Innocent commended “Our dear sons Henry Kramer and James Sprenger,” who “have been by Letters Apostolic delegated as Inquisitors of these heretical [de]pravities” If “the abominations and enormities in question remain unpunished,” the souls of multitudes face eternal damnation.
The Pope appointed Kramer and Sprenger to write a comprehensive analysis, using the full academic armory of the late fifteenth century. With exhaustive citations of Scripture and of ancient and modern scholars, they produced the Malleus Maleficarum, the “Hammer of Witches,” — aptly described as one of the most terrifying documents in human history. Thomas Ady, in A Candle in the Dark, condemned it as “villainous Doctrines & Inventions,” “horrible lyes and impossibilities,” serving to hide “their unparalleled cruelty from the ears of the world.” What the Malleus comes down to, pretty much, is that if you’re accused of witchcraft, you’re a witch. Torture is an unfailing means to demonstrate the validity of the accusation. There are no rights of the defendant. There is no opportunity to confront the accusers. Little attention is given to the possibility that accusations might be made for impious purposes — jealousy, say, or revenge, or the greed of the inquisitors who routinely confiscated for their own private benefit the property of the accused. This technical manual for torturers also includes methods of punishment tailored to release demons from the victim’s body before the process kills her. The Malleus in hand, the Pope’s encouragement guaranteed, inquisitors began springing up all over Europe.
It quickly became an expense account scam. All costs of investigation, trial, and execution were borne by the accused or her relatives—down to the per diems for the private detectives hired to spy on her, wine for her guards, banquets for her judges, the travel expenses of a messenger sent to fetch a more experienced torturer from another city, and the faggots, tar and hangman’s rope. Then there was a bonus to the members of the tribunal for each witch burned. The convicted witch’s remaining property, if any, was divided between Church and State. As this legally and morally sanctioned mass murder and theft became institutionalized, as a vast bureaucracy arose to serve it, attention was turned from poor hags and crones to the middle class and well-to-do of both sexes.
The more who, under torture, confessed to witchcraft, the harder it was to maintain that the whole business was mere fantasy. Since each “witch” was made to implicate others, the numbers grew exponentially. These constituted “frightful proofs that the Devil is still alive,” as it was later put in America in the Salem witch trials. In a credulous age, the most fantastic testimony was soberly accepted—that tens of thousands of witches had gathered for a Sabbath in public squares in France, or that 12,000 of them darkened the skies as they flew to Newfoundland. The Bible had counseled, “Thou shalt not suffer a witch to live.” Legions of women were burnt to death. And the most horrendous tortures were routinely applied to every defendant, young or old, after the instruments of torture were first blessed by the priests. Innocent himself died in 1492, following unsuccessful attempts to keep him alive by transfusion (which resulted in the deaths of three boys) and by suckling at the breast of a nursing mother, He was mourned by his mistress and their children.
In Britain witch-finders, also called “prickers,” were employed, receiving a handsome bounty for each girl or woman they turned over for execution. They had no incentive to be cautious in their accusations. Typically they looked for “devil’s marks” — scars or birthmarks or nevi — that when pricked with a pin neither hurt nor bled. A simple sleight of hand often gave the appearance that the pin penetrated deep into the witch’s flesh. When no visible marks were apparent, “invisible marks” sufficed. Upon the gallows, one mid-seventeenth-century pricker “confessed he had been the death of above 200 women in England and Scotland, for the gain of twenty shillings apiece.”
In the witch trials, mitigating evidence or defense witnesses were inadmissible. In any case, it was nearly impossible to provide compelling alibis for accused witches: The rules of evidence had a special character. For example, in more than one case a husband attested that his wife was asleep in his arms at the very moment she was accused of frolicking with the devil at a witch’s Sabbath; but the archbishop patiently explained that a demon had taken the place of the wife. The husbands were not to imagine that their powers of perception could exceed Satan’s powers of deception. The beautiful young women were perforce consigned to the flames.
There were strong erotic and misogynistic elements — as might be expected in a sexually repressed, male-dominated society with inquisitors drawn from the class of nominally celibate priests. The trials paid close attention to the quality and quantity of orgasm in the supposed copulations of defendants with demons or the Devil (although Augustine had been certain “we cannot call the Devil a fornicator”), and to the nature of the Devil’s “member” (cold, by all reports). “Devil’s marks” were found “generally on the breasts or private parts” according to Ludovico Sinistrari’s 1700 book. As a result pubic hair was shaved, and the genitalia were carefully inspected by the exclusively male inquisitors. In the immolation of the 20-year-old Joan of Arc, after her dress had caught fire the Hangman of Rouen slaked the flames so onlookers could view “all the secrets which can or should be in a women.”
The chronicle of those who were consumed by fire in the single German city of Wurzburg in the single year 1598 penetrates the statistics and lets us confront a little of the human reality:
“The steward of the senate, named Gering; old Mrs. Kanzler; the tailor’s fat wife; the woman cook of Mr. Mengerdorf; a stranger; a strange woman; Baunach, a senator, the fattest citizen in Wurtzburg; the old smith of the court; an old woman; a little girl, nine or ten years old; a younger girl, her little sister; the mother of the two little aforementioned girls; Liebler’s daughter; Goebel’s child, the most beautiful girl in Wurtzburg; a student who knew many languages; two boys from the Minster, each twelve years old; Stepper’s little daughter; the woman who kept the bridge gate; and old woman; the little son of the town council baliff; the wife of Knertz, the butcher; the infant daughter of Dr. Schultz; a blind girl; Schwartz, canon at Hach…”
On and on it goes. Some were given special human attention: “The little daughter of Valkenberger was privately executed and burnt.” There were 28 public immolations, each with 4 to 6 victims on average, in that small city in a single year. This was a microcosm of what was happening all across Europe. No one knows how many were killed altogether — perhaps hundred of thousands, perhaps millions. Those responsible for prosecuting, torturing, judging, burning, and justifying were selfless. Just ask them.
They could not be mistaken. The confessions of witchcraft could not be based on hallucinations, say, or desperate attempts to satisfy the inquisitors and stop the torture. In such a case, explained the witch judge Pierre de Lancre (in his 1612 book, Description of the Inconstancy of Evil Angels), the Catholic Church would be committing a great crime by burning witches. Those who raise such possibilities are thus attacking the Church and ipso facto committing a mortal sin. Critics of witch-burning were punished and, in some cases, themselves burnt. The inquisitors and torturers were doing God’s work. They were saving souls. They were foiling demons.