The Malleus Maleficarum or Der Hexenhammer (Latin/German for “The Hammer of Witches”) is arguably the most infamous medieval European treatise that focused on identifying, characterizing, and combating witchcraft. It was written in 1486 by Heinrich Kramer and Jacob Sprenger with the explicit endorsement of Pope Innocent VIII, who desired “that all heretical depravity should be driven far from the frontiers and bournes of the Faithful.” It was first published in Germany in 1487. Though it was eventually banned by the Vatican, it remained a popular tome among both Catholic and Protestant witch-hunters, eventually selling out over thirty editions throughout the two hundred years that it was in print.
The text was the culmination of a long history of medieval theological treatises on witchcraft, the most famous of these earlier works being the Formicarius by Johannes Nider in 1435–1437. The main purpose of the Malleus was to systematically refute all skepticism about witchcraft, to counter those who expressed even the slightest doubt about the propriety of the Inquisition, to prove that witches were more often woman than men, and to educate magistrates on the procedures that could “unmask” and convict these demonic heretics.
In the late medieval period (1100–1500 C.E.), the Roman Catholic Church was riven by controversy. Various antipopes vied with the Vatican for ecclesiastical legitimacy, theological positions branded as heretical (including those held by the Catharites, Waldenses, and Hussites) were vigorously persecuted, and, in general, the spiritual malaise that came to prompt the Protestant Reformation was becoming steadily more pronounced. One response to these various (and related) crises was an overall shift towards conservatism, insularity, and a type of religious xenophobia, which culminated in the persecution of various individuals and groups deemed dangerous by the religious authorities. It was in this context that, on December 5, 1484, Pope Innocent VIII issued the bull Summis desiderantes affectibus (“Desiring with Supreme Ardor”), which authorized two zealous German Inquisitors (Heinrich Kramer and Jacob Sprenger) to act as they saw fit in combating the scourge of heresy, witchcraft, and immorality:
Wherefore We, as is Our duty, being wholly desirous of removing all hindrances and obstacles by which the good work of the Inquisitors may be let and tarded, as also of applying potent remedies to prevent the disease of heresy and other turpitudes diffusing their poison to the destruction of many innocent souls, since Our zeal for the Faith especially incites us, lest that the provinces, townships, dioceses, districts, and territories of Germany, which We had specified, be deprived of the benefits of the Holy Office thereto assigned, by the tenor of these presents in virtue of Our Apostolic authority We decree and enjoin that the aforesaid Inquisitors [Kramer and Sprenger] be empowered to proceed to the just correction, imprisonment, and punishment of any persons, without let or hindrance, in every way as if the provinces, townships, dioceses, districts, territories, yea, even the persons and their crimes in this kind were named and particularly designated in Our letters. Moreover, for greater surety We extend these letters deputing this authority to cover all the aforesaid provinces, townships, dioceses, districts, territories, persons, and crimes newly rehearsed, and We grant permission to the aforesaid Inquisitors, to one separately or to both, as also to Our dear son John Gremper, priest of the diocese of Constance, Master of Arts, their notary, or to any other public notary, who shall be by them, or by one of them, temporarily delegated to those provinces, townships, dioceses, districts, and aforesaid territories, to proceed, according to the regulations of the Inquisition, against any persons of whatsoever rank and high estate, correcting, mulcting, imprisoning, punishing, as their crimes merit, those whom they have found guilty, the penalty being adapted to the offence.
This bull, whose promulgation had been indirectly requested by Heinrich Kramer, prompted the composition of the Malleus Maleficarum in 1486. The text has traditionally been ascribed to Heinrich Kramer (Latinized as “Heinrich Institoris”) and Jacob Sprenger, who were both members of the Dominican Order employed as Inquisitors by the Catholic Church. Despite the text’s official attribution, modern scholars believe that Jacob Sprenger contributed little (if anything) to the work besides his illustrious name.
Kramer (and possibly Sprenger) submitted the Malleus Maleficarum to the University of Cologne’s Faculty of Theology in 1487, hoping for an endorsement that would lend the text a further air of legitimacy. Instead, the faculty condemned it as being both unethical and illegal. In spite of this rebuff, Kramer proceeded to insert a fraudulent endorsement from the University into subsequent print editions of the text. In a similar manner, most versions of the Malleus also include the full text of the Summis desiderantes affectibus bull, an inclusion that implies papal sanction, despite the fact that the papal statement predated the text itself.
Regardless of the less-than-stellar reception the text received upon its initial publication, it gradually became one of first (and most influential) handbooks for Protestant and Catholic witch-hunters in late medieval and early modern Europe. Between the years 1487 and 1520, the work sold out a total of sixteen editions, which led to an additional sixteen being printed and sold in the following hundred and fifty years.
In general, the Malleus Maleficarum presents a relatively overall theology/demonology, asserting that three elements are necessary for existence of witchcraft: The evil-intentioned witch (whose particular moral failings impel her to sin), the intercession of the Devil (who is the proximate cause of the witch’s supernatural abilities), and the (implicit) permission of God (who is the ultimate cause of all actions). In terms of textual organization, the treatise is divided into three sections: The first “presents theoretical and theological arguments for the reality of witchcraft” (aiming to silence critics of the Inquisition’s efforts); the second describes the actual applications of witchcraft, and compiles various remedies that can be used by those “bewitched”; finally, the third section provides instructions to judges, in order to assist them in their “divine mission” to confront and combat witchcraft. Superseding this organizational principle, each of these three sections is also united by a ubiquitous emphasis on providing textual definitions and practical guidelines for classifying witchcraft and identifying witches.
In spite of the document’s place of primacy in the history of the European “witch-craze,” the Malleus can hardly be called an original text, for it relied heavily upon earlier works by Visconti, Torquemada, and, most famously, Johannes Nider (the Formicarius ). However, these inter-textual parallels merely indicate the “canonicity” of demonological beliefs in the late Middle Ages. As Krause notes, “[D]emonology soon claimed for itself an authoritative status as demonologists interpreted puzzling features of witchcraft in light of the work of other demonologists. In the Malleus Maleficarum, references to Johannes Nider’s Formicarius reside comfortably alongside passages from Aquinas, both texts serving as authorities.… Demonology had become in effect its own self-legitimating discourse.”
Section I – Background assumptions
Section I argues that, because the Devil exists and has the power to do astounding things, witches (immoral women) exist to make these powers manifest. However, it avoids the theological problem of under-representing the power of the Divine by arguing that even these malevolent actions are performed with the permission of God. This repugnant misogynistic theodicy is argued at great length in the text:
God in justice permits evil and witchcraft to be in the world, although He is Himself the provider and governor of all things;… But God is the universal controller of the whole world, and can extract much good from particular evils; as through the persecution of the tyrants came the patience of the martyrs, and through the works of witches come the purgation or proving of the faith of the just, as will be shown. Therefore it is not God’s purpose to prevent all evil, lest the universe should lack the cause of much good. Wherefore S. Augustine says in the Enchiridion: So merciful is Almighty God, that He would not allow any evil to be in His works unless He were so omnipotent and good that He can bring good even out of evil.
The central role that the text assigns to women in bring evil into the world requires that the author(s) make certain (defamatory) ontological assumptions about the natural qualities of females:
All witchcraft comes from carnal lust, which is in women insatiable. See Proverbs xxx: There are three things that are never satisfied, yea, a fourth thing which says not, It is enough; that is, the mouth of the womb. Wherefore for the sake of fulfilling their lusts they consort even with devils. More such reasons could be brought forward, but to the understanding it is sufficiently clear that it is no matter for wonder that there are more women than men found infected with the heresy of witchcraft. And in consequence of this, it is better called the heresy of witches than of wizards, since the name is taken from the more powerful party. And blessed be the Highest Who has so far preserved the male sex from so great a crime: for since He was willing to be born and to suffer for us, therefore He has granted to men the privilege.
Section II – Witchcraft in practice
In Section II, the author(s) begin to address more practical matters by discussing actual cases. The section begins by exposing the multifarious powers of witches, and then goes on to detail their recruitment strategies. In doing so, it places the blame squarely upon these duplicitous females, suggesting that they purposefully lead moral women astray, either by causing disasters in their lives (which could impel them to consult the arcane knowledge of a witch) or by introducing young maidens to physically appealing demons. Given the assumed weakness of spirit introduced above, the second approach would have been seen as virtually infallible. This section also explores the mechanics of malefic spellcraft, lists some of the dreadful offenses perpetrated by these evil-doers (including promoting infirmity, causing damage to livestock, sacrificing children, and even stealing a man’s “virile member”) and concludes by instructing the reader in various defensive techniques that can be used against these powers (whether one is aiming to avoid ensorcellment or to mitigate the effects of existing curses).
Section III – Juridical procedures for witch trials
Unlike the sensationalistic visions proposed in the previous sections, Section III is comparatively dry and legalistic, as it describes (in great detail) the correct procedure for prosecuting a suspected witch. Therein, the author(s) offer a step-by-step guide to conducting a witch trial, from the method of initiating the process and assembling accusations, to the proper forms of defensive council, to the interrogation of witnesses and the formal laying of charges against the accused. A small snippet from the chapter on appropriate forms of inquisition is sufficient for establishing the overall tone and stance taken by this section as a whole:
While the officers are preparing for the questioning, let the accused be stripped; or if she is a woman, let her first be led to the penal cells and there stripped by honest women of good reputation. And the reason for this is that they should search for any instrument of witchcraft sewn into her clothes; for they often make such instruments, at the instruction of devils, out of the limbs of unbaptized children, the purpose being that those children should be deprived of the beatific vision. And when such instruments have been disposed of, the Judge shall use his own persuasions and those of other honest men zealous for the faith to induce her to confess the truth voluntarily; and if she will not, let him order the officers to bind her with cords, and apply her to some engine of torture; and then let them obey at once but not joyfully, rather appearing to be disturbed by their duty. Then let her be released again at someone’s earnest request, and taken on one side, and let her again be persuaded; and in persuading her, let her be told that she can escape the death penalty.
Unfortunately for the women accused in these tribunals, the procedures advocated by the Malleus made it nearly impossible for them to emerge with a “not guilty” verdict. For instance, women who did not cry during their trials were automatically believed to be witches. Likewise, those who would not confess to their “crimes” were assumed to be supernaturally fortified by a “spell of silence,” a demonic charm that would allow them to brave the questions and tortures directed at them.
It is here that one can take full measure of demonology’s logic of certainty, its self-confirming capacity: if the suspected witch confesses, then guilt is firmly established; if the suspect does not confess, she is bewitched but guilty nonetheless. Demonologists push this logic of damned if you do, damned if you don’t, one step further: a silent or otherwise resistant person is even more guilty than a defendant who confesses easily.
Misogynistic attitudes are an unfortunately ubiquitous feature of the Malleus Maleficarum. As discussed above, the treatise argues that the inherent failings of women (most particularly their lascivious sexuality) inclined them towards participation in witchcraft, because they were susceptible to the sexual temptations of demons and devils. This dreadful perspective is summarized by Broedel:
Their minds are warped, twisted like the rib from which Eve was first formed; and, just as the first woman could not keep faith with God, so all women are faithless. The very etymology of the word “woman” shows this to be true, since, as Institoris adds, “it is said that femina is from fe and minus because a woman always keeps less faith.” Further, women have weak memories, and from this defect “it is a natural vice in them to refuse to be governed, but to follow their impulses without any due reserve.” Their will, too, is deficient because they are inordinately passionate, more prone to violent love and hate, and so often turn to witchcraft in order to gratify these desires (Malleus, 12–13). In sum, Institoris [Kramer] concludes, women are natural-born liars, they are proud and vain, and their hearts are ruled by malice, all of which make women the ready dupes and/or willing slaves of the devil (Malleus, 44).
After the publication of the Malleus, Kramer and Sprenger’s misogynistic thesis became an accepted fact, and most of those who were prosecuted as witches were women. Most typically, the women demonized by these poisonous attitudes were those who had strong personalities and were known to defy convention by overstepping the lines of proper female decorum. Further, these negative stances towards both women and sexuality were common to all demonological treatises of the medieval period, where tales of lesbian sexual orgies, congress with demons, and magical castrations were all too common. Among the authors of these texts, “[T]heir detailed reflections on the nature of sexual intercourse with demons, on the pleasure and pain experienced by witches coupling with demons, and on the generalized lubricity of the sabbat suggest that demonologists were deeply interested in eliciting confessions of sexual secrets. With good reason, early modern demonology has been described as a kind of scholarly pornography.”
Breadth of textual inspiration
In spite of the text’s unforgivable misogyny, the Malleus Maleficarum was significantly influenced by humanistic ideologies. Just as the ancient subjects of astronomy, philosophy, and medicine were being reintroduced to the west at this time, the Malleus helps to expand typical Scholastic discourse by referring, not only to the Bible and early theologians, but also to Aristotelian thought and Neo-Platonism. It also mentions astrology and astronomy, which had recently been reintroduced to the West by the ancient works of Pythagoras.
Reasons for popularity in the late Middle Ages
The Malleus achieved such a height of influence and popularity for two primary reasons, one socio-cultural, the other technological.
As mentioned above, the late fifteenth century was a period of religious turmoil, already charged with the inchoate challenges that would eventually spark the Protestant Reformation several decades in the future. The Malleus Maleficarum (and the witch craze that it helped engender) took advantage of the increasing intolerance of the Reformation and Counter-Reformation in Europe, where the Protestant and Catholic camps each zealously strove to maintain the purity of faith. Indeed, “[I]t could be argued that witch-hunting was ecumenical: it united Catholics and Lutherans, Puritans and Anglicans, as no other purpose ever would.” Some theorists argue this intolerant and dogmatic religious climate actively encouraged religious people to adopt beliefs that may have otherwise seemed bizarre, dangerous, or even unethical:
The discourse of witchcraft theorists shows that they were above all metaphysical opportunists, seizing any bit of oral or literary lore that would reinforce their crumbling faith in the authenticity of Christianity as the revealed will of God. The witch coalesced in the imagination of the literate male elite at a moment when the internal contradictions of Western Christian metaphysics had reached an unbearable pitch of intensity. Those who invented and then persecuted witches never openly admitted, probably even to themselves, that the purpose of the witch-hunt was to authenticate Christianity, to defend it against their own suspicions of its facticity or even fictionality.
Technologically speaking, the text of the Malleus Maleficarum was able to spread throughout Europe so rapidly in the late fifteenth and early sixteenth century due to the innovation of the printing press in the middle of the fifteenth century by Johannes Gutenberg. That printing should have been invented thirty years before the first publication of the Malleus was, fatalistically speaking, a piece of remarkable ill-timing. As Russell suggests, “[T]he swift propagation of the witch hysteria by the press was the first evidence that Gutenberg had not liberated man from original sin.”
The popularity of the Malleus Maleficarum cannot be overstated, especially given its extensive publication history (where it sold out over thirty editions over its print run). However, as with any historical phenomenon, it is not possible to draw a direct causal link between the bitter invective spouted by the text and the total number of individuals (predominantly women) executed during the witch trials of the following centuries. Also, as some researchers have noted, the fact that the Malleus was popular does not imply that it accurately reflected or influenced actual practice; one researcher compared it to confusing a “television docu-drama” with “actual court proceedings.” Estimates about the impact of the Malleus should thus be weighed accordingly. However, it is undeniable that such a text, with its dogmatic theology, rampant misogyny, and explicit endorsement of torture, would have had a markedly legitimizing effect upon these hateful movements. Indeed, whether the witch-hunters “killed 100,000 people in 300 years, as some historians believe, or only 30,000, as others more cautiously estimate,” it remains the case that this singular text was one of the primary inspirations that undergirded their systematic campaign of brutality.