The Malleus Maleficarum (The Witch Hammer) is a comprehensive witch-hunter’s handbook, the most important treatise on prosecuting witches during the witch hysteria. Published first in Germany in 1486, the Malleus Maleficarum proliferated into dozens of editions throughout Europe and England and had a profound impact on European witch trials for about 200 years.
Montague Summers called it “among the most important, wisest, and weightiest books in the world.” It was second only to the Bible in sales until John Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress was published in 1678.
The Malleus Maleficarum was written by two Dominican inquisitors, Heinrich Kramer and James Sprenger. The two men 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, was not punishing enough witches solely on the basis of maleficia. The effect of both the bull and the Malleus Maleficarum spread far beyond Germany, its greatest influence being felt in France and Italy and, to a lesser extent, in England.
It was adopted by both Protestant and Catholic civil and ecclesiastical judges. The full biographies of Kramer and Sprenger are not known, but it is evident that they distinguished themselves in their ecclesiastical careers.
Sprenger, born sometime between 1436 and 1438 in Basel, rose rapidly in the Dominican order and was named prior and regent of studies of the Cologne Convent. In 1488 he was named provincial of the Province of Germany.
Kramer was born in Schlettstadt in Lower Alsace (date unknown) and also rose rapidly to become prior of the Dominican House in his hometown. In 1474 he was appointed inquisitor for the provinces of Tyrol, Bohemia, Salzburg and Moravia. There he employed fraudulent tactics to frame people as witches, and subsequently tortured them.
The Bishop of Brixen expelled him. Both men were prolific writers, and by 1485 Kramer drafted a comprehensive manuscript on witchcraft, which was absorbed into the Malleus Maleficarum. The book is based generally on the biblical pronouncement. “Thou shall not suffer a witch to live” (Exodus 22:18) and draws on the works of Aristotle, the Scriptures, St. Augustine and St. Thomas Aquinas.
It maintains that because God acknowledged witches, to doubt witchcraft is in itself heresy. Kramer in particular exhibited a virulent hatred toward women witches and advocated their extermination. The Malleus devotes an entire chapter to the sinful weakness of women, their lascivious nature, moral and intellectual inferiority and gullibility to guidance from deceiving spirits.
In Kramer’s view, women witches were out to harm all of Christendom. Scholars have debated the reasons for Kramer’s misogyny; he may have had a fear of the power of women mystics of his day, such as Catherine of Siena, who enjoyed the attentions of royalty as well as the church.
The Malleus Maleficarum is divided into three parts, each of which raises questions and purports to answer them through opposing arguments. Part I concerns how the devil and his witches, with “the permission of Almighty God,” perpetrate a variety of evils upon men and animals, including tempting them with succubi and incubi; instilling hatred; obstructing or destroying fertility; and the metamorphosis of men into beasts.
It is the premise of the authors that God permits these acts; otherwise, the Devil would have unlimited power and destroy the world. Part II discusses how witches cast spells and bewitchments and do their maleficia and how these actions may be prevented or remedied. Emphasis is given to the Devil’s pact, considered a key to proving heresy.
The existence of witches and their maleficia is treated as unassailable fact, and wild stories are presented as truth. Most of the stories of spells, pacts, the sacrifice of children and copulation with the Devil came from the inquisitions conducted by Sprenger and Kramer and from material of other ecclesiastical writers on witchcraft.
Part III sets forth the legal procedures for trying witches, including the taking of testimony, admission of evidence, procedures for interrogation and torture and guidelines for sentencing. Judges are instructed to allow hostile witnesses on the reasoning that everyone hated witches.
Torture is dealt with matter-of-factly; if the accused did not voluntarily confess, even after a year or so in prison, then torture was to be applied as an incentive. Judges are permitted to lie to the accused, promising them mercy if they confess—it is all done in the best interests of society and the state.
The Malleus provides for light sentences of penance and imprisonment in certain cases, but the acknowledged purpose of the authors was to execute as many witches as possible, and most of the instructions on sentencing pertain to death. Some questions are never clearly answered, and contradictions abound. For example, the authors say that the Devil, through witches, afflicts mostly good and just people; they later say that only the wicked are vulnerable.
At one point, judges are said to be immune to the bewitchments of witches; at another, the authors assert that witches cast spells over judges with the glance of an eye, and judges are admonished to protect themselves with Salt and sacraments. The success of the Malleus Maleficarum was immediate in Europe. Fourteen editions were published by 1520; another 16 editions appeared by 1669.
It became the guidebook by which inquisitors and judges conducted themselves and which subsequent writers used as a foundation for their own works. The book was important in the way it linked witchcraft to heresy. In England, the book was slower to catch on, perhaps because of the independence of the English Anglican Church. Foreign-language editions surfaced in libraries and among scholars, but no English edition appeared until 1584.
Nevertheless, Protestant writers absorbed the material into their own writings. The emphasis in English witchcraft trials was less on heresy and more on maleficia.
Kramer and Sprenger piously maintained that God would never permit an innocent person to be convicted of witchcraft. Yet their collaboration, the Malleus Maleficarum, provided the blueprint for condemning thousands of innocent people to horrific torture and death.
- Barstow, Anne Llewellyn. Witchcraze: A New History of the European Witch Hunts. San Francisco: Pandora/Harper Collins, 1994.
- Herzig, Tamar. “Witches, Saints and Heretics: Heinrich Kramer’s Ties with Italian Women mystics.” Magic, Ritual and Witchcraft, vol. 1, no. 1 (Summer 2006): pp. 24–55.
- Lea, Henry Charles. Materials Toward a History of Witchcraft. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania, 1939.
- Summers, Montague, ed. The Malleus Maleficarum of Heinrich Kramer and James Sprenger. 1928. reprint, New York: Dover Publications, 1971.
- Trevor-Roper, H. R. The European Witch-Craze. New York: Harper & row, 1957.