From Witchhunter to Vampire Hunter — Henrich Kramer and the Undead

Malleus_1669I freely admit that I’ve never read the Malleus Maleficarum all the way through, simply because it’s the one witch hunting book that really bothers me. Heinrich Kramer (I refuse to call him ‘Institoris’) was, in my opinion, just a vile human being. He wasn’t trying to do the best he could in a bad situation, he was a genuinely insane, hateful, awful human being.

But here’s a story worth telling: apparently he was a vampire hunter.

Heinrich Kramer
I don’t have to call Kramer a madman, or impugn his abilities, because the Bishop of Innsbruck already did during his own lifetime. In 1484 Kramer was conducting the trial of an Innsbruck woman when he began departing from legal procedure to question the accused about her sexual history. In some times and at some places this wouldn’t have made the blindest bit of difference, but the Bishop of Innsbruck appears to have believed in a crazy thing called ‘the rule of law’.

The defence called for the case to be halted after such a strange and creepy deviation, and the Archduke decided to abandon the prosecution altogether. The Bishop wrote two letters to Kramer’s host in the town, first saying, “tell him that because of quite a few scandals that have arisen on account of his bad procedure, he should not stay in the place lest something worse ensue or happen to him. A few words to the wise: what he did was very inappropriate.”

When, three months later, Kramer seemed not to have gotten the hint, the Bishop wrote again to his host, the choir master Brother Nicholas, saying “I’m quite sick of the monk in the bishopric… I find in the papal bull that he was previously inquisitor for many popes, but he seems to me to have become quite childish because of old age, when I along with the [cathedral] chapter heard him here in Brixen. I advised him to go back to his cloister and stay there. He seems really crazy to me. Perhaps he’d still be happy to proceed with the business of the women, but I’m not going to let him get involved, since before he totally erred in his procedure. What he presented in writing at the beginning was magesterial, but in practise his foolishness became apparent, and he made many presuppositions that were not proven.

To Kramer, the bishop wrote, “I am quite surprised that you remain in my diocese and in a place so close to the curia in which errors were committed and it reached a point of dissensions, not to say scandals… it is to be feared that the husbands of the women or their friends could commit an offence against you, father. For their legal actions, I do not need your presence, which could serve more as an impediment than a help, and by my authority as an [episcopal judge] I will do what seems appropriate. Certainly you, Father, should withdraw to your monastery as I advised you before. You ought not to be annoying others. I have often told you, Father, that you could do nothing in the light of present circumstances and should leave. I had, in fact, imagined that you would long since have departed. Farewell.”

Kramer was an arch-persecutor. From 1468-70 he was engaged in a persecutions against the Hussite and Waldenesian heretics, in 1475 he was taken on by a German bishop to find a justification for the execution of some local Jews. In 1482 he took on the fearsome enemy of some women who were ‘taking communion too excessively’ and he remained a persecutor of the Waldenesians until his death in 1500.

And he seems to have been a difficult character: in 1474 he was jailed for insulting the Holy Roman Emperor. The year after he accused two of his fellow Inquisitors of stealing money from him, and by 1482 he was in trouble for overcharging on the sale of indulgences (by 1490 he was banned from all convents, think of that what you will).

Even his friend, the Humanist Conrad Peutinger, claimed that he was “quite the drinker” and that servants often had to hold down his drinking arm by refusing him wine.

His witch hunting wasn’t much better than the rest of his temprement: he believed in penis-stealing witches, writing of witches that could variously make the male member either appear to vanish or actually detach from its host’s body (including what might be a joking account of some German peasants finding a nest of stolen penises in a tree and one of them getting in trouble with the local priest for taking a larger one than was his and attaching it to his body). The Malleus was, in short, a manual justifying the proclivities of a bigot.

The Vampire
Kramer’s vampire story goes thus: “For when those in authority neglect to reprove sin, then very often the good are punished with the wicked, as S. Augustine says in the first book de Ciuitate Dei. An example was brought to our notice as Inquisitors. A town was once rendered almost destitute by the death of its citizens; and there was a rumour that a certain buried woman was gradually eating the shroud in which she had been buried, and that the plague could not cease until she had eaten the whole shroud and absorbed it into her stomach. A council was held, and the Podesta with the Governor of the city dug up the grave, and found half the shroud absorbed through the mouth and throat into the stomach, and consumed. In horror at this sight, the Podesta drew his sword and cut off her head and threw it out of the grave, and at once the plague ceased.”


These vampires seem to be quite common in Europe. In his Dissertation sur les Apparitions d’Espirits, the French Benedictine Dom Calmet, writing in the 18th century, described the Eater: “It is said that the vampire experiences a kind of hunger that causes him to eat the grave cloths he finds around him”, and Kramer’s own German tongue refers to Eaters as “Nachzehrer”, or “one who cases death by devouring something”.

This type of vampire doesn’t leave its grave, but rather lies there chewing on its grave clothes and causing those who were close to them to whither away. Hajek di Libotschan wrote in the 17th century about a woman who died in the Bohemian town of Lewin where a witch died in the late 14th century, returning as a revenant.
Like many other medieval revenants, the witch was both intelligent and corporeal in death: joining the shepherds in the fields and scaring the locals (many of whom Hajek claims she also killed) until she was exhumed, only for locals to find that she had already eaten half of the veil she had been buried in. Despite being staked to the ground, she came back from the dead again until, as in the case of many such revenants, she was burned.

Similarly, in Claude Lecouteux’s Secret History of Vampires he includes the story of an Eater from the Annals of the City of Wroclaw, where a huge mass death occurred in 1517 (allegedly 2000 people) after a shepherd was buried and started devouring his clothes, “and while doing so made the noise of a sow’s jaws.” Eventually, like Kramer’s example, his body was exhumed and lopped off with a saw, ending the reign of terror.

To finish, the only thing to be said of Kramer’s example is that it has a comparatively small death toll to the Wroclaw incident. Kramer was a misogynist, an prurient fundamentalist and a gifted persecutor…

…But maybe he was good at keeping the vampires down.


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