The Malleus Maleficarum (or The Witches’ Hammer) was the go-to manual that witch-hunters and inquisitors would reference during most of the witch-hunting era. The book was written by Heinrich Kramer and James Sprenger, two professors of theology who happened to be in the Order of Friars Preachers and were also Papal Inquisitors with a glowing recommendation from Pope Innocent VIII. Along with their description of witches, devils, monsters and the powers and abilities of all the above, the authors of the Malleus Maleficarumalso included in their text some stories and accounts of supernatural events that they picked up in their research. This is one of the really odd tales from their book involving a witch, a burial shroud and a plague that decimated a town.
This particular event described in the Malleus Maleficarumprobably occurred (or was set) in an Italian town. The story refers to an official called a ‘podesta,’ which usually refers to a magistrate in medieval Italy.
The tale began with an experienced sorceress and enchantress being buried in an uncertain Italian town. An interesting note—the writers did not clarify if the woman was buried dead or alive, but the story works in either scenario. Nevertheless, she was buried and life went on as usual for the rest of the inhabitants of the Italian town…at least in the beginning.
Soon after the burial of the sorceress, a sudden plague brought utter devastation to the small town. The rate of death was so high that the officials of the town began to search desperately for a way to save themselves and their fellow citizens.
In their frantic search for a cure for the plague, the town officials stumbled upon a rumor that the plague was somehow caused by the sorceress who had been buried earlier. According to the rumor, the plague was being sustained by the sorceress eating her own burial shroud and would not end until the entirety of the shroud was swallowed and digested.
With this new lead, the officials of the town journeyed to the place where they had buried the sorceress and then excavated the woman from her grave. When they observed the woman—lo and behold—the officials found that the sorceress had eaten her way through half of her burial shroud.
Taking in this bizarre and shocking sight, one official (the podesta) drew his sword, decapitated the sorceress and threw the head far away from the grave. According to the tale, as the head of the sorceress rolled away from the grave (and the burial shroud within it) the plague abruptly came to an end and the town was able to recover. So ended this odd tale about a sorceress (possibly buried alive) who brought a plague on a town by eating her own burial shroud.
If you are curious about how this story was presented in the Malleus Maleficarum, click HERE for a Google Books link to the section where this account is listed (Malleus Maleficarum, Part 1: Question XV).
Written by C. Keith Hansley.
- The Malleus Maleficarum by Heinrich Kramer and James Sprenger, translated by Montague Summers. New York: Dover Publications, 1971.