The Malleus Maleficarum (review)

by Jenny Gibbons

The Malleus Maleficarum (Hammer of Witches) is a detailed and accurate guide to how the Inquisition ran a Witch trial. Written by two respected inquisitors and enthusiastically endorsed by the Pope, the Malleus lay on the bench of every Witch hunter in Europe. Its detailed descriptions of sabbats and covens spread the fear of Witches throughout Europe, dramatically increasing the number of Witch trials.


That's the common view of the Malleus, but every sentence in that first paragraph is dead wrong.

The Malleus Maleficarum is indeed one of the most influential Witch-hunting manuals of all times. And since it's easily available in modern English translation, it's still influential, the darling of amateur historians today. But it's not a reliable guide to the Burning Times: it's a duplicitous text with a checkered past, a book you simply can't take at face value. So most of this review will focus on common misconceptions about the Malleus -- things you ought to know if you want to use it in your research.

#1: The Author and His Motivation

Almost all of the Malleus was written by one man: Heinrich Kramer (aka Henry Institoris). A German inquisitor of the late 15th century, Kramer was not a well-respected man. His views on Witchcraft were considered weird and extreme by most of his fellow clergymen, who continually opposed and hindered his trials. For instance, Kramer ran a large trial in Innsbruck in 1485, where 57 people were investigated. Nobody was killed. The bishop of Innsbruck became so irritated with Kramer's fascination with the Witches' sexual behavior that he shut down the trials, claiming that the devil was in the inquisitor, not the Witches.

Kramer wrote the Malleus to win the cooperation of his peers. The book isn't -- as some assume -- a guide to what most 15th century Christians believed about Witches. It's a minority opinion, written to convince the populace at large of the dangers of Witchcraft.

#2: The Endorsements

The Malleus is usually circulated along with a papal bull "Summis Desiderantes", which rails against Witches and the people who oppose Kramer and his co-author, Jacob (or James) Sprenger. In the 15th century, there was also a little recommendation from the Faculty of Cologne (the Inquisition's top theologians). Both of these endorsements are misleading.

Pope Innocent had actually never read the Malleus when he wrote "Summis Desiderantes". Kramer complained to the Pope about the poor reception he was receiving from other priests, and the Pope (who was very superstitious and feared Witches greatly) obligingly gave Kramer this bull. He also asked a respected Dominican scholar, Jacob Sprenger, to help Kramer write the Malleus. Kramer treated the bull as if it was a full endorsement of his book, but it wasn't.

The recommendation from Cologne is an out-and-out forgery. When they were finished writing, Sprenger presented the Malleus to the Faculty, asking for its approval. Instead, the Inquisition resoundingly condemned the book. It said that the legal procedures it recommended were unethical and illegal, and that its demonology was not consistent with Catholic doctrine. Undaunted, Kramer forged an enthusiastic endorsement. As you might expect, the Faculty discovered this quickly and was enraged! Kramer and Sprenger parted on bad terms, and the Inquisition condemned Kramer in 1490, just four years after the Malleus was published.

#3: The Impact of the Malleus

The Malleus wasn't an immediately influential book. Most Church and Inquisitorial courts ignored it, probably because of the Faculty's condemnation. Civil courts, unfortunately, gave it more weight. Fooled by the forged recommendation and the out-of-context bull, many non-religious judges believed that the Malleus had the approval of the Church. Many used it, though it did not -- as some authors say -- lie on the bench of every judge.

It publication did not increase the number of Witch trials. In fact, it came at the beginning of a slight lull, when the steady rise in trials stalled for a few decades. But when the major panics of the Burning Times hit in the mid-16th century, the Malleus came into its own. It was the most detailed discussion of Witchcraft around. Many civil courts were handling Witch trials for the first time. They had no idea how to proceed, and so they latched onto the Malleus' recommendations gladly. By the end of the 16th century, other Witch hunting manuals eclipsed the Malleus. But at the beginning of the crazes, it did have an enormous impact.

#4: The Theories

You also have to take the Malleus' theories with a grain of salt. As I've said, Kramer's views were condemned by the Inquisition. They certainly don't represent the official view of the Church of the 15th century.

If you compare the Malleus to other Witch-hunting manuals, you can see how unique its theories are. Kramer's sexual hang-ups shine through like a super nova. I mean, there are seven entire chapters on all the awful things Witches can do to penises, and Kramer apparently thought that it was quite common for men to wake up and discover that their Virile Member had walked off in the middle of the night... The book's sexism is also extreme. Most manual profer sexist explanations for why the majority of Witches are women. But none are as virulently misogynist as the Malleus.

The theology is also primitive. Read the Malleus closely, and you'll notice that many of the "traditional" bits of Witch lore are missing. There are no sabbats. No covens. No Witches' marks. Many of the Witchcraft stereotypes we're familiar with developed in the 16th century. By comparing the Malleus (1484) to, say, the Compendium Maleficarum (1608), you can see how much beliefs changed during the height of the panics.


That's the history of the Malleus, in brief. Now for a review:

The Malleus is dreadfully dull reading. It's long, confusing, and dry, "enlivened" only by occasional shocking bits of misogyny and bigotry. So before you read it, I encourage you to ask yourself why you're bothering.

Is it to learn what Witch hunting was like? Well, the Malleus won't tell you. You're better off reading trial records or pamphlet accounts of individual trials. (Which you can find in books like _Witchcraft in England_ by Barbara Rosen, or Alan Kors' _Witchcraft in Europe, 1100 - 1700_.)

Do you want to learn what the Church taught about Witches? Again, the Malleus won't help you. You need to read tons of material to understand the Church's responses (or, more sensibly, you can read scholarly summaries of the debate).

The Malleus will help you if:

a) You want to get a feel for what a Witch hunting manual was like. b) You want to understand the origins of some of the later stereotypes. c) You want some shocking quotations (the Malleus is chock-full of them...)

The big thing to remember, however, is that the Malleus does not give an accurate picture of what Witch hunting was like. It's an extreme, radical text, and gives a very distorted view of life in the Burning Times.