The inquisitors that hunted and judged accused witches could often be unhealthily arrogant and vain when assessing their own power. This was very evident in The Malleus Maleficarum, which was, perhaps, the most influential text of the witch-hunting era. In the book, Heinrich Kramer and James Sprenger outlined the abilities of witches, demons and monsters, and then elaborated on how supernatural attacks could be deterred or cured. Yet, interestingly, Kramer and Sprenger also addressed some of the God-given holy powers of the inquisitors. In hindsight, these inquisitorial powers seem suspiciously self-serving.
The first blanket covering of protection that the inquisitors laid out for themselves was the idea that those people appointed by the church to administer justice in religious courts were innately immune to witchcraft. Speaking of witches, The Malleus Maleficarum stated, “it is said that they cannot injure Inquisitors and other officials, because they dispense public justice. Many examples could be adduced to prove this, but time does not permit it” (The Malleus Maleficarum, Part I, Question 18). Similarly, the inquisitors found that a member of public justice could virtually never be tempted or swayed by demons into practicing dark magic, making themselves all but immune to accusations of witchcraft.
Heinrich Kramer and James Sprenger recorded another really peculiar power of the inquisitor—they wrote that inquisitors had the ability to completely nullify a witch’s power. Therefore, if an accused witch could not produce any magic after she was apprehended, this predicament merely occurred because the holy abilities of the inquisitors were blocking her power. The Maleus Maleficarum stated, “the aforesaid Doctor affirms that witches have borne witness that it is a fact of their own experience that, merely because they have been taken by officials of public justice, they have immediately lost all their power of witchcraft” (Part II, Question 1). Kramer and Sprenger go on to quote another inquisitor named Peter, who calmed his worried men before arresting an accused male witch with these words: “You may safely arrest the wretch, for when he is touched by the hand of public justice he will lose all the power of his iniquity” (Part I, Question 1).
This idea of magic nullifying powers held by the inquisitors was especially potent when mixed with an ability The Malleus Maleficarum attributed to the most elite and powerful witches. Apparently, some inquisitors believed the most adept witches could force lesser witches to keep silent under torture. Heinrich Kramer and James Sprenger wrote, “they can affect Judges and Magistrates so that they cannot hurt them; they can cause themselves and others to keep silence under torture” (The Malleus Maleficarum, Part II, Question I, Chapter 2).
With these short religious theories, the inquisitors proposed that they, themselves, were immune to witchcraft. Their self-proclaimed immunity was so powerful that it eradicated the ability of witches to perform their craft. If that was not enough, powerful witches, themselves, could supposedly force their underlings into silence, even during torture. As a result, even when the unfortunate souls who confessed to witchcraft under torture could not demonstrate any supernatural ability, inquisitors could explain the absence of magic by citing the nullifying effect of their public office. If an accused witch claimed innocence, the inquisitors could propose that another witch was keeping their prisoner from confessing. The fate of the accused rested with the temperament of their judge, and the degree to which the inquisitors believed in, or disregarded, ideas such as the ones listed above.
Written by C. Keith Hansley.
- The Malleus Maleficarum by Heinrich Kramer and James Sprenger, translated by Montague Summers. New York: Dover Publications, 1971.