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Malleus Maleficarum Part 3

Question XVII

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 ordeal.
        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 avoided.
        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 respondent themselves.
        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