Helena Scheuberin  

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Helena Scheuberin (fl. 1485) was an Austrian woman who stood trial accused of witchcraft in 1485. Her trial and acquittal led to the Malleus Maleficarum, which was published two years later.

On trial at Innsbruck, Scheuberin was accused of having used magic to murder the noble knight Jörg Spiess. (The knight had been afflicted by illness, and had been warned by his Italian doctor not to keep visiting Helena Scheuberin, wife of a prosperous burgher, to avoid getting killed.) Scheuberin was described as an "aggressive, independent woman who was not afraid to speak her mind". Shortly after Kramer's arrival in the city, she had passed him in the street, spat and cursed him publicly: "Fie on you, you bad monk, may the falling evil take you". Later, it was discovered that she was not attending Kramer's sermons and encouraged others to do likewise, all of which were brought against her as charges for the crime of witchcraft. Helena even disrupted one of his sermons "by loudly proclaiming that she believed Institoris to be an evil man in league with the devil".

During the trial, six other women were implicated and accused of sorcery. Some of the local authorities at this point still in general regarded sorcery as a minor offense and did not necessarily associate it with Satan. The defendants' lawyer raised procedural objections, which the commissary general, representing Bishop Golser, upheld. The accused were released after putting up a bond to appear should the case be resumed. In the end, Helena Scheuberin and the other six women were all either freed or received mild sentences in the form of penance.

Historical Significance

The trials were overseen in part by inquisitor Heinrich Kramer, who traveled to Germany to investigate witches. The local diocese refused to honor his jurisdiction, leading Kramer to seek and receive the papal bull Summis desiderantes affectibus (1484) which reaffirmed his jurisdiction and authority as an inquisitor.

Kramer was dissatisfied with the outcome of the trials and stayed in Innsbruck to continue his investigations. Exchanged letters show Bishop of Brixen Georg Golser, whose diocese contained Innsbruck, commanding Kramer to leave the city. He eventually left after the Bishop expelled Kramer for insanity and his obsession towards Helena. He returned to Cologne and wrote a treatise on witchcraft that became the Malleus Maleficarum (first published 1487), an instruction guide for identifying witches.


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