Malleus Maleficarum: the sacred text used to identify witches3 min read
Between 1227 and 1235, the Inquisition against witches and heretics was established with a series of papal decrees: Pope Innocent’s bull Ad Extirpanda of 1252 authorized the use of torture to extort confessions of witchcraft by suspected women. From 1257 to 1816 the Inquisition tortured and burned millions of innocent people at the stake accused of witchcraft and heresy against religious dogmas and judged, often without trial and in secret, with terrible torture. If they confessed, they were found guilty and they were considered witches, if they didn’t, they were considered heretics, and then burned at the stake. Impossible to escape.
But starting from 1486, the text adopted by the inquisitors was the famous Malleus Maleficarum, usually translated as the Hammer of Witches. With a circulation of more than 35,000 copies, it was the second most popular book of the time after the Bible. Written by the Catholic clergyman Heinrich Kramer (under his Latinized name Henricus Institoris) and first published in the German city of Speyer in 1486, it aimed to suppress heresy and definitively defeat witchcraft by describing how to carry out an interrogation during the trials, but above all with which methods recognize witches, followed by a detailed list of tortures.
According to this manual, witches were actually able to fly during the Sabbaths and could cause storms, while the ability to transform into animals was only an illusion induced by the power of the Devil.
The ways to recognize a witch were different. Women suspected of witchcraft were subjected to various “tests”, one of which was the water test, as it was known that this element “rejected” the witches. So the suspects were tied to a boulder and thrown into a pond or river: if they could float (and therefore the water “refused” them) they were surely guilty, while if they drowned, they were innocent.
Another system was to look for the presence of the Devil’s mark on women’s bodies, which could be visible or invisible. Looking for the visible mark consisted in stripping the alleged witch, shaving her and depilating her in every part of the body. Any mole with a particular shape, but also a birthmark or a wart could prove without any doubt that she was a witch.
To verify the presence of invisible marks, the “blood test” was adopted instead: if the alleged witch after being stung by a needle did not bleed then she was certainly guilty. However, it happened that an incandescent iron was often used to do this. Due to the strong heat and healing of the wound inflicted, the woman did not bleed and was therefore found guilty.
The victims at this point had two choices: either to confess and be sentenced to death by strangulation and then be burnt lifeless at the stake, or to reject their guilt and be burnt alive at the stake. In essence, the judgment always turned into a death sentence.
The book had a strong influence on culture for several centuries, and later there was another publication of a text about witchcraft written by a Milanese friar, the Ambrosian friar of the parish of Saint Ambrogio ad Nemus who, having been part of the inquisition for a long time, conducted many researches and in 1608 he published his Compendium Maleficarum, to complete the previous text of the Dominican friars.
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