Welcome once again to History’s Assholes, the column that travels back in time to flush out the assholes who made the world what it is today. Previously in History’s Assholes, we’ve looked at monumental American assholes like Thomas Midgley, the father of leaded gasoline, and Fred Koch, chemical baron and progenitor of the Koch Brothers (who are currently hard at work becoming future historical assholes in their own right).
This time, History’s Assholes digs deeper into history for a look at one of Early Renaissance Europe’s most spectacular assholes: Heinrich Kramer. Born in Alsace in 1430, Kramer rose through the ranks of the Dominican order to become a popular church teacher and inquisitor. His specialty: rooting out witchcraft.
Inquisitors were the Church’s NSA agents whose job was to find and punish heretics. Technically, heretics were people who espoused views contrary to official Church teaching, but the appellation was often conveniently extended to include those who cheered for the wrong football team or borrowed the inquisitor’s Volvo and brought it back with an empty tank. Kramer worked feverishly to extend it to an expansive new category of heresy: being female.
To be sure, the Inquisition spawned a prodigious amount of historical assholes for future investigation, but our subject this time rose to his spectacular feats of assholery thanks to a revolutionary technology: movable type. Although Chinese inventor Bi Sheng invented movable type in the 11th century, it wasn’t until 1450 that Mainz engraver Johannes Gutenberg brought printing to the masses with his iPrintingPress. The invention was “surely the single most important technological innovation before the Industrial Revolution,” according to author, historian and Scottish snooty-britches Niall Ferguson.
By the early 1500s, more than a thousand scientific, mathematical and philosophical works had appeared in print. Rational thought was a-bustin’ out all over. But not if Heinrich Kramer could help it.
According to Ferguson: “Of course, not everything that is published adds to the sum of human knowledge. Much of what came off the printing presses in the 16th and 17th centuries was distinctly destructive, like the 29 editions of ‘Malleus Maleficarum’” — or “Hammer of the Witches” — “that appeared between 1487 and 1669, legitimizing the persecution of witches, a pan-European mania that killed between 12,000 and 45,000 people, mostly women.”
Its author was none other than asshole Heinrich Kramer. His bestseller was a noxious treatise on how to identify, convict, torture and kill witches. As you can imagine, copies flew off the shelves and Kramer was quickly booked on all the top talk shows of the era.
Like Ken Ham on meth, Kramer helped popularize foolish falsehoods, including the notion that witches worked black magic, desecrated the Eucharist, had sex orgies with Satan, shifted shapes, and murdered children to render their fat for magical potions. His book included specific advice on how to deal with witches, which included excommunication, torture and using them as kindling in public bonfires.
Kramer also explained in excruciating detail that witches were mostly women who aspired to rise above their station in life. Although he didn’t mention it by name, it’s probably safe to assume he was also opposed to equal pay for equal work.
The impact was far-reaching. The fear of witches was top of mind in Salem, Massachusetts, in 1692, when a rye fungus ergot caused delusions and muscle spasms in young girls, causing the good Puritans of that town to do the only sensible thing: hang them as witches. To say nothing of the countless women through the ages who dared not utter an independent thought, lest they burn at the stake or face the gallows.
Kramer is a patron saint of today’s bullies, warlords, chauvinists, domineering fathers, abusive husbands and all assholes who try to keep women from expressing their opinions. He is also at least partly to blame for Samantha, Sabrina, “The Blair Witch Project,” “Wicked” and the witch hunts of Joe McCarthy (another one of history’s great assholes). For his early work in the field of witch hunts, History’s Assholes gives two middle fingers way up to one spectacular asshole, Heinrich Kramer.