Malleus Maleficarum Part 3
Of Common Purgation, and especially of the Trial of Red-hot Iron, to which Witches Appeal
THE question is now asked whether the secular judge may allow a witch to be
submitted to a common purgation (concerning which see the Canon 2, q. 4,
consuluisti, and cap. monomachiam), in the manner in which a
civil defendant is allowed the trial by ordeal, as, for example, that by
red-hot iron. And it may seem that he may do so.
For trial by combat is allowable in a criminal case for the protection of
life, and in a civil case for the protection of property; then wherefore not
the trial by red-hot iron or boiling water? S. Thomas allows that the former
is permissible in some cases, when he says in the last article of the
Second of the Second, q. 95, that a duel is lawful when it appears to
be consonant with commonsense. Therefore the trial by red-hot iron should also
be lawful in some cases.
Also it has been used by many Princes of saintly life who have availed
themselves of the advice and counsel of good men; as, for example, the Sainted
Emperor Henry in the case of the virgin
Cunegond whom he had married, who was suspected of adultery.
Again, a judge, who is responsible for the safety of the community, may
lawfully allow a smaller evil that a greater may be avoided; as he allows the
existence of harlots in towns in order to avoid a general confusion of lust.
For S. Augustine On Free Will says: Take
away the harlots, and you will create a general chaos and confusion of lust.
So, when a person has been loaded with insults and injuries by any community,
he can clear himself of any criminal or civil charge by means of a trial by
Also, since less hurt is caused to the hands by the red-hot iron than is the
loss of life in a duel, if a duel is permitted where such things are
customary, much more should the trial by red-hot iron be allowed.
But the contrary view is argued where it says (2, q. 5, monomachiam)
that they who practice such and similar things appear to be tempting God. And
here the Doctors affirm it must be noted that, according to S. Paul (I.
Thessalonians v), we must abstain, not only from evil, but from all
appearance of evil. Therefore the Canon says in that chapter, not that they
who use such practices tempt God, but that they appear to tempt Him, so that
it may be understood that, even if a man engage in such a trial with none but
good intentions, yet since it has the appearance of evil, it is to be
I answer that such tests or trials are unlawful for two reasons. First,
because their purpose is to judge of hidden matters of which it belongs only
to God to judge. Secondly, because there is no Divine authority for such
trials, nor are they anywhere sanctioned in the writings of the Holy Fathers.
And it says in the chapter consuluisti, 2, q. 5: That which is not sanctioned
in the writings of the Sainted Fathers is to be presumed superstitious. And Pope Stephen in the same chapter says: It is left
to your judgement to try prisoners who are convicted by their own confession
or the proofs of the evidence; but leave that which is hidden and unknown to
Him Who alone knows the hearts of men.
There is, nevertheless, a difference between a duel and the trial by red-hot
iron or boiling water. For a duel appears to be more humanly reasonable, the
combatants being of similar strength and skill, than a trial by red-hot iron.
For although the purpose of both is to search out something hidden by means of
a human act; yet in the case of trial by red-hot iron a miraculous effect is
looked for, whereas this is not so in the case of a duel, in which all that
can happen is the death of either, or both, of the combatants. Therefore the
trial by red-hot iron is altogether unlawful; though a duel is not illegal to
the same extent. So much has been incidentally admitted in respect of duels,
on account of Princes and secular Judges.
It is to be noted that, because of those words of S. Thomas which make the
above distinction, Nicolas of Lyra, in his Commentary on the duel or combat
between David and Goliath, I. Regum xvii, tried to prove that in some
cases a duel is lawful. But Paul of Burgos proves that not this, but rather
the opposite was the meaning of S. Thomas; and all Princes and secular Judges
ought to pay particular attention to his proof.
His first point is that a duel, like the other trial by ordeal, has as its
purpose the judgement of something hidden, which ought to be left to the
judgement of God, as we have said. And it cannot be said that this combat of
David is an authority for duelling; for it was revealed to him by the Lord
through some inner instinct that he must engage in that combat and avenge upon
the Philistine the injuries done against God, as is proved by David's words: I
come against thee in the name of the living God. So he was not properly
speaking a duellist, but he was an executor of Divine justice.
His second point is that Judges must especially note that in a duel power, or
at least licence, is given to each of the parties to kill the other. But since
one of them is innocent, that power of licence is given for the killing of an
innocent man; and this is unlawful, as being contrary to the dictates of
natural law and to the teaching of God. Therefore, a duel is altogether
unlawful, not only on the part of the appellant and the respondent, but also
on the part of the Judge and his advisers, who are all equally to be
considered homicides or parties to manslaughter.
Thirdly, he points out that a duel is a single combat between two men, the
purpose of which is that the justice of the case should be made clear by the
victory of one party, as if by Divine judgement, notwithstanding the fact that
one of the parties is fighting in an unjust cause; and in this way God is
tempted. Therefore it is unlawful on the part both of the appellant and the
respondent. But considering the fact that the judges have other means of
arriving at an equitable and just termination of the dispute, when they do not
use such means, but advise or even permit a duel when they could forbid it,
they are consenting to the death of an innocent person.
But since it is unlikely that Nicolas the Commentator was unaware or ignorant
of the above reasoning, it is concluded that, when he says that in some cases
a duel can be fought without mortal sin, he is speaking on the part of the
Judges or advisers, namely, in a case when such a trial is undertaken, not on
their responsibility or advice, but purely on that of the appellant and
But since it is not our purpose to linger over and debate such considerations,
but to return to the question of witches, it is clear that, if this sort of
trial is forbidden in the case of other criminal causes, such as theft or
robbery, still more must it be forbidden in the case of witches who, it is
agreed, obtain all their power from the devil, whether it be for causing or
curing an injury, for removing or for preventing an effect of witchcraft.
And it is not wonderful witches are able to undergo this trial by ordeal
unscathed with the help of devils; for we learn from naturalists that if the
hands be anointed with the juice of a certain herb they are protected from
burning. Now the devil has an exact knowledge of the virtues of such herbs:
therefore, although he can cause the hand of the accused to be protected from
the red-hot iron by invisibly interposing some other substance, yet he can
procure the same effect by the use of natural objects. Hence even less that
other criminals ought witches to be allowed this trial by ordeal, because
their intimate familiarity with the devil; and from the very fact of their
appealing to this trial they are to be held as suspected witches.
An incident illustrative of our argument occurred hardly three years ago in
the Diocese of Constance. For in the territory of the Counts of Fuerstenberg
and the Black Forest there was a notorious witch who had been the subject of
much public complaint. At last, as the result of a general demand, she was
seized by the Count and accused of various evil works of witchcraft. When she
was being tortured and questioned, wishing to escape from their hands, she
appealed to the trial by red-hot iron; and the Count, being you and
inexperienced, allowed it. And she then carried the red-hot iron not only for
the stipulated three paces, but for six, and offered to carry it even farther.
Then, although they ought to have taken this as manifest proof that she was a
witch (since one of the Saints dared to tempt the help of God in this manner),
she was released from her chains and lives to the present time, not without
grave scandal to the Faith in those parts.
Next: Question XVIII
Of the Manner of Pronouncing a Sentence which is Final and Definitive