The witch-fearing people of medieval Europe developed for themselves several methods that they thought would help them detect, and possibly track, witches living in their communities. As with folk remedies and superstitious actions meant to ward off bad luck, these practices could be quite odd and imaginative. The methods recorded here comes from the Malleus Maleficarum, written by the Inquisitors Heinrich Kramer and James Sprenger and published around 1487. They drew much of their inspiration from what they encountered or heard in Germanic, Austrian, and Alpine regions. As such, these methods for detecting witches were likely used in those areas, although some of these practices were also found elsewhere. Many of these methods are related to livestock, which is understandable, as livestock troubles (especially the drying up of milk and animal deaths) were some of the most frequently reported claims of witchcraft. Without further ado, here are five ways that 15th-century people attempted to detect, and sometimes track, possible witches in their communities.
The Divination Method
Molybdomancy is a type of divination performed by pouring molten metal into water and examining the resulting metal formations. Diviners used this method in their attempts to predict the future, but it also eventually developed into a method for detecting witches. If citizens of a town suspected that a witch was in their midst, they might go to their local occult healer or diviner and ask for molybdomancy to be used in order to search for a malicious practitioner of witchcraft. According to the Malleus Maleficarum, a practitioner of Molybdomancy could both detect if witchcraft was used on a person and also harm the witch who cast the spell. Inquisitors Heinrich Kramer and James Sprenger described a peasant healer in Swabia who used Molybdomancy to determine if his patient was bewitched: “he took molten lead (in the manner of another witch whom we have mentioned), and held it in an iron ladle over my foot and poured it into a bowl of water… ‘Now,’ he said, ‘I see that this infirmity is not natural, but certainly due to witchcraft’” (in Part II, question 2, introduction).
If the benevolent occult healer also dabbled in witchcraft, it was believed that he or she could use molybdomancy to track and harm the witch who cursed the person that the healer was healing. The Malleus Maleficarum described a good witch who reportedly offered this service to someone she was healing: “Then the witch pours molten lead into water until, by the work of the devil, some image is formed by the solidified lead. On this, the witch asks in which part of the body he wishes his enemy to be hurt, so that he may recognize him by that hurt” (Part II, question 2, introduction). Therefore, in theory, if the healer scratched or broke the lead figure’s arm, then the arm of the guilty witch would be magically injured, and the townspeople could hunt the witch by scouring the town for people with injured arms.
The Bucket Drumming Method
Like the previous method, this practice supposedly could detect witchcraft and cause harm to a malignant witch operating in a town. Yet, whereas the molybdomancy was used to detect and punish witches who used their spells to do bodily harm, the bucket drumming method was instead used against witches who harmed livestock. If a milkmaid discovered that a cow was producing less milk than usual, and suspected that this reduction was of supernatural origin, then she might have used the bucket drumming method to ferret out the troublesome witch. The first step was to gather as much of the afflicted cow’s milk as could be obtained and place it in a pail. Next, this bucket of milk was hung over a fire, and then the practitioner of the ritual would begin drumming on the side of the pail with a stick. To increase the chance of the method working, some magical phrases could apparently be learned from the local occult healer or benevolent witch that would improve the ritual’s effectiveness. This method, it was believed, linked the milk bucket to the malignant witch, and every blow made against the pail was magically transferred to the back of the witch. The villagers then could search for witches by looking for people with welts on their backs, and even if no witch was discovered, it was believed that the ritual would at least deter the witch from placing any more curses on cows.
The Rampaging Cow Method
If bucket drumming was not your style, and you wanted a more direct way to discover a witch, there was always the good ol’ rampaging cow method. This one is quite self-explanatory. According to an odd supernatural theory, if a bewitched cow was led out to pasture and given a good whack, the animal would run straight for the house of the witch. There was, however, a catch—this method apparently only worked if dirty laundry was placed on the cow’s head or back. On this type of witch-tracking, the authors of Malleus Maleficarum wrote: “they drive it [the cow] out into the fields with a man’s trousers, or some such unclean thing, upon its head or back. And this they do chiefly on Feast Days and Holy Days, and possibly with some sort of invocation of the devil; and they beat the cow with a stick and drive it away. Then the cow runs straight to the house of the witch, and beats vehemently upon the door with its horns, lowing loudly all the while” (Part II, question 2, introduction).
The Organ-Burning Method
If the bewitched animal had died from the spell, the organ-burning method was another option. This ritual, however, was not for the faint of heart. Once the ritual was begun, the witch would reportedly feel so much pain that she would hunt down the person performing the ritual and do all in her power to stop the rite from being completed. What was supposed to be burned in these rituals could vary from case to case, but in stories of this method, the witch almost always appears, and with her arrival, the tales transition into the genre of spooky horror stories.
In the account presented in the Malleus Maleficarum, a person whose animal was supposedly killed by witchcraft had the organ-burning method in mind when he ceremoniously took the deceased creature’s intestines to his home. For unclear reasons, he made sure to enter through the back door—by no means was he to enter through the front door—and ultimately brought the intestines to his kitchen. Before proceeding, he made sure that the doors and windows of the house were secure, then he built a fire from coal. Finally, when the fire was hot and he had prepared himself for the horrors to come, the man put the intestines of his bewitched animal on top of the fire. As with the milk-bucket method, this ritual supposedly transferred the damage sustained by the cursed intestines back to the witch who cast the spell. Therefore, according to the theory, as the cow’s intestines were burning, so too were the intestines of the witch. The Malleus Maleficarum described the eerie and scary scene:
“But when they perform this experiment they take great care that the door is securely locked; because the witch is compelled by her pains to try to enter the house, and if she can take a coal from the fire, all her pains will disappear. And we have often been told that, when she is unable to enter the house, she surrounds it inside and out with the densest fog, with such horrible shrieks and commotions that at last all those in the house think the roof is verily going to fall down and crush them unless they open the door” (Part II, question 2, introduction).
According to folklore, if this method was used and completed, the witch would often be found dead somewhere near the location where the ritual was carried out, including right outside the door. Spooky.
The Shoe-Grease Method
To end this article on a more jovial note, we will conclude with a strange witch-hunting technique that we have hereby named the shoe-grease method. This is one of the more unique methods as it neither punishes the witch or points the user toward the witch’s direction. Instead, the shoe-grease method is more of a trap that could supposedly be laid out in secret to catch a witch by surprise.
The shoe-grease method seems to have been a community effort, as multiple people were involved. For this to work, the youths of the town would have to be willing to go along with the plan, and all the conspirators had to keep the plot confidential until Sunday. The Malleus Maleficarum described the bizarre ritual trap as follows:
“On a Sunday, they smear the shoes of young men with grease, lard or pig’s fat, as is their wont when they wish to repair and renew the freshness of the leather, and thus the juveniles enter the church, whence it is impossible for any witches who are present to make their way out or depart until those who are anxious to espy them either go away themselves or give them express leave to make their way to their homes” (Part II, question 2, introduction).
Written by C. Keith Hansley
Picture Attribution: (The Bewitched Man by Francisco Goya (1746–1828), [Publioc Domain] via Creative Commons).
- The Malleus Maleficarum by Heinrich Kramer and James Sprenger, translated by Montague Summers. New York: Dover Publications, 1971.