Numerous stories of supposed witchcraft can be found in the pages of The Malleus Maleficarum, a 15th-century treatise on witchcraft and demonology. The authors of the text, Heinrich Kramer and James Sprenger, were theologians, Dominican friars and inquisitors sanctioned by the unsavory Pope Innocent VIII (r. 1484-1492). In the book, they systematically described the abilities of witches and demons, recorded stories of witchcraft, provided believed remedies for those afflicted by spells, and even gave judicial advice on how to prosecute suspected witches. While the inquisitors based the bulk of their inferences on scripture and the words of saints, they also included some odd episodes from their own lives, in which they thought they witnessed scenes of witchcraft or demonic possession. One of these stories featured a devout priest who, despite his piety, was allegedly forced by a demon to stick his tongue out at churches.
According to The Malleus Maleficarum, either Heinrich Kramer or James Sprenger had a bizarre encounter in Rome during the time of Pope Pius II (r. 1458-1464). At some point during that interval of years, Kramer or Sprenger (the authors did not specify) met two pilgrims from the town of Dachov, in Bohemia. It was a father and son duo, with the son being a promising young priest from that town. Yet, something was seriously wrong—the priest believed he was possessed by a demon.
The inquisitor claimed that the priest knew exactly why he had been possessed. Apparently, the youthful clergyman had tried to bring a powerful witch back to the path of righteousness, but she, in turn, cursed the priest by leaving an evil charm buried in the shade of a tree. The spell somehow made the priest vulnerable to demonic possession and he was subsequently invaded by an evil spirit, which would not leave until the witch’s charm was removed. As the priest doubted that he would locate the evil charm, he decided to seek help in Rome.
Interestingly, the inquisitor did not at first believe the priest to be possessed. The man was humble, polite and seemed completely normal during the interview with the inquisitor. Noticing the inquisitor’s disbelief, the priest said that the demon only interfered if he approached a church or pondered religious thoughts, making it impossible for the clergyman to prepare or deliver a sermon. After hearing this information, the inquisitor decided to take the possessed priest on a tour of Rome’s plentiful religious establishments.
The inquisitor brought the priest to some of the places thought to be most holy in the city of Rome, including the so-called Holy Pillar of the Scourging in the basilica of Saint Prassede all’esquilino and the supposed spot where Saint Peter was executed. When the possessed priest reached these venerated spots, he allegedly became wild and would stick out his tongue. When he was not wagging his tongue at the churches, the possessed clergyman would also scream. In one of the more peculiar scenes from the story, the priest even bit a pillar in the Church of St. Peter that supposedly originated from the Temple of Solomon. The inquisitor tried a few exorcisms at the above-mentioned holy sites, but he could not cure the priest.
Although the inquisitor found himself unfit to do the job, the possessed priest was apparently saved by a wandering bishop who entered Rome after being displaced by the expansion of the Ottoman Empire. The bishop supposedly succeeded in exorcising the demon after powering himself up with a forty day fast on bread and water.
Written by C. Keith Hansley.
Picture Attribution: (A discolored statue of a clergyman (via pixhere.com) in front of a smoky background (via pixabay.com), all [Public Domain] via Creative Commons).
- The Malleus Maleficarum by Heinrich Kramer and James Sprenger, translated by Montague Summers (Dover Publications, 1971).