The Malleus Maleficarum
by I.E. Lester
The Malleus Maleficarum(1) is considered by many to be the definitive medieval text on witch-hunting and the trials of the Roman Catholic Inquisition. It's been credited with causing an enormous increase in witch trials in the years after it was published, often quoted as being a how-to manual for the Inquisition or appearing on the bench of every Witch Hunter throughout Europe. The reality though is a little different.
Heinrich Kramer (as known by the Latinised name Henry Institoris) was a German Dominican Prior and member of the Inquisition. He was not, however, widely respected. His objectives, methods and behaviour were considered weird and extreme, and were opposed by other clergymen, with many regional authorities blocking his trials.
In 1484, Kramer wrote to Innocent VIII requesting Papal support for his quest to defeat Witchcraft. He would receive it. The Pope issued the Papal Bull(2) "Summis Desiderantes Affectibus" formally acknowledging the existence of Witchcraft and instructed the Inquisition(3) to take all necessary actions to rid the world of Witches and threatened excommunication on anyone who failed to assist the work of the Inquisitors. (The Bull even went as far as specifically naming Kramer and fellow Dominican Prior Jacob Sprenger and their work fighting the evils of Witchcraft.) Despite this edict Kramer did not find attitudes towards his work changed. In one trial, in 1485, the Bishop of Innsbruck became so incensed at Kramer's detailed investigation of the sexual behaviour of the accused Witches that he shut down the trial announcing his belief that the Devil was in the Inquisitor, not the Witches.
Kramer and his co-author Sprenger (although it is believed Sprenger contributed little except his name to the cover) determined to concentrate efforts on producing a guide to Witch-Hunting - The Malleus Maleficarum (often known as the Malleus). The book drew heavily earlier works including Johannes Nider's treatise Formicarius (written in the 1430s), as well as treatises by Tomás de Torquemada (the first Inquisitor General of Spain).
The book is split into three sections. The first attempts to prove the existence of Witches by refuting all arguments to the contrary. Kramer argues that all powers a Witch might have are granted to her by the Devil (and it is usually a "her"(4)--Kramer does state men could become Witches, although this is much more unlikely).
The middle section deals with the actuality, practice and powers of Witchcraft and how Witches are recruited. Here Kramer argues women are inherently more sexual, and hence impure, than men, making them easier for the Devil to corrupt--witches frequently being accused of being seduced by and engaging in sexual intercourse with the Devil. It details the casting of spells, curses and other Maleficia(5). The authors cite specific cases, often where the detail had been obtained from "proven" Witches whilst undergoing physical torture.
The final section concerns itself with the investigation, interrogation and prosecution of Witches. Full instructions are given for extracting confessions and testimony, detailing how torture can be used and how inquisitors are allowed to lie to their prisoners in order to help the greater good--for instance, promising leniency if the accused admits their guilt.
Although some of the crimes covered were assigned relatively light punishments, for the majority of cases involving witchcraft Kramer advocates the guilty are put to death. Instructions on how the Witch were to be presented to court were also given. They recommended the Witch is completely shaved, as hair was determined to be magickal, and that the naked woman be forced to walk backwards towards her judge lest she give him the "Evil Eye."
When the book was finished Kramer and Sprenger presented it to the Faculty of Theology at the University of Cologne, seeking its approval. None was forthcoming. In fact theologians roundly condemned the book, describing it as illegal and unethical, and wholly inconsistent with Catholic Doctrine. This didn't stop Kramer though. He penned a fictitious endorsement, including in future editions of the book. Kramer also added the full text of the Papal Bull that inspired his writing giving the suggestion that the text had Papal authority. The book was widely condemned by the members of the Inquisition and the Catholic Church as a whole. Far from becoming a instruction manual for Inquisitors, the Malleus was actually banned by the Church, being added to the Index Librorum Prohibitorum(6) in 1490.
This did not stop it being popular and in this Kramer had the good luck of timing. He wrote his Malleus after Johannes Gutenberg's invention of the printing press, making the book easy to reproduce. The book saw fourteen editions printed by 1520. A further sixteen editions were printed in a revival between 1574 and 1669. It was also published repeatedly in other languages including German, French and, in 1584, English. This popularity, though, does not mean that the book instantly influenced behaviour. In fact, in the years immediately following its publication the number of Witch Trials declined and would not recover their previous levels for many decades.
It was the middle of the Sixteenth Century though when the Malleus had its greatest effect. This period, from the 1550s to the 1650s, is often called The Burning Times--a century during which anti-Witch fervour grew throughout many areas of Europe(7). For the first time, during The Burning Times, it would be civil authorities rather than the Church that would handle the trials. Unaware of Kramer's dishonesty in associating the book with both Papal consent and theological approval, these courts saw, in the Malleus, the most complete guidance in how to conduct Witch Trials.
But even here the book's influence, although initially great, was short-lived. The civil courts soon replaced the Malleus with other Witch Hunting manuals.
Many of the concepts most associated with Witches are missing in the Malleus. In its pages you will find no descriptions of Sabbats or Covens, no descriptions of Witches' Marks or other outward manifestation of Witchery. These now familiar tropes of Witchcraft appeared for the first time in the Sixteenth Century. Its modern popularity and infamy is, in many ways, a result of a 1928 translation of the book by English author and clergyman Montague Summers. Summers, despite being a close friend of Aleister Crowley, fashioned himself as a modern Witch-Hunter.
1. Malleus Maleficarum is Latin for "The Hammer of Witches". It was called Hexenhammer in German.
2. A Papal Bull is a letter or charter issued by the Pope for communications of a public nature. In use since the Sixth Century (and possibly earlier), they were originally used for any form of announcement, letter or decree written by the Pope, however since the Fifteenth Century they have been used purely for solemn or formal occasions. They are named after the bulla; the lump of clay pressed with a seal, moulded around a cord wrapping the document that prevented tampering.
3. The Inquisition had not been created to investigate and prosecute Witches. When established in 1231 by Pope Gregory IX, the Inquisition was given the purpose of battling against heretical beliefs within the Catholic Church such as the Albigenses in France (also known as the Cathars), Bogomils in Bulgaria and Paulicans in Thrace. (Thrace covered much of southern Bulgaria, north-eastern Greece, eastern Turkey and parts of Serbia and Montenegro.) It was only when these Dualist Sects had been eradicated that Witches, previously considered misguided but non-threatening, were targeted.
4. Despite the denials of the authors misogyny runs through the whole of The Malleus Maleficarum. In fact even the name of the book is inherent anti-women. The Latin word Maleficarum is a feminine form. If the authors had wished to express the idea that the content was applicable to both sexes they would have used the masculine form Maleficorum, as a group including both men and women would always be addressed by the masculine form of Latin nouns.
5. Maleficia is the term given to practising evil magic, or sorcery.
6. The Index Librorum Prohibitorum is a list of books and publications banned by The Roman Catholic Church. It was intended to protect the sensibilities of the faithful by preventing reading of texts containing incorrect theology or immoral content. The list was maintained until 1948 and finally the Congregation for the Doctrine of Faith under Pope Paul VI in 1966 ceased the list's publication. The list contains over four thousand titles including works by Voltaire, Jean-Paul Sartre, Nicolaus Copernicus, Daniel Defoe, René Descartes, Immanuel Kant and Honoré de Balzac.
7. The Burning Times did not affect all areas of Europe evenly. For the most part these activities took place in those areas where Catholics and Protestants were fighting, mainly in Germany, Switzerland and areas of eastern France. Areas of Eastern Orthodoxy held few Witch Trials, in the whole of Russia only ten Witches were executed during this period. It is believed that in this period between 50,000 and 100,000 people were killed as a result of Witch Trials, although it has been reported as anything up to nine million.