Malleus Maleficarum triggers horrors

As the result of mass production made possible by the printing press, the second-best-selling book in Europe for more than two centuries was the Malleus Maleficarum (Hammer of Witches; see primary sources entry). This three-part work was the official handbook for detecting, capturing, trying, and executing witches. It was written in 1486 by Austrian priest Heinrich Kramer (also spelled Kraemer; 1430-1505) and German priest Jakob Sprenger (c. 1436-1495) at the request of Pope Innocent VIII. An especially frightening impact of the Malleus was that it united the church and the state, making horrific torture perfectly legal as a means of obtaining "confessions" from accused witches.

One of the most common means of torture was the stretching rack, a device that would slowly tear a person limb from limb as he or she was repeatedly commanded to confess to specific crimes. A similar tool was the strapado, which involved attaching weights to a victim's legs, then slowly lifting the person off the ground so that the legs would begin to tear out. Another method involved the victim being stripped naked and slowly cut in half by being dragged along a very tight rope. Some people were tied to stakes and placed near a fire that would very slowly "cook" them. Many others had their eyes gouged out or were beaten, raped, disemboweled (having ones internal organs cut out), dropped from high above the ground, or subjected to numerous devices created specially for the task. Also popular were "Spanish Boots," which were put on a victim's legs and could work in either of two ways: one used internal vices that would slowly crush the victim's legs, while the other involved pouring boiling water or oil into the "boots."

These methods were extremely efficient. People were brought close to death and promised relief if they confessed to the charges against them. Thousands gave in, no matter how fabricated or ridiculous the charges might have seemed, to save themselves from further torture. In turn, the "confessions" fanned mass hysteria, "proving" that the initial suspicions had been correct and creating an enemy out of innocent people. Officials in some regions used "tests" that pointed to the guilt of an accused person in various inevitable ways. One that was extremely popular in England (where torture was considered a crime) was the water test. The results were supposed to determine whether a person was indeed a witch—yet nobody could actually "pass" the test. It involved tying the accused person's arms and legs together, then throwing him or her into a body of water. If the victim sank, he or she was not a witch and would be dealt with by God accordingly in heaven. Since multilayered clothing was worn at the time, people quite often ended up floating because their clothes created pockets of air that forced them to remain at the surface of the water. Many "witches" were declared guilty by this method, then publicly burned at a stake in the center of town. Burning was considered another test, as well as the most severe form of punishment: it was thought that witches could survive fire because of their association with the devil. The prevalence of the fire test led to this era being called "The Burning Times."

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