Today the idea of witchcraft has been relegated to new age religions like Wicca, Voodoo and others that hold magickal traditions as part of a religion. No one really thinks that demon worshippers are selling their souls and wreaking havoc with powers given to them by the devil. Well, no one thinks this other than the Tea Party and other fringe members of the religious right. But if you were to turn back the hands of the clock a few hundred years, you’d see a time where witchcraft was a very serious matter, and one in which the church intended to punish anyone who didn’t believe in witches in the same way it would punish those accused of being witches.
Start the time line around the year 1350 or so. The Black Death (or the bubonic plague, which doesn’t have the same ring to it) has finally finished ravaging all of Europe with corpses left behind in stacks of millions. This was a massive disaster, and a failure of medicine (despite or because of some of the crazy practices at the time) to slow much less halt the progress of the Grim Reaper has left people shaken and horrified. Where some might see the end of a tragedy and the opportunity for a new beginning, the Catholic Church saw a chance to begin levying punishment where punishment was really due. On witches, of course.
Now witchcraft, ranging from herbalism to old pagan rites that had survived the march of the Christian soldiers, was tacitly tolerated in many places up to the twilight of the 13th century. However as the 14th century dawned, rumors of enemies and outcasts trying to destroy the empires of Christianity with poison, corruption and heinous magic began to circulate. Sometimes the enemies were Jews, other times they were Moslems (Muslims in modern spelling). After the Black Death had passed the rumors began to focus on witches and warlocks as the enemies of Christianity and as the spreaders of the plague. Science had not yet recognized the rats, and the fleas they bore as the carriers of the disease. Over time hatred of this non-existant foe, who represented the clash of cultures and a threat to the legitimacy of Christianity in a changing world where power was moving out of the hands of the church, had become so common that people were beginning to look for them, if not to actually see them.
Witch crazes became common in places where rapid development lead to quickly changing culture, and especially in places with technological advancement like Gutenberg’s printing press. In an attempt to give some form and function to the chaos of the hunts, two inquisitors named Heinrich Kramer and Jacob Sprenger wrote the Malleus Maleficarum. The title “The Hammer of Witches” was meant to put in order the information that you needed to find, try and convict a witch of her crimes against the good, Christian people of the community. First published in 1487 the book went through a total of 29 publications and it had a huge effect on witch hunts in Europe for the next 200 years.
Now how do you go about writing a field guide for an enemy that doesn’t exist? Well, the Malleus Maleficarum came in three different sections. Part I dealt with how the devil and his agents could only act in ways that were permitted by God, since they couldn’t overcome God’s decrees and thus could only operate in a given set of rules. Thus they worked through the weak, the unwashed and the outcast to try and get into society and cause damage. It listed how demons like succubi and incubi could be inflicted on men and women, how crops could be killed and how fertility would be ruined to try and eat away at the resolve of the community until it would beg the witches to help end the crisis that they had created. Part II dealt with witches actually casting spells, performing malefic acts and the supposed pact that they made with the Devil in exchange for access to forbidden knowledge, power and magic. This bargain, which is Faustian in origin, supposedly signed away the soul of a witch in exchange for becoming an avatar of evil and wickedness on Earth. Part III got into the meat of the work, giving exact instructions for prosecuting, questioning, torturing and executing witches.
All in all the Malleus Maleficarum is a work of sexist paranoia that didn’t include a single reference to Christian mercy, but seemed to be written in pure, Old Testament wrath and spite. Witches are primarily viewed as women (which are viewed as inherently inferior and lustful, according to the presiding biblical theories of the time), and great care is taken that they be stripped of clothes, hair and that they never be allowed to face a judge lest they cast an evil eye. The book actively encourages the use of torture to gain confessions, and suggests that accused witches be offered a stay of execution if they name other witches. This tactic was seen hundreds of years later in America’s Salem Witch Trials, but the Malleus Maleficarum suggested that the death sentence be upheld after the witch had confessed.
To make matters even worse, there were several accusations of forgery and fraud levied at the authors. As soon as 1490 Kramer was denounced by the Inquisition he served, and it was said that the letter of endorsement given by the Cologne College in Germany that was found in the beginning pages of the Malleus Maleficarum was either forged, or given under misunderstood terms. Despite all of this though the manual was eaten up in areas like Germany, France and other places with rapidly changing enviornment where the witch panics took hold like a fever and wouldn’t let go.
However, the Great Witch Hunt seemed to have dropped by the early 1500s at the first signs of the Reformation, but it had one last huzzah in the form of the Burning Times around the year 1550. Then, just as suddenly as it had come the witch trials and the surety that the envoys of Satan were behind every natural disaster and ever poor turn of crops blew away like smoke. By the beginning of the 17th century, witch trials were unheard of, and would have been considered laughable. Even so, there were an estimated 40,000 to 50,000 deaths of accused witches, with 25% of those being men.
You can see this sort of panic sweeping through a society at practically any time where a world view begins to crumble. America’s Red Scares, where Communism became the enemy, are a good example. Another is the Satanic Panic, where for most of the 1980s the newly formed religious right had convinced a huge part of the country that Satanists (just as good as witches, really) were out to destroy them, their way of life and especially their children. Fortunately there was never a universally adopted handbook, or these later growing pains of the social order might have become even worse than they were.
“Case Study: The European Witch Hunt,” by Anonymous at Gendercide
“Malleus Maleficarum,” by Anonymous at The Mystica
“Introduction to Online Edition,” by Wicasta at Malleus Maleficarum