Witches have long been part of Germanic culture. You’ll find witches in Fairy tales, in legends, in songs and poetry. The Gingerbread house Witch in Hansel and Gretel, the flying witches on Walpurgisnacht, even the Kitchen Witch flying above your stove. Today we look at witches as a bedtime story or cute tale, like Die Kleine Hexe. But in the Middle Ages, witchcraft took on a sinister tone. From 1450 until 1750, over 130,000 people in the Holy Roman Empire were tried for the crime of Witchcraft. 70,000 (3/4 of them women) were found guilty and sentenced to death by being burned at the stake. Why? “The Hammer of Witches, Malleus Maleficarum” a guide to identify and prosecute witches, added fuel to an already dangerous fire, and set off Witch Hunts across the Holy Roman Empire.
What WAS the Malleus Malicarum?
And who Wrote the Malleus Maleficarum?
Heinrich Krämer, a professor of Theology in Salzburg and inquisitor in Tirol wanted to expand his reach to prosecute witches in Germany, but the Germans in Cologne told him to basically that what happened in their district wasn’t his business. So, he complained to the Pope. Pope Innocent VIII feared witches, and wrote a special Papal Bull “Summis desiderantes affectibus” (“desiring with supreme ardor”), a special letter about witches, stating that locals were required to help Krämer deal with the recent outbreak of witches in the Rhineland…it also gave him immunity from prosecution or accusations that others may throw back at them.
The local inquisitors weren’t pleased. (Stay in your lane Heinrich!)
After the stinging rebuff from fellow inquisitors, in 1486 Heinrich Krämer, together with Johann Sprenger, the dean of the University of Cologne published their legal and theological handbook of witchcraft, and named it Malleus Maleficarum, or Hammer of Witches. Their ideas were based on one verse from the Bible- Exodus 22:18 “You shall not permit the sorceress to live”. Outlining how to identify and punish witches. (And he made sure there was a copy of the papal bull to the inside cover).
When the Hammer of Witches, Malleus Maleficarum first appeared, it was condemned by the Inquisition theologians in Cologne for being inconsistent with Catholic church doctrine. But Krämer had the Pope’s permission…and he had access to the Printing Press. The book was quickly adopted in communities around the Holy Roman Empire.
(This can’t be emphasized enough. Before the printing press, reproducing a book was labor intensive, meaning books were expensive and hard to come by. Not only could the Hammer of Witches now be reproduced easily, at only 190 pages, the book was pocket sized for easy transport. )
Full and Pocket Sized editions of the Malleus Maificarum
The Malleus Malificarum comprised of three sections.
- This first part describes the incredible depravity of witches. AND condemns the disbelief in the existence of witches as heresy. Then it goes on to say that anyone ANYONE can accuse another of witchcraft…regardless of their place in society. (This is huge, it means that the lowest member of society can speak against a person at any station without proof… and by calling it HERESY, the punishment was death.
- The second section justifies hatred of witches by describing the horrible things that witches do… milk theft, causing disease or pain to someone else, killing babies, destroying harvests with hailstorms, flying, metamorphosis, and sex. Lots of sex. (Krämer seemed to revel in emphasizing sexual congress with the devil. The words Succubus and Incubus come up A LOT)
- The third section lays out how to handle to legal proceedings in a witch trial. It is incredibly detailed, from how many witnesses, how to interview witnesses, who can sit in judgment, what forms of torture may be used, and the method of execution, burning at the stake. (Keep in mind that before this, Burning at the Stake was punishment reserved for heretics. Once witches were equated with heretics, they would suffer the same fate).
What is a Witch?
Originally, the church determined that there were two kinds of witchcraft, white and black magic. White magic was using charms or herbal potions to help, and black magic was used by someone who wants to cause harm another. But somewhere along the way, all magic turned into a pact with the devil. A Heresy. It was no longer just a case of witches doing bad things for their own gain…now they were doing them because of a pact with the Devil.
In other words (see if you can work out the logic). Women are weak and susceptible to being taken in by the Devil and his charms. The Devil then works through the woman to perform evil deeds. So, it’s not the woman performing the deed, it’s the Devil. But because they worked with the Devil (even if against their will) they were still considered heretics, enemies of God.
Photo taken at the Luther and the Witches display at the Medieval Crime Museum Rothenburg
How do you know she’s a Witch? She LOOKS like one!
According to the Malleus Maleficarum, you can identify a witch this way-
Someone who behaves “differing in their manner of life and behavior from the usual habits of the faithful”.
Someone who makes threats.
A person who lays a hand on man or beast.
Someone who is nearby when another person gets sick unexpectedly.
Someone who visits or gives a gift to another person is considered a heretic.
A midwife who attends the birth of a child who dies.
A woman who uses her feminine wiles to lure a man (for example a Bishop) against his will.
Witches also have strange marks on their body, or a third nipple.
And they float… The idea here is because water is used for baptism, someone who is in league with the devil would be “spit out” of the water. (So, if a woman drowns, she’s not a witch)
Basically, someone who is old and crone like, behaves oddly, talks to herself….OR young and beautiful with the ability to enchant men who should know better. (There is an example in the MM of a Bishop who was “bewitched” by a beautiful young maiden… when he was caught with his pants down, SHE was accused of witchcraft)
A collection of Anti Witchcraft books at the Medieval Crime Museum Rothenburg
But what was it about THIS time… this book… that set off such a frenzy against witches?
It’s worth noting that very little in the Malleus Malificarum was actually new information. The church had long been trying to stamp out pagan beliefs and superstitions. Krämer and Sprenger basically rewrote what was already in other anti-witchcraft texts of that time. But the changes they made were big ones. They laid out a method for secular prosecution (meaning trials could happen outside the church) and even bigger, they equated witchcraft with heresy.
In this post Reformation period, many leaders spent far too much time proving that THEY were true believers. Often a big show was made to emphasize their piety and their commitment to their faith (a sort of Medieval Virtue Signaling). The easiest way to do this was to make a big show of denouncing someone else as a heretic. And the best person to denounce is someone who can’t fight back. Martin Luther even chimed in with a sermon in 1522 condemning witches, saying they should be punished as heretics, and burned at the stake! As he got older, his views “softened”, and he allowed that perhaps other punishments along with confession and conversion would be enough.
Keep in mine, although Germany/the Holy Roman Empire was officially Christian… people still held on to many of the old pagan traditions, especially in the countryside and mountains far away from cities. Belief in the Wild Hunt, Krampus and Frau Perchta, old Superstitions and fortune telling practices were still quite common. The church fought against them as heresy.
Older women at the fringes of society were the easiest target. These older women ticked so many of the boxes in the list of “how to identify a witch”. A woman (easily led into temptation) looks “crone-like” (an older woman with no access to modern lotions or plastic surgery will look “crone-like”), and perhaps she has a mole or birthmark, and a pet (familiar) who she talks to (honestly, I haven’t met a woman yet who doesn’t talk to herself or her pet).
Add to this, the Holy Roman Empire and the individual principalities within it were all too often at war. Consider what happens after war; the fields are trampled, leading to famine, and people are dislocated seeking a new, safer home. Strangers, are viewed with suspicion, and hunger makes people do what they can to eat.
And when men are killed in war, women become widows with limited means of support.
Why Midwives? These women not only helped in childbirth, but they also took care of women (and men) by healing illness with herbal remedies. This stepped on the toes of the Learned Doctors who found that villagers preferred the old ways to the new and expensive “scientific” methods. Think about it… for a few eggs, you could buy tea from a Midwife, but a Doctor would charge much more, and there might be blood-letting involved.
The End of the Trials
By 1600, the book had gone through 28 editions, and was used by both the Catholic and the Protestant church as a means of identifying witches and satanists. At the end of the seventeenth century, prosecution slowed way down, and in 1749, the last witchcraft trial in Germany took place in Würzburg. In all, over 130,000 people faced accusations of witchcraft (including Katharina Kepler… Johannes Kepler’s mother). Most of these accusations came out of fear, superstition, or worse, revenge. In the end 70,000 died because of a delusion.
The Mittelalterliches Kriminalmuseum Museum
The Medieval Crime Museum in Rothenburg ob der Tauber contains interesting exhibits about the prosecution of witches in the Middle Ages, including documents, instruments of torture, and even a copy of the Malleus Malificarum.
I visited the museum in 2019, and saw the exhibit “With the Sword or Firm Faith” – Luther and the Witches. Today, it’s available as a virtual tour (cost is 5€… and it’s really a point and click, then read, sort of tour) Find out more here- Medieval Crime Museum Tour
Malleus Malificarum English Translation
Malleus Malificarum English Translation