How to Spot a Witch

     In honor of Halloween, I thought I’d write briefly about a book that was used for hundreds of years by Men of Science—although the science of the middle ages—and Men of Theology—zealots who used heavily biased religious texts against women who challenged the narrow definition of a female’s place in society, or who were mentally or physically unbalanced—to identify and prosecute witches.

     Called the MALLEUS MALEFICARUM, meaning “Hammer of the Witches” in Latin, it was written in 1486 to refute the more rational citizens of the Tyrol region of Germany who doubted the existence of witches.   The Church had officially denied the existence of witches since the time of Charlemagne, who in fact outlawed the practice of witch burning, calling it a pagan superstition.   But the wide distribution of the Malleus, thanks in part to the development of the printing press, brought a resurgence of witch hunting in Europe and in the New World. 

     The author of the book was one Heinrich Kramer who was initally thrown out of his home district for being a crank.  Called a “senile old man” by his local bishop, it has been theorized that the book was his act of vengeance against the established clergy in particular and women in general.  And what a bloody vengeance it was.   As many as 60,000 people, mostly women, were burned at the stake in Europe between 1480 and 1750.

     According to the Malleus “all witchcraft comes from carnal lust, which is in women insatiable.”   A very telling insight into the mindset of the author, and of the prosecutors of the unfortunate women labeled as confederates of the Devil.  There were many stages of investigation, but a physcial examination almost always uncovered a wart or a mole that could be claimed to be the “witches teat” from which she fed her familiar—a cat, frog, newt, etc.—a demon in disguise.

     We treated our witches a little more kindly here in the colonies in that we didn’t burn them at the stake.   We only hanged them.  But the 20 men and women who were killed in Salem in 1692 (my 9X great grandmother, Martha Carrier, among them) were some of the last wholesale victims of the Malleus.


4 comments on “How to Spot a Witch

  1. Jim David says:

    Had no idea that many people were killed for being accused of being witches. Interesting how the printing press was instrumental in spreading both knowledge and evil superstition during the same time period. I suppose that is still true today (with the addition of electronic information).

  2. Dane D. Miller says:

    Frenzies appealing to the uneducated have been spawned by similar fanning of flames throughout history. I grew up in Belgium and it was rare to stroll into any cathedral of a reasonable size and not find some depiction of a truly gruesome scene of Hell, created for no other reason than to scare the bejeezus out of the common folk who were unable to read. And of course, scare them back onto the path of righteousness – often defined by the local religious zealot of the day.

    • Dane: Thank you for your comment. It seems a lot of religious conformity is insured by scaring the wits (literally) out of people. It’s easy to forget how truly terrifying those depictions were to the downtrodden, illiterate peasants of the Middle Ages. Hope you enjoy my future blog posts!

  3. Juliet H. Mofford says:

    So glad you featured this book that was so influential for centuries in Europe and well-known in 17th century New England, as well as in southwestern Spanish settlements. I own the Dover reprint of the complete “Hammer of Witches” and believe me, it is truly terrifying. Amazing & downright disgusting that it was condoned by a Papal Bull in 1584 and instructed both Catholics and Protestants how to spot a witch and how to torture them into confession and finally, how they were to be executed! Horrible crimes throughout history(
    including slavery and homophobia), have been committed in the name of Christianity!

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