Malleus Maleficarum
The most authoritative and influential sourcebook for inquisitors,
judges, and magistrates in the great witchcraft persecutions
from the fifteenth through the eighteenth centuries. It
was written by Heinrich Kramer, leading inquisitors of the Dominican
Order; Jacob Sprenger merely attached his name to
the sourcebook.
The book brought folklore and speculation about witchcraft
and magic together with the new view identifying witchcraft
with devil-worship. That identification turned witchcraft into
heresy (rather than a pagan faith) and thus the proper concern
of the Inquisition. That change of perspective led to the fierce
and relentless persecution that resulted in the deaths of hundreds
of individuals accused of practicing the religion of witchcraft,
as opposed to merely practicing malevolent magic (i.e.,
sorcery), which had long been illegal.
This work is in three parts. Part I fulminates against the evil
of witchcraft, which is characterized as renunciation of the
Catholic faith, homage to the Devil, and carnal intercourse with
demons. Even disbelief in the existence of witches and witchcraft
was declared a grave heresy. Part II details the specific
practices of witches. Part III sets forth rules for legal action and
conviction of witches.
The antiquary Thomas Wright, in his book Narratives of Sorcery
and Magic (2 vols., 1851), stated
‘‘In this celebrated work, the doctrine of witchcraft was first
reduced to a regular system, and it was the model and groundwork
of all that was written on the subject long after the date
which saw its first appearance. Its writers enter largely into the
much-disputed question of the nature of demons; set forth the
causes which lead them to seduce men in this manner; and
show why women are most prone to listen to their proposals,
by reasons which prove that the inquisitors had but a mean estimate
of the softer sex.
‘‘The inquisitors show the most extraordinary skill in explaining
all the difficulties which seemed to beset the subject;
they even prove to their entire satisfaction that persons who
have become witches may easily change themselves into beasts,
particularly into wolves and cats; and after the exhibition of
such a mass of learning, few would venture any longer to entertain
a doubt. They investigate not only the methods employed
to effect various kinds of mischief, but also the counter-charms
and exorcisms that may be used against them. They likewise
tell, from their own experience, the dangers to which the inquisitors
were exposed, and exult in the fact that they were a
class of men against whom sorcery had no power.
‘‘These writers actually tell us, that the demon had tried to
frighten them by day and by night in the forms of apes, dogs,
goats, etc.; and that they frequently found large pins stuck in
their night-caps, which they doubted not came there by witchcraft.
When we hear these inquisitors asserting that the crime
of which the witches were accused, deserved a more extreme
punishment than all the vilest actions of which humanity is capable,
we can understand in some degree the complacency with
which they relate how, by their means, forty persons had been
burnt in one place, and fifty in another, and a still greater number
in a third. From the time of the publication of the Malleus
Maleficarum, the continental press during two or three generations
teemed with publications on the all-absorbing subject of
sorcery.
‘‘One of the points on which opinion had differed most was,
whether the sorcerers were carried bodily through the air to the
place of meeting, or whether it was an imaginary journey, suggested
to their minds by the agency of the evil one. The authors
of the Malleus decide at once in favour of the bodily transmission.
One of them was personally acquainted with a priest of the
diocese of Frisingen, who declared that he had in his younger
days been carried through the air by a demon to a place at a
very great distance from the spot whence he had been taken.
Another priest, his friend, declared that he had seen him carried
away, and that he appeared to him to be borne up on a
kind of cloud.
‘‘At Baldshut, on the Rhine, in the diocese of Constance, a
witch confessed, that offended at not having been invited to the
wedding of an acquaintance, she had caused herself to be carried
through the air in open daylight to the top of a neighbouring
mountain, and there, having made a hole with her hands
and filled it with water, she had, by stirring the water with certain
incantations caused a heavy storm to burst forth on the
heads of the wedding-party; and there were witnesses at the
trial who swore they had seen her carried through the air.
‘‘The inquisitors, however, confess that the witches were
sometimes carried away, as they term it, in the spirit; and they
give the instance of one woman who was watched by her husband;
she appeared as if asleep, and was insensible, but he perceived
a kind of cloudy vapour arise out of her mouth, and vanish
from the room in which she lay—this after a time returned,
and she then awoke, and gave an account of her adventures, as
though she had been carried bodily to the assembly. . . .
‘‘The witches of the Malleus Maleficarum appear to have been
more injurious to horses and cattle than to mankind. A witch
at Ravenspurg confessed that she had killed twenty-three
horses by sorcery. We are led to wonder most at the ease with
which people are brought to bear witness to things utterly beyond
the limits of belief. A man of the name of Stauff in the territory
of Berne, declared that when pursued by the agents of
justice, he escaped by taking the form of a mouse; and persons
were found to testify that they had seen him perform this transmutation.
‘‘The latter part of the work of the two inquisitors gives minute
directions for the mode in which the prisoners are to be
treated, the means to be used to force them to a confession, the
degree of evidence required for conviction of those who would
not confess, and the whole process of the trials. These show sufficiently
that the unfortunate wretch who was once brought before
the inquisitors of the holy see on the suspicion of sorcery,
however slight might be the grounds of the charge, had very
small chance of escaping out of their claws.
‘‘The Malleus contains no distinct allusion to the proceedings
at the Sabbath. The witches of this period differ little from
those who had fallen into the hands of the earlier inquisitors
at the Council of Constance. We see plainly how, in most countries,
the mysteriously indefinite crime of sorcery had first been
seized on to ruin the cause of great political offenders, until the
Mallebranche Encyclopedia of Occultism & Parapsychology • 5th Ed.
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fictitious importance thus given to it brought forward into a
prominent position, which they would, perhaps, never otherwise
have held, the miserable class who were supposed to be
more especially engaged in it.
‘‘It was the judicial prosecutions and the sanguinary executions
which followed, that stamped the character of reality on
charges of which it required two or three centuries to convince
mankind of the emptiness and vanity.
‘‘One of the chief instruments in fixing the belief in sorcery,
and in giving it that terrible hold on society which it exhibited
in the following century, was the compilation of Jacob Sprenger
and his fellow inquisitor. In this book sorcery was reduced to
a system but it was not yet perfect; and we must look forward,
some half a century before we find it clothed with all the horrors
which cast so much terror into every class of society.’’
The work went into some 30 editions between 1486 and
1669 and was accepted as authoritative by both Protestant and
Catholic witch-hunters. Its narrow-minded superstition and
dogmatic legalism undoubtedly resulted in hundreds of cases
of cruel tortures and judicial murders.
An English translation was published in London (1928;
1948; 1974) by the controversial British scholar Montague
Summers, who embodied in his writings a truly medieval attitude
toward witchcraft. He declared (in his learned introduction
to the work) that the Malleus Maleficarum ‘‘is among the
most important, wisest, and weightiest books of the world.’’
Sources
Robbins, Rossell Hope. The Encyclopedia of Witchcraft and Demonology.
New York Crown Publishers, 1959.
Sprenger, Jakob, and Heinrich Kramer. Malleus Maleficarum.
Edited by Montague Summers. London, 1928