One of the more interesting tales of witchcraft contained in the Malleus Maleficarum, a book published by the inquisitors, Heinrich Kramer and James Sprenger in 1487, occurred in an unknown town within the region of Strasburg. According to the inquisitors’ story (in Part II, question 1, chapter 9), a certain woodcutter was going about his business in a lumberyard when a random cat suddenly attacked. When the woodcutter tried to drive off the cat with his axe or a nearby stick, another vicious cat arrived to defend its fellow feline. The man continued to try to shoo away the cats, but every time he threatened one of the feral beasts, a new cat would arrive and join the attack. Before long, it was as if all of the cats in Strasburg had declared war on this unlucky woodworker.
According to the inquisitors, the unnamed worker defended himself against the swarm of cats for around an hour. He was the only person in the lumberyard, so the only protection he had was his axe, or whatever makeshift weapons he could find lying around. Three of the cats, in particular, seemed to be the leaders of the furry army. The woodcutter managed to maim all three leaders—one he hit over the head, another he struck on the legs, and the last he hit across the back. With the feline commanders injured, the frenzied swarm of cats scurried away, leaving the woodcutter once again alone in the lumberyard. When the man got over his shock, he resumed his work.
Not long after the woodcutter’s bizarre battle was over, two employees of the town magistrate arrived at the lumberyard and dragged the man off to a dungeon. The town judge never spoke to the man, but only stared him down with hatred from afar. Without telling the woodcutter what he had been accused of, the judge had the laborer discarded in the deepest and most unaccommodating cell in the local prison. The baffled woodcutter pleaded with the jailors for three days, claiming that he was innocent and that he wanted to speak with the judge. He apparently won over the jailors with his pitiable words, and they helped the woodcutter set up a meeting with the judge.
At the meeting, the judge wanted to hear nothing else but a confession. When the woodcutter continued to profess his innocence, the judge became thoroughly enraged. In an angry matter-of-fact tone, the judge accused the woodcutter of battering three respected women of Strasburg. When the suspect steadfastly rejected the charge, the judge stated the wounds that the woodcutter had inflicted on the respected matrons—he had beat one woman over the head, he had hit another woman across the legs, and the last he had bludgeoned on the back. The judge backed up the charges by saying that the women were alive and had testified against the woodcutter. They also had marks on their bodies to prove the assault.
When the judge finished his speech, the woodcutter then told his side of the story. He recounted how he was attacked by a swarm of ferocious cats and how the wounds on the three women eerily reminded the woodcutter of the three injuries he had inflicted on the leading cats during the attack in the lumberyard. When the woodcutter finished telling his story, the judge and magistrate reacted as if everything was clear and understandable. They concluded that the incident was a case of witchcraft and that the three respected matrons, were in fact detestable witches. As for the ultimate fate of the three women, the authors of the Malleus Maleficarum remained vague, but they insinuated that the three women were spared.
The inquisitors, however, did try to explain the incident with their theories on witchcraft. They concluded that the cats were demonic illusions and that the damage from the woodcutter’s blows was supernaturally transferred from the illusory cats to the bodies of the women, who were elsewhere in the city. As for motive, the inquisitors wrote that this particular alleged act of witchcraft was done to imprison an innocent man and, if the women were spared, to produce a crime that would go unpunished.
Written by C. Keith Hansley.
Picture Attribution: (My Wife’s Lovers by Carl Kahler (1856–1906), [Public Domain] via Creative Commons).
- The Malleus Maleficarum by Heinrich Kramer and James Sprenger, translated by Montague Summers (Dover Publications, 1971).