When writing my novel ‘The Black Hours’ I researched in depth the methods used to interrogate and persecute suspected witches. This was, on the whole, a rather grim process that occasionally reduced me to tears when I thought about the real women (and sometimes men) behind these often lurid and horrific accounts.
The backbone of my research came from the infamous ‘Malleus Maleficarum’ or ‘Hammer of the Witches’. This is a 15th century treatise that is basically a handbook on the way to identify, interrogate and prosecute those suspected of witchcraft. It was written in 1486 by Heinrich Kramer, a German Catholic clergyman, and had three main purposes – to refute allegations that witchcraft did not exist, to set out the forms of witchcraft and the ways in which the craft can be identified and resolved, and to aid and assist magistrates in the prosecution of those accused.
What I found particularly dreadful about this treatise was its terrible attitude towards women. Although acknowledging that both men and women can practice witchcraft, the treatise argues strongly that it is women who are more susceptible due to their gender – women, according to Kramer, are more inclined to submit to temptation due to their inherent weakness as a sex; they are weak in faith and in character and more carnal than men, leading the ‘stronger’ sex into sin. Indeed the word ‘maleficarum’ is the feminine form of the Latin word for ‘witch’.
While I am aware that the times were significantly different, the utter hatred for the female sex is breathtaking. Here are a few of the horrible assertions:
‘since they (women) are feebler both in mind and body, it is not surprising that they should come more under the spell of witchcraft.’
‘she is more carnal than a man, as is clear from her many carnal abominations. And it should be noted that there was a defect in the formation of the first woman, since she was formed from a bent rib, that is, a rib of the breast, which is bent as it were in a contrary direction to a man. And since through this defect she is an imperfect animal, she always deceives.’
‘No one does more harm to the Catholic Faith than midwives. For when they do not kill children, then, as if for some other purpose, they take them out of the room and, raising them up in the air, offer them to devils.’
‘when girls have been corrupted, and have been scorned by their lovers after they have immodestly copulated with them in the hope and promise of marriage with them, and have found themselves disappointed in all their hopes and everywhere despised, they turn to the help and protection of devils; either for the sake of vengeance by bewitching those lovers or the wives they have married, or for the sake of giving themselves up to every sort of lechery. Alas! experience tells us that there is no number to such girls, and consequently the witches that spring from this class are innumerable.’
‘all witchcraft comes from carnal lust, which is in women insatiable.’
What is also interesting is that Kramer backs up his assertions with references to the Bible. He references Ecclesiastics xxv:
‘There is no head above the head of a serpent: and there is no wrath above the wrath of a woman. I had rather dwell with a lion and a dragon than to keep house with a wicked woman.’
He also quotes St John Chrysostom commenting on St Matthew:
‘It is not good to marry! What else is woman but a foe to friendship, an unescapable punishment, a necessary evil, a natural temptation, a desirable calamity, a domestic danger, a delectable detriment, an evil of nature, painted with fair colours!’
Kramer then turns to the philosophers, quoting Cicero:
‘The many lusts of men lead them into one sin, but the lust of women leads them into all sins; for the root of all woman’s vices is avarice.’
‘A woman either loves or hates; there is no third grade. And the tears of woman are a deception, for they may spring from true grief, or they may be a snare. When a woman thinks alone, she thinks evil.’
Now you might think that these are only one man’s views (The Malleus Maleficarum is attributed to two authors, Kramer and Jacob Sprenger, but some scholars now believe that Sprenger was given joint authorship by Kramer in an attempt to give the treatise more authority) but, due to the development of the printing press, the treatise was able to spread widely through Europe. Who knows how many innocent women were tortured and murdered because of Kramer’s ideas and beliefs – beliefs that were held by many at the time? Is it any surprise that, faced with this utter contempt and hatred of the female sex, thousands of women lost their lives to superstition?