The Malleus Maleficarum: A Medieval Manual for Witch Hunters
The Salem witch trials, which began in 1692 in Salem Village, Massachusetts bay colony, are one of the most well-known and notorious witch trials in history. Yet, this was not the only case of these acts, as witch trials had been conducted in Europe for almost three centuries by then. This was due to the fear engendered by the perception that there was an ‘organized threat’ by satanic witches against Christendom. One of the products of this phenomenon was the Malleus Maleficarum, a work that dealt specifically with the prosecution of the so-called witches.
The “Approval” of the Malleus Maleficarum
The Malleus Maleficarum , which may be translated from Latin to English as the ‘Hammer of the Witches,’ was written in 1486 by a German Catholic clergyman by the name of Heinrich Kramer. Another man listed as the author of this treatise was Jacob Sprenger, though it is now believed that Sprenger contributed only his name and his authority as a leading professor of theology to this work. It may also be mentioned that both men belonged to the Dominican Order, and were Inquisitors.
Cover of the seventh Cologne edition of the Malleus Maleficarum, 1520. ( Public Domain )
The Malleus Maleficarum was first published in Kramer’s home country in 1487, and was submitted to the University of Cologne’s Faculty of Theology in the same year, in order to obtain its endorsement. Although the book contains a Letter of Approbation from The Faculty of Theology of the University of Cologne , which indicates that it had successfully obtained the faculty’s certification, it is generally believed that Kramer’s request was rebuffed, and that the letter of approbation was actually a forgery.
Panorama of the main building, University of Cologne ( CC-BY-SA-3.0)
It is also generally accepted that this work was banned by the Catholic Church three years after it was first published. It has been suggested, however, that the reported denouncement of Kramer in that year by the Inquisition has been mistakenly interpreted as a ban on the Malleus Maleficarum . Nevertheless, it is said that Kramer’s work became one of the most popular witch hunter manual during its time, and had gone through at least 13 editions by 1520. Furthermore, it has been pointed out that between 1574 and 1669, the Malleus Maleficarum was revived in 16 more editions.
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New Editions of the Malleus Maleficarum
It has been argued that the contents of the Malleus Maleficarum presented nothing new on the subject of witchcraft. In addition, it has been pointed out that just as intimate a knowledge of this subject can be found in John Nider’s Formicarius, which was written nearly 50 years before the Malleus Maleficarum .
One of the reasons for the popularity of Kramer’s work was its reproduction by the printing press. Additionally, the “approval” by the University of Cologne served to further enhance the credibility of this piece of writing. Moreover, the “stigma it attached to witchcraft as a worse crime than heresy and in its notable animus against the female sex” made the Malleus Maleficarum a sensational work.
Illustration of a woman during a trial for witchcraft. ( Public Domain ) Women were mostly associated with practicing witchcraft.
Beneath the popularity of this book is a much darker and sinister heart. One scholar, for instance, wrote that the Malleus Maleficarum “rivals Mein Kampf as one of the most infamous and despised of books.”
The book is divided into three parts, the first being “Treating on the three necessary concomitants of witchcraft which are the Devil, a witch, and the permission of Almighty God”, the second being “Treating on the methods by which the works of witchcraft are wrought and directed, and how they may be successfully annulled and dissolved”, and the third being “Relating to the judicial proceedings in both the Ecclesiastical and Civil courts against witches and indeed all heretics”.
Illustration from 1892 of a witch trial. ( Public Domain )
Much of the content of the Malleus Maleficarum may seem absurd and irrational to a modern reader. For instance, in the second part of the book, Kramer poses this question:
“And what, then, is to be thought of those witches who in this way sometimes collect male organs in great numbers, as many as twenty or thirty members together, and put them in a bird's nest, or shut them up in a box, where they move themselves like living members, and eat oats and corn, as has been seen by many and is a matter of common report?”