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Burning witches and holding others in the Stocks, 14th century.

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.

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

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.

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.

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.

Illustration from 1892 of a witch trial. ( Public Domain )

Kramer’s Questions

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?”

He then provides this answer: “It is to be said that it is all done by devil's work and illusion.”

A painting in the Rila Monastery in Bulgaria, condemning witchcraft and traditional folk magic.

A painting in the Rila Monastery in Bulgaria, condemning witchcraft and traditional folk magic. ( Public Domain )

Though we may laugh at such claims today, the people who lived during Kramer’s time probably took such tales seriously. Thus, the prosecution of those suspected of being witches was thought to be necessary, and the meticulous exposition of this procedure can be found in the third part of the Malleus Maleficarum .

The Malleus Maleficarium was indeed one of the factors that contributed to the popularity of the witch trials, and was likely to have claimed numerous lives over the centuries that it was used. Whilst the number of lives claimed by this book is debatable, some have regarded the Malleus Maleficarum as one of the “most blood-soaked works in human history”.

Featured image: Burning witches and holding others in the Stocks, 14th century. Photo source: Public Domain .

By Ḏḥwty

References

Barclay, S., 2010. The Malleus Maleficarum. [Online]
Available at: http://www.historicmysteries.com/the-malleus-maleficarum/

Kramer, H. & Sprenger, J., Malleus Maleficarum [Online]

[Summers, M. (trans.), 1928. Kramer & Sprenger’s Malleus Maleficarum .]

Available at: http://www.malleusmaleficarum.org/downloads/MalleusAcrobat.pdf

Smith, M., 2002. The Flying Phallus and the Laughing Inquisitor: Penis Theft in the "Malleus Maleficarum". Journal of Folklore Research, 39(1), pp. 85-117.

Thurston, H., 1912. Witchcraft. [Online]
Available at: http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/15674a.htm

Windhaven Network, 2015. The Malleus Maleficarum. [Online]
Available at: http://www.malleusmaleficarum.org/

www.history.com, 2015. Salem Witch Hunt begins. [Online]
Available at: http://www.history.com/this-day-in-history/salem-witch-hunt-begins

 

Comments

The information about the book is scholarly enough. People now days seem to give more credit to the book then what it should get, I think.  The quote you used is really a very common one that other people/sites like to pull out. Well, they like that one and the one about the little girl who causes the hail storm.

 

 It sounds as though you read many things about the book but it also sounds like you didn’t actually read the book itself. You should read the book itself. It's actually more informative then one would guess. It actually says a lot about what people actually thought about witches vs. what disproportional nonsense much of the media tells us about those times.  And after you do read it, go read some transcripts of witch trials from the 1500 and 1600's. Though part three of that book is very, very detailed about how witch trials work, I think you will notice the massive discrepancy in how the trials from 1520-1700 actually worked. 

 

I got around to reading that book about a year ago. Now it bothers me when people give the book way more credit then it should get and talk about it as one of the 'Most evil book in history" how it's just waiting to re-start the burning-times and about the '4 million Wiccians and witches that were burned'. But then, I'm in the US and our Wiccians like to to claim that they are the oldest religion in existence so maybe i'm just taking things out of proportion. 

 

--Still learning--

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