The 'Hammer of Witches', written in the 15th century, is one of the most famous books of the late Middle Ages and is considered the primary catalyst for the witch hunts of that era.
The time of the European witch hunts is often linked to the Dark Ages. However, the prosecution of witches occurred later, in the early modern era, as the Renaissance, scientific progress, and the broadening of horizons paved the way for a society marked by reason and knowledge.
The reasons for this were manifold and the outcome of different circumstances, both theological and social. Moreover, there were large-scale external factors to which people were relatively powerless. In the absence of a quick solution, the search for someone to blame became a popular alternative.
For a long time, the church viewed belief in witchcraft and sorcery as mere superstition, as the omnipotence of God was deemed too great for the devil or other demons to have any actual influence. This perspective was codified by the Canon Episcopi, written at the start of the 10th century, which diagnosed individuals claiming participation in nocturnal flights and Satanic worship as suffering from delusions.
Throughout the centuries of Europe's progressive Christianisation, encounters between new and old faiths were frequent. The missionaries' primary focus was to establish the Christian faith. The blending of old and new beliefs for rituals and blessings, practiced by sorceresses and wizards in various places, were favoured by the population to ward off or reverse misfortune, and the church largely tolerated it. Punishment was only inflicted on isolated cases with excommunication, resulting in exclusion from the community.
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By 1400, Europe had largely embraced Christianity, prompting the Church to to stake out its territory by delineating what did and did not fall within it. This development is linked to the longstanding persecution of heretics, such as the Cathars and Waldensians, which led to the establishment of the infamous Inquisition by the Dominican Order in the 13th century. During this period, the great Doctor of the Church, Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274), delved into the topic of witchcraft. He described practices like witchcraft, animal transformations, harmful weather spells, and, above all, pacts with the devil, which were previously associated with heretics and also attributed to Jews, as actual phenomena. As a result, the belief in a heretical sect of witches, in league with the devil and convening for nightly witches' sabbaths, gradually took shape.
In the 14th century, the 'Black Death,' a series of devastating plague epidemics, instilled widespread uncertainty and upheaval among the population of Europe. The Western Schism in 1378 further intensified concerns, as people not only had to contend with the Pope in Rome but also with an antipope in Avignon. Many believers feared for their salvation, unsure if their penitential efforts would be recognised amid the schism. Additionally, starting in the early 15th century, the onset of the 'Little Ice Age,' a climatic phenomenon, brought about worsening weather conditions, leading to diminished harvests and overall living challenges. Collectively, these factors led people of the time to entertain the belief that the end of the world was imminent, prompting a search for someone to blame. The sect of witches, purportedly led by the devil and accused of casting weather and disease spells — a topic long steeped in speculation — seemed to provide a plausible explanation.
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Around 1400, the first region where a tolerated belief in witchcraft transformed into a conviction of a real, devil-led witch cult was the western Alpine area, encompassing western Switzerland, the Dauphiné, and Savoy. The Council of Basel from 1431 to 1449, a significant theological assembly, did not initially focus on the persecution of witches, but it became a forum where many clergy representatives gathered to discuss and disseminate this topic. In this context, various writings were produced about the subject of witches and their actions, including Le Champion des Dames (1441/42) by the French cleric Martin Le Franc and Formicarius (1430s) by the Dominican theologian Johannes Nider.
The belief in the witchcraft sect and the necessity for trials against its members began to spread and reached the Alsatian Dominican monastery in Schlettstadt (Sélestat). Heinrich Kramer, Latinised as Henricus Institoris, entered the monastery around the age of fifteen in 1445, where he studied theology and later earned a doctorate. Kramer, seemingly not an easy character, had influential friends in Rome who shielded him from a prison sentence when he strongly criticised Emperor Frederick III in a sermon. In 1479, the Curia appointed him Inquisitor of the whole of Upper Germany to combat the heresies and 'errors' that were increasingly spreading in the region.
Kramer took up his role as an inquisitor, and in 1482, he orchestrated the burning of two women he believed to be convicted witches in Ravensberg. However, not everyone shared Kramer's convictions, prompting him to directly appeal to Pope Innocent VIII. He presented a text he had written justifying the witch hunt as a necessity. Innocent VIII endorsed the entire project and incorporated the text into a bull called Summis desiderantes affectibus, issued on 5 December 1484, which became known as the 'witch bull.'
With considerable papal support, Kramer set to work again. However, his first mission in Innsbruck in 1485 proved to be a setback. While Kramer persuaded the Bishop of Brixen of the need to track down witches in Innsbruck, his methods quickly made him unpopular. His witchcraft sermons unsettled the population, and when he was asked to denounce certain women as defendants, the trial faced resistance. Kramer's repeated offensive questioning about the accused women's love lives further fuelled opposition. Ultimately, the trial was declared null and void, and Kramer was expelled from the diocese — a request he, perhaps driven by his vanity, only complied with the following year.
After this failure, Heinrich Kramer expressed concern about the future of witch-hunting and began writing a work regarded as one of the most dreadful in history: the Malleus Maleficarum, commonly known as the 'Hammer of the Witches'. Kramer must have been in a hurry to see the work published, and it first appeared in the spring of 1487 in Speyer. This brought to light the potentially disastrous impact of the still young printing press on spreading literature that caused suffering and horror.
Acting on his own initiative, Kramer was eager to give authority to his work. To bolster it, he prefaced the text with the Pope's bull on witches and a favourable confirmation from the Faculty of Theology at the University of Cologne, though this might have been a forgery. The role of Kramer's friar and superior Jacob Sprenger, listed as one of the authors, is also contested. In reality, the book appears to have caused a dispute between the two men, which remained unresolved until Sprenger's death in 1495.
Kramer structured his text into three parts. The first part addressed the existence of witchcraft and how to identify it. The second part explains the tactics employed by witches and methods to defend against them. Finally, the third part detailed the framework of a witch trial.
Kramer's work is seen as a key factor in the identification and condemnation of women as witches, often leading to their execution at the stake. His text is notably misogynistic, asserting that women are more prone to forming pacts with the devil due to their inherent nature. According to Kramer, women were considered less firm in their faith, inclined to use magic tricks due to physical weakness, and even willing to engage in relations with Satan himself because of their insatiable carnal desires. However, it's crucial to note that these views were not unique to Kramer but were shared by others during that era.
Indeed, the first part of the Malleus Maleficarum serves as a summary of the literature available at the time on the topic of witches, including works like Nider's Formicarius. Kramer incorporated, quoted, and sometimes altered or reinterpreted this existing literature for his own purposes, a practice he employed consistently in his writings. In the second part, Kramer drew upon his personal experiences as an inquisitor.
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The third part provides instructions to the secular judges, its primary audience as they alone held the authority to impose the death penalty. It details how a witch trial should be conducted, which witnesses can be called (including mortal enemies of the person under suspicion), and how to identify witch marks (birthmarks pricked with needles; if the person did not bleed or feel pain, they were deemed a witch). Famously harsh is the section where Kramer explains how to bypass the explicitly forbidden repeated torture by simply declaring it a continuation of the legitimate initial torture.
Shortly after the text was published, many people criticised it, partly due to its disregard for the law. Today, the work is recognised as a significant contributor to the witch craze that afflicted large portions of Europe in the two centuries following its release. The Holy Roman Empire, divided into many small sovereign states, was particularly impacted, conducting around half (approximately 25,000) of the European witch burnings. Additionally, the Little Ice Age and the Reformation played roles, as the latter divided the empire into a patchwork of Catholic and Protestant territories.
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The Protestants were by no means less fervent in their belief in witches than the Catholics. Martin Luther, for instance, considered the Old Testament verse "You shall not let the sorceresses live" to be unconditionally valid. However, many witch trials lacked a theological foundation, often being driven by political or economic motives.
The extent to which the Malleus Maleficarum truly fuelled the witch craze is a matter of debate, given the presence of many other influential writings before and after it that contributed to the cause. However, the fact that the book was published approximately thirty times in just under 200 years suggests a certain demand for its content.
The Age of Enlightenment ultimately brought an end to the witch craze, and the portrayal of witches evolved over time. In literature, film, and television, good and evil witches coexist, and there is no longer fear associated with sorceresses and wizards confined to the realms of books and screens. Today, the Malleus Maleficarum is viewed as a testament to an unsafe and disturbing era and serves as a memorial against the arbitrary persecution of the innocent.