Useless skill from 15th-century monks


Giovanni da Modena. Lucifer Eating Sinners. Cappella Bolognini, Chapel of the Magi. 1410 / Alamy

By Jakob Sprenger and Heinrich Institoris

Who are witches?

Witches are individuals who, through powers gained from a pact with the devil, are capable of practicing various forms of sorcery. This includes an ability to deceive people with different illusions and sensory tricks.

Do Witches Truly Exist?

Some people believe that witchcraft does not exist, attempting to justify their claims with references to Holy Scripture and the works of Saint Thomas Aquinas. However, these assertions are heretical, as Scripture explicitly states that demons and devils are fallen angels from heaven. Demons possess greater power than humans and can control them if they so desire. Moreover, the Book of Leviticus states that we should fight sorcerers and enchanters. All of this attests to the existence of witches and witchcraft.

How Do You Recognize a Witch?

Identifying a witch is a complex endeavor that we will not delve into in great detail here. However, it is important to note that witches are typically found amongst women. Of course, as we well know, the very term ‘woman’ conveys the notion of being ‘weak in faith’. And while male witches, or sorcerers, do exist, they are less commonly encountered.

Who Falls Under the Jurisdiction of the Inquisitors?

All practitioners of sorcery, divination, and necromancy, and all those who have renounced the accepted holy faith, are subject to the authority of the inquisitors and the bishop. This category also encompasses blasphemers, summoners of demons, and individuals who have been excommunicated for over a year.

How Is the Process of Trying a Witch Initiated?

The process can be based on three primary grounds:

1. If a person brings an accusation of witchcraft before a judge.

2. If a person reports a witch or heretic.

3. If rumors reach the ears of the inquisitors that witches reside in a particular town or village.

The judge must then start the process by summoning witnesses and issuing a proclamation, which should be affixed to the church door. This proclamation must be a reminder of the necessity to uphold the purity of the Catholic faith, urging all those who possess any knowledge of witches or heretics to come forward as witnesses and testify. It is vital that the consequences of withholding such information be emphasized because failure to comply would lead to excommunication from the church.

How Many Witnesses Are Required?

According to the law, two witnesses are sufficient. However, it is advisable to question as many witnesses as necessary for the trial, given that accusations of witchcraft are considered among the gravest. Further, witnesses often come forward due to personal animosity or ill will towards the accused, and it is best that there is no scope for accusations of revenge to color the trial.

Who Can Serve as a Witness?

For such a grave and important offense, it is only right that we wonder who can serve as a witness in the trial. Can excommunicated individuals and perjurers provide testimony? Excommunicated individuals, participants in witchcraft, those stripped of their rights, criminals, and serfs in conflict with their lords are all eligible to provide testimony in religious proceedings. Heretics can testify against other heretics, while witches can provide testimony against fellow witches. Witnesses can also include spouses, sons, and household members. Their willingness to assist the court suggests a desire to make amends for their transgressions.

How Does the Trial Move Forward?

The next phase involves conducting interviews with witnesses and the accused. It's advisable to conduct these interviews multiple times. Both witnesses and the accused should take an oath. The judge should inquire about all relevant circumstances, including the relationship between the witness and the accused, the accused's family history, her reputation, and more. A detailed record should be maintained through this process. If necessary, the accused's residence should also be searched, and during the trial, they should be held in custody.

Is the Accused Entitled to a Defense?

Yes, the accused is entitled to a defense, and the defender will receive compensation for their work. However, during the process, the defender can withdraw if they are convinced of the truth of the accusations. In such cases, they must refund the payment to the accused. Typically, lawyers aim to highlight any strong enmity between the witnesses and the alleged witch. If such enmity is established, the witness is no longer summoned to court. Nonetheless, witches and heretics often try to evade punishment by labeling witnesses as their mortal enemies. The judge should bear this in mind.

What Are the Punishments for Witches?

All punishments depend on the gravity of the accused's offenses and the judge's certainty of her guilt. The following scenarios may arise:

The property of women is to weep, weave and deceive

Slight suspicion of guilt

This takes place when the evidence and testimonies against the accused are insufficient. Nevertheless, such a woman must still face punishment. Firstly, she must publicly renounce any heresy and agree to subsequent penalties. For example, she might be required to fast on specific days, stay within the town limits during certain times, and stand barefoot, with her head bare, outside the church doors during services, holding a piece of wax of a specified weight, which is then placed on the altar.

Constantin Nepo. La Nuit de Walpurgis. / Wikimedia Commons

Constantin Nepo. La Nuit de Walpurgis. / Wikimedia Commons

Strong suspicion of guilt

This arises when indirect evidence supports accusations of heresy or witchcraft. In this case, the accused must also publicly renounce heresy. Additionally, the judge can impose penalties similar to those for slight suspicions.

Extreme suspicion of heresy or witchcraft

This occurs when the accused is frequently involved in activities resembling sorcery, such as causing harm to others through the words they speak. If the suspect renounces heresy, she is sentenced to lifelong imprisonment. Alternatively, she may be required to wear a monk's scapular of a lead color over her clothes, without a cowl, adorned with yellow cloth crosses, two palms wide and three palms long, attached both at the back and the front. The judge decides when and for how long the alleged heretic should wear such a scapular. After a repeat offense of heresy the accused is condemned to fire. If the accused resists and does not confess, she is held in confinement and subjected to torture.

When Should a Witch Face Execution by Burning?

A witch should be burned only if she confesses to the crime. Those who are mentally weak and haven't fully surrendered to the demon tend to confess quickly. The demon abandons them during the trial. However, there are those who resist. Torture is employed in such cases.

How Should the Torture Proceed?

Similar to the process so far, torture should be conducted following a protocol documented by a notary. Depending on the gravity of the crime, the torture can be either mild or excruciating. It's important to remember that during torture, witches sometimes become possessed by a demon invoking them to kill themselves. For this reason, guards should be present during torture.

How Does a Witch Behave While Being Tortured?

If a woman does not cry while being tortured, she is immediately labeled a witch. Though, there have been some instances of witches trying to deceive judges by smearing their cheeks with saliva to feign crying. The core traits of women include crying, deception, and manipulation, and so a ‘real’ witch might indeed shed tears during torture. However, some witches possess such strong willpower that they endure extended torture without admitting guilt.

What Types of Torture Exist?

There are numerous methods of torture. However, the most common is the use of a stake. After the witch is elevated from the ground on a stake, witness testimonies are read to her. Alternatively, a trial involving heated iron can also be proposed. Witches often accept such a trial, believing the devil will protect them from burns. In such instances, the trial is not executed.

What Follows after Confession?

If the witch confesses, she may be handed over to the secular court for execution of the death sentence. Alternatively, the judge can impose any of the punishments that have been mentioned. The sentence is always publicly declared, and sometimes, witches and their defenders attempt to delay the process through appeals. In such scenarios, the judge must demonstrate the baselessness of these appeals.

How Can One Defend against Witchcraft?

The judges and other participants should wear salt sanctified on Palm Sunday around their necks, along with blessed herbs and wax. Witches can harm you not only through touch, but also through the evil eye and their horrific words. Additionally, all hair on the witch's body should be shaved off as some witches hide superstitious amulets in their hair. There's a recorded instance of a witch carrying ashes from the burned body of an unbaptized male child. Hence, the possessions of a suspected witch should be thoroughly searched.

Burning of a witch in Derenburg (Germany). Miniature of the 16th century / Wikimedia Commons

Burning of a witch in Derenburg (Germany). Miniature of the 16th century / Wikimedia Commons

What to read

1. Kramer, Heinrich; Sprenger, Jacob. "Malleus Maleficarum," translated by M.A. Gureeva, with an introduction by S.M. Lozinsky. Moscow, 2017.

2. Togoeva, O.I. "Reality or Illusion? The Theory and Practice of Early Witch Trials in Western Europe (13th-15th centuries)." In Umbra: Demonology as a Semiotic System. Vol. 2. Moscow, 2013.

3. Togoeva, O.I. "True Justice. Languages of Medieval Jurisprudence." Moscow, 2006.