Malleus Maleficarum

Parchment cover of the Malleus Maleficarum. Institoris, Heinrich, 1430-1505; Sprenger, Jakob, 1436 or 1438-1495. Dated 17 Mar. 1494. Parchment binding, with some red colouring; ties, restored; cover inscribed “de Veneficio”.

“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. Part II, Question 1. Ch. 7. (IA: p. 121.)

The Hammer of Witches

The Malleus Maleficarum was a handbook published by two Inquisitors Heinrich Kramer ( aka Henricus Institor) and Jakob Sprenger in 1486 in the German city of Speyer–about the time the real Faust was born not very far away. The Malleus was a book on witches and their prosecution, explaining the nature of witches, their discovery and interrogation, trial, judgment and punishment; justified by Christian theology. It advised torture and trickery to force a confession and to extract names of other people, who were themselves accused of witchcraft. Equating witchcraft to heresy (deliberate rejection of Church-defined Christianity), it recommended execution, including by burning.

Translated as the Hammer of Witches, it was used in the prosecution of alleged witches for the next two centuries; through Faust’s lifetime and well beyond the first 1587 printing of the Faust story. Influenced by the arguments in the Malleus and similar texts, Western Christianity came to believe witchcraft was Satanism and this is why when Faust turned to magic, he met a devil.

Published shortly after the invention of Guttenburg’s printing press, it was a printed book, one of the first to come off of the newly invented printing press, and was rapidly and widely distributed.

Its popularity helped develop some of the ideas we have about witchcraft. Importantly, it argued that witches were in league with the Devil against Christianity, and that witches could be prosecuted as heretics and executed. It claimed that women were more susceptible to witchcraft.

It contributed to the murder of thousands of people in what was apparently just another superstitious moral panic. It is among the most wicked of books for that reason, and yet comes from the hand1 of a Catholic clergyman and Inquisitor named Heinrich Kramer who was obsessed about a regional outbreak of witchcraft but faced local opposition.

A subsequent Papal bull of 1487 reaffirmed the ecclesiastical power Inquisitors needed to investigate and prosecute witches and sorcerers, but it did little good for Kramer.

Kramer needed this declaration because he had met with resistance among local authorities and the public who questioned his jurisdiction, methods, ethics, knowledge and motives. When even the Papal Bull failed to overcome local hostility, and he was expelled from Innsbruck partly for his disturbing obsession2 with a contemptuous Helena Scheuberin, Kramer retired to write a book about witches and their prosecution. With its distribution the prosecution of witchcraft escalated and became more violent. 

Despite the claims of the book, the Malleus wasn’t an official or even recommended manual. The Pope hadn’t authorized it and the faculty at the University of Cologne hadn’t recommended it. It was zealous, cruel and wrong on Church guidelines and Christian practice. It erred on demonology. The Malleus wasn’t suitable for use by the religious courts, but the civil courts and the populace used it to (try to) learn about witchcraft.

You would think the Devil would find Kramer as good a prize as Faust. Perhaps he did. A body destroyed by fire was (arguably) a soul that couldn’t be resurrected in the new world to come.

“That torture does not produce truth, since those who wish to stop their own suffering can stop it with lies.”

Friedrich Spee Cautio Criminalis (1631)

The witch hunts and trials ended with a lack of will, as influential and experienced prosecutors increasingly expressed their doubts about the reliability of confession under torture, and society embraced rationalism and stopped (officially) believing in witchcraft. We thought we would have learned a thousand years ago that torture was unreliable.3

“At the time of the triumph of Christianity a decadent Empire in the last throes of paganism was corroded by every kind of superstition and occult art, from the use of petty and harmless sympathetic charms of healing to the darkest crimes of goetic ceremonial. Spells, scrying, conjurations, evokings of the dead were never more fashionable and never more keenly explored by every class and ever order, from the divine Caesar in his palace to the losel4 peasant in his humble shed. If the disease is universal, the medicine must be sharp. It was very difficult, when the infection of crime was so general, to discriminate and draw the line, to take into consideration relative differences and nice gradations. So much that was heathen, so much that was bad, was mixed up with what might seem to be simple credulity, and the harmless folk-customs of some grandam tradition and immemorial usage, a song or a country dance mayhap, innocent enough on the surface, and even pleasing, so often were but the cloak and the mask for something devilish and obscene, that the Church deemed it necessary to forbid and proscribe the whole superstition even when it manifested itself in modest fashion and seemed guileless, innoxious, and of no account.”

Montague Summers’ Introduction to 1928 Edition – The Malleus Maleficarum

The Malleus Maleficarum was translated from the original Latin into English in 1928 by Montague Summers. Montague Summers approved of the Malleus, thought the Anarchists and the Bolsheviks were heretics and that witchcraft was a political movement. His translation is available on the Internet (link below).

More recently (2009) the Malleus Maleficarum was translated by Christopher S. Mackay as The Hammer of Witches: A Complete Translation of the Malleus Maleficarum (link below).

From Wikipedia’s Malleus_Maleficarum at

“Catholic and Protestant demonologies were similar in their basic beliefs about witches  and most writers agreed on the severity of the crime of witchcraft. It was accepted by both Catholic and Protestant legislatures and witch-hunting was undeniably sponsored by both Protestant and Catholic governments. Witches became heretics to Christianity and witchcraft became the greatest of crimes and sins. Within continental and Roman Law witchcraft was the crimen exceptum, a crime so foul that all normal legal procedures were superseded.

During the Age of Enlightenment, belief in the powers of witches to harm began to die out in the West. For the post-Enlightenment Christians, the disbelief was based on a belief in rationalism and empiricism…. “

‘…Strixology in the Malleus Maleficarum is characterized by a very specific conception of what a witch is, one that differs dramatically from earlier times. The word used, malefica, carries an explicit condemnation absent in other words referring to women with supernatural powers. The conception of witches and of magic by extension is one of evil. It differs from earlier conceptions of witchcraft that were much more generalized.5

This is the point in history where “witchcraft constituted an independent antireligion”. The witch lost her powerful position vis-a-vis the deities; the ability to force the deities comply with her wishes was replaced by a total subordination to the devil. In short, “[t]he witch became Satan’s puppet.”5 This conception of witches was “part of a conception of magic that is termed by scholars as ‘Satanism’ or ‘diabolism'”. In this conception, a witch was a member of “a malevolent society presided over by Satan himself and dedicated to the infliction of malevolent acts of sorcery (maleficia) on others.”‘6

Online Malleus

  1. Jakob Sprenger is listed as an author, but his participation is less certain. []
  2. Mackay, C. S. (2020). “Document 11 Record of the Proceedings against the Seven Accused, October 29 and 31 and November 3, 1485”. In “An Unusual Inquisition”. Leiden, The Netherlands: Brill. doi: []
  3. Perhaps, we did, but every State which tried quickly regretted negotiating with the Torturer’s Union. []
  4. Losel: worthless. []
  5. Ben Yehuda, Nachman (October 1992). “Witchcraft and the Occult as Boundary Maintenance Devices”. In Neusner, Jacob; Frerichs, Ernest S.; McCracken Flesher, Paul Virgil (eds.). Religion, Science, and Magic: In Concert and in Conflict. Oxford University Press. p. 233. ISBN 978-0-19-507911-1. Retrieved 2019-02-08. [] []
  6. Mackay, Christopher S. (2009). The Hammer of Witches: A Complete Translation of the Malleus Maleficarum (1 volume). Cambridge University Press.  ISBN 978-0-511-53982-4. P. 19. []