Malleus Maleficarum

Malleus Maleficarum
(Witch Hammer)
   The most influential and important witch hunter’s guide of the Inquisition. Published first in Germany in 1487, the Malleus Maleficarum was translated into dozens of editions throughout Europe and England and was the leading reference for witch trials on the Continent for about 200 years. It was adopted by both Protestant and Catholic civil and ecclesiastical judges. It was second only to the Bible in sales until John Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress was published in 1678. The book gives instructions for interrogating, trying, and punishing accused witches and details the nature, characteristics, and behavior of DEMONs and the DEVIL.
   Fourteen editions were published by 1520; another 16 editions appeared by 1669. By the end of the 17th century, there were more than 30 editions. The book became the definitive guide by which inquisitors and judges conducted themselves and that subsequent writers used as a foundation for their own works. The book was important in the way it linked witchcraft to heresy. It has been described in the centuries since as a vicious and cruel work, the most damaging book of its kind during the Inquisition.
   The Malleus Maleficarum is credited to the authorship of two Dominican inquisitors, Heinrich Kramer and James Sprenger, though historians now believe that it was written by Kramer, by far the more zealous of the two and one of the most zealous participants in the entire Inquisition. Kramer and Sprenger were empowered by Pope Innocent VIII in his bull of December 9, 1484, to prosecute witches throughout northern Germany. The papal edict was intended to quell Protestant opposition to the Inquisition and to solidify the case made in 1258 by Pope Alexander IV for the prosecution of witches as heretics. It was the opinion of the church that the secular arm, the civil courts, were not punishing enough witches solely on the basis of their evildoing.
   Both Kramer and Sprenger were prolific writers. Kramer, also known as Institoris, the latinized version of his name, rose to power as an inquisitor and was known to have framed some of his victims. He was violently opposed to witchcraft and seemed also to harbor hatred against women, whom he viewed as inherently weak and evil. He sought to establish a direct connection between women and diabolic witchcraft. Some historians also think that Kramer was reacting to broader sentiments of the time that were responses to the influences of holy women and mystics such as St. Catherine of Siena, a powerful figure consulted by royalty and heads of state. He did praise the saintliness of certain holy women who were able to resist the lustful temptations indulged in by witches, in his view.
   Sprenger was a distinguished friar, and he may have allowed Kramer to use his name in Kramer’s virulent antiwitch treatise, Apologia auctoris in Malleus Maleficarum, written by 1485. He had some association with Kramer in trials of accused witches.
   Kramer’s treatise was absorbed into the Malleus Malefi carum. After its publication, evidence surfaced that Kramer may have fabricated one of the official letters authorizing the work. Relations between Kramer and Sprenger became strained. After Sprenger died in 1496, his colleagues attempted to distance his legacy from Kramer.
   Little is known about Kramer’s activities after publication of the Malleus in 1487 until his death in 1505. He remained an inquisitor. In 1500, Pope Alexander VI appointed him papal nuncio and inquisitor of Bohemia and Moravia. He was pursuing witches and heretics in Bohemia at the time of his death.
   The Malleus is based on the biblical pronouncement “Thou shall not suffer a witch to live” (Exodus 22:18) and draws on Scripture and the works of Aristotle, St. Augustine, and St. Thomas Aquinas as support. It maintains that because God acknowledged witches, to doubt witchcraft is heresy. The book is divided into three parts and organized as questions answered by opposing arguments. Part 1 concerns how the Devil and his witches, with “the permission of Almighty God,” perpetrate a variety of evils upon men and animals, including succubi and incubi, instilling hatred, obstructing or destroying fertility, and causing the metamorphosis, or shape shifting, of human beings into beasts. God permits these acts; otherwise, the Devil would have unlimited power and destroy the world.
   Part 2 describes how witches cast spells and bewitchments and do their evil and how these actions can be prevented or remedied. Particular emphasis is given to Devil’s PACTs, a key to proving heresy. The existence of witches and their maleficia is treated as unassailable fact, and wild stories of SABBATs and other abominations are presented as truth. Most of the stories are from the inquisitions conducted by Sprenger and Kramer and from material of other ecclesiastical witchcraft writers. Part 3 sets forth the legal procedures for trying witches, including the taking of testimony, admission of evidence, methods of interrogation and torture, and guidelines for sentencing. Judges are instructed to allow hostile witnesses because everyone hates witches. Torture is to be applied if the accused do not confess voluntarily. Judges are permitted to lie to the accused, promising them mercy if they confess, a tactic readily employed by Kramer. This, the text argues, is all done in the best interest of society and the state. The Malleus allows for light sentences of penance and imprisonment in certain cases but urges execution of as many witches as possible. Most of the instructions on sentencing pertain to death.
   Some questions are not answered clearly and contradictions abound. For example, the authors say that the Devil, through witches, mainly afflicts good and just people, then says only the wicked are vulnerable. At one point, judges are said to be immune to the bewitchments of witches; at another, witches cast spells over judges with the glance of an eye, and judges are admonished to protect themselves with salt and sacraments. The Malleus Maleficarum was refuted by JOHANN WEYER.
   - Herzig, Tamar. “Witches, Saints and Heretics.” Magic, Ritual, and Witchcraft. Summer 2006, 24–55.
   - The Malleus Maleficarum of Heinrich Kramer and James Sprenger. New York: Dover, 1971.

Encyclopedia of Demons and Demonology. . 2009.

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