The Malleus Maleficarum (Latin for “The Hammer of Witches”, or “Der Hexenhammer” in German) is a famous treatise on witches, written in 1486 by Heinrich Kramer and Jacob Sprenger, two Inquisitors of the Catholic Church, and was first published in Germany in 1487. The main purpose of the Malleus was to attempt to systematically refute arguments claiming that witchcraft does not exist, discredit those who expressed skepticism about its reality, to claim that witches were more often women than men, and to educate magistrates on the procedures that could find them out and convict them.
The Malleus Maleficarum was published in 1487 by Heinrich Kramer (Latinized Institoris) and James Sprenger (also known as Jacob or Jakob Sprenger ). Scholars have debated how much Sprenger contributed to the work. Some say his role was minor while others say there is little evidence for this claim.
In 1484 Kramer made one of the first attempts at a systematic persecution of witches in the region of Tyrol. It was not a success, Kramer was thrown out of the territory, and dismissed by the local bishop as a “senile old man”. According to Diarmaid MacCulloch, writing the book was Kramer’s act of self-justification and revenge. Some scholars have suggested that following the failed efforts in Tyrol, Kramer and Sprenger requested and received a papal bull Summis desiderantes affectibus in 1484. It allegedly gave full papal approval for the Inquisition to prosecute witchcraft in general and for Kramer and Sprenger specifically. Malleus Maleficarum was written in 1484 or 1485 and the papal bull was included as part of the preface. The preface also includes an approbation from the University of Cologne’s Faculty of Theology. The authenticity of the Cologne endorsement was first questioned by Joseph Hansen but Christopher S. Mackay rejects his theory as a misunderstanding. The Malleus Maleficarum drew on earlier sources like the Johannes Nider’s treatise Formicarius, written 1435/37.
The book became the handbook for witch-hunters and Inquisitors throughout Late Medieval Europe. Between the years 1487 and 1520, the work was published thirteen times. It was again published between the years of 1574 to 1669 a total of sixteen times. Regardless of the authenticity of the papal bull and endorsements which appear at the beginning of the book, its presence contributed to the popularity of the work.
Ancient pre-Christian beliefs in reality of witchcraft had been denied by the church in earlier centuries; the first Holy Roman Emperor Charlemagne had specifically outlawed the old practice of witch burning “in the manner of the pagans”. By the 15th century belief in witches was once again openly accepted in European society, but they typically suffered penalties no more harsh than public penances such as a day in the stocks Persecution of witches became more brutal following the publication of the Malleus, with witchcraft being accepted as a real and dangerous phenomenon.
The Malleus Maleficarum asserts that three elements are necessary for witchcraft: the evil-intentioned witch, the help of the Devil, and the Permission of God. The treatise is divided up into three sections. The first section tries to refute critics who deny the reality of witchcraft, thereby hindering its prosecution. The second section describes the actual forms of witchcraft and its remedies. The third section is to assist judges confronting and combating witchcraft. However, each of these three sections has the prevailing themes of what is witchcraft and who is a witch. The Malleus Maleficarum can hardly be called an original text, for it heavily relies upon earlier works such as Visconti and, most famously, Johannes Nider’s Formicarius (1435).
Between 1487 and 1520, twenty editions of the Malleus were published, and another sixteen editions were published between 1574 to 1669. Popular accounts suggest that the extensive publishing of the Malleus Maleficarum in 1487 launched centuries of witch-hunts in Europe. Estimations of deaths have varied widely. According to MacCulloch, the Malleus was one of several key causes of the witch craze, along with popular superstition, jealously of witches’ knowledge from humanist scholars, and tensions created by the Reformation. However, as some researchers have noted, the fact that the Malleus was popular does not imply that it accurately reflected or influenced actual practice; one researcher compared it to confusing a “television docu-drama” with “actual court proceedings.” Estimates about the effect of the Malleus should thus be weighed accordingly.
Download “The Hammer of Witches” here