Malleus Maleficarum: How to Torture a Witch


A handbook for the Catholic Church’s Inquisitors. This article describes the authors and summarizes the facts within the handbook.

The Inquisition was a form of religious persecution exercised throughout the 16th and 17th Centuries. This tactic targeted mostly women, ordering over 50,000 to be sent to their death for accused witchcraft and heretical dalliances with the Devil.

Pope Innocent VIII’s Role in Persecution During the Inquisition

The authors of Malleus Maleficarum (“The Hammer of Witches”) were instructed by the ironically named Pope Innocent VIII to create a handbook for condemning accused witches. Innocent, voted as one of the 25 most evil people of all time, is known for having a strong influence on the vicious tactics used during the Inquisition. The Malleus Maleficarum was so popular that it was published 29 times between 1487 and 1669.

Jacob Sprenger and Heinrich Kramer Wrote the Handbook to the Inquisition

The Malleus Maleficarum was written by two men, Jacob Sprenger and Heinrich Kramer. Sprenger (c. 1436 – 1494) was an inquisitor of the Dominican order. He was appointed by Pope Innocent VIII to write a treatise teaching other judges how to properly question, torture, and condemn to death a woman accused of witchcraft. A respected theologian of his time, there is no proof that Sprenger ever tried any witches himself.

Heinrich Kramer’s Part in the Inquisition

Heinrich Kramer (c.1430 – 1505) was a priest who had primary knowledge of Inquisition tactics. Kramer claimed to have personally tried 100 women, half of whom he condemned to burn. He was driven out of many towns because his techniques, including forcing women to graphically describe their sexual habits, were distasteful to the townsfolk.

Witchcraft Rituals that Led to Execution

Instructions in the Malleus Maleficarum stated that female suspects must be stripped of all their clothing, and that this action would be conducted by another women. This technique was intended to prevent outcry against a male attendant for taking advantage of the suspect. While no overt reference was made of this, women accused of witchcraft seem easy prey for potential assaults. Sprenger and Kramer took an evolved path as they decided these women would die, but did not deserve to be raped.Satan had taught witches to avoid salvation as they used the bodies of murdered babies in their rituals. This accusation made people extremely uncomfortable. No one wanted to associate with a person accused of killing a child. These accusations had little basis in actual fact but served to make the suspects seem as though they deserved to die.

Torture as a Punishment for Alliances with the Devil

The Malleus Maleficarum stated that the judge should make the attendant tie the suspect up. The attendants would obey, but acted as though they did not want to. This article thought of every argument against torture. The authors always returned the blame to the Devil, the liar, who had stirred up trouble.

Witches Confessed to Being Against God

These instructions spent much of the time focused upon the fact that a judge made the suspect believe that a confession would save her life. The best possible scenario was that a witch would be forced to live on bread and water, hurting her fellow witches via evil spells. The witch would likely die after confessing, no matter what the judge had promised. If the judges were working under the authority of God, or at least Pope Innocent VIII, who was the real liar?

Torture as Means to Extract Confessions

If a witch confessed under torture, they must have confessed also when they were not tortured. Circular logic was applied. Although no torture implements were seen, this did not mean that the women who had been tortured were not extremely afraid of the same punishment. If the pain of torture was enough to inspire a confession, the threat of torture would be enough to keep the confession.

Witchcraft Would be Punished By Pain

The Malleus Maleficarum stated that if a confession was not obtained, torture should be continued but never repeated. Would the suspect have become adjusted to the torture and the pain would no longer affect them? Was the fear of witchcraft so strong that the Inquisitors truly believed the witches to be able to withstand pain and even become bored with it?

Devil Would Lead Witches to Commit Suicide Rather than Be Imprisoned

The instructions conclude with the admonishment that one should never leave the suspect alone. It was believed that the Devil would convince her to commit suicide After being torn away from your family, accused of alliances with the Devil, and hurt beyond understanding, who wouldn’t want to take the power back?