The Judges’ Guide to Detention and Torture of Witches

~From the Malleus Maleficarum (Hammer of Witches) of 1487~

This is an excerpt from the text Malleus Maleficarum, which is considered to be the “handbook” for the persecution of witches used by male perpetrators of the misogynistic and bloodthirsty attempted extirpation that took place during the 16th and 17th centuries.

Title page of the Malleus Maleficarum, 1669 edition.
Title page of the Malleus Maleficarum, 1669 edition.

Question XIII

Of the Points to be Observed by the Judge before the Formal Examination in the Place of Detention and Torture. This is the Eighth Action

And here, because of the great trouble caused by the stubborn silence of witches, there are several points which the Judge must notice, and these are dealt with under their several heads.
And the first is that he must not be too quick to subject a witch to examination, but must pay attention to certain signs which will follow. And he must not be too quick for this reason: unless God, through a holy Angel, compels the devil to withhold his help from the witch, she will be so insensible to the pains of torture that she will sooner be torn limb from limb than confess any of the truth.

Folter Von Hexen (Torture of Witches), 1590
Folter Von Hexen (Torture of Witches), 1590.

But the torture is not to be neglected for this reason, for they are not all equally endowed with this power, and also the devil sometimes of his own will permits them to confess their crimes without being compelled by a holy Angel. And for the understanding of this the reader is referred to that which is written in the Second Part of this work concerning the homage which they offer to the devil.

A "witch" is tortured. Martin van Maele, 1911.
A “witch” is tortured. Martin van Maele, 1911.

For there are some who obtain from the devil a respite of six or eight or ten years before they have to offer him their homage, that is, devote themselves to him body and soul; whereas others, when they first profess their abjuration of the faith, at the same time offer their homage. And the reason why the devil allows that stipulated interval of time is that, during that time, he may find out whether the witch has denied the faith with her lips only but not in her heart, and would therefore offer him her homage in the same way.

For the devil cannot know the inner thoughts of the heart except conjecturally from outward indications, as we showed in the First Part of this work where we dealt with the question whether devils can turn the minds of men to hatred or love. And many have been found who, driven by some necessity or poverty, have been induced by other witches, in the hope of ultimate forgiveness in confession, to become either total or partial apostates from the faith. And it is such whom the devil deserts without any compulsion by a holy Angel; and therefore they readily confess their crimes, whereas others, who have from their hearts bound themselves to the devil, are protected by his power and preserve a stubborn silence.

And this provides a clear answer to the question how it comes about that some witches readily confess, and others will by no means do so. For in the case of the former, when the devil is not compelled by God, he still deserts them of his own will, in order that by temporal unhappiness and a horrible death he may lead to despair those over whose hearts he could never obtain the mastery. For it is evident from their sacramental confessions that they have never voluntarily obeyed the devil, but have been compelled by him to work witchcraft.

Depiction of the Devil giving magic puppets to witches, from Agnes Sampson trial, 1591.
Depiction of the Devil giving magic  puppets to witches, from Agnes Sampson trial, 1591.

And some also are distinguished by the fact that, after they have admitted their crimes, they try to commit suicide by strangling or hanging themselves. And they are induced to do this by the Enemy, lest they should obtain pardon from God through sacramental confession. This chiefly happens in the case of those who have not been willing agents of the devil; although it may also happen in the case of willing agents, after they have confessed their crimes: but then it is because the devil has been compelled to desert the witch.

Witch Burning at the Stake, 19th century.
Burning for Jesus, 19th century.

In conclusion we may say that it is as difficult, or more difficult, to compel a witch to tell the truth as it is to exorcise a person possessed of the devil. Therefore the Judge ought not to be too willing or ready to proceed to such examination, unless, as has been said, the death penalty is involved. And in this case he must exercise great care, as we shall show; and first we shall speak of the method of sentencing a witch to such torture.

Memorial for the ca. 270 victims of the witch trails in Fulda 1600-1606 established 2008 on the old cemetery near the cathedral.
Memorial for the ca. 270 victims of the witch trails in Fulda, Germany, 1600-1606 established 2008. Heinrich Stürzl.

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