The Malleus Maleficarum or Der Hexenhammer (Latin/German for "The Hammer of Witches") is arguably the most infamous medieval European treatise that focused on identifying, characterizing, and combating witchcraft. It was written in 1486 by Heinrich Kramer and Jacob Sprenger with the explicit endorsement of Pope Innocent VIII, who desired "that all heretical depravity should be driven far from the frontiers and bournes of the Faithful." It was first published in Germany in 1487. Though it was eventually banned by the Vatican, it remained a popular tome among both Catholic and Protestant witch-hunters, eventually selling out over thirty editions throughout the two hundred years that it was in print.
The text was the culmination of a long history of medieval theological treatises on witchcraft, the most famous of these earlier works being the Formicarius by Johannes Nider in 1435–1437. The main purpose of the Malleus was to systematically refute all skepticism about witchcraft, to counter those who expressed even the slightest doubt about the propriety of the Inquisition, to prove that witches were more often woman than men, and to educate magistrates on the procedures that could "unmask" and convict these demonic heretics.
In the late medieval period (1100–1500 C.E.), the Roman Catholic Church was riven by controversy. Various antipopes vied with the Vatican for ecclesiastical legitimacy, theological positions branded as heretical (including those held by the Catharites, Waldenses, and Hussites) were vigorously persecuted, and, in general, the spiritual malaise that came to prompt the Protestant Reformation was becoming steadily more pronounced. One response to these various (and related) crises was an overall shift towards conservatism, insularity, and a type of religious xenophobia, which culminated in the persecution of various individuals and groups deemed dangerous by the religious authorities. It was in this context that, on December 5, 1484, Pope Innocent VIII issued the bull Summis desiderantes affectibus ("Desiring with Supreme Ardor"), which authorized two zealous German Inquisitors (Heinrich Kramer and Jacob Sprenger) to act as they saw fit in combating the scourge of heresy, witchcraft, and immorality:
This bull, whose promulgation had been indirectly requested by Heinrich Kramer, prompted the composition of the Malleus Maleficarum in 1486. The text has traditionally been ascribed to Heinrich Kramer (Latinized as "Heinrich Institoris") and Jacob Sprenger, who were both members of the Dominican Order employed as Inquisitors by the Catholic Church. Despite the text's official attribution, modern scholars believe that Jacob Sprenger contributed little (if anything) to the work besides his illustrious name.
Kramer (and possibly Sprenger) submitted the Malleus Maleficarum to the University of Cologne’s Faculty of Theology in 1487, hoping for an endorsement that would lend the text a further air of legitimacy. Instead, the faculty condemned it as being both unethical and illegal. In spite of this rebuff, Kramer proceeded to insert a fraudulent endorsement from the University into subsequent print editions of the text. In a similar manner, most versions of the Malleus also include the full text of the Summis desiderantes affectibus bull, an inclusion that implies papal sanction, despite the fact that the papal statement predated the text itself.
Regardless of the less-than-stellar reception the text received upon its initial publication, it gradually became one of first (and most influential) handbooks for Protestant and Catholic witch-hunters in late medieval and early modern Europe. Between the years 1487 and 1520, the work sold out a total of sixteen editions, which led to an additional sixteen being printed and sold in the following hundred and fifty years.
In general, the Malleus Maleficarum presents a relatively overall theology/demonology, asserting that three elements are necessary for existence of witchcraft: The evil-intentioned witch (whose particular moral failings impel her to sin), the intercession of the Devil (who is the proximate cause of the witch's supernatural abilities), and the (implicit) permission of God (who is the ultimate cause of all actions). In terms of textual organization, the treatise is divided into three sections: The first "presents theoretical and theological arguments for the reality of witchcraft" (aiming to silence critics of the Inquisition's efforts); the second describes the actual applications of witchcraft, and compiles various remedies that can be used by those "bewitched"; finally, the third section provides instructions to judges, in order to assist them in their "divine mission" to confront and combat witchcraft. Superseding this organizational principle, each of these three sections is also united by a ubiquitous emphasis on providing textual definitions and practical guidelines for classifying witchcraft and identifying witches.
In spite of the document's place of primacy in the history of the European "witch-craze," the Malleus can hardly be called an original text, for it relied heavily upon earlier works by Visconti, Torquemada, and, most famously, Johannes Nider (the Formicarius ). However, these inter-textual parallels merely indicate the "canonicity" of demonological beliefs in the late Middle Ages. As Krause notes, "[D]emonology soon claimed for itself an authoritative status as demonologists interpreted puzzling features of witchcraft in light of the work of other demonologists. In the Malleus Maleficarum, references to Johannes Nider’s Formicarius reside comfortably alongside passages from Aquinas, both texts serving as authorities.… Demonology had become in effect its own self-legitimating discourse."
Section I argues that, because the Devil exists and has the power to do astounding things, witches (immoral women) exist to make these powers manifest. However, it avoids the theological problem of under-representing the power of the Divine by arguing that even these malevolent actions are performed with the permission of God. This repugnant misogynistic theodicy is argued at great length in the text:
The central role that the text assigns to women in bring evil into the world requires that the author(s) make certain (defamatory) ontological assumptions about the natural qualities of females:
In Section II, the author(s) begin to address more practical matters by discussing actual cases. The section begins by exposing the multifarious powers of witches, and then goes on to detail their recruitment strategies. In doing so, it places the blame squarely upon these duplicitous females, suggesting that they purposefully lead moral women astray, either by causing disasters in their lives (which could impel them to consult the arcane knowledge of a witch) or by introducing young maidens to physically appealing demons. Given the assumed weakness of spirit introduced above, the second approach would have been seen as virtually infallible. This section also explores the mechanics of malefic spellcraft, lists some of the dreadful offenses perpetrated by these evil-doers (including promoting infirmity, causing damage to livestock, sacrificing children, and even stealing a man's "virile member") and concludes by instructing the reader in various defensive techniques that can be used against these powers (whether one is aiming to avoid ensorcellment or to mitigate the effects of existing curses).
Unlike the sensationalistic visions proposed in the previous sections, Section III is comparatively dry and legalistic, as it describes (in great detail) the correct procedure for prosecuting a suspected witch. Therein, the author(s) offer a step-by-step guide to conducting a witch trial, from the method of initiating the process and assembling accusations, to the proper forms of defensive council, to the interrogation of witnesses and the formal laying of charges against the accused. A small snippet from the chapter on appropriate forms of inquisition is sufficient for establishing the overall tone and stance taken by this section as a whole:
Unfortunately for the women accused in these tribunals, the procedures advocated by the Malleus made it nearly impossible for them to emerge with a "not guilty" verdict. For instance, women who did not cry during their trials were automatically believed to be witches. Likewise, those who would not confess to their "crimes" were assumed to be supernaturally fortified by a "spell of silence," a demonic charm that would allow them to brave the questions and tortures directed at them.
Misogynistic attitudes are an unfortunately ubiquitous feature of the Malleus Maleficarum. As discussed above, the treatise argues that the inherent failings of women (most particularly their lascivious sexuality) inclined them towards participation in witchcraft, because they were susceptible to the sexual temptations of demons and devils. This dreadful perspective is summarized by Broedel:
After the publication of the Malleus, Kramer and Sprenger's misogynistic thesis became an accepted fact, and most of those who were prosecuted as witches were women. Most typically, the women demonized by these poisonous attitudes were those who had strong personalities and were known to defy convention by overstepping the lines of proper female decorum. Further, these negative stances towards both women and sexuality were common to all demonological treatises of the medieval period, where tales of lesbian sexual orgies, congress with demons, and magical castrations were all too common. Among the authors of these texts, "[T]heir detailed reflections on the nature of sexual intercourse with demons, on the pleasure and pain experienced by witches coupling with demons, and on the generalized lubricity of the sabbat suggest that demonologists were deeply interested in eliciting confessions of sexual secrets. With good reason, early modern demonology has been described as a kind of scholarly pornography."
In spite of the text's unforgivable misogyny, the Malleus Maleficarum was significantly influenced by humanistic ideologies. Just as the ancient subjects of astronomy, philosophy, and medicine were being reintroduced to the west at this time, the Malleus helps to expand typical Scholastic discourse by referring, not only to the Bible and early theologians, but also to Aristotelian thought and Neo-Platonism. It also mentions astrology and astronomy, which had recently been reintroduced to the West by the ancient works of Pythagoras.
The Malleus achieved such a height of influence and popularity for two primary reasons, one socio-cultural, the other technological.
As mentioned above, the late fifteenth century was a period of religious turmoil, already charged with the inchoate challenges that would eventually spark the Protestant Reformation several decades in the future. The Malleus Maleficarum (and the witch craze that it helped engender) took advantage of the increasing intolerance of the Reformation and Counter-Reformation in Europe, where the Protestant and Catholic camps each zealously strove to maintain the purity of faith. Indeed, "[I]t could be argued that witch-hunting was ecumenical: it united Catholics and Lutherans, Puritans and Anglicans, as no other purpose ever would." Some theorists argue this intolerant and dogmatic religious climate actively encouraged religious people to adopt beliefs that may have otherwise seemed bizarre, dangerous, or even unethical:
Technologically speaking, the text of the Malleus Maleficarum was able to spread throughout Europe so rapidly in the late fifteenth and early sixteenth century due to the innovation of the printing press in the middle of the fifteenth century by Johannes Gutenberg. That printing should have been invented thirty years before the first publication of the Malleus was, fatalistically speaking, a piece of remarkable ill-timing. As Russell suggests, "[T]he swift propagation of the witch hysteria by the press was the first evidence that Gutenberg had not liberated man from original sin."
The popularity of the Malleus Maleficarum cannot be overstated, especially given its extensive publication history (where it sold out over thirty editions over its print run). However, as with any historical phenomenon, it is not possible to draw a direct causal link between the bitter invective spouted by the text and the total number of individuals (predominantly women) executed during the witch trials of the following centuries. Also, 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 impact of the Malleus should thus be weighed accordingly. However, it is undeniable that such a text, with its dogmatic theology, rampant misogyny, and explicit endorsement of torture, would have had a markedly legitimizing effect upon these hateful movements. Indeed, whether the witch-hunters "killed 100,000 people in 300 years, as some historians believe, or only 30,000, as others more cautiously estimate," it remains the case that this singular text was one of the primary inspirations that undergirded their systematic campaign of brutality.
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