Chapter 1. The Inquisitor’s Burden

In 1469, two German Roman Catholic priests wrote a manual for Inquisitors. The manual was published as the Malleus Maleficarum, which translates into The Hammer of Witches. The authors Heinrich Kramer and Jacob Sprenger were members of the Order of Preachers, otherwise known as the Dominican Order. The Dominican Order was a religious society founded by the Spaniard Dominic de Guzman to battle heresy within the Church, and throughout its history it has been much associated with the Inquisition. This was no accident. Because the Dominican Order emphasized the importance of study, many Dominicans were well educated theologians, and were therefore often appointed as Inquisitors.

The Inquisitor was an investigator. Excepting that, the inquisitor was primarily to investigate heresy, that is, deviation from the beliefs of the Catholic Faith. Usually the inquisitor had the authority to call suspected heretics to a court of the Church, and when he was satisfied that the suspect was heretical, would hand him over to the secular authorities who then punished the heretic. Based on the inquisitor’s recommendations, the heretic could be punished lightly, or could be executed.

Like other manuals in that genre, the Malleus Maleficarum offered guidance on how to proceed with identifying suspects, the kinds of questions to ask them, ways of applying torture, how to judge the witnesses who came forth, and so on. Heresies have various forms. In Dominic’s time, the major heresy was Manichean-ism, which believed that material things were evil, which the Catholic Church judged to be wrong. After all, Christ had become man, and man is partly spiritual, and partly material. For the Malleus, its interest was in witchcraft. Apparently in Spain, Dominicans had considered the practice of witchcraft heresy. This meant that when someone had been caught practicing what might be considered acts of witchcraft, they would be subject to the examination of the inquisitor, who would declare the person a heretic. These practices could include sacrificing to the devil, attempts to have sex with a black cat, casting spells on others, etc. It appeared that in Europe and in Germany, there was the growth of such like practices. So the Mallues was written to help inquisitors appointed to these places to rid these places of the heresy of witchcraft.

The interest in Witchcraft set the Malleus apart from other manuals, and scholars interested in witchcraft would usually also study what the Malleus had to say about the witches and their activities. However, there was something else that makes the Malleus an interesting work. This is that the Malleus is also at the same time a commentary on the purposes and the methods of the Inquisition. This has not often been detected by historians. Heinrich Kramer and Jacob Sprenger offer in the Malleus a new way of thinking about the trial of heretics. They suggest proceeding with the Inquisition in order not just to detect heretics, but to heal them.

For a start, these two Dominican priests had noticed that many who practiced witchcraft did so not because they had false religious beliefs. These people did not deny the divinity of Christ, nor affirm the omnipotence of the Devil. What motivated them to practice witchcraft was rather things like greed or lust, or perhaps they were in a desperate situation. For example, they would cast spells or sacrifice to the devil in order to get more money to escape poverty, or to secure a woman or man they wanted. But if you asked them, they would say that they knew God to be greater than the devil, and would affirm the Apostle’s Creed. The trouble was that God would not give them what they wanted. Now this means that, while they were immoral, they were not “heretics”. Because as the Canon Law said, a “heretic” had to have false religious beliefs. Heinrich Kramer and Jacob Spranger felt therefore that these should not be tried by the inquisition. So they urge inquisitors to not hastily judge someone to be a heretic unless they have established that their vile practices were really due to some false religious beliefs, and not because of a moral fault. Persons who are immoral may later repent, and according to Kramer and Sprangor, several did. Even if the person who practiced witchcraft really did have some false religious beliefs, the Dominican inquisitors suggested that this was not enough to convict the person of heresy, unless the person would hold on to these beliefs and refuse to recant them. Again, citing Canon Law, they pointed out that “heresy” means not only that one had some false beliefs about matters of religion, but also that one would stubbornly subscribe to such beliefs. Heinrich Kramer and Jacob Spranger’s advice is for inquisitors to not convict as heretics those who may retract their false beliefs and repent of their evil practices.

Now what is interesting in all this is the emphasis on the possibility of suspected heretics repenting. This is somewhat unusual in the light of the thinking in that time. By comparison, the influential French Dominican Bernard Gui’s manual for inquisitors, for instance, plays up the deviousness of unrepentant heretics who find ways to get around the inquisitor’s questions about what they believe, so that they do not reveal what they believe, but also in order precisely not to recant any false religious beliefs they stubbornly hold. The Spanish Dominicans, which the Malleus Maleficarum discussed, would quite quickly judge any person who practiced witchcraft to be a heretic, and did not find out if the suspect practiced witchcraft because of a moral failure, or whether the suspect was motivated by false religious beliefs, or if the suspect would cling to these beliefs obstinately. Therefore the question of their possible repentance was not even raised. Like other Dominicans inquisitors Heinrich Kramer and Jacob Spranger were interested to identify and convict heretics. But unlike them, they were more willing to accommodate the thought that, whatever motivated these persons to practice witchcraft could be repented of. Indeed, Heinrich Kramer and Jacob Spranger showed a distinct interest in this idea, and highlighted in their work the possible repentance of suspected heretics.

This is very important because it changes the way the inquisition could work. If an inquisitor is prejudiced against a suspected heretic, or if the possibility of repentance is not at all entertained, then the dominant interest is to expose the unrepentant heretic. In this way the inquisitor’s job is that of a police: to identify, convict and arrest. And therefore, the interrogations would proceed with this in mind. The thrust here is to gather enough evidence to judge the suspect as a heretic. But if repentance is a possibility, then the inquisitor could see his job in a somewhat different light. It includes, of course, the identification of unrepentant heretics. But where repentance is possible, it may also be precisely to encourage that. Thus interrogations are meant to collect evidence of heresy, but could also be employed to stimulate repentance, or at least to allow for that. This latter purpose of the trials seemed something the Malleus welcomed. For: the inquisitor who followed the guidance of the Malleus would be quite careful to not hastily declare a judgment of heresy short of obstinacy of error, and there would hence be opportunities for the suspect to renounce or recant his false beliefs early into the proceedings of the inquisition. If so then the inquisitor operates more like a doctor, who applies his art and tries to heal the sick. In this case the burden of the inquisitor is two-fold: to convict unrepentant heretics no doubt, but also to welcome the repentance of heretics when there are these.

This little work, which I have titled, The Inquisitor’s Manual, is inspired by the two fold agenda of Heinrich Kramer and Jacob Sprenger’s Malleus Maleficarum. I asked myself, “What would these German Inquisitors, if they were to be alive today, have to say to us about the interesting technologies that are today available?” For in their day, they took hold of their own medieval technologies—the inquisitorial office, its methods of interrogation, its torture instruments—and tried re-thinking what these could mean for the flock under their care. Much as these were useful for detecting fault, they also appear helpful for engineering repentance. Today we have a variety of technologies at our disposal. If Heinrich Kramer and Jacob Sprenger were alive today, and had a chance to experiment with these gadgets, how would they suggest we re-think our use of these technologies?

Think for example, the camera. The camera is a tool to capture an image of something in the world. It is a tool for recording. It is a tool to arrest something in evidence. But can it be more than that? Can it be a tool to change people, thinking, decisions, policies, laws, communities…? The following chapters will try to answer some of these questions. We will be exploring what the camera can do, as well as what we can do with the camera. We will consider how photography works, as well as how photography can work for us. We will think about the photographer, his experience of doing photography, and what photography can do to him. We will look at photographic images, the captions that inform these photographs, and how photography can inform our written text. Most of all we will try to find different ways of using photography to interrogate our thinking.


Also revised and shortened as “The Inquisitor’s Burden: Rethinking the Camera as a Tool for Change” in, powered by Focal Press.