The idea of the Inquisitor, the Catholic witch hunter of the Middle Ages, is potent: the grim-faced man with brands and scourges, thumbscrews and chains, who burns, strangles and drowns innocent and guilty alike to find the truth. It is comforting to know that such practices have not existed now for a couple of hundred years but one cannot help but shudder to think that they ever happened. There were Inquisition courts in many countries but the most famous were the Medieval Inquisition, which started in France and Italy, and the later Spanish Inquisition. Initially these Inquisitions were set up to combat the spread of heresy and apostasy, but eventually they came to be associated with an altogether darker enemy. It all began in the 15th century, when a pair of zealots published a book, a guide to witch-hunting bearing the name Malleus Maleficarum. It proved influential enough to bring about the painful deaths of thousands until well into the 18th century. Within a few years the Pope had condemned it as heretical, however, this did not stop people from using it. ‘The Hammer of the Witches’, as it was literally translated from Latin, was a detailed legal and theological document that came to be regarded as the standard handbook on witchcraft, including its detection and extirpation. Its appearance did much to spur on and sustain some two centuries of witch-hunting hysteria in Europe.
The Malleus Maleficarum was the work of two Dominicans: Johann Sprenger, dean of the University of Cologne in Germany, and Heinrich Kramer, professor of theology at the University of Salzburg, Austria (and Inquisitor in the Tirol region of Austria). In 1484 Pope Innocent VIII issued a papal bull in which he deplored the spread of witchcraft in Germany and authorised Sprenger and Kramer to extirpate it. The Malleus codified the folklore and beliefs of the Alpine peasants and was dedicated to the implementation of Exodus 22:18 “Thou shalt not suffer a witch to live”. The work is divided into three parts. In Part I the reality and depravity of witches is emphasised, and any disbelief in the existence of demons is condemned as heresy. Because of the nature of the enemy, any witness, no matter what their credentials, may testify against any accused person. Part II is a compendium of fabulous tales about the activities of witches, including diabolic compacts, sexual relations with demons (incubi and succubi), transvection (night-riding), cannibalism, infanticide and metamorphosis. Part III is a discussion of the legal procedures to be followed in witch trials. Torture is sanctioned as a means of securing confessions. Lay and secular authorities are called upon to assist the Inquisitors in the task of exterminating those whom Satan has enlisted in his cause.
The Malleus went through 28 editions between 1486 and 1600 and was accepted by Roman Catholics and Protestants alike as an authoritative source of information concerning satanism and as a guide to Christian defence. The book became the handbook for secular courts throughout Renaissance Europe, but was not used by the Spanish Inquisition, which even cautioned against relying on the work. The Inquisition instead saw its main task as being dealing with those who became Christian to escape punishment but in secret continued to practice their former beliefs, be it Judaism, Islam or paganism. The Spanish monarchs saw great danger in this and set up courts under officials known as Grand Inquisitors. The Spanish Inquisitors were powerful individuals, being appointed by kings but in addition receiving spiritual power from the Pope. The most famous of these was the Dominican friar Thomas of Torquemada. Needless to say, the Spanish Inquisition used methods which were exceptional for their cruelty, but were nevertheless accepted by most European countries at that time. The Inquisition lost its importance in the 18th century and was finally ended in 1834.
Or was it?
The Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith is widely regarded as the unofficial successor of the Inquisition and its head is sometimes known as ‘The Pope’s Enforcer’ because of his remit of upholding the traditional teachings of the Church. Until 2005 this position was held by the former Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger – now the current Pope of course. As for the Malleus Maleficarum, there are rumours – nothing more – that it is not only the name of a book but also of an organisation, a secret order within the Catholic Church with the power to hunt the manifestations of Satan. It was allegedly founded by Pope Paul III only 80 years after the original Malleus tome was officially condemned in 1490 as false by the Church. Although not entirely a secret, the Malleus order’s foundation wasn’t really public either, slipped in as it was on the end of the same regimini militantis Ecclesiae that empowered the Society of Jesus, a wholly different organisation whose members are better known today as Jesuits. Of course, conspiracy theories abound about practically every major and not-so-major event in Catholic history, and this is no exception. It also begs the question, in the unlikely event that this rumour is actually true: Why would Pope Paul have founded a secret organisation based on a heretical book?