What Underlies Our Conversations About Witches10 min read


Monica Valentinelli
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My Italian papa was from the Old Country, a godly place where “men were men” and “women knew how to behave”. In his mind, the purpose for my feminine existence was simple: I was to uphold the Roman Catholic faith, get married to a man he approved of, and bear him grandchildren.

On rare occasions, when my papa was in a good mood, he’d tell me a story about a witch named Giovanna. First, he’d blithely explain how my great-grandfather saved the family’s cows from that blasphemous witch by lifting her up against the wall and choking her until she relented.

The second part of his story shifted to reveal its true lesson. On the day the witch died, the blue sky was cloudless and the air was clear—until the pallbearers emerged from the church carrying Giovanna’s black casket on their shoulders. Suddenly, it started to rain as if God Himself was crying, but the drops only fell atop her casket. That strange rainfall continued, even after the funeral, until she was fully buried. Everyone else, including the pallbearers and gravediggers, remained dry. It rained not because anyone was sad—it was a sign God had damned the witch.

Then, my father would smile and clap his hands as if he’d just told me a hilarious joke.

I didn’t laugh. I felt sorry for the old woman. I wanted to find out why he hated Giovanna so much, but his belief in evil witches and their powerful curses was absolute.

In the absence of answers, I began researching witches and the occult at a very young age.

Eventually, I found what I was looking for in the 15th century: the Malleus Maleficarum by Heinrich Kramer, first published in 1487. Arguably, Malleus is one of the most gruesome tomes about witchcraft ever printed due to its graphic descriptions, woodcuts, and legal arguments designed to torture and murder accused “witches”. It was also written out of spite by a man whose misogynistic beliefs mirrored my father’s.

Kramer, whose Latin name was Henricus Institor, was a misogynist whose pride and hatred likely intensified due to the promise of change inspired by the growing influence of the Italian Renaissance. Though the period is notable for the contributions of Niccolò Machiavelli, Leonardo da Vinci, Galileo Galilei, and Michaelangelo, artistic and intellectual pursuits were largely conducted by men—despite the push for public universities throughout Europe in the 14th and 15th centuries. Italian women, who were prohibited from attending university, began to push for equal rights and widespread literacy.

Those with privilege sought private tutelage and used their education to advocate for more rights—none of which would’ve been possible without the groundbreaking work of Christine de Pizan (1364-1430), a poet who was born in Venezia but served the French court. Of her literary works, The Book of the City of Ladies (1405) stands out. It was a work of Christian theological arguments, artfully designed to prove men’s and women’s virtues were equal. This pamphlet predated the technology of the Gutenberg printing press by ~45 years and, though copies were slow to circulate, it had a significant impact and gave upper class women the means to advocate for themselves.

Unfortunately, the nascent equal rights movement de Pizan helped inspire was immediately met with misogynistic disdain to varying degrees. Kramer himself often lectured how gender roles were immutable and equal rights were a religious and political threat to the Holy Roman Empire’s might. A known zealot, he vehemently disagreed with the spirit of de Pizan’s works: women were not equal in God’s eyes, they existed to obey and serve men.

In 1484, Pope Innocent VIII issued Summis desiderantes affectibus, a papal bull on the subject of witchcraft. This bull was written because Kramer appealed for a statement from the newly-ordained pope. The bull also granted Heinrich Kramer and his former partner, theologian Jacob Sprenger, the powers of Inquisitor. Following this, Kramer was installed in Innsbruck, Austria, as Inquisitor, reporting only to Prince-Bishop Golser. However, here Kramer’s zealotry did not receive any accolades; the citizens of Innsbruck were disdainful of his views—which only encouraged him. Following one fiery sermon, a white woman of privilege named Helena Scheuberin spat on Kramer and gave the Inquisitor a historic “lecture” of her own.

Kramer took Scheuberin’s rebuke as a sign of the Devil’s influence and became obsessed with the woman. Not only did Kramer stalk Scheuberin, he documented her sexual activities as part of his investigation. Following a brief inquiry, the Inquisitor quickly concluded Scheuberin was in league with the Devil because she was an opinionated adulterer who consorted with free-thinkers, or heretics, who did not behave according to Kramer’s narrow views. Helena Scheuberin was married to a burger (one of Innsbruck’s privileged bourgeoisie) named Sebastian Scheuberin, but she’d been caught sleeping with a knight—a noble named Jorg Spiess—who had fallen gravely ill during their affair.

While the Inquisitor plotted his next move, an Italian doctor told the knight he was sick because Helena cast a spell on him. The remedy, if Spiess had deigned to seek out a practitioner who specialized in Christian “counter-magic”— spells drawing upon God’s power to revoke Satan’s influence, would be filled with prayer and tests of faith to heal his physical illness.

Unfortunately, the knight died not long after his diagnosis.

Kramer, who was aware of the doctor’s prescription, threw the weight of his role as Inquisitor to punish Helena for the knight’s death. She, along with several other accused women, were put on trial for the then-minor offense of witchcraft in 1485.

This landmark trial was argued by Kramer himself. It is notable because it was conducted by an Inquisitor and not in the secular courts. However, Kramer ultimately failed because his new peers would not cave to his zealotry. All defendants were acquitted of their crimes and released. What’s more, Prince-Bishop Golser rebuked Kramer for his obsession with Helena and the graphic descriptions of her sex life he relayed during the Brixen trial.

Following the trial’s outcome, Kramer was publicly humiliated and his reputation finally eroded. The Inquisitor, who was in his mid-fifties, grew desperate for a “win”. Not only did he fail as Inquisitor, he couldn’t bring any “witches” to justice—career-ending failures he refused to acknowledge even after Golser encouraged him to leave Innsbruck. Instead of recognizing his flaws, Kramer blamed the women of Innsbruck for his downfall and plotted revenge.

Just two years later, Kramer published the first edition Malleus Maleficarum in Speyer, Germany, on the Gutenberg printing press. Though Frederick Spee later attributed the Malleus Maleficarum’s authorship in 1630 to two Inquisitors—Heinrich Kramer and Jacob Sprenger—Kramer is the sole author.

The Malleus Maleficarum served three purposes: the work reinforced the theologically-driven definition of “witch” in a legal context, it introduced a framework to legally prosecute the accused that overwhelmingly favored accusers, and it sanctioned torture, even death, for the accused.

Kramer’s definition of “witch” and hyperfocus on the weakness of women was not new; he drew inspiration from contemporary theologians and books such as Johann Nider’s Formicarius (1475) to quickly write portions of the text. Though there’s no evidence to support how or why Kramer crafted the legal section, it’s likely the Inquisitor drew from his legal failures to create an iron-clad argument that would result in the accused’s automatic conviction, thereby benefiting his failing career.

Kramer did seek to legitimize his work to ensure its influence on Inquisitor-led trials and the secular courts, but was denied because he superseded his authority. So, Kramer forged letters from the University of Cologne and mixed them with other letters of recommendation to fabricate the Church’s approval. Then, Kramer prefaced his contents by reprinting Pope Innocent VIII’s papal bull Summis desiderantes affectibus (1484)—the same document that granted him and his former partner, Jacob Sprenger, the powers of Inquisitor in Innsbruck.

Though the Malleus Maleficarum is not the only book of its kind, it became an instant best-seller and was widely distributed throughout Europe from the 15th to the 17th centuries. (The Bible is the only other European book known to sell more copies in that two-hundred-year period.) In the years that followed, the waves of misogynistic and xenophobic hatred were so powerful the Church officially rebuked the Malleus Maleficarum in 1490. Despite this, Europe’s secular courts did adopt many of Kramer’s suggestions to hunt, arrest, torture, and murder the accused. Jacob Sprenger, who spent his last years teaching at the University of Cologne, died in 1495, while Heinrich Kramer continued to write and preach until his death in 1505.

Following their deaths, the name of Kramer’s former partner, Inquisitor Jacob Sprenger, was added as a co-author to the 1517 edition of the Malleus Maleficarum—likely to add more legitimacy as Kramer was named as Inquisitor in the preface. The book’s popularity continued to surge and, in a failed attempt to stop its populist influence, ceased publication from 1521 to 1573, but was republished for years afterward.

Kramer’s misogynistic-fueled legacy is clear. This book was a pop culture phenomenon that influenced changes to laws prosecuting “witches” for one primary purpose: to punish women. Most European countries suffered from one or more witch hysterias during the 16th or 17th centuries; these outbreaks coincided with new, punitive laws against witchcraft written in the mid-1500s. Germany, for example, was marked by deadly trials and mass executions, which included the Trier (1581-1593), Fulda (1603-1606), Bamburg (1626-1631), and Würzburg (1626-1631) witch trials that claimed the lives of over 3,000 people.

In nearby Austria, however, where Kramer lost his landmark trial, the witch trials were not commonly held until Emperor Rudolph II (1576-1612) assumed the throne of the Holy Roman Empire. In addition to prosecuting witches, Rudolph II’s ineffective leadership eventually led to The Thirty Years’ War (1618-1648), which pitted Catholics and Protestants against each other and resulted in the deaths of over eight million people. Worse, the Salzsburg Witch Trials (1675-1690)—a witch hysteria that rattled Europe—claimed the lives of 130 victims, 110 of which were not women, but homeless men.

By the 17th century, European witch trials became so commonplace accused witches were dragged out of their homes by witch hunters—court-appointed bounty hunters, like the self-appointed English witchfinder Matthew Hopkins—who knowingly captured and tortured three to four victims a week in exchange for gold. This culture of fear coincided with the spread of Western colonialism. Victims were socially isolated, imprisoned, persecuted, tortured, enslaved, and/or murdered for their affiliation with the Devil in Europe and the Colonies.

Several decades before ten-year-old Betty and her cousin, eleven-year-old Abigail Williams, unwittingly ignited a deadly witch hysteria in Salem, Massachusetts, that claimed the lives of twenty-five victims in 1692, the Connecticut Colony prosecuted, imprisoned, and executed “witches” for witchcraft from 1647-1663.

While it is flatly untrue that only women were persecuted during the witch trials, the data is incomplete and originates from multiple sources. Thus, it’s impossible to draw tight conclusions based on the victims’ identities. What we do have reveals a pattern. For example, in the Connecticut Colony, 90% of cases involved a woman and 24% affected men. The reason for the overage? 15% of cases affected married couples—another detail that is often downplayed in the larger conversation.

Though the infamous Salem Witch Trials marked the end of witch trial hysteria, laws against witchcraft were, once more, slow to change. New secular laws in 18th century Europe, such as the British Parliament’s Witchcraft Act of 1735, began to recontexualize the witch as a con artist, while still carrying heavy penalties. Despite its waning influence, the Inquisition remained active until 1808. Ironically, the last American witch trial occurred in Salem, Massachusetts when Lucretia L. S. Brown accused fellow Christian Scientist Daniel H. Spofford of mesmerism in 1878. That case was later dismissed.

The estimated death toll of the witch trials is approximately 80,000 victims, many of whom were either easy targets or considered undesirable—poor, queer, disabled, and elderly. However, this number grows exponentially when factoring in colonial violence—murders that were not as well-documented. These victims of the witch trials are largely forgotten, ignored, and have been left out of tracts and pop culture for a few reasons. Suffice it to say that historical records favor the privileged rather than the innocent and oppressed. This overwhelming slant, favoring secular witch hunters and Inquisitors, left a lasting, damning effect on the portrayal of witches in pop culture.

To this day, most pop culture depictions of witches emphasize the “do-gooder” witch hunters or, historically, the witch as a cisgender white woman. Though our ancestors did not collect data or treat gender the same way we do now, the accused were people who lived outside social norms, marginalized identities that include anyone who is LGBTQIA+ and/or a person of color. What’s more, despite dozens of movies, shows, books, and games about the Salem Witch Trials, there have been precious few stories told from the perspective of Candy, Mary Black, or Tituba—innocent, enslaved women of color who were accused, but later exonerated, of witchcraft in the Puritan-ruled village.

These contexts of deep-seated misogyny, regressive attitudes toward religion and personhood, and populist-fueled avarice masquerading as piety remain missing from most conversations about witches, and it’s important to remember even in modern fiction and fantasy, because the same historical patterns continue to repeat: one misogynistic zealot in a position of authority abuses his power to influence popular belief and hurt women, disproportionately affecting marginalized peoples, ignoring cisgender white men (and women) of privilege immune from his accusations. Kramer’s influence was not effective because his beliefs were “of the time.” Ultimately, thousands died because society’s rules were just starting to evolve, powerful zealots like Kramer fought against that change, and their peers either wouldn’t or couldn’t stop them.

It is vitally important to be mindful of that history. The messages we consume and impart in our stories possess their own magic to influence others, too. We must question the heart and soul of anyone who prescribes suffering while touting their beliefs as the only cure for society’s ills.

I never asked my father for more information about Giovanna or why he believed in witches, but now I am empowered with a vow: to focus not on the power we don’t have, but the power we do, which is to learn and know the truth.


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