Witchcraft Trials - Essay Example

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When one goes through the ideas presented by Innocent VIII (1484), Johannes Nider (1476) and in the excerpt from the Malleus Maleficarum (1486), it cannot be believed that anyone accused of being a witch would have ever received a fair trial. First of all, the Papal Bull issued…
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When one goes through the ideas presented by Innocent VIII (1484), Johannes Nider (1476) and in the excerpt from the Malleus Maleficarum (1486), it cannot be believed that anyone accused of being a witch would have ever received a fair trial. First of all, the Papal Bull issued by Innocent VIII had declared that the inquisitors appointed by the church for putting to trial and punishing persons accused as witches, had complete power to punish “the aforesaid persons for their said offences and crimes” (1484). It is clear from the above statement itself that no proof is demanded by the church in order to prove such people guilty. It is based on the “said offences” that the inquisitor could punish any one (1484).
Similarly the Dominican scholar Johannes Nider (1476) has pointed out that even confession or true repentance could not rescue a person accused as a witch from torture and death. For the society, church and individuals who carried out the witch hunt referred to here, the witches were not humans worthy of mercy. For example, the Papal Bull used the generalizing term, evils to describe the so-called witches, when it said it was duty-bound “to prevent the taint of heretical pravity and of other like evils from spreading their infection to the ruin of others” (Innocent VIII, 1484). By giving a blanket authority to the inquisitors to carry out “correcting, imprisoning, punishing, and chastising” against people accused as witches “for their said offences and crimes” (Innocent VIII, 1484). It is notable that in the above instruction, the inquisitors are given total power while the accused are defined very vaguely. Hence it becomes clear that theoretically, any person can become an accused under the slightest of doubt.
From what Nider (1476) has written, it is evident that the “methods of primeval infection” to become a witch were nothing but certain oath taking and renouncing the church. This is a practice of cult formation that has existed always in the history of humanity. Yet this is viewed as an offense punishable by death, that too the most torturous kind, by the witch hunters. When this kind of a mindset exists in a society, and in the minds of its rulers, no person accused as a witch can hope for getting a fair trial. Though Christianity has been known for its focus on repentance and forgiving, Nider (1476) narrated that a man who truly repented and disclosed the methods by which he and his wife were initiated into witch craft, was not spared of death.
It was even officially permissible to make the accused believe that he/she would be spared if he/she disclosed all the secrets of witchcraft they had learned, and then to kill him/her without any guilt or bad conscience (Nider, 1476; Malleus Maleficarum, 1486). When such outright cheating and murder is permissible in a society officially, the matter of fair trial does not come up at all. The legal definition of right to a fair trial incorporates “the right to be presumed innocent, the right to be tried without undue delay, the right to prepare a defence, the right to defend oneself in person or through counsel, the right to call and examine witnesses” etc. (Jacobsen, 2008, p.183). In the discussed case, none of the above rights were given to the accused and hence the concept of fair trial in the modern sense does not apply to it.
In Malleus Maleficarum, the code of procedure for finding and punishing witches prepared by the German inquisitors, there is an elaborate description of the procedure for inflicting torture upon the accused persons (1486). This include, stripping women, and putting them to different kinds of torture machines like a strappado (Malleus Maleficarum, 1486). The accused was again and again to be asked to confess the crime by increasing the intensity of torture as well as falsely giving them hope that once they confess, they can go free (Malleus Maleficarum, 1486). Under such physical pain and mental stress, most of the accused would naturally end up confessing and the code book does not provide any where any provision not to kill the witch (Malleus Maleficarum, 1486).
From the manner in which provisions of the code are made so that no witch goes unpunished or alive, it is clear that the trial of a witch was only a formality. The torture sessions are filled with theatrical elements like the onlookers pleading the inquisitor amidst the torture to give one more chance to the accused to confess and even the judge participating in giving false hope to the accused that he/she can go free once he/she confesses (Malleus Maleficarum, 1486).
Even amidst all kinds of prolonged tortures, the accused persons were to be constantly watched so that they do not even get the relief of committing suicide (Malleus Maleficarum, 1486). This is also part of the code prescribed (Malleus Maleficarum, 1486). The detailed procedure listed in Malleus Maleficarum (1486) does not any where tell of a possibility that the accused person could be innocent. Such an option does not exist at all in the justice of the inquisitors. Majority of the persons accused as witches were women and stripping a woman is the ultimate act of incivility and injustice in any civilization of any time. A centre of power that officially acts in this manner to women cannot be expected of any sense of justice and hence it is impossible that witches got a fair trial.
Innocent VIII (1484) BULL summis deciderantes, Bullarium romanum (Taurinensis
editio), sub, anno 1484.
Jacobsen, A.F. (2008), Human rights monitoring: A field mission manual, Leiden:
Malleus Maleficarum, (1486).
Nider, J. (1437), The ant hill, Formicarius, ed. Of Augsburg, ca.1476. Lib.V. cap. 3. Read More
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