In 1486 a book was written by Heinrich Kramer that would inspire centuries of persecution, witch-hunts, and executions, leading to the death of thousands. It was called the Malleus Maleficarum, or the Hammer of Witches.
It was been called 'dangerous, sinister, twisted, wicked and silly' by scholars and historians throughout the years. And, in some way, all of these words fit. The simplest definition for Malleus would be a guide for the aspiring witch hunter. It covered all the basics, from identifying, interviewing, and (of course) persecuting the witch. Divided into three sections, the book delves into all manner of witchery, attempting to refute all those who claimed witches were merely men and women who saw demons in their minds. It further helped its readers seek out these Satanists in their midst. A perfect guide for the witch-hunter, for sure.
Before the book was published, witches were either confined to folklore or mostly described as those rare individuals who could control a demon to do their bidding. Their powers consisted of casting spells, curing ailments, or perhaps cursing a neighbour. However, The Hammer turned this idea on its head, instead claiming that a witch was rather a puppet of the devil, and she (usually female) had slept with demons in order to become a vessel for these malevolent powers.
The book was published in 1486, and despite its unethical practices, quickly became popular.
This proclamation turned the local witch from a simple dabbler into a full devil-worshiper. So, the book decreed, the punishment for turning so fully away from God, must be more prudent. Where before witches were placed in the stocks for a day, they were now to be burned.
Over three-quarters of witches burned during the 14 and 1600’s would be women, and the chance of disproving you were a witch was next to impossible. Just the act of being accused was already enough to have you convicted. But Kramer, knowing how cunning a witch was, offered ways of identifying one. This mostly included torture. Even lying - breaking one of the ten commandments - was acceptable if done solely to outsmart a witch.
If you said you weren’t a witch, you were a witch, and if you denied it vehemently, it only meant the devil was strong in you and trying to protect its vessel. Very little you said could convince a torturer of your innocence, and oft-times they would promise the accused redemption if they confessed, only to have them burned at the stake in any case.
But how is it possible that a single book could wreak so much havoc? Why wasn't it stopped? There are a few answers. One of which has to do with the Inquisition. The inquisition's purpose was to have a "court of exception to inquire into and glean the beliefs of those differing from Catholic teaching".
Heinrich Kramer was born in 1430 and would later become part of the Dominican Order.
Although certainly meant to help the heathens find their way back to the more acceptable doctrine of Catholics, it unfortunately only fed a growing fire of feuds, animosity and fear. Essentially neighbour was already suspicious of neighbour. So by the time Kramer's book became well spread, it only poured more gasoline onto the growing flame.
But surprisingly, Kramer’s first attempt to strike against witches was not as successful as we might think. In 1484 Kramer had attempted to identify a witch using the same methods he would later publish, but the townspeople were less than thrilled. They chased him out with little preamble and Kramer was left a laughing stock.
He had made his first strike against witches, but with no hammer, he couldn’t land the blow. Bitter at their no-doubt ignorance, he sought the absolution of the Pope, which he was surprisingly granted.
Pope Innocent VIII gave him what is known as the Summis Desiderantes Affectibus, basically a seal of approval, granting permission and leniency to Kramer to essentially start a witch-hunt. With this in hand, he finally sat down and wrote the Malleus Maleficarum and placed this seal of approval in the very first section.
This was meant to be construed as proof of sorts, proving that whatever followed was the absolute truth, as deemed by the Pope. Which in itself was a sort of lie. The Pope had condoned Kramer to hunt witches, but not necessarily approved of the methods he put in print. But the people decreed it as truth.
The political climate was, as stated before, ripe for trouble. Christians were being split into different camps. With Protestants and Catholics, both fervently fighting to prove that their doctrine was the only one to follow, and an easy way for these men to do so was to battle the devil through witches and to purge the world of evil once and for all. For, as the bible says, 'One does not suffer a witch to live'. In this growing climate of animosity, Kramer’s book became the guideline to finding and killing these witches.
Contrary to popular belief, the Catholic Church did not condone this nor any of the book really, even calling it "illegal" and yet it still managed to inflict an immeasurable amount of damage on Europe. The Hammer of Witches’ goal was to crush all satanic worshipers, and the hammer was striking true.
The estimate for how many people died during the Inquisition and other witch-hunts has been debated for many years. But an average of around 50 000 is the rough estimate. However, some scholars believe it to be far more, reaching up into the 100 000s, perhaps even millions. But whether it’s 50 000 or 10 million, the tragedy does not lessen. These were innocent people, condemned by jealous neighbours, jilted lovers, and spiteful family members, and they had no means of protecting themselves against the accusations.
Surprisingly, the Inquisition did not approve of The Hammer either - they "denied any authority to the Malleus". This, unfortunately, did not stop the laymen in the local village. They had no knowledge of any other literature on the matter and would see the book as a sort of companion piece to the bible.
The book was printed and reprinted again and again. Within 30 years it had been printed a total of 18 times and would be reprinted another nine in the coming 100 years. But there are some historians who question the significance of The Hammer. How much responsibility can truly be laid at the feet of Kramer? Unlike today, very few people were literate and book sharing knowledge was not as effective as teachings or preaches in the church.
What rather should be considered is word of mouth. Not everyone could read, certainly, but the story of a book denouncing women as witches, and combating them in the name of God, would certainly capture the imagination. No doubt the book, beyond its readers, was being discussed by peasant folk who, easily superstitious and swayed, began to see witches everywhere.
Where once witches were completely denied by the Catholic church, suddenly scours of people were searching for them in droves. Trying to run them out of town or, more preferably, burn them. If crops failed, it was a witch. If a plague broke out, it was a witch. If my daughter fell ill, it must be a witch! Witches became the embodiment of all evil in the world - the perfect scapegoat.
The inquisition did not help matters, it only affirmed suspicions, fueling the rising fires and encouraging more men to take up the mantle of the hunter. One man, in particular, Mathew Hopkins, the witch-finder General, would become a scourge upon Britain, killing over 100 women in his short three years as a hunter.
Even though the Catholic Church did not condone the belief in witches, Pope Innocent the III, would still give permission to select few to hunt and persecute them.
Judges would be careful in how they treated an accused witch's trial. If they showed too much sympathy they might find themselves on the wrong side of a new accusation.
The witch hunts would begin to slow in fervour in the 1600s when the age of revelation and logic began to take root. Reason and science prevailed over superstition and slowly the people turned away from their hunts, much to the relief of the churches, and most likely elderly women.
But its echoes would not die out entirely. In 1692, one of America’s greatest witch hunts would take place in Salem, Massachusetts where 25 people would die, 19 of which were hanged as witches, and over 300 would be incarcerated for suspicion of witchcraft. It would mark one of the greatest farces in history. A tragedy born out of hysteria and would result in a slew of apologies written to the accused. The Hammer of Witches had made its final swing, and it finally cracked - but did not break. More witch-hunts would break out across Europe in the coming years, but slowly the Hammer crumbled to dust.
The witch hunts of the middle-ages have left a stain of red across the entirety of Europe. Whether the Malleus Maleficarum was responsible for the entire tragedy is difficult to say, but one cannot deny it did make a spark big enough to set the whole country on fire. It’s upsetting to think of it in hindsight, but also surprising to think how one man’s book, with a little help from a printing press, managed to cause so much bedlam.