The Malleus Maleficarum (The Witches’ Hammer) was a thorough witch-hunter’s manual. It was written in the witch mania during the Middle Ages and Renaissance. Contained in it were complete instructions on the prosecution of witches. First published in Germany in 1486, it quickly proliferated into many editions spreading throughout Europe and England. The impact of the work was felt in witch trials on the Continent for almost 200 years.
The work’s authors were two inquisitors of the Dominican order, Heinrich Krammer and James Sprenger. These two men were empowered by Pope Innocent VIII in his Bull of December 9, 1484 to prosecute witches throughout northern Germany. The purpose of the papal edict was to squash the 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 witches enough on the basis of their Maleficia. The effects of the Bull ‘Summis desiderantes affectibus’ (Desiring with Supreme Ardor) and the Malleus Maleficarum soon spread beyond Germany, going throughout Europe and into England. Both Protestant and Catholic civil and ecclesiastical judges quickly adopted it.
The complete biographies of Krammer and Sprenger are unknown except they distinguished themselves in the ecclesiastical field. Both became priors of Dominican houses of studies. However when arriving in Germany, armed with the papal bull, they were coolly accepted. It seemed both had unsavory characters. Several bishops showed them the door. Previously an ecclesiastical warrant had been issued against Inquisitors for embezzling fees for indulgences. Both men were later implicated for forging notarized documents.
Krammer was first appointed inquisitor in 1474 for the provinces of Tyrol, Bohemia, Salzburg and Moravia. While there he used fraudulent tactics to frame people as witches, and tortured them. The Bishop of Brixen ousted him.
Both men wrote prolifically, and by 1485 Krammer had drafted a comprehensive manuscript on witchcraft that would be absorbed into the Malleus Maleficarum. The basis of the book is centered on the biblical pronouncement “Thou shall not suffer a witch to live.” (Exodus 22:18). It also draws on the works of Saint Augustine and Saint Thomas Aquinas as well as other scriptures.
A basic tenet is that not to believe in the existence of witchcraft is a heresy since God acknowledged witches. The sexism of the Malleus Maleficarum is unmistakable: Although the work states both men and women can become witches, women are more susceptible. Several reasons for this are given: “Because the female sex is more concerned with things of the flesh than men”; being formed from a man’s rib they are “only imperfect animals” and “crooked” whereas man belongs to a privileged sex from whose midst Christ emerged. The authors’ main reason for the increase in witchcraft among women laid in the “vile contention between married and unmarried women.” And, “They warned against the ‘spitefulness of womankind.'”
The authors protested they were not misogynists but their entire work contained a pathological hatred of women. And the reader having a psychoanalytical viewpoint would readily agree when coming on their lengthy commentaries on witches’ ability to hamper the generative powers of men, and to disturb sexual relationships in general.
Malleus Maleficarum is presented in three parts, each proposes questions and allegedly answers them by opposing arguments. Part I attempts to describe how the Devil and his witches cooperate, with “the permission of Almighty God,” to perpetrate many evils on men and animals including tempting them with incubus and succibi, instilling hatred; obstructing or destroying fertility; and the metamorphosis of men into beasts. The work is based on the authors’ premise that Gods permits these acts; otherwise, the Devil would have unlimited power and destroy the world.
Part II describes witches casting spell, bewitching, and doing their maleficia, and how such actions might be prevented or remedied. A great deal of attention is given to the Devil’s pact, an agreement signed between the witch and the Devil. The authors reasoned men did not have the power to work magic on their own accord; such power was given to them by Satan. Briefly, a pact was signed between the witch and the Devil which obligated both parties to do certain things for each other. The witch renounces Christ, to whom she has belonged to since her baptism, and signs her immortal soul over to Satan, who in return supposedly makes all forbidden things available to her. This act, in and of itself, was blasphemous and a betrayal of God.
The evidence of witches and their maleficia presented within the work is derived from confessions obtained during inquisitions conducted by Sprenger and Krammer themselves and from other material on witchcraft written by other ecclesiastical writers. Much of this evidence consisted of stories of spell casting, pacts, sacrificing of children and copulating with the Devil.
It should be noted here that even the people were astonished, and reasonably so, at Pope Innocent VIII’s admission in his Bull that men and women could have sexual relationships with demons.
Part III deals with the legal procedures for prosecuting a witch. This includes rules for taking testimony, admitting evidence, procedures for interrogation and torture and guidelines for sentencing. Hostile witnesses were permitted to testify because everyone hated witches.
Torture is dealt with matter-of-factly, if the accused did not confess after a year or so in prison, then torture could be applied as an incentive. So, confessions attained by torture were valid.
Judges were permitted to lie to the accused, promising leniency if they confessed, reasoning that is was done in the best interest of the society and state.
For some crimes light sentencing was prescribed, but, according to the authors’ acknowledged purpose of executing as many witches as possible, most of the instructions on sentencing pertained to death.
The Malleus Maleficarum clearly contains contradictions such as when its states the Devil through witches afflict mostly good and just people, but later they state, only the wicked are vulnerable. At one point the judges are said to be immune from the witches curses or spells; while in another portion of the work, the authors, admonish the judges to protect themselves with salt and the sacraments.
It was instructed that a witch be shaven of all her hair, hair was thought to be magical; and the witch should walk naked, backward toward the judges to prevent her or him from giving them the evil eye.
The Malleus Maleficarum was immediately successful throughout Europe. Fourteen editions were published by 1520; and another sixteen appeared by 1669. It became the primary guidebook for the inquisitors and judges and later writers used it as the basis for their own works. One of the most important things, it was considered, that the book did was to link witchcraft to heresy.
In England the book was not as enthusiastically accepted, perhaps because of the English Protestant Church. The foreign-language editions were only prevalently found in libraries and among scholars. The first English edition did not appear until 1584. But, the English writers absorbed the material into their own. The English based their witchcraft trials more on maleficia than heresy, probably because they felt themselves considered heretics too.
Up to the present the Malleus Maleficarum has been denounced not only by pagans but churchmen alike. Even the atheists must have laughed at it, and even felt a twinge of anger toward it. The book has been denounced as a “‘monstrosity full of intellectual debauchery’ proceeding out of ‘stupidity bordering on idiocy.'” But such a description does not accurately describe the malignancy of the work. What the work represents is a “…diabolical state of mind into which not a ray of Christian charity falls, not a trace of New Testament spirit. Its pages are haunted by primitive fanaticism, by the triumph of Satanism.”
Much has been written about the Inquisition, the witch hunts and the witch mania that spread throughout Europe, England, and later America. Perhaps the ‘Malleus Maleficarum’ played part in causing this terrible phenomena. But those having thoroughly studied this historical period know that the ‘Malleus Maleficarum’ did not cause it all. There were other factors and most important among them was the power and control of the Church.
Eliminating heretics was one way to strengthen Church control and it also provided another to strengthen the Church by the confiscation of the victim’s property. Usually the confiscated property was divided three ways: by the Inquisition members, the church officials, and the state treasury. The confiscation of the condemned person’s property was based on medieval and feudal laws which were present in England, France and Germany.
Even the dead were not safe. If a suspicion aroused that a dead person may have been a heretic the body could be dug up and burned. His property was then confiscated. Records show many women and children were left penniless from such confiscation. Added to this the Church and state kept strict accounts of the prisoner’s incarceration, trial and execution costs. If the value of his confiscated property was not enough to cover these costs, then his heirs had to pay the difference. The families of the victims suffered too.
The confiscation of property became a lucrative business which Popes and bishops protested against, but did not stop for centuries. This was one of the reasons that the Spanish Inquisition was not looked upon favorably by Roman, the Spanish rulers did not divide the spoils of confiscated property three ways; just two, between the Inquisitors and the state. Even then the state did not even know if it received its fair share because the Inquisition being an arm of the government paid no taxes nor gave any accounting of the property confiscated during the peak of its power. When the confiscation of property was stopped, the witch mania soon ended.
One can ask did the Inquisition with the help of the ‘Malleus Maleficarum’ accomplish its mission of eliminating heretics on the pretense of saving souls. Many millions were killed, and many innocent victims suffered, most agree. But, in the final analysis one must ask, how can the killing or burning of a body bring salvation to a soul? The body, most will agree, is physical while the soul is spiritual. It departs the body upon death. No mortal is sure where it goes. No, other reasons must stand for the Inquisition and the writing of the Malleus Maleficarum. A.G.H.