{reading} the hammer of witches

‘Tis the season to begin thinking of the dark and scary! “Reader’s Imbibing Peril” (RIP) is all about the Autumnal mood of suspenseful tales and snuggling into the crackling, dank, and pumpkin spiced. I hate missing out on these kinds of community events because of coursework, so imagine my joy upon perusing my Dark Renaissance syllabus.

While what we are presently reading in class has at its center Witches, it feels just as much the subject of the nearing-event of Banned Books Week (Sept 22-28).

malleus maleficarumThe Hammer of Witches aka Malleus Maleficarum is easily one of the most dangerous texts ever written. Two German Dominican Inquisitors Jacob Sprenger and Heinrich Kramer (Institoris) approached Pope Innocent VIII to complain that local authorities were not aiding them in hunting and prosecuting heretical witchcraft. The Pope authors the bull Summis desiderantes affectibus in December of 1484, which essentially reminds the church of the present-day existence and consequence of witches—both male and female—and that they are to be punished, imprisoned, and corrected without any hindrance. He writes that the office of inquisition “shall have full and entire liberty to propound and preach to the faithful the word of God, as often as it shall seem to them fitting and proper, in each and all the parish churches in the said provinces, and to do all things necessary and suitable under the aforesaid circumstances, and likewise freely and fully to carry them out.”

Sprenger and Kramer (Insititoris) publish a handbook Malleus Maleficarum three years later upon which Catholic and Protestant alike reference with pious fervor. The evils behind the plagues and pestilence have been discovered. One can find arguments as to how witches are made and what makes them heretical, which is offense enough, but add a quality of malice and contamination and you’ve a clearer and present danger. You can, at length, marvel at how much attention is spent on copulation. They provide a profile of a witch under “Why it is that Women are chiefly addicted to Evil Superstitions” and “Why Superstition is chiefly found in Women.” The misogyny is unlike anything I’ve encountered before. The Pope’s letter allowed for male and female witches, but The Hammer focuses on woman as witch; and certainly all midwives. The list of “whys” is nauseating. The only reprieves are just how ridiculous/bizarre some of the content is (e.g. witch’s nests).

Of the scores of thousands killed, the execution of menopausal/postmenopausal women (aka crones) is disproportionate; ignorance and economics are good places to start trying to suss out explanations there. The execution of midwives is disproportionate. With a knowledge of and power over women’s bodies that men did not, not even the rising quarter of physicians (w/ the Renaissance). An infant mortality rate of 50% made them an even easier target. There were regions of Germany where only one or two women per village remained. Lynn White in “Death and the Devil” shares these numbers: “In a single year the bishop of Bamberg is said to have burned some 600; that of Wurzburg, 900. In 1514, in the tiny diocese of Como, 300 were executed. In Savoy a great festival was held at which about 800 were burned in a batch” (36). Yes, the logistics were questioned and the prof shared a story of how a man in Scotland took days to die for want of fuel (they burned them quick (alive) in Scotland). You fared a little better in England where the judicial system refused to bow to such proscriptions as could be found in Part III of The Hammer of Witches.

Of the 3 Parts of The Hammer of Witches, the 3rd is dedicated to the Civil Court’s responsibility after the Inquisitor’s job is done. Whom to admit as Witnesses, What kind of Defense for the Accused, How to appoint their Advocate, etc, How the Judge should protect Himself in a rhetorical turn that suggests anyone who acquits the accused has been bewitched. The executions, mind you, come after sanctioned torture. The torture devices were big business. Confession under torture is recommended as it also tended to produce names of other witches. [The English would not admit confession under torture.] A witch had to confess in court as well. Silence or denial was explained as an act of the devil. Shaving the body of all hair disallowed the aid of the devil to hold them silent (but shaving all the hair was problematic for some, so a beebalm was regarded as viable stand-in).

There is no room for mercy in Malleus Maleficarum, bidding authorities to execute on the side of error for the sake of their very own souls.

“But even the witches themselves, when in the court of conscience with humble and contrite spirit they weep for their sins and make clean confession asking forgiveness, are taken back to mercy. But when they are known, those whose duty it is must proceed against them, summoning, examining, and detaining them, and in all things proceeding in accordance with the nature of their crimes to a definitive and conclusive sentence, as has been shown, if they wish to avoid the snare of eternal damnation by reason of the excommunication pronounced upon them by the Church when they deliberately fail in their duty.” (Hammer of Witches)

The witches themselves, not the accused or person, but ever a witch (as has been explained earlier in the handbook); she is “known,” never un-known, never un-accused. The “accordance with the nature of their crime” is death. There should be no other “definitive and conclusive sentence” and if there is, guess who becomes suspect?

“The most spectacular and tragic Renaissance symptom of social psychosis was the witch mania,” White writes, “But once again the manifestation antedated the famines, pestilences, and wars of the fourteenth century.” The other symptoms involved necrophilia, masochism, sadism, and demonic possession.
RIP8main200If dark and horror are ingredients of a perilous read, the Melleus Maleficarum is of the most dark and horrifying sort. Not only does its contents strike terror in the reader, but its use is in the torture and execution of thousands.Our class is looking at the dark underbelly of the Renaissance with the belief that a body or group can be known by that which causes them fear and anxiety. We have been speaking of the scapegoat theory and the Roman bread and circus catharsis that is blood-letting viole
nce. We have been speaking of ignorance, control, monastic sexual fantasy, human bodies/health and economics.


Published by L

I read, and I write. and until recently, I sold books.

One thought on “{reading} the hammer of witches

  1. Holy Moly. That certainly fits the “horror” side of RIP, I say. Unbelievable that this kind of stuff was sanctioned and rampant. Wow. Makes me wonder if there’s ever been any sort of apology from the Vatican or anything over the years? Wow…

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