Since 1258 when Pope Alexander IV first called for the prosecution of witches as heretics, the Church wholeheartedly accepted its role in stamping out witchcraft across Europe. Despite growing Protestant opposition to the persecutions, the Inquisition persisted in the arrest and prosecution of those suspected of witchcraft (usually women). Despite papal bulls and official Church pronouncements, there continued to be active dissent over how witches could be properly identified. It was only in the 15th century, when Heinrich Kramer first wrote what would later be known as the Malleus Maleficarum (the Witches' Hammer), that a true handbook for witch hunters became available. Kramer had been an active witch hunter in Austria whose anti-witch activities had been actively suppressed by the local bishop. Along with his colleague James Spenger, Kramer later arranged for a papal bull in 1484 to support their writings and their own witch-hunting efforts.
Many theologians actually opposed the Malleus at first since they viewed Kramer's methods as being unethical and illegal. Although Kramer was denounced by the Inquisition in 1490, his public lectures and widespread popularity of his handbook led to its formal acceptance. We can probably thank Johannes Gutenberg for the popularity of the Malleus since the invention of movable type made the book widely available across Europe. Between 1487 and 1520 alone, it was reprinted thirteen times and the anti-witch persecutions began in earnest.
The Witches' Hammer is divided into three sections: the first section addresses the "mistaken" belief that witchcraft didn't exist. Kramer and Spenger were emphatic in linking witchcraft to sexuality (primarily female sexuality). Since women were more "concerned with things of the flesh than men" and "all witchcraft comes from carnal lust", women were especially susceptible to the Devil's temptations. The second section deals with the powers that witches possess and how they recruit others to join them in their forbidden practices. Witches gained their power by signing their souls to Satan and their actions automatically made them blasphemers who betrayed God. The final section deals with the procedures to be following in "proving" witches and their punishment. Kramer and Spenger laid out a careful description of methods of questioning suspected witches (including different forms of torture), gathering evidence against witches, and the formal charges to be used.
The book provides a thorough guide to the psychological intimidation tactics used against accused witches. Not only did the book recommend telling witches about the tortures they would face if they didn't confess freely, but also promising worse tortures as the questioning continued. As Kramer and Spenger wrote, "And, while he is being tortured, he [the witch]- must be questioned on the articles of accusation, and this frequently and persistently, beginning with the lighter charges-for he will more readily confess the lighter than the heavier. And, while this is being done, the notary must write down everything in his record of the trial--how the prisoner is tortured, on what points he is questioned, and how he answers." Any evidence obtained through torture was perfectly valid and judges were also permitted to lie to the accused by promising them leniency if they confessed. The authors also instructed jailers to stay with the accused witch at all times, otherwise "she will be visited by the Devil and tempted into suicide."
And now we come to the other book...
Reginald Scot was no Heinrich Kramer. Born in 1538, there is very little known about his life except that he came from an old English family and enjoyed caring for his beloved hop gardens (he also wrote a book on hop farming). While he seemed like an unlikely rebel against the witch mania that gripped Europe, Scot was moved to act after seeing fourteen women in a nearby village being tried for witchcraft in 1582. After researching how evidence was gathered and used against accused witches, Scot eventually published his findings in 1584 as The Discoverie of Witchcraft. Due to the book's controversial nature, Scot was forced to publish it himself.In his book, Scot argued against the existence of witches and and denounced the prosecution of suspected witches as irrational and "contrary to Christian doctrine". He also raised the novel suggestion that anyone claiming to be a witch was actually deluded and needed to be "guided in their religious faith" rather than executed.
Scot railed against the Malleus Maleficarum and "witchhunters" in general, stating that "because it may appear unto the world what treacherous and faithless dealings, what extreme and intolerable tyranny, what gross and foolish absurdities, what unnatural and uncivil discourtesy, what cankered and spiteful malice, what outrageous and barbarous cruelty… what abominable and devilish inventions, and what flat and plain knavery is practiced against these old women, I will set down the whole order of the Inquisition, to the everlasting, inexcusable, and apparent shame of all witch-mongers”. What made Discoverie even more remarkable was that Scot also denounced various popular superstitions including astrology, divination, charms, and witches' sabbats.He even provided a description of "harmless" conjuring tricks that were often linked with witchcraft. Not only did this make his book one of the first true classics of skepticism, but Scot is also credited with one of the earliest known treatises on stage magic.
It should hardly be surprising that the leading theologians and demonologists of Scot's time denounced his book.& Unfortunately,his greatest critic was King James VI of Scotland (later King James I of England). A Protestant convert who took witchcraft very seriously, the King's reign in Scotland was marked by some of the worst witch hunts in British history (James had personally authorized the use of torture and burnings in dealing with witches). His Royal Displeasure with Reginald Scot's book was all too apparent and, when he became King of England in 1603, James ordered all copies to be burned. It was just as well that Reginald Scot died in 1599 since he likely would have been prosecuted for his beliefs. Only a few copies survived King James' purge although the Discoverie would be heavily plagiarized in later centuries.
With critics like Scot being effectively silenced, the Malleus Maleficarum would be the primary reference for witch hunters and judges alike in dealing with accused witches for more than two centuries after it was published. Between 1480 and 1700, an estimated 40,000 (some historians put the number much higher) of convicted witches and heretics (mostly women) were executed across Europe and its various colonies. While it's easy to regard the witch trials as being a thing of the past,episodes of witch hysteria continue to occur around the world.
The witch hunters aren't out of business yet.