During the height of the regrettable witch-hunting craze in Europe and its colonies, numerous theologians and inquisitors built careers and reputations by theorizing about witchcraft and prosecuting suspected witches. Such was the case of the 15th-century figures, Heinrich Kramer and James (aka Johann or Jacob) Sprenger, two university professors of theology who also happened to be in the Order of Friars Preachers and worked as church Inquisitors with a glowing recommendation from Pope Innocent VIII (r. 1484-1492). They published the Malleus Maleficarum (The Hammer of Witches) around the year 1487, and it came to be one of the most popular and influential texts concerning magic, witches, demons, and other demonic forces. As their life’s work and pride was wrapped around the odd rabbit hole that was witchcraft era theology, authorities such as Kramer and Sprenger often did not take kindly to criticism of their beliefs and methods. In fact, if a witch hunter or theologian was strolling through a town, the locals would likely want to keep to themselves any criticism or skepticism that they were harboring in their minds. This is because anyone who professed disbelief in witches, demons, or magic could find themselves in trouble with the inquisitors. And it was not inconsequential danger—such skeptical people could be charged with heresy, or worse, be put on trial for being witches or wizards.
On the question of how skeptics and disbelievers of magic and witches should be addressed by witch-hunters and their followers, the Malleus Maleficarum was clear. Kramer and Sprenger wrote, “The question arises whether people who hold that witches do not exist are to be regarded as notorious heretics, or whether they are to be regarded as gravely suspect of holding heretical opinions. It seems the first opinion is the correct one” (Malleus Maleficarum, Part I, Question I). Therefore, if a critic accused the inquisitors of hunting beings that did not exist, the witch-hunters, based on the leading theological authority of the witch-hunting age, could respond by labeling the critic as a heretic.
A similar uncomfortable approach was used in interrogating suspected witches. If the suspect espoused disbelief in magic and witchcraft, the skepticism not only made them a heretic, per the quote in the paragraph above, but it also made the accused witch more suspicious in the eyes of the inquisitors. Here is the Malleus Maleficarum’s statement on such matters:
“Asked whether in those said places or elsewhere he had heard any talk of witches, as, for example, the stirring up of tempests, the bewitching of cattle, the depriving of cows of their milk, or any such matter of which he was accused; if he should answer that he had, he must be asked what he had heard, and all that he says must be written down. But if he denies it, and says that he heard nothing, then he must be asked whether he believes that there are such things as witches, and that such things as were mentioned could be done, as that tempests could be raised or men and animals bewitched. Note that for the most part witches deny this at first; and therefore this engenders a greater suspicion than if they were to answer that they left it to a superior judgement to say whether there were such or not. So if they deny it, they must be questioned as follows: Then are they innocently condemned when they are burned? And he or she must answer” (Malleus Maleficarum, Part III, Question 6).
Inquisitors would likely not respond well if the suspect stuck to his or her skeptical beliefs and accused the inquisitors and witch-hunters of burning innocent people to death. Such was the way a vocal critic could go from heretic, to suspected witch, to highly suspect, just by challenging the theological beliefs of witch-hunters and inquisitors. Unfortunately, the Malleus Maleficarum and its skepticism-adverse teachings remained influential for hundreds of years, until the text finally started to fall out of favor by the end of the 18th century.
Written by C. Keith Hansley
Picture Attribution: (Night Scene from the Inquisition, painted by Francisco de Goya (c. 1746-1828), [Public Domain] via the National Museum of Norway).
- The Malleus Maleficarum by Heinrich Kramer and James Sprenger, translated by Montague Summers. New York: Dover Publications, 1971.