Today's Myth or Monster Monday is going to be a little different. Instead of looking at a myth or a monster, we're taking a look at something that's a little of both. A real book that, for years, was used to gain false confessions and condemn accused "witches" to death with no evidence.
Imagine for a minute that it is the 1800s (C.E.) and somewhere between “40,000 and 100,000″ otherwise ordinary people lie dead. They aren’t from the same place, or even the same time period. Their lives unfolded over the course of centuries, often never touching one another, and yet they are forever linked together.
These thousands were the innocent victims of the Inquisition, accused and condemned for imaginary crimes. No one knows exactly what caused the Inquisition to get so out of control, and perhaps that is one reason it has continued to be such a controversial subject throughout the years.
The Inquisitions originally began in France in 1184. The first of the Medieval Inquisitions was called the Episcopal Inquisition and is believed to be in response to the "Cathar heresy" sweeping southern France. It was so named because the Inquisition was led by local bishops called episcopos. Catharism was a “dualist religious movement with Gnostic elements that originated around the middle of the twelfth century” (Cathar, 2006). The Roman Catholic Church branded the Cathars as heretical and quickly moved to stamp out this movement.
During the earliest of the Inquisitions, torture and execution were not the norm. Instead, those wishing to confess and recant their heresy were allowed a month of grace and then given a light penance. By 1254 though, the accused were given no right to counsel and torture was being permitted by Pope Innocent IV.
By 1486, Heinrich Kramer had written his infamous treatise on the prosecution of witches, the Malleus Maleficarum. This book, though eventually condemned by the Roman Catholic Church in part, was used for centuries as a tool for torturing those viewed as guilty. And it didn't take much for one to be judged guilty of practicing witchcraft.
Due to hysteria and the outright fear of witchcraft, little more than an accusation was needed in many places. The Malleus encouraged Inquisitors to convince accusers to speak as informers, since 1) witchcraft was supposedly done in secret and an accuser would not have actually seen the acts, and 2) because of the perceived danger of being named an accuser. This made it far easier to condemn the accused because actual evidence was no longer needed.
Once the accusation was made, Inquisitors would sweep in to gain a confession. The Malleus Maleficarum told them exactly how to do that, starting with knowingly depriving the accused of justice by continually delaying the proceedings, stripping her naked for examination, and then binding her with cords. Once bound, the Malleus instructs the Inquisitors to "apply her to some engine of torture; and then let them obey at once but not joyfully, rather appearing to be disturbed by their duty. Then let her be released again at someone's earnest request, and taken on one side, and let her again be persuaded; and in persuading her, let her be told that she can escape the death penalty" (Malleus Maleficarum, Part 3, Question XIV).
Torture included things like tying rocks to her feet and tossing her into the lake. If she was innocent, she'd float. If she was guilty, she'd drown. You can guess how many floated. They would also poke her with various instruments, being careful not to draw blood. If she bled, she was innocent. If she didn't, she was guilty.
Those that survived the torture (those who didn't survive were viewed as having confessed by failing the tests) and confessed were then forced to confess outside of torture. If she failed to comply, the Inquisitors were instructed to bring additional torture devices to her, and inform her that unless she confessed once more, she would again be tortured. Fearing the threat of further torture, and reassured that she would not be put to death, many confessed.
Those who did were then told the only way to escape death was to accuse others. Hundreds of people took this thread of hope, accusing thousands more of imaginary crimes. And unfortunately, the thread quickly frayed beneath their fingers.
After others had been named, the accused would be burned at the stake anyway either by the same judge (Inquisitor) who convicted her, or by a ruse in which he would recuse himself and another judge would be brought in to condemn her to death.
Today, most see the Malleus Maleficarum for what it was: an instruction manual for the murder of innocent people. But the Inquisitions didn't end until the 1800s, when thousands had been wrongly convicted and killed by methods provided by the Malleus Maleficarum. Eventually, the church outlawed the book, but that didn't stop the Inquisitors from using it. Six additional printings were issue before the 1700s, each with an endorsement by an authority (such as the pope). While those endorsements are questionable at best, they did what was intended at the time, and increased the popularity of the treatise.
You can read the Malleus Maleficarum here. The various portions on gaining confessions are located in the third section of the treatise.
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