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The Malleus Maleficarum, aka Hammer of Witches, was the de facto standard playbook for witchcraft trials in the 17th century. Here is how to officially charge, try – and convict – a witch.

Malleus Maleficarum 1519 Hammer of Witches

About the Malleus Maleficarum – the Hammer of Witches

The first known attempt at trying a witch was made by monk Heinrich Kramer in 1484. He was not successful and was subsequently driven from the town of Innsbruck for being “senile and crazy”. In response, he penned a tome that laid out the principles for determining, and convicting, a person for practicing witchcraft.

The Latin Malleus Maleficarum, aka Hammer of Witches, was written in 1486 as a treatise on witchcraft. It describes how a community can determine if a person is a witch using basic questions (and torture) to obtain confessions. It was widely used by royal courts during the Renaissance and contributed to the increasingly brutal prosecution of witchcraft during the 16th and 17th centuries. It served as a procedural guideline during Salem Witch Trials.

How to conduct a witch trial

According to the Maaleus Maleficarum, here’s how a witch trial should be conducted.

The trial for a witch should be quick

The case should be conducted in the “simplest and most summary manner” and should be quick. The judge should “shorten the conduct of the case as much as he can by disallowing all dilatory exceptions, appeals and obstructions, the impertinent contentions of pleaders and advocates, and the quarrels of witnesses, and by restraining the superfluous number of witnesses.”

How to arrest a witch and search their home

The accused should be placed into custody and her home “searched unexpectedly, and all chests to be opened and all boxes in the corners, and all implements of witchcraft which are found to be taken away”. Items indicative of a witch include poppet stick figures, certain books, ointments, and herbs.

The poor were to be considered especially suspect in witch trials “because such a person has many evil accomplices, such as outlaws and homicides, associated with him, who venture nothing but their own persons, which is not the case with anyone who is nobly born or rich, and abounding in temporal possessions”.

How to prepare a witch for trial

The accused should have the hair shaved from every part of her body. Their body should be examined for witch’s tools and markings such as moles or blemishes on the body.

During the trial, the Judge “should wear round his neck Consecrated Salt and other matters, with the Seven Words which Christ uttered on the Cross written in a schedule, and all bound together.” The accused should be led into the courtroom walking backward so she cannot look at the judge. She should then be given Holy Water to drink.

How to use witnesses in a witchcraft trial

Witnesses should be called to testify against the accused. The accused is not to be told the names of the witnesses because witches bore “the power of malice” and may use witchcraft to threaten the witness. If the accused however, continues to insist on knowing the names of the witnesses, you can supply answers like this: “You can guess from the charges which are made against you who are the witnesses” or “You should have known better than to deny their request for money”. Regardless, true witches often correctly guess the names of those who have accused them.

How to question witnesses (and the accused witch)

After being sworn in and asked preliminary questions, the accused should be asked if “any of the accused’s kindreds had formerly been burned as witches”. Then the accused is asked if he had “heard any talk of witches, as, for example, the stirring up of tempests, the bewitching of cattle, the depriving of cows of their milk, or any such matter of which he was accused”. If the accused answers negatively, they are asked if they believe in “such things as witches and that such things as were mentioned could be done, as that tempests could be raised or men and animals bewitched.” In most cases, witches will deny such things are possible. Accordingly, this “engenders a great suspicion” in the accused.

Witnesses should be called and asked if the accused had harmed them. If they confirm that they were harmed by the accused, this suggests the accused is a witch “for this is a common custom of witches, to stir up enmity against themselves by some word or action, as, for example, to ask someone to lend them something or else they will damage his garden, or something of that sort”.

The witness should be asked if the accused was seen in the fields or in the stable “as it is sometimes their custom”. They should be asked if a child was touched and afterward fell sick. It should be noted if the accused’s cows produced more milk than their neighbors.

How to gain a confession from a witch (aka how to torture a witch)

A witch cannot be convicted unless she confesses. Thus, torture can be used to obtain a confession. While she is being questioned about each several point, “let her be often and frequently exposed to torture”.

The judges should take note “whether she is able to shed tears when standing in his presence, or when being tortured” and it should be pointed out that some witches “are so hard that however much they are tortured the truth is not to be had from them; and this is especially the case with those who have been tortured before, even if their arms are suddenly stretched or twisted”.

“The Judge shall use his own persuasions and those of other honest men zealous for the faith to induce her to confess the truth voluntarily; and if she will not, let him order the officers to bind her with cords, and apply her to some engine of torture; and then let them obey at once but not joyfully, rather appearing to be disturbed by their duty. Then let her be released again at someone’s earnest request, and taken on one side, and let her again be persuaded; and in persuading her, let her be told that she can escape the death penalty if she confesses.”

Torture should be conducted without touching the accused (witches can bewitch someone through touch). “While she is raised from the ground, if she is being tortured in this way, let the Judge read or cause to be read to her the depositions of the witnesses with their names, saying: “See! You are convicted by the witnesses.”

If torture does not persuade the witch to confess, the judge should “ask her whether, to prove her innocence, she is ready to undergo the ordeal by red-hot iron or boiling water. And they all desire this, knowing that the devil will prevent them from being hurt; therefore a true witch is exposed in this manner.”

How to trick a witch into confessing

Finally, if the witch still refuses to confess, imprison her. “After she has been kept under custody for some days, let the custodian pretend that he is going on a long journey. Then let some of his household visit her and promise that they will set her free if she will teach them how to conduct certain practices”.

“The next step of the Judge should be that, if after being fittingly tortured she refuses to confess the truth, he should have other engines of torture brought before her, and tell her that she will have to endure these if she does not confess. If then she is not induced by terror to confess, the torture must be continued on the second or third day” until the judge is satisfied that the truth has been found.