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The Hammer of Witches

March 5, 2010

Or, “Why can’t witches cry?”

“Thou shalt not suffer a witch to live” – Exodus 22:18

Before you get started on this I should warn you that while you may find this post interesting, I can assure you it is not a “feel good” post. Continue reading at your own risk.

For the uninformed, allow me to introduce the Malleus Maleficarum, Latin for the “Hammer of Witches”.  In 1484, Pope Innocent VIII declared,

It has come to our ears that members of both sexes do not avoid to have intercourse with evil angels, incubi, and succubi, and that by their sorceries, and by their incantations, charms, and conjurations, they suffocate, extinguish, and cause to perish the births of women.

With no separation of Church or State (they were essentially one and the same) the Catholic Church set into motion it’s own version of the “Final Solution” in an effort to rid society of witches, for according to Pope Innocent, “If ‘the abominations and enormities in question remain unpunished,’ the souls of multitudes face eternal damnation.” Clearly then, for the sake of “family values”, witches needed to be sought out and brought to justice. Carl Sagan summarizes the situation quite well in Chapter 7 of his book, “The Demon-Haunted World“:

The Pope appointed Kramer and Sprenger to write a comprehensive analysis, using the full academic armoury of the late fifteenth century. With exhaustive citations of scripture and of ancient and modern scholars, they produced the Malleus Maleficarum, the ‘Hammer of Witches’, aptly described as one of the most terrifying documents in human history. Thomas Ady, in “A Candle in the Dark”, condemned it as ‘villainous Doctrines & Inventions’, ‘horrible lyes and impossibilities’, serving to hide ‘their unparalleled cruelty from the ears of the world’.

What the Malleus comes down to, pretty much, is that if you’re accused of witchcraft, you’re a witch. Torture is an unfailing means to demonstrate the validity of the accusation. There are no rights of the defendant. There is no opportunity to confront the accusers. Little attention is given to the possibility that accusations might be made for impious purposes – jealousy, say, or revenge, or the greed of the inquisitors who routinely confiscated for their own private benefit the property of the accused. This technical manual for torturers also includes methods of punishment tailored to release demons from the victim’s body before the process kills her. The Malleus in hand, the Pope’s encouragement guaranteed, Inquisitors began springing up all over Europe

And so began the systematic accusation, torture and execution of countless ‘witches’ all over Europe. With Papal support and a middle-finger to reason, Kramer and Sprenger eliminated any doubt as to the veracity of whether or not there actually were such a thing as witches in Part 1, Question #1 of the Malleus:

Malleus Maleficarum Part 1 – Question I

Whether the Belief that there are such Beings as Witches is so Essential a Part of the Catholic Faith that Obstinacy to maintain the Opposite Opinion manifestly savours of Heresy.

Since there was no difference in the treatment or heretics and witches, both were tortured to death mercilessly, the “truth” was self-evident; it’s true because they said it was true. Such was life in Europe during the great “Sleep of Reason” known as the Dark Ages.

The business of killing witches rapidly took off. And it was a business. Again, from Carl Sagan:

It quickly became an expense account scam. All costs of investigation, trial and execution were borne by the accused or her relatives, down to per diem for the private detectives hired to spy on her, wine for her guards, banquets for her judges, the travel expenses of a messenger sent to fetch a more experienced torturer from another city, and the faggots, tar and hangman’s rope. Then there was a bonus to the members of the tribunal for each witch burned. The convicted witch’s remaining property, if any, was divided between Church and State. As this legally and morally sanctioned mass murder and theft became institutionalized, as a vast bureaucracy arose to serve it, attention was turned from poor hags and crones to the middle class and well-to-do of both sexes. The more who, under torture, confessed to witchcraft, the harder it was to maintain that the whole business was mere fantasy. Since each ‘witch’ was made to implicate others, the numbers grew exponentially.

And with this increased demand came increased ingenuity and cruelty:

As the need to punish and kill witches grew, dozens and dozens of torture tools and methods were developed. One such item was the bootikens. These were boots that went from the person’s ankles to knees. Wedges were hammered up the length of the boot into the person’s leg, breaking and crushing bones as it went. Another tool used was called The Pear. It was a pear shaped apparatus that was often inserted into orifices. It was then expanded by way of a screw. It was often expanded enough until it tore and mangled which ever orifice it had been inserted in. Death would follow shortly, from either blood loss or infection. It was usually equipped with sharp spikes at the end so that a person could also be stabbed with it, usually in the neck. Another device known as Turcas was used to tear the fingernails out. This was followed by sticking pins or needles into the raw and exposed skin of the fingers.

Using red hot pincers against a witch’s body was also a favorite. Often a pincer was used to tear off pieces of flesh and in some cases inserted into vaginas and rectums. Many times a person would be stripped naked, horse whipped, and then would have the pincers used on them. Women sometimes had their breasts torn off with hot pincers to further humiliate them.

I can only imagine how difficult it would have been to be a woman in medieval Europe.  Think about it: If you pissed off the wrong person; a catty bitch that just has it in for you, a priest that would really like to see you in private for…you know…they had the ability to claim that you were a witch in retaliation. And since an accusation was nearly always synonymous with a conviction, you’d pretty much be fucked. Try and imagine the political deftness you’d need to survive in that environment; it scares the shit out of me thinking about it.

Anyway, after browsing through the index of the Malleus, I was curious to find out more about Part 3, Question #15: “Of the Continuing of the Torture, and of the Devices and Signs by which the Judge can Recognize a Witch; and how he ought to Protect himself from their Spells.”

How does one identify a witch?

Malleus Maleficarum Part 3 Question XV

Of the Continuing of the Torture, and of the Devices and Signs by which the Judge can Recognize a Witch; and how he ought to Protect himself from their Spells. Also how they are to be Shaved in Parts where they use to Conceal the Devil’s Masks and Tokens; together with the due Setting Forth of Various Means of Overcoming the Obstinacy in Keeping Silence and Refusal to Confess. And it is the Tenth Action

If he wishes to find out whether she is endowed with a witch’s power of preserving silence, let him take note whether she is able to shed tears when standing in his presence, or when being tortured. For we are taught both by the words of worthy men of old and by our own experience that this is a most certain sign, and it has been found that even if she be urged and exhorted by solemn conjurations to shed tears, if she be a witch she will not be able to weep: although she will assume a tearful aspect and smear her cheeks and eyes with spittle to make it appear that she is weeping; wherefore she must be closely watched by the attendants.

Answer: Simple; torture them, and if they don’t cry, they’re a witch.

My question is this: Why couldn’t these women cry? This is a real question, and I hope some reader will point out some physiological reason why people under severe stress are unable to cry. On one hand, I can kinda understand it; how can you summon real tears when you’re unbelievably pissed off and scared? But on the other, you’d think the fear of being tortured (just thinking about the Brazen Bull fills me with disgust and terror) would enable earnest and convincing waterworks.

I’m guessing there must be a reason, a real, medical, physiological reason, why people under extreme stress cannot cry. If you know, please comment, because I’ve wondered about this for some time now.

Also, here’s a somewhat interesting story I dug up while researching this, about a woman (some women) scorned.

The unfortunate Count's wife, holding a red-hot piece of iron (and the Count's head)

This painting, “The Ordeal by Fire” (Dierec Bouts the Older), is based on the 10th century story about the Holy Roman Emperor Otto III, who married the daughter of the King of Aragon. As the story goes, the Emperor’s new bride (now the Empress) fell in love with a Count of the Imperial Court, eventually making her desires known to him in no uncertain terms. The Count, to his honor and detriment, denied her advances, whereupon the Empress spitefully accused him of improper advances towards her. Not surpisingly, the furious Emperor had the Count immediately beheaded based on the Empress’ accusation.

But the story doesn’t end there because the Count’s wife appealed to the Emperor and requested an opportunity to prove her husband’s innocence by voluntarily undergoing an “Ordeal by Fire”, by holding a piece of red-hot iron in her hand. The belief behind the “Trial by Ordeal” was that “God would protect the innocent”, and she apparently survived the test unharmed. Naturally, this convinced the Emperor that it was, in fact, the Empress who had betrayed him, and with appropriate poetic justice, she was promptly convicted of making a false accusation and was subsequently burned alive.

Just like the woman in the background of the painting.



5 Responses to “ The Hammer of Witches ”

  1. Hollywood Hood on March 5, 2010 at 10:02 am

    Smarty – Your right, that’s not exactly a feel good piece you’ve assembled. It is, however, a fascinating look at how humans can suspend logic and do some incredibly heinous things. Beware overly pious folks, they might just throw you in a pot and roast you!

  2. Mr. Smarty Pants on March 5, 2010 at 11:09 am

    Grazie TC ~ Having finished the post, I realize it was a cathartic exercise for me. I feel like it’s not stuck in my head now, and I can “move on”. I look at this sort of stuff, and then feel horrible for looking. It bothers me to know that by the sheer grace of fate and good fortune that I was born here (in America), now, as opposed to Europe 500 years ago. I don’t think I’d have fared very well in that medieval madness. I question whether I’d have had the balls to stand up to people being fucking tortured. The safe play would have been to keep your head down, and stay out of the way. But by doing that, you’d come to understand the saying, “A coward dies a thousand deaths” all too well.


    I’m already looking forward to my next post. Much more upbeat!

  3. Christopher S. Mackay on March 17, 2010 at 5:31 pm

    I’ve produced the only modern edition of the original text of the Malleus (with English translation),

    so I know a bit about this work. You shouldn’t quote Carl Sagan, who obviously knows nothing about the actual text. Apart from anything else, the papal bull Summis desiderantes has nothing to do with the publication of the Malleus, and the pope most certainly did not appoint either Sprenger or Institioris to write the work (the bull was about a dispute concerning legal jurisdiction and was written in response to a petition submitted to the pope by Institoris, the text of the bull actually being based on that petition).

    As for crying, the notion that real witches can’t is part of the construct (“paradigm”) of witchcraft. Institoris believed in an interpretation of witchcraft (“satanism”) that was a novel construct, and part of this held that Satan was able to assist the accused so that they wouldn’t feel the pain of torture (the *maleficium taciturnitatis* or “sorcery of silence”). It may well be that some people accused of this nonsense were able to withstand the pain of it without crying, but the fact that provision is made to explain why some apparently do cry and to dispense with tears seen by guards with the argument that it’s only in front of the judge that they can’t cry shows that some of the accused actually did cry (and likely most did). Fundamentally, you’re dealing with the explanation of a set of phenomena by a man who has a very clear sense in his own mind of what he sees, and interprets the evidence on the basis of this. Institoris’s descriptions of the supposed evidence can’t be taken as a straightforward indication of “what really happened.”

    These matters are discussed at great length in the introduction to the large scholarly edition noted above. You can find a much shorter version in the stand-alone edition of only the English translation:

    FWIW, the quotation you cite is from the online version of Montague Summers’ completely unreliable edition of 1928. You’d be better of with my published version.


  4. Mr. Smarty Pants on March 17, 2010 at 11:40 pm

    Thanks for the info CSM! I truly appreciate it!

  5. Varika on May 9, 2010 at 9:50 pm

    I can think of one good medical reason why a person would be unable to cry: dehydration. I suffer from chronic dehydration, and even when I want to cry I often don’t get tears in my eyes. So a person who’s been tortured for a couple of days and isn’t given much water, if any, will probably not be in a position to cry. Even just being imprisoned without much water leaves you dehydrated, so by the time the judge gets to the accused, they may not be able to cry simply because there’s not enough water in their body to spare for it.