SPRENGER, JAKOB (ca. 1436/38–1495). Traditionally listed as one of the authors of the infamous late-medieval witch-hunting manual Malleus maleficarum (Hammer of Witches), Sprenger was a Dominican friar, theologian, and papal inquisitor active in the German Empire in the later 15th century. He was born in or around the city of Basel and studied in Cologne, where in 1475 he received his doctorate in theology. He then taught and served in several offices at the university in Cologne. He was also an important figure within the Dominican order.
In 1472, he became prior of the Dominicans in Cologne, an office he held until 1482, when he was relieved in order to be able to undertake other duties as a papal inquisitor. From 1481, he conducted numerous inquisitions into heresy and witchcraft in the Rhineland, and later more generally across southern Germany. In this capacity, he worked with Heinrich Kramer, and it was to these two inquisitors specifically that Pope Innocent VIII directed his bull Summis desiderantes affectibus, ordering all local authorities to assist them in their pursuit of witches.
In 1488, Sprenger was named to the office of Provincial of the Dominican province of Teutonia, a position second only to the Master General of the entire order in that region.
Although he is typically listed as an author, along with Heinrich Kramer, of the Malleus maleficarum, there is much evidence to suggest that Sprenger had little or even nothing to do with the writing of this treatise on witchcraft. The strongest piece of evidence, only discovered in 1972, is a letter written by Sprenger’s successor in the office of prior in Cologne, Servatius Fanckel. Fanckel knew Sprenger well and explicitly stated that he was in no way involved in writing the Malleus. Because Fanckel was, in fact, an admirer of that work, there is no reason to suppose that he had any motive to downplay any actual involvement Sprenger might have had.
It seems likely that Sprenger’s identification as an author of the Malleusarose because of his association with Kramer. As Sprenger’s reputation as a theologian and prominent Dominican was greater than Kramer’s, the addition of his name to the work could only add to its authority.