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History of the German people at the close of the middle ages (Volume 16) online

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that it really was so, a new and terrible incentive was
given to the spread of persecution.' ■*

If both by secular and Church tribunals penalties
of excessive severity were inflicted, this is explained by

' ** See Linsenmann in the Tubingen Theol. Quartalschr. 1891, p. 673.
- ** Duhr, 7. 3 ** Ibid. 8.

* ** See Hansen in the Histor. Zeitschr. Ixxxi. p. 401 ff., and Hansen,
Zauberwahn, 416 ff.


the fact that ' not only did a large number of people
believe in the influence of magic, but numbers also had
actually themselves meddled with "sorcery" and, setting
aside any idea of supernatural agency, had accomphshed
many results by means of suggestion/ i All the same,
it cannot be denied that there were grievous faults
in the proceedings of numbers of uncritical theologians
and inquisitors ; ' still it may be boldly asserted that
the theories of the theologians would not have done so
much harm by a long way, if the jurists had done their
duty as judges/ ^

How accurately, even in the fifteenth century, the
secular judges, through the 'penal questioning' (torture)
of accused persons, became informed of all the details
of witchcraft, is shown by the ' Formicarius ' of the
Dominican John Nider, compiled at the time of the Basle
Council, and w^hich describes nearly all the horrors and
witcheries which later on formed the essential accusations
and points of examination in all the witch-trials : ^ how
sorcerers and witches abjured the Christian faith and the
Christian community, trampled under foot the cross,
swore an oath of fideUty to the devil, and mixed carnally
with demons. Nider's chief guarantor was a secular
judge from Bern,^ who in the Bernese district examined

' ** M. Jansen, I.e. See also Jordan in the Revue des quest, hist. 1901>
i. 607.

2 ** Duhr, 14.

■' The fifth Ijook of the Formicarius (see Schicler, 226-235, and for tlie
time of the com])iIation of the hook, 379), which deals with witclicraft,
printed in tlie Malkus mahfimrum (Frankfort edition of 1588), i. 604-806.
** Cf. Riezlcr, 56 ff.

4 ** Peter von Grcierz, about the year 1400 Bernese judge in the
Simmenthal ; see Hansen, p. 437 ff., and his sources and researches,
p. 91 ff. Riezlcr (p. .59) works liimself up because ' from Janssen-Pastor'.s
representation the reader is likely to get tlie impression that these Bernese
trials were carried on before the secular tribunal, wliicli must be regarded


niiinlxMs ot" st)noivrs and witchos, had them tortured,
and aftiM- thcv had ' confessed ' sentenced them to death
hy tire. Oci-asionally torture had to be apphed three or
four times ht^fore tliis judge could extort from the
accused \]\o precis(> kind of devil's art practised, for
instanct\ tliat they had removed corn from strangers'
fields to their own, that they had produced damaging
winds and hailstorms, made human beings and animals
uidruitful, killed anyone by a lightning stroke, caused
all sorts of diseases, excited sinful love, sown envy and
hatred in hearts, robbed people of their understanding^
pretended that they could travel through the air.^ One
of the accused persons who died ' under symptoms of
true repentance,' made a statement to the judge concern-
ing the art of initiation into the secret of sorcery. The
candidate had to go with ' the Masters,' i.e. the demons,
on a Sunday, before the holy water was distributed?
into a church and, before the Masters, deny the Divine
Saviour, the Christian faith and baptism, and then
pledge himself with an oath to the devil; after this he
had to drink out of a bottle and was at once made
acquainted with the art of magic and the principal

as highly improbable.' Against this the remarks of Hansen, who con-
tributes further details concerning tliis secular judge and his work, are

' Concerning the repetition of torture it says of one of the accused :
' Biduo duritcr quaestionatus, nihil penitus fateri voluit de propriis
facinoribus, tertia autemdie tortus iterum, virus suum evomuit.' Another
only ' post quartum ad cordas tractum,' gave to the question : ' Quomodo
ad tempestates et grandines concitandas proceditis ? ' the answer : ' Primo
verbis certis in campo principem Daemoniorum imploramus, ut de suis
mittat aliquem a nobis designatum ; percutat deinde, veniente certo
Daemone, in campo aliquo viarum pullum nigrum immolamus, eundem
in altum proiicendo ad aera. Quo a Daemone sumpto : obedit et statim
auram concitat, non semper in loca designata a nobis, sed iuxta Dei viventis
permissionem grandines et fulgura proiiciendo.' L.c. pp. 727, 750.


customs of the devil's sect. ' In this way,' he said, ' I was
misled ; my wife too was m^isled in the same manner,
but I beheve her to be so stubborn that she would rather
be burnt to death than confess the least tittle of the
truth. But alas, we are both guilty ! ' ' All fell out,'
Nider goes on, * as the young man said. His wife,
although convicted by witnesses, would not confess
either on the rack or at the moment of death, but
cursed the officials who had prepared the stake, in
vilest language, and was burnt." ' In the diocese of
Lausanne,' the judge informed the credulous Nider,
* some of the sorcerers cooked and devoured their own
children; in the district of Bern, within a short space of
time, thirteen children were swallowed up by the evil
spirits, in consequence of which public justice was pretty
strongly incensed against such crimes.' One witch was
compelled to inform the judge as to how she set about
making an entrance into strange houses and killing the
children lying in their cradles or by their parents' side,
steahng away the dead and buried from their graves,
cooking them and preparing magic drinks out of them.^
Nider himself believed in the arts of sorcerers and witches.
' Without doubt,' he said, ' they can do such things, but
only by permission of God ' ; they do not, however, do
them independently and directly, but by means of words,
usages, and transactions which are the result of their
communion with the devil, so that it is the demons, at
the prayer of sorcerers and evil spirits, who are the actual
agents. As chief means of protection against their
sinister practices, so Nider learnt from the Bernese judge,
the evil-doers themselves mentioned the following : the
true faith and the observance of God's commands in the

' L.c. pp. 711-723.


state of griU'o, tlie sign of the Cross, attention to Church
consecrations and ceremonies, the adoration of the Body
of Christ in ])rayer and contemplation. Whosoever
neglects these means of protection is exposed to the
assaults of Satan and his assistants, male and female.^
In 1482 the council at Bern thought necessary * to multi-
ply protective measures against ghosts, witchcraft,
sorcery, and bad weather,' and ordained as the most
effectual antidotes, special divine services, processions,
and the use of objects that had been blessed.-

On the ground of reports which reached him from
Germany, Pope Innocent VIII. on December 5, 1484,
issued a Bull in which he said : ' Not without deep
grief ' had he lately learnt that in some parts of South
Germany, as also in the provinces, towns, lands, districts,
and bishoprics of Mayence, Cologne, Treves, Salzburg,
and Bremen, large numbers of people of both sexes
were falhng away from the Catholic faith, entering into
carnal alhances with devils, and by their magic spells
and incantations, their exorcisms, ill-wishings and other
unworthy acts of sorcery causing great injury of all
sorts to human beings and to animals. ' With infamous
lips they actually deny the faith they were pledged to
at Baptism.' Although the two Dominicans and
professors of theology, Henry Institoris in South
Germany, and James Sprenger in some parts of the
Rhineland, had been appointed, by papal plenary power,
inquisitors respecting heretical wickedness, nevertheless
certain clergy and laymen in those regions, who wanted

' Cf. Schieler, 228-232.

- Anshelm, Berner Chronik, i. 307. ** In the Canton Valais in 1428
a wholesale persecution of witches and sorcerers had begun (cf. Hansen,
p. 438 ff.)> ^iiMp/.ii;. 18i>0) alioiit witeheraft. H. Finke says in the Uistor. Jahrhurh, xiv.
(18'.>3) ;U 1-1542 : ' It surprises me that so thoroughgoing an investigator
as Henner should make such incorrect statements as he docs at p. 31 1. The
text there says : " It was the Bull of Innocent VIII., so famous in the history
of civilisation, the Bull ' Summis dcsiderantes af?ectibus ' of December 5,
1484, which occasioned the great and well-known inquisitorial persecutions
of witches." Occasioned ? Has Henner then never heard anything of the
Formicarius of the Dominican and Inquisitor, John Nider ? There, in
the third and fourth chajiters of the fifth l)Ook he can read what strong
hold this popular plague had gained in different parts of Germany and so
forth at the beginning of the fifteenth century, and how much the Inquisi-
tion was occupied with it. True it is that there are not so many known
cases of witch-trials in the Middle Ages as in more recent times, but this is
no proof that they were really less frequent. The texts quoted from Nider
himself warn us to be cautious. Witch-trials were not so much noticed
in the Middle Ages because in its form and course the trial did not differ
from the Inquisition trial. Whether " from that time (that is to say
from the proclamation of the Bull and the writing of the 'Witch -hammer')
witch-trials multiplied in an appalUng manner," still remains to be settled ;
the instances which Henner cites on the authority of Lea are not sufficient.
Very obscure is the sentence (Henner, 311, n. 6) : " It is the custom, on
account of their importance, to distinguish the descriptions of them (of
witch-trials) from those of trials of heretics." Wherein lies this importance
for the jurists ? Certainly in tliis, that from its first beginnings the modern
witch -trial, which the layman names and knows as such with shuddering,
had a course extraordinarily different from that of an Inquisition trial.
From the very first the secular authority was mixed up with witch-trials,
whereas in heresy trials it only intervened to carry out the sentence.
Very soon the secular authority claimed the field entirely. Tliis rapid and
complete transformation of the Inquisition trial is to my mind a very
important factor in the history of witch- trials, and one unfortunately still
httle regarded. Of. in this connexion the important statements in the
pamphlet of L. Rapp, Die Hexenprozesse und ihre Gegner in Tirol (2nd ed.
1891), p. 9 ff. Moreover the " Witch-hammer " in the section : " De modo
procedendi ac puniendi maleficas," gives the reason of this change in the
procedure of the trials. The question, to wiiich tribunal the crime of
witchcraft belongs is answered by the statement that a mixed Forum of


witches in so far as it spurred the inquisitors on to zeal
in their proceedings. ^

clerical and secular judges is necessary ; for the crime is partly civil,
partly ecclesiastical, as it implies temporal injury, and apostasy from
the faith. These \aews sharply contradict the other theory that witch-
trials were Inquisition trials.'

1 ** Riezler (p. 81 ff.) aired the opinion that, ' towards the end of the
fifteenth century, there was intelligent opposition astii- among the German
people and in the secular law-courts of Germany to the witch-superstition
and to the persecution of witches ' ; but the unhallowed interference of
the Pope and of his ' inquisitors of heretical depravity ' cut short this
development, revived the witch-superstition among the populace, extended
it both in its contents and its circumference, and gave it the support of an
unassailable authority. For reasons which are not to be found in the
internal history of the witch-superstition, the full efflorescence of witch-
trials was only to come ten years later. [Remarkable ! ] All the same,
the interference of the Pope and the literary and practical activity which
it made possible for his German inquisitors in the eighties of the fifteenth
century form, for Germany, the starting-point of these horrors. Against
these assertions stands the polemising, not only of Diefenbach, Der Zau-
berglaube, 180 ff. (who, however, goes too far when he denies any evil in-
fluence to the Bull and to the ' Witch-hammer ' ; see Paulus in the Katholik,
1900, ii. 470), but also of the Old Catholic historian Stieve, Beil. ziir Allg.
Ztg. 1897, No. 38 ff. This scholar, whom one certainly cannot accuse of
any partiality in favour of the papacy, pointed out in contradiction of
Riezler that the Bull certainly did not possess the power suddenly to turn
a world incensed against the witch superstition into believers in it, and tliat
finally the ponderous, costly ' Witch-hammer ' only came into a few hands.
The influence of this book, so Stieve concludes, must be dependent on a
corresponding tendency of the age, a tendency which is apparent in the
growing belief in wonders which led to a fraternisation between the ' church
belief in the devil ' and the old l)elief in witches. Bull and ' Witch-hammer,'
however, must not, in the setting of these leading ideas of tlic age, be re-
garded ' as the source of an incipient development, but only as parts
incorporated into a development aheady in progress.' ' That they greatly
furthered this development is undeniable ; but we have not sufficient
evidence to warrant us in attributing to them a decisive influence.' Greater
importance, according to Stieve, attaches to the fact ' that in the second
half of tiie fifteenth century the people became acquainted with tlie dcmono-
logy of the Neoi)latonists and Neopythagoreans througli tlie (i!]-(>eks wlio
fled to the West from tiie Osmans, tliat Mysticism developed itself and
gained an ever-increasing following, and that acquaintance was made with
the Talmud, the Cabbala and other writnigs of the younger Judaism.'


r>ut to (losciibe the Bull as the original cause of witch-
trials is iuc'orrect, if only for the reason that there had
already been many trials for witchcraft before the
issue of the Witch-bull, which, moreover, reproduces
reports of trials that had already taken place.

The inquisitors appealed to it as to a confirmation by
the Apostohc See of their own opinions about witches.

The importance of Innocent VIII.'s witch-bull, according to Hansen
(p. 469 IT.), lies less in its contents, which offer nothing new, than in the
gigantic circulation which it gained through the press, whereas older
missives of a similar nature were scarcely known beyond a limited circle
for which the\' were intended. Duhr says aptly (p. IG) : ' This Bull in no way
contains an infallible ex-cathedra decision, and by no means sets forth a
doctrine which it is obligatory to accept. It must be allowed that the Pope
A\as badly informed by credulous, uncritical inquisitors and helped on the
cause of injustice by his Bull, the witch-burners being able to appeal to
papal authority. German bishops ought also to have enlightened the
Holy See on the true character of the trials, and to have procured the
interference of Rome. But most, if not actually all the bishops were them-
selves infected with the general witch-superstition, and to some extent, as
seciUar rulers, were also participators in the burning of witches. It would
certainly have been an honour and a glory for the Holy See had it earlier
raised its voice in \\arning and prohibition. Just as the Bull " Summis
desiderantes " contains in the main, apart from the reports of the inquisi-
tors, nothing further than the confirmation and extension of the power
of the inquisitors, so also the two briefs of Leo X. (February 15, 1521), to
the inquisitors in Venice, and of Hadrian VI. (July 22, 1522), to the in-
quisitors of Como, contain, besides the enumeration of crimes — such as

Online LibraryJohannes JanssenHistory of the German people at the close of the middle ages (Volume 16) → online text (page 20 of 45)