Malleus Maleficarum, The Hammer of the Witches

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The Malleus Maleficarum was written by Heinrich Kramer (Latinized Heinrich Institoris) and Jacob Sprenger in 1486. However, most modern scholars believe that Jacob Sprenger contributed little, if anything to the work besides his illustrious name (Russell 1972, page 230). Sprenger and Kramer were both members of the Dominican Order and were Inquisitors for the Catholic Church’s inquisition against heretics. Heresy in this sense was an error in understanding and of faith in the Catholic religion, ultimately discernible by God alone (Broedel 2003, page 20).

On December 5, 1484 Pope Innocent VIII had issued the Summis desiderantes affectibus, or the famous “witch-bull,” to Institoris and Spregner in response to their asking for explicit authority to prosecute witchcraft (Russell, 229). This papal bull would be used as the preface for the Malleus Maleficarum. The Summis desiderantes affectibus recognized the existence of witches and gave full papal approval for the Inquisition against witches and gave permission to do whatever necessary to get rid of them, thus opening the door for the bloody witch hunts that ensued for centuries.

Kramer and Sprenger submitted the Malleus Maleficarum to the University of Cologne’s Faculty of Theology on May 9, 1487, hoping for its endorsement. Instead, the faculty condemned it as both unethical and illegal (History of the Malleus Maleficarum by Jenny Gibbons). Nervertheless, Kramer inserted an endorsement from the University into subsequent editions. The Catholic Church banned the book in 1490, placing it on the Index Librorum Prohibitorum.

Despite this, however, it became the handbook for witch-hunters and Inquisitors throughout Late Medieval Europe. Between the years 1487 and 1520, the work was published thirteen times. It was again published between the years of 1574 to 1669 a total of sixteen times. The papal bull and endorsements which appear at the beginning of the book contributed to its popularity by giving the illusion that it had been granted approval.

The Malleus Maleficarum asserts that three elements are necessary for witchraft: the evil-intentioned witch, the help of the Devil, and the Permission of God (Russell 232). The treatise is divided up into three sections. The first section refutes critics who denied the reality of witchcraft, thereby hindering its persecution. The second section describes the actual forms of witchcraft and its remedies. The third section is to assist judges confronting and combating witchcraft. However, each of these three sections has the prevailing themes of what is witchcraft and who is a witch. The Malleus Maleficarum can hardly be called an original text, for it heavily relies upon earlier works such as Visconti, Torquemada and, most famously, Johannes Nider's Formicarius (1435) (Russell, 279).


Section I
Section I argues that because the devil exists and has the power to do astounding things, witches exist to help, if done through the aid of the devil and with the permission of God (Broedel, 22). The Devil’s power is greatest where human sexuality is concerned, for it was believed that women were more sexual than men. Loose women had sex with the Devil, thus paving their way to become witches. To quote the Malleus “all witchcraft comes from carnal lust, which is in women insatiable.”

Section II
In section II of the Malleus Maleficarum, the authors turn to matters of practice by discussing actual cases. This section first discusses the powers of witches, and then goes into recruitment strategies (Broedel, 30). It is mostly witches as opposed to the devil who does the recruiting, by making something go wrong in the life of a respectable matron that makes her consult the knowledge of a witch, or by introducing young maidens to tempting young devils (Ibid, 30). This section also details how witches cast spells and remedies that can be taken to prevent witchcraft or help those that have been affected by it (MacKay, 214).

Section III
Section III is the legal part of the Malleus that describes how to prosecute a witch. The arguments are clearly laid for the lay magistrates prosecuting witches. Institoris and Sprenger offer a step by step guide to the conduct of a witch trial, from the method of initiating the process and assembling accusations, to the interrogation of witnesses, the formal charging of the accused (Broedel, 34). Women who did not cry during their trial were automatically believed to be witches (MacKay, 502).