Thursday, March 14, 2013

The Malleus Maleficarum: Hammer of the Witches


“No one who reads the histories can doubt that there have always been witches, and that by their evil works much harm has been done to men, animals, and the fruits of the earth, and that Incubus and Succubus devils have always existed.”
-Malleus Maleficarum, Part 2, Chapter IV

Yesterday, I wrote about Benjamin Christensen's Häxan, which is somewhat based on and was definitely inspired by the 1486 witch hunting manual, the Malleus Maleficarum, Maleficas, & earum hæresim, ut phramea potentissima conterens, which translates to The Hammer of Witches which destroyeth Witches and their heresy as with a two-edged sword. Known today as the preeminent medieval witch hunting tome, the Malleus was written by Heinrich Kramer, a German priest and self-styled inquisitor. Jacob Sprenger, another German priest, also become involved with the publication, though contemporary scholars, such as Hans Peter Broedel, have come to believe Kramer was the primary author. Kramer sought to prove the existence of witches and educate other inquisitors on the best ways to locate, identify, and convict witches, most of whom he believed to be female, because of women's supposed predisposition to sin and vanity.

Based on earlier works, such as Johannes Nider’s Formicarius from 1435, the Malleus Maleficarum is divided into an introduction and three main sections, with the ultimate goal of asserting the existence of witchcraft and describing the variety of black arts available to servants of Satan. The first part serves as a lengthy introduction to witchcraft and explores such themes as why witches exist and what forms they can and cannot take, how they must have commerce with the Devil in order to bring about magic, the existence of incubi and succubi, the necessity of witches having sexual intercourse with the Devil, the fact that the majority of witches are female and why, and a description of the variety of powers that witches may possess. 

Part two explains these powers in further depth - who witches can and cannot affect, their methods of disturbing and seducing the innocent, how they form a pact with the Devil, how they transport themselves, how they copulate with the Devil, demonic possession, and how they affect human procreation and fertility, and many other things. Part three examines bringing witches to trial, interrogation, and sentencing, covering such topics as who is fit to be a judge in a witch trial, number of witnesses and the examination process, whether or not “mortal enemies” are acceptable witnesses, what kind of defense may be presented, etc. What kind of torture is acceptable is a major part of this section, which reveals details such as that witches must be shaved to displays the devil’s marks and red-hot irons are a great means of producing confessions. 

Based on his attempts at organized witch hunting in various regions of Germany, Kramer was given a papal bull in 1484 by Pope Innocent VIII, the Summis desiderantes affectibus, which gave him full authority to persecute and prosecute German witches. The bull declared, “Persons of both sexes, unmindful of their own salvation and straying from the Catholic Faith, have abandoned themselves to devils, incubi and succubi, and by their incantations, spells, conjurations, and other accursed charms and crafts, enormities and horrid offences, have slain infants yet in the mother's womb, as also the offspring of cattle,” among many other alleged evils. The bull threatened local clergy with excommunication if they did not cooperate and Kramer wound up using this text as the preface to the Malleus Maleficarum

Despite this papal mandate and the book’s enduring popularity and infamy, it was not officially used by the Inquisition. Witch hunting (and the belief in witchcraft at all) was initially considered to be unlawful superstition by the early Church leader, but from the 12th to 15th centuries, largely due to political motivation, the idea of persecuting caught on with increasing fervor. Regardless of the Church’s stance on the Malleus, witch hunting caught on, particularly after the invention of Johannes Gutenberg’s printing press in the 15th century, making the Malleus far more accessible and kicking off a potential propaganda firestorm. 

Though the Malleus has long been associated with the Inquisition, in the last forty years academic critics have relegated its importance to a more symbolic function. It is doubted that Innocent VIII ever saw the book and it is now believed that the text had much less of an effect on medieval witch hunting practices. It was soon condemned by the Church, in particular Spanish Inquisitors, the most infamous branch, warned against accepting its veracity. I can't pretend the Malleus is compelling reading. Despite subject matter like covens, witches' sabbaths, sex with the Devil, feasting on babies, incubi and succubi, Kramer's book reads like the dullest legal brief imaginable. Regardless, it stands as an important symbol, both of a time of persecution and near genocide, and as the potential, if ironic source for something more contemporary: Wicca and neo-paganism. 

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