The printing press revolutionized the way language was consumed. For the first time in recorded history it was possible for the written word to be mass-produced, and this meant that information could spread wider than it ever could before. However, while we tend to focus on the positive aspects that came with Gutenberg's invention, sometimes we forget that there was a dark side to it. One of those dark sides was the infamous Malleus Maleficarum, which translates roughly to The Hammer of Witches.
This book was used as a field guide for finding, interrogating, and punishing those suspected of witchcraft. Though considered a useful guide to those standing against the supernatural, today it stands as a testament to how fear and superstition can twist even our brightest inventions.
For more truth behind legendary books, check out The Truth About The Anarchist Cookbook.
In The Beginning
Our timeline starts around the year 1350 or so. To set the scene, the Black Death has finally finished ravaging all of Europe, leaving corpses stacked millions deep. The failure of modern medicine to slow, much less halt, the progress of the Grim Reaper has left people shaken, horrified by their own mortality. 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.
Witchcraft, including herbalism to old pagan rites that had survived the march of the Christian soldiers, was tacitly tolerated in much of Europe 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 plague had passed, the rumors began to focus on witches as the latest enemies of Christianity, accusing them of spreading the plague. Science had not yet recognized the rats, and the fleas they bore, as the carriers of the disease. Instead, hatred of these non-existent witches, 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 book included all of the information 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.
The Legitimacy of The Press
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 they 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 to cause their damage. Part I detailed how to recognize when demons had been inflicted on men and women, explained how crops could be killed, and how fertility would be ruined to try to eat away at the resolve of a community, until it would beg the witches to help end the crisis which they, themselves, 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 (for more on why men were excluded from the label, check out What Is A Witch?), and great care needs to be taken that they be stripped of clothes, hair, and that they never be allowed to face a judge lest they cast an evil eye upon him. 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. The Malleus Maleficarum also suggested the death sentence be upheld after the witch had confessed, and given up any names she had.
Coming Apart At The Seams
Fortunately for the world at large, the fever dream that gripped Europe finally broke. Part of it was that everything from the economy to the general state of culture began to recover, which helped quell the population's fears. That, and people began wondering why they'd ever bought into the witch propaganda in the first place.
To make matters even worse, there were several accusations of forgery and fraud levied at the authors of the infamous witch hunter's guide. In 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 environment where the witch panics took hold.
However, the Great Witch Hunt dropped off by the early 1500s, giving way to 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 blew away like smoke. Witch trials were unheard of by the beginning of the 17th century. Even so, there were an estimated 40,000 to 50,000 accused witches put to death during this dark period in history, with roughly 25% of those being men.
Witch hunts might seem like a laughable relic of the past, but they're still very much with us. You can see this sort of panic sweep through a society any time 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.
Books filled with dangerous lies are still around, as well. The Truth About The Anarchist Cookbook is proof of that.