons of God” by “the daughters of men”. And St. Augustine seems to think all those stories about Greek gods impregnating women were incubus demons. So “it is just as Catholic a view to hold that men may at times be begotten by means of incubi and succubi, as it is contrary to the words of the Saints and even to the tradition of Holy Scripture to maintain the opposite opinion.”
Since the incubi cannot produce semen themselves, probably they steal it from some other human, then bring it to the womb of the person they are having sex with.
Question VI: Concerning Witches Who Copulate With Devils - Why Is It That Women Are Chiefly Addicted To Evil Superstitions?
Why are most witches women? Probably because women are awful:
John Chrystotom says . . . what else is woman but a foe to friendship, an unescapable punishment, a necessary evil, a natural temptation, a desirable calamity, a domestic danger, a delectable detriment, an evil of nature, painted with fair colors! Therefore if it be a sin to divorce her when she ought to be kept, it is indeed a necessary torture, for either we commit adultery by divorcing her, or we must endure daily strife.
In fact, the word for woman in Latin is femina, which can also have the form feminus, which is literally just fe minus (lesser in faith)!
Because women are less faithful, more carnal, and mentally weaker, they are more easily tempted by the Devil, and make up the majority of witches.
Question IX: Whether Witches May Work Some Prestidigitory Illusion So That The Male Organ Appears To Be Entirely Removed And Separate From The Body.
IE: can witches steal your penis?
It would seem that witches can steal your penis. After all, many people claim to have had their penis stolen by witches. The fifteenth-century peasants among whom Kramer went witch-hunting claimed this. And modern people claim it even today. Frank Bures’ The Geography Of Madness is a great book about recent penis-stealing-witch-related panics, which happened until the mid-20th century in Asia and still happen in Africa. For some reason, this is a classic concern across cultures and centuries.
But on the contrary side, God created the human body, and charged Man to be fruitful and multiply. So if the Devil could steal people’s penises it would seem that he must be more powerful than God, which is blasphemous.
Kramer answers that witches cannot steal men’s penises, but they can cast an illusion that causes it to look and feel like the penis has been stolen. Classic namby-pamby liberal centrist compromise!
Question XIV: The Enormity Of Witches Is Considered, And It Is Shown That The Whole Matter Should Be Rightly Set Forth And Declared
This is is one of those “more a comment than a question” questions.
Kramer suggests that not only is witchcraft a sin, but it is the worst sin. This section (plus the next few) is a list of all the different things witches are worse than, and why.
Witches are worse than pagans, because pagans never knew about Christianity. But witches know about it and deliberately reject it.
Witches are worse than Jews, because Jews never claimed to be Christian. But witches were once Christian and then renounced the faith.
Witches are worse than ordinary heretics, because ordinary heretics only reject some parts of the faith. But witches implicitly reject all of it by supporting the Devil himself.
Witches are worse than Adam, because although Adam’s sin had terrible consequences for the human race, this wasn’t really his direct decision. If we limit our consideration to the specific act, Adam just disobeyed God once, but witches are disobeying God all the time.
In fact witches are more sinful than the Devil himself (!), and the Devil’s sin “is in many respects small in comparison with the crimes of witches”. For “both sin against God; but [the Devil] against a commanding God, and [witches] against One who dies for us, Whom, as we have said, wicked witches offend above all.”
Witches are literally the worst thing in the entire universe. Whatever else you are concerned about, there is no way it is anywhere close to as bad as witches. If you had the faintest idea how bad witches really were, you would be freaking out all the time. You need to stop whatever you were doing before and become some kind of witch-minimizer instead.
This ends Part 1, but if you’re interested you might want to look at further questions from this section, including
What Is The Source Of The Increase Of Works Of Witchcraft? Whence Comes It That The Practice Of Witchcraft Hath So Notably Increased?
That Witches who are Midwives in Various Ways Kill the Child Conceived in the Womb, and Procure an Abortion; or if they do not this Offer New-born Children to Devils (also more of a comment than a question)
Whether Witches can Hebetate the Powers of Generation or Obstruct the Venereal Act.
It is Shown that, on Account of the Sins of Witches, the Innocent are often Bewitched, yea, Sometimes even for their Own Sins.
…and many more!
III: Life’s A Witch, Then You Die
The next section of Malleus moves from the theoretical to the practical. Kramer is an experienced witch hunter who has traveled all over Germany. He knows how witches work. His target audience for this section is some combination of doctors who want to know if a certain malady is witchcraft, villagers who want to know whether they’ve been bewitched, and detectives investigating witch-related crimes.
Here is how witches work: first, they make a pact with the Devil. Sometimes this is explicit and involves copulating with demons, other times it’s an “implicit pact” where the woman just sins a lot and doesn’t ask too many questions about where her new powers come from. Although every witch has a slightly different repertoire, typical spells include:
Bury a charm made of hair and nails and other gross things underneath someone’s doorstep in order to make them fall sick, prevent them from having erections, or steal their penis.
Turn someone into an animal. As with penis theft, witches cannot actually do this, but they can cast an illusion which makes everyone think the person looks and sounds like an animal. Witches will go extreme lengths to back this up; for example, when a witch turned one guy into a pack mule, and people packed him with goods, she had demons carry the goods in the air to maintain the illusion. This is sort of like the Penn and Teller quote about how “magic is just someone spending more time on something than anyone else might reasonably expect”, except in this case the people putting in the extra effort are demon familiars.
Stir their finger in a bucket of water to cause blizzards and hailstorms.
Magic arrows that can shoot anyone, no matter how far away or how many walls are between you and them.
Witch curses most often mimic disease; sometimes physical disease, but often what we would now call mental illness. Chronic pain, psychosis, fatigue, demonic possession. But most of all, erectile dysfunction, because the genital organ has “greater corruption” than other organs of the body.
How can a doctor know if a disease is natural vs. witchcraft? The most important thing is to take a good medical history. Ask questions like “Did you offend the old crone by the bog recently?” and “Did she tell you ‘oh, you’ll be getting yours soon enough, hahahckckakaka!’” Witches basically always telegraph their curses with ominous-sounding language, like “You’ll regret offending me!” or “You won’t be feeling so high-and-mighty next week, ohoho!” Any threats like this in the history are pathognomonic for witch-related ailments.
Absent this, a doctor will have to use clinical judgment. Is the malady lasting longer than expected? Does it not get cured by first-line treatments like leeches and bloodletting? Is there elevated witch activity in the area? If so, draw your own conclusions.
What to do? The easiest solution is to kill the witch responsible. If you can’t kill her, search under your doorstep (and other likely spots) for witch charms; if any are found, remove them. If none of these work, try prayer. It doesn’t always work right away, but usually the right kind of holy action will solve the problem. A typical example is in the chapter on erectile dysfunction, where Kramer recommends:
…five remedies which may lawfully be applied to those who are bewitched in this way: namely, a pilgrimage to some holy and venerable shrine; true confession of their sins with contrition; the plentiful use of the sign of the Cross and devout prayer; lawful exorcism by solemn words, the nature of which will be explained later; and lastly, a remedy can be effected by prudently approaching the witch, as was shown [in an earlier section] in the case of the Count who for three years was unable to cohabit carnally with a virgin whom he had married.
Is it okay to ask other witches to undo the curse of the first witch? Is a good guy with a witch the only way to stop a bad guy with a witch? Kramer spends a lot of thought on this question, in a way that suggests basically everyone in medieval Germany knows at least one witch, and that asking her for advice is most people’s obvious first step. But he concludes that no, this is sinful, we need a full boycott on all witches including supposedly “good” ones. However, ordinary wise women are okay. You can tell a (good) wise woman from a (bad) witch because the wise woman lives a virtuous life, doesn’t invoke devils in her healing rituals, and probably relies on God in some way.
Highlights from this section include:
Question I: Of Those Against Whom The Power Of Witches Availeth Not At All
Some people are immune to witchcraft. The most notable such group are witch-hunters and judges at witch trials. Witch hunters naturally incur the enmity of witches, so without protection all witch hunters would meet a quick bad end. But God, who hates witches more than anything in the world, realizes this, so in order to incentivize witch hunting He grants witch hunters qualified immunity to all black magic.
Skeptical? Kramer has proof:
This fact is proved also by actual experience. For the aforesaid Doctor affirms that witches have borne witness that it is a fact of their own experience that, merely because they have been taken by officials of public justice, they have immediately lost all their power of witchcraft. For example, a judge named Peter, whom we have mentioned before, wished his officials to arrest a certain witch called Stadlin; but their hands were seized with so great a trembling, and such a nauseous stench came into their nostrils, that they gave up hope of daring to touch the witch. And the judge commanded them, saying: “You may safely arrest the wretch, for when he is touched by the hand of public justice, he will lose all the power of his iniquity.” And so the event proved; for he was taken and burned for many witchcrafts perpetrated by him, which are mentioned here and there in this work in their appropriate places.
Not long ago in the town of Ratisbon the magistrates had condemned a witch to be burned, and were asked why it was that we Inquisitors were not afflicted like other men with witchcraft. They answered that witches had often tried to injure them, but could not. And, being asked the reason for this, they answered that they did not know, unless it was because the devils had warned them against doing so. For, they said, it would be impossible to tell how many times they have pestered us by day and by night, now in the form of apes, now of dogs or goats, disturbing us with their cries and insults; fetching us from our beds at their blasphemous prayers, so that we have stood outside the window of their prison, which was so high that no one could reach it without the longest of ladders; and then they have seemed to stick the pins with which their head-cloth was fastened violently into their heads. But praise be to Almighty God, Who in His pity, and for no merit of our own, has preserved us as unworthy public servants of the justice of the Faith.
Other people protected against witchcraft include very holy people and those who use certain charms or hear certain sacred words. Kramer has strong scientific evidence for this claim too:
There were also three companions walking along a road, and two of them were struck by lightning. The third was terrified, when he heard voices speaking in the air, “Let us strike him too.” But another voice answered, “We cannot, for to-day he has heard the words ‘The Word was made Flesh.’” And he understood that he had been saved because he had that day heard Mass, and, at the end of the Mass, the Gospel of S. John: In the beginning was the Word, etc.
Subchapter II: Of The Way Whereby A Formal Pact With Evil Is Made
Witches can make two kinds of pacts with the Devil. One kind is relatively low-key: the Devil just kind of appears to them somewhere and asks for their allegiance, and they say yes. The second is more formal, and grants access to more spells. It goes:
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; and they recommend a novice to his acceptance. And 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; and if he finds the novice or disciple willing, then the devil stretches out his hand, and so does the novice, and she swears with upraised hand to keep that covenant. And when this is done, the devil at once adds that this is not enough; and when the disciple asks what more must be done, the devil demands the following oath of homage to himself: that she give herself to him, body and soul, for ever, and do her utmost to bring others of both sexes into his power. He adds, finally, that she is to make certain unguents from the bones and limbs of children, especially those who have been baptized; by all which means she will be able to fulfill all her wishes with his help.
As usual, Kramer cites his sources carefully:
We Inquisitors had credible experience of this method in the town of Breisach in the diocese of Basel, receiving full information from a young girl witch who had been converted, whose aunt also had been burned in the diocese of Strasburg. And she added that she had become a witch by the method in which her aunt had first tried to seduce her. For one day her aunt ordered her to go upstairs with her, and at her command to go into a room where she found fifteen young men clothed in green garments after the manner of German knights. And her aunt said to her: Choose whom you wish from these young men, and he will take you for his wife. And when she said she did not wish or any of them, she was sorely beaten and at last consented, and was initiated according to the aforesaid ceremony. She said also that she was often transported by night with her aunt over vast distances, even from Strasburg to Cologne.
Subchapter VII: How, As It Were, They Deprive Men Of His Virile Member
Yup, it’s another section on penis-stealing. Kramer keeps coming back to this subject - not, of course, out of any weird obsession on his part, but because witches just keep doing this, and he as a witch-hunter is duty-bound to be prepared. For example:
In the town of Ratisbon a certain young man who had an intrigue with a girl, wishing to leave her, lost his member; that is to say, some glamour was cast over it so that he could see or touch nothing but his smooth body. In his worry over this he went to a tavern to drink wine; and after he had sat there for a while he got into conversation with another woman who was there, and told her the cause of his sadness, explaining everything, and demonstrating in his body that it was so. The woman was astute, and asked whether he suspected anyone; and when he named such a one, unfolding the whole matter, she said: “If persuasion is not enough, you must use some violence, to induce her to restore to you your health.” So in the evening the young man watched the way by which the witch was in the habit of going, and finding her, prayed her to restore to him the health of his body. And when she maintained that she was innocent and knew nothing about it, he fell upon her, and winding a towel tightly about her neck, choked her, saying: “Unless you give me back my health, you shall die at my hands.” Then she, being unable to cry out, and growing black, said: “Let me go, and I will heal you.” The young man then relaxed the pressure of the towel, and the witch touched him with her hand between the thighs, saying: “Now you have what you desire.” And the young man, as he afterwards said, plainly felt, before he had verified it by looking or touching, that his member had been restored to him by the mere touch of the witch.
My favorite part of this story is the guy going to a bar and asking women “hey, my penis was stolen by a witch, wanna see?” I think this could be the next hot trend in pickup artistry.
And hold on to your seat, this next paragraph is quite a ride:
And what, then, is to be thought of those witches who in this way sometimes 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? It is to be said that it is all done by devil's work and illusion, for the senses of those who see them are deluded in the way we have said. For a certain man tells that, when he had lost his member, he approached a known witch to ask her to restore it to him. She told the afflicted man to climb a certain tree, and that he might take which he liked out of the nest in which there were several members. And 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.
Whatever my case was, I hereby rest it.
Also interesting in Part 2:
How Devils may enter the Human Body and the Head without doing any Hurt, when they cause such Metamorphosis by Means of Prestidigitation.
How Witch Midwives commit most Horrid Crimes when they either Kill Children or Offer them to Devils in most Accursed Wise.
Certain Remedies prescribed against those Dark and Horrid Harms with which Devils may Afflict Men.
IV: Witches Get Stitches
At last we reach witch trials.
Witch trials are preferably conducted in the courts of the Inquisition, but secular courts may conduct them when needed, since witches also do secular harm (eg kill cattle). When overseen by the Inquisition, witchcraft is treated as an especially vile subspecies of heresy, and the normal rules for heresy trials apply.
On paper, Kramer and the system he represents are very concerned about protecting the innocent. “The proof of an accusation,” he writes, “ought to be clearer than daylight; and especially ought this to be so in the case of the grave charge of heresy”.
How do you prove an accusation? Kramer’s preferred method is with at least three witnesses (although judges are permitted to occasionally convict with fewer). Who may serve as a witness? Kramer thinks about this pretty hard. It would seem that maybe the suspect’s enemies should not be allowed to testify against her, because they might be motivated by grudges. On the contrary side, most witches are people of bad reputation who have alienated their whole village, on account of all the witching they do. It would hardly be fair if a suspected witch had to be set free because everyone hated them and no non-enemy could be found to testify. So Kramer compromises again: enemies may testify, but not mortal enemies. A person is considered a mortal enemy of a suspect if one of them has tried to kill the other, or their families have a blood feud, or something of that nature.
Should suspects be able to confront the witnesses who testify against them? Kramer recognizes that it would be unfair if they couldn’t. But he’s also concerned about retribution; snitching on a witch to the Inquisition sounds like a one way ticket to Curseville. He concludes that if a witness is scared that they might be harmed if their identity is revealed, their identity should be kept a secret, WHICH BY THE WAY MEANS THAT THE F@#KING INQUISITION HAS MORE PRINCIPLES THAN THE NEW YORK TIMES. I find this solution unsatisfying, but given Kramer’s premises I’m not sure I know a better option
(although if there was one, we could call it the Witchness Protection Program).
These two decisions lead to a new problem: witch hunters are nomadic types. They don’t know who is mortal enemies with whom in every little village. So suppose so-and-so testifies against a witch. The Inquisitor asks “Are you this woman’s mortal enemy?”, and the witness of course says no. Without asking the suspect to confirm, how do we know if he’s lying? But if we do ask the suspect, how do we prevent her from knowing he’s the witness? Kramer’s proposed solution is to ask the suspect to list off all her mortal enemies; if she names the witness, something is afoot.
(Some of you may have already noticed a loophole here. A History Of The Inquisition In Spain describes the case of one Gaspar Torralba, accused in 1531: “There were thirty-five witnesses against him, for he was generally hated and feared. In his defence he enumerated no less than a hundred and fifty-two persons, including his wife and daughter, as his mortal enemies, and he gave the reason in each case which amply justified their enmity . . . The tribunal evidently recognized the nature of the accusation; he was admitted to bail, July 1, 1532, and finally escaped with a moderate penance.”)
So you have your three witnesses. You’ve questioned them separately, to see if their stories match, then questioned the suspect separately a bunch of times to see if she changes her story. All the witnesses agree, and the suspect still seems suspicious. Now you can burn her as a witch, right?
Wrong. The Holy Inquisition is forbidden to burn anyone as a witch until they confess with their own lips, and confessions obtained under torture don’t count. THIS IS AN EXTREMELY FAKE RULE. The first way it is fake: a confession obtained under torture doesn’t count, but you can torture the witch, let her confess during the torture, and then later, after the torture is over, say “Okay, you confessed, so obviously you’re a witch, please confirm”. If she doesn’t confirm, you can torture her more and repeat the process. The second way it is fake is that you are allowed to lie to her in basically any way to make her confess. Kramer recommends saying “If you confess, I won’t sentence you to any punishment”. Then when she confesses, you hand her over to a different judge for the sentencing phase, and he sentences her to the punishment. Or a judge can promise mercy, “with the mental reservation that he means he will be merciful to himself or the State, for whatever is done for the safety of the State is merciful”.
You may, if you wish, transport the suspect to some kind of weird far-off castle (this is the Middle Ages, they have so many weird far-off castles they don’t know what to do with them). Keep her there for a while until she thinks everyone has forgotten about her and the witch trial is over. Have all the ladies and servants of the castle be very friendly to her. One day the lord of the castle will be gone on some errand, and one of the ladies who has befriended her will say: I hear you were a witch once, I really need to bewitch someone, would you mind telling me how to cast a spell? And everyone there has always been so nice, and the witch trial is long forgotten, so she’ll say yeah, sure, and explain how to cause a hailstorm or something. And then you can jump out from behind a tapestry or something and say “Ha! We got you!”
Does this really work?
Quite lately a witch was detained in the Castle of Königsheim near the town of Schlettstadt in the Diocese of Strasburg, and could not be induced by any tortures or questions to confess her crimes. But at last the castellan used the method we have just described. Although he was himself present in the castle, the witch thought he was away, and three of his household came in to her and promised they would set her free if she would teach them how to do certain things. At first she refused, saying that they were trying to entrap her; but at last she asked what it was that they wanted to know. And one asked how to raise a hailstorm, and another asked about carnal matters. When at length she agreed to show him how to raise a hailstorm, and a bowl of water had been brought in, the witch told him to stir the water with his finger, and herself uttered certain words, and suddenly the place which he had named, a wood near the castle, was visited by such a tempest and storm of hail as had not been seen for many years.
The third and final way this rule is extremely fake is that, if none of this makes the suspect confess, the judge can turn her over to the secular courts to be tried for witchcraft-as-a-secular-crime. He is supposed to recommend mercy, but realistically the secular courts will kill her anyway.
So do all witch trials end in death? No. If a judge wants a witch trial to end in death, he has plenty of ways to make it happen. But the Malleus gives a list of scenarios (some evidence + no witnesses; some evidence + many witnesses, etc, etc) and most end in “acquittal”. I use the quotes because there is one more hurdle: a ritual called “purgation”, where the suspect brings X witnesses of her same station (eg lord for lord, peasant for peasant) to the town square. There, the witnesses publicly vouch for her good character, and she swears that she is not a witch and forsakes all witchcraft forever. Then everything’s good - but the key is that the more suspicious you seem, the higher the judge will set X. And if you can’t find X people to vouch for your good character, you’re in contempt of court and probably a witch.
Also, except in the most cut-and-dry cases of innocence, suspects are released on something like probation: any further accusations of witchcraft will be taken much more seriously. Since people were already willing to falsely accuse you of witchcraft once, good luck with the probation, I guess.
Other highlights of this section:
Question IX: What Kind Of Defense May Be Allowed, And Of The Appointment Of An Advocate
All suspected witches have the right to an attorney. But if the attorney goes overboard defending the client, it is reasonable to suspect him of being a witch himself.
Question XVII: Of Common Purgation, And Especially Of The Trial Of Red-Hot Iron, To Which Witches Appeal
It might seem that you should give witches trial by ordeal, because that way God can decide their guilt or innocence, and (as has already been established), God really hates witches. The most common trial by ordeal is the trial by iron, where the suspect must hold a red hot iron, and if she drops it, she’s guilty. Unfortunately, witches can use witchcraft to hold the iron, so this doesn’t work. Witches always ask for this kind of trial and are always found innocent, so best to give them a normal trial with witnesses and stuff.
Question XXII: Of The Third Kind Of Sentence, To Be Pronounced On One Who Is Defamed, And Who Is To Be Put To The Question
Kramer advises: “Let not the Judge be too willing to subject a person to torture, for this should only be resorted to in default of other proofs”.
He then goes on to explain that torture usually doesn’t work, because “some are so soft-hearted and feeble-minded that at the least torture they will confess anything, whether it be true or not” and “others are so stubborn that, however much they be tortured, the truth is not to be had from them.” But his conclusion is only that “there is need for much prudence in the matter of torture”, and he goes on to talk a lot about how to torture people. He seems to think of false confessions (and false silence) as minor issues that deserve some attention but shouldn’t keep a judge from torturing someone if he really wants.
It’s actually worse than this, because he goes on to say that the Devil often makes witches immune to torture. If someone doesn’t seem to mind being tortured at all, they’re probably a witch. If someone doesn’t cry when being tortured, that’s another red flag, because witches can’t cry (source: everyone knows this).
To Kramer’s credit, he is willing to follow the logical implications of his belief: he agrees that if a suspect does cry, that means she’s innocent. Being really mean, trying to make her cry, and then letting her go if she does is . . . actually a valid witch trial method! But you have to be careful: sometimes witches try to game the system by carrying a concealed pouch of noxious herbs to make their eyes tear up. You should only release someone for crying if you’re sure they haven’t done this.
Also interesting in Part 3:
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
Of the Method of passing Sentence upon one who has been Accused by another Witch, who has been or is to be Burned at the Stake
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
V: Who Witches The Witchmen?
So ends the Malleus Maleficarum, returning us to our original question: what were these people thinking?
I worry I haven’t fully captured the spirit of the Malleus in this review. For space reasons, I omitted most of the many, many times when Kramer follows his claims with stories of the cases that led him to believe them. For example, after asserting that witches kill farm animals by planting evil charms under the dirt near their barns, he says:
For in this way those witches who were burned at Ratisbon, of whom we shall say more later on, were always incited by the devil to bewitch the best horses and the fattest cattle. And when they were asked how they did so, one of them named Agnes said that they hid certain things under the threshold of the stable door. And, asked what sort of things, she said: The bones of different kinds of animals. She was further asked in whose name they did this, and answered, In the name of the devil and all the other devils. And there was another of them, named Anna, who had killed twenty-three horses in succession belonging to one of the citizens who was a carrier. This man at last, when he had bought his twenty-fourth horse and reduced to extreme poverty, stood in his stable and said to the witch, who was standing in the door of her house: “See, I have bought a horse, and I swear to God and His Holy Mother that if this horse dies I shall kill you with my own hands.” At that the witch was frightened, and left the horse alone. But when she was taken and asked how she had done these things, she answered that she had done nothing but dig a little hole, after which the devil had put in it certain things unknown to her.
Everything is like this. Rare is the unsourced claim. If we moderns cited our sources half as often as the Malleus Maleficarum, the world would be a better place.
So what’s going on? Theory 1, Kramer made everything up. I don’t want to completely discount this. There must be at least one pathological liar in 15th century Europe, and surely that would be the kind of person who would write the world’s most shocking book on witches and start a centuries-long panic. Against this proposal, he sometimes names specific sources who a fact-checker could presumably go talk to, or specific court cases that living people must remember. I’ll stop here before we start retreading the usual arguments around the Gospels, etc.
Theory 2, Kramer is faithfully reporting a weird mass hallucination that had been going on long before he entered the picture. You can imagine a modern journalist interviewing UFO abductees or something. Some consistent rules might emerge - the spacecraft are always saucer-shaped, the aliens always have big eyes - but only because pre-existing legends have shaped the form of the hallucinations and lies. Then, unless he’s really careful, he unconsciously massages the data and adds an extra layer of consistency, until it everything makes total sense and seems incontrovertible.
I think 2 is basically right - again, I refer interested readers to Frank Bures’ study of penis-stealing-witch traditions around the world. Wherever there are superstitious people, there will be stories about witches, which will cohere into a consistent mythos. Add a legal system centered around getting people to confess under torture, and lots of people will confess. And since confessed witches were judged more repentant if they explained to the judge exactly what they did and maybe incriminated others, they’ll make up detailed stories about entire covens, and these stories will always match what their interlocutors expect to hear - ie the contours of the witch myth as it existed at the time.
And what about false memories? During the Satanic Panic, lots of people ended up convinced they were abused by Satanic cults as children, even though further investigation suggested this never happened. Psychologists examining these people would accidentally implant false memories (“And did the man who abused you have a pentagram tattooed on his head?” “Hmmm….yes…it’s breaking through the fog of repression…yes! Yes he did!”) Maybe illiterate medieval peasant women had low will saves, and prestigious Inquisitors could make them believe pretty much anything.
(And I don’t want to completely rule out that some people actually tried witchcraft. If you live the horrible life of a medieval peasant woman, and you hear that making a pact with the Devil gives you amazing magic powers that let you take revenge on all your enemies, maybe you start invoking the Devil. The history of modern occultism implies that any sufficiently schizo-spectrum person who asks to see the Devil will come away satisfied. So you see him, thank him, cackle a bit at your neighbor, feel good when some of their cattle die, and then they snitch on you to the Inquisition and you freak out and confess. I don’t know if this ever happened, but nothing I know about human nature rules it out. Honestly it seems less weird than school shooters.)
I’m not especially interested in rehabilitating Henry Kramer, at least not in the same way Montague Summers is. But I think there’s a tragic perspective on him. This is a guy who expected the world to make sense. Every town he went to, he met people with stories about witches, people with accusations of witchcraft, and people who - with enough prodding - confessed to being witches. All our modern knowledge about psychology and moral panics was centuries away. Our modern liberal philosophy, with its sensitivity to “people in positions of power” and to the way that cultures and expectations and stress under questioning shape people’s responses - was centuries away. If you don’t know any of these things, and you just expect the world to make sense, it’s hard to imagine that hundreds of people telling you telling stories about witches are all lying.
The section on trials felt like the same error mode. Kramer emphasized many times that you need to interview all witnesses and the suspect several times, many days apart, using slightly different questions each time, to catch inconsistencies. There is something admirable in this. He is clearly trying. Nowadays, with the benefit of hundreds of years of psychological research, we know that memory is slippery, especially under stress, and even honest people often change their story for no reason. But when some suspect told Kramer she was out at the barn when the alleged bewitchment occurred, and then the next day she said no, she was out in the forest, he must have considered it a job well done as he consigned her to the flames.
Or false confession! I remember my high school psychology class, how boggled I was when I learned lots of people often confess falsely, even when they’re not under torture or being pressured or anything. This still boggles me. I accept it, because I’ve read many smart people with personal experience saying it’s true, but I won’t claim it makes sense. Kramer never had any of that literature. He is rightfully suspicious of confessions obtained under torture, but how should he have known that even freely given confessions can be dubious?
So I think of Henry Kramer as basically a reasonable guy, a guy who expected the world to make sense, marooned in a century that hadn’t developed enough psychological sophistication for him to do anything other than shoot himself in the foot again and again.
This is how I think of myself too. As a psychiatrist, people are constantly asking me questions about schizophrenia, depression, chronic fatigue, chronic Lyme, chronic pain, gender dysphoria, trauma, brain fog, anorexia, and all the other things that the shiny diploma on my wall claims that I’m an expert in. In five hundred years, I think we’ll be a lot wiser and maybe have the concepts we need to deal with all of this. For now, I do my best with what I have. But I can’t shake the feeling that sometimes I’m doing harm (and doing nothing when I should do something is a kind of harm!)
They say the oldest and strongest fear is the fear of the unknown. I am not afraid of witches. But I am afraid of what they represent about the unknowability of the world. Somewhere out there, there still lurk pitfalls in our common-sensical and well-intentioned thought processes, maybe just as dark and dangerous as the ones that made Henry Kramer devote his life to eradicating a scourge that didn’t exist.
Book Review: Malleus Maleficarum