WITCHHUNTERS



In 1484, Pope Innocent VIII (1432–1492) so deplored the spread of witchcraft in Germany that he issued the papal bull Summis Desiderantes Affectibus and authorized two trusted Dominican inquistors, Henrich Institoris (Kramer) (c. 1430–1505) and Jacob Sprenger (c. 1436–1495), to squelch the power of Satan in the Rhineland. In 1486, Sprenger and Kramer published their Malleus Maleficarum, "A Hammer for Witches," which quickly became the "bible," the official handbook, of professional witch hunters. Malleus Maleficarum strongly refuted all those who claimed that the works of demons exist only in troubled human minds. The Bible clearly told the account of how certain angels fell from heaven and sought to bewitch and seduce humans, and Sprenger and Kramer issued a strict warning that to believe otherwise was to believe contrary to the true faith. Therefore, any persons who consorted with demons and became witches must recant their evil ways or be put to death.

In his Witchcraft (1960), Charles Williams wrote that if one were to judge Malleus Maleficarum as an intellectual achievement, the work of Sprenger and Kramer is almost of the first order. While one might suspect a book that detailed horrible tortures to be administered to unfortunate men and women to be the efforts of half-mad, sexually obsessed individuals, Williams said that "there is no sign that they were particularly interested in sex. They were interested in the Catholic faith and its perpetuation, and they were, also and therefore, interested in the great effort which it seemed to them was then in existence to destroy and eradicate the Catholic faith."

Williams believed that Sprenger and Kramer proceeded with great care in the Malleus Maleficarum to examine the nature of witchcraft and to analyze the best methods of operating against its menace. The two devout Dominican priests took extreme measures to correct error, to instruct against ignorance, and to direct cautious action.

The judges of the great tribunals examined, tried, and tortured female witches at a ratio of 10–1, 100–1, or 10,000–1, depending upon the authority cited. Only in the Scandinavian countries were men accused of being witches and sorcerers at an equal or larger percentage than women.

Once an accused woman found herself in prison through the testimony of someone who had allegedly seen her evil powers at work, she might well be as good as dead. At the height of the witchcraft mania in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, an accusation was equivalent to guilt in the eyes of many judges. Sadly, a neighbor woman jealous of the "witch's" youth and beauty, a suitor angered by her rejection, or a relative who sought her inheritance, may have brought the accusation of witchcraft. And no lawyer would dare defend such an accused witch for fear that he would himself be accused of heresy if he pled her case too well.

The common justice of the Inquisition demanded that a witch should not be condemned to death unless she convict herself by her own confession. Therefore, the judges would order her torture to force her to confess so that she might be put to death. In a vicious and most perplexing paradox of justice, the learned men held that even though the accusation of nearly anyone was enough to land a woman in prison as a witch—and if she got as far as prison she was thereby considered guilty—all the testimony counted for naught unless the witch confessed her guilt. No one, under common justice, could be put to death for witchcraft on the evidence of another's testimony. What is more, the witch must confess without torture by the court. Therefore, in order to fully comply with the law, the judges turned the accused witches over to the black-hooded torturers so they, themselves, would not be the ones torturing the accused. Once the witch had confessed, she was now eligible to be reconciled to the church, absolved of sin, and burned at the stake. Confession or not, of course, the accused witch found her way to the flaming pyres. The difference, in the eyes of Mother Church, was whether the woman went as guilty but penitent or guilty and impenitent.

Although recent scholarship has argued that the oft-cited figure of nine million innocent women and men condemned to torture and death for witchcraft durng the Inquisition should be lowered more reasonably to a maximum of 40,000, that number is still frighteningly representative of a ghastly miscarriage of justice toward human beings who were persecuted and killed in the name of religion.

Sometime in the 1550s, a highly respected doctor, Johann Weyer (Weir) (1515–1588), who believed in the power of Satan to deceive Earth's mortals, became a critic of the Inquisition and its claims that mere humans could really attain such supernatural powers as those which the tribunals ascribed to witches. Perhaps, he argued, Satan had tricked these unfortunate individuals into believing that they could work such magic in order to cause them to worship the dark forces, rather than God. In 1563, against strong opposition, Weyer published De praestigus daemonum in which he presented his arguments that while Satan sought always to ensnare human souls, the supernatural powers attributed to witches existed only in their minds and imaginations.

In 1583 Reginald Scot (1538–1599) wrote The Discovery of Witchcraft, which serves as a kind of answer or rebuttal to Sprenger's and Kramer's "Hammer for Witches." He said if witches were really as all-powerful and malignant

Pope Innocent VIII (1432–1492). (CORBIS CORPORATION)
Pope Innocent VIII (1432–1492). (
CORBIS CORPORATION
)
as the Inquisitors claimed, why had they not enslaved or exterminated the human race long ago?

Unfortunately for many decades, the voices of Weyer and Scot were those of only a few sane men, desperately crying out in the wilderness of the incredible sexual mania that provided the fuel for the witchcraft persecutions. The reign of terror conducted by the witchhunters in Europe and Great Britain continued until the early part of the seventeenth century.


DELVING DEEPER

Lea, Henry Charles. The Inquisition of the Middle Ages. New York: Citadel Press, 1963.

O'Keefe, Daniel Lawrence. Stolen Lightning: The Social Theory of Magic. New York: Vintage Books, 1983.

Russell, Jeffrey Burton. Witchcraft in the Middle Ages. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1972.

Seligmann, Kurt. The History of Magic. New York: Pantheon Books, 1948.

Trevor-Roper, H. R. The European Witch-Craze. New York: Harper & Row, 1967.

Williams, Charles. Witchcraft. New York: Meridian Books, 1960.

DELVING DEEPER

Lea, Henry Charles. The Inquisition of the Middle Ages. New York: Citadel Press, 1963.

Netanyahu, B. The Origins of the Inquisition. New York: Random House, 1995.

Russell, Jeffrey Burton. Witchcraft in the Middle Ages. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1972.

Seligmann, Kurt. The History of Magic. New York: Pantheon Books, 1948.

Trevor-Roper, H. R. The European Witch-Craze. New York: Harper & Row, 1967.


DELVING DEEPER

Lea, Henry Charles. The Inquisition of the Middle Ages. New York: Citadel Press, 1963.

Russell, Jeffrey Burton. Witchcraft in the Middle Ages. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1972.

Seligmann, Kurt. The History of Magic. New York: Pantheon Books, 1948.

Trevor-Roper, H. R. The European Witch-Craze. New York: Harper & Row, 1967.


DELVING DEEPER

"Matthew Hopkins—The Witchfinder General." [Online] http://www.rci.rutgers.edu/~jup/witches/bunn/matthew_hopkins.html.

Notestein, Wallace. A History of Witchcraft in England. New York: Thomas Y. Crowell, 1968.

Seligmann, Kurt. The History of Magic. New York: Pantheon Books, 1948.

Trevor-Roper, H. R. The European Witch-Craze. New York: Harper & Row, 1967.

DELVING DEEPER

Lea, Henry Charles. The Inquisition of the Middle Ages. New York: Citadel Press, 1963.

Russell, Jeffrey Burton. Witchcraft in the Middle Ages. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1972.

Summers, Montague. The History of Witchcraft. New York: University Books, 1956.

Trevor-Roper, H. R. The European Witch-Craze. New York: Harper & Row, 1967.


DELVING DEEPER

Lea, Henry Charles. The Inquisition of the Middle Ages. New York: Citadel Press, 1963.

Russell, Jeffrey Burton. Witchcraft in the Middle Ages. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1972.

Trevor-Roper, H. R. The European Witch-Craze. New York: Harper & Row, 1967.



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