“And what, then, is to be thought of those witches who in this way sometimes collect male organs in great numbers, as many as twenty or thirty members together, and put them in a bird’s nest, or shut them up in a box, where they move themselves like living members, and eat oats and corn, as has been seen by many and is a matter of common report? It is to be said that it is all done by devil’s work and illusion, for the senses of those who see them are deluded in the way we have said. For a certain man tells that, when he had lost his member, he approached a known witch to ask her to restore it to him. She told the afflicted man to climb a certain tree, and that he might take which he liked out of the nest in which there were several members. And when he tried to take a big one, the witch said: You must not take that one; adding, because it belongs to a parish priest.” –Malleus Maleficarum.
The Malleus Maleficarum (“The Hammer of Witches”, “Witch Hammer”, or the “Hexenhammer”) is arguably the most important treatise on prosecuting witches to have come out of the witch hysteria of the Renaissance. It is a comprehensive witch-hunter’s handbook first published in Germany in 1487 that grew into dozens of editions spread throughout Europe and had profound impact on witch trials on the Continent for about 200 years. This work is notorious for its use in the witch hunt hysteria which peaked in the mid-16th thru mid-seventeenth centuries.
History of the Malleus Maleficarum
The Malleus Maleficarum was compiled by two Dominican inquisitors, Heinrich Kramer and Jacob Sprenger, who claimed in the book that they had been empowered by Pope Innocent VIII to prosecute witches throughout Germany via a Papal decree of December 5, 1484; but this decree had been issued before the book was written and before their planned methods were made known.
Kramer and Sprenger submitted the Malleus Maleficarum to the University of Cologne’s Faculty of Theology on May 9, 1487, hoping for its endorsement. Instead, the clergy at the University condemned it as both illegal and unethical.  Kramer nevertheless inserted a forged claim of support from the University into subsequent printed editions of the book. The date of 1487 is generally accepted as the date of publication, although earlier editions may have been produced in 1485 or 1486. The Church banned the book shortly after, placing it on the “Index of Forbidden Works”. Despite this, however, between the years 1487 and 1520, the work was published thirteen times. After about fifty years, it was again published between the years 1574 to the Lyon edition of 1669 a total of sixteen times. The alleged endorsements which appear at the beginning of the book contributed to its popularity by giving the illusion that it had been granted approval.
In all, the text was so popular that it sold more copies than any other work, apart from the Bible, until John Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress was published in 1678.
The effects of the Malleus Maleficarum spread far beyond Germany, greatly impacting France and Italy and, to a lesser extent, England.
Despite popular belief that the Malleus Maleficarum was the classic Roman Catholic text on witchcraft, it was never officially used by the Catholic Church and was, in fact, condemned by the Inquisition in 1490.
Malleus Maleficarum Forgeries and Translations
The Malleus Maleficarum was originally prefaced by the papal bull Summis desiderantes issued by Pope Innocent VIII on December 5, 1484, the main papal document on witchcraft. It mentions Sprenger and Kramer by name (as Iacobus Sprenger and Henrici Institoris) and directs them to combat witchcraft in northern Germany.
The book itself was not specifically ordered by the Roman Catholic Church. The writers attached a letter of approbation from the University of Cologne ostensibly signed by four teachers there. However, this letter was a forgery. The University had not approved the book, and had in fact condemned it for the use of unethical legal procedures, and because its demonology was not consistent with Catholic doctrine. Kramer was condemned by the Inquisition in 1490, but the book continued in publication, buoyed by the growing popular hunger for remedies against witchcraft.
Modern translations of the works include a 2000 German translation by the professors Jerouscheck and Behringer, titled Der Hexenhammer (the 1906 translation by Schmidt is considered very poor), and an English translation (with introduction) by Montague Summers in 1928 which was reprinted in 1948 and is still available today as a 1971 reprint by Dover Publications (ISBN 0486228029).
Contents of the Malleus Maleficarum
The book is divided into three sections, each of which raises specific questions and purports to answer them through opposing arguments. There is little original material in the book; it is mainly a codification of existing beliefs and practices with substantial parts taken from earlier works such as Nicolau Aymerich’s Directorium Inquisitorum (1376), or Johannes Nider’s Formicarius (1435).
Part I seeks to prove that witchcraft or sorcery existed. It details how the Devil and his followers, witches, perpetrate a variety of evils with “the permission of the Almighty God”. Rather than explaining this as punishment, as many church authorities of the time did, the authors of this book claim that God permits the acts so that the Devil might not gain unlimited power and destroy the world.
Part of this section explains why women, by their weaker nature and inferior intellect, were supposedly naturally more prone to the lure of Satan. The book title itself contains the word maleficarum, the female form of the noun, and the writers (incorrectly) declare that the word femina (woman) is a derivation of fe+minus, faithless.
Part II of the Malleus Maleficarum describes the actual forms of witchcraft. This section details how witches cast spells and how their actions can be prevented or remedied. Strong emphasis is given to the Devil’s Pact and the existence of witches is presented as fact. Many of the book’s reports of spells, pacts, sacrifice, and copulation with the Devil were gained from inquisitions performed by Sprenger and Kramer.
Part III details the methods for detecting, trying, and sentencing or destroying witches. Torture in the detection of witches is dealt with as a matter-of-course; if the accused witch did not voluntarily confess their guilt, torture was to be applied as incentive to confess. Judges are instructed to mislead the accused if necessary, promising mercy for confession.
This section also covers how much belief to place in witnesses’ testimonies and the need to eliminate malicious accusations, but also states that public rumor is sufficient to bring a person to trial and that a too vigorous a defense is evidence that the defender is bewitched. There are rules on how to prevent the authorities becoming bewitched and the reassurance that, as representatives of God, investigators are shielded from all of the witch’s powers.
Summary of Beliefs in the Malleus Maleficarum
Both Kramer and Sprenger were prolific writers, and part of the Malleus Maleficarum is an absorption of a comprehensive manuscript on witchcraft written by Kramer in 1485. Generally based on the biblical pronouncement, “Thou shalt not suffer a witch to live” (Exodus 22:18), the book also draws on the works of Aristotle, the Scriptures, St. Augustine, and St. Thomas Aquinas for support. The sexism of the Malleus can’t be denied; the clerics’ belief that women were inferior, weak, and easily corruptible creatures is emphasized often throughout the writing.
Taken as a whole, the Malleus Maleficarum declares that some things confessed by witches, such as animal transformations, were mere delusions induced by the devil to ensnare them, while other acts, such as flight, causing storms and destroying crops, were real. The book dwells at length on the licentious acts of witches, their ability to create impotence in men and even gives space to the question of whether demons could father children of witches. The writing style is serious and utterly humorless – even the most hard to believe statements are presented as reliable information.
An anti-clerical story contained in the book was the basis for the Norwegian and British “operamusical” Which Witch that describes the trial and persecution of an innocent Italian woman who is burned at the stake by conspirators in Germany because of her relations with an influential German bishop. It alludes to its original source in the chilling opening number titled “Malleus Maleficarum”. It was given lukewarm to harsh reviews, and has been deemed as “the worst musical of all time”, despite a growing cult following in the United Kingdom. The music was composed by Benedicte Adrian and Ingrid Bjørnov, with Adrian in the role as well.
- History of the Malleus Maleficarum – Essay by historian Jenny Gibbons, presenting the accepted view among scholars.
- Malleus Maleficarum – An online version of the text, with an introduction which represents the popular view of the subject.