Malleus Maleficarum

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Malleus Maleficarum
Title page of the seventh Cologne edition of the Malleus Maleficarum, 1520 (from the University of Sydney Library). The Latin title is "MALLEUS MALEFICARUM, Maleficas, & earum hæresim, ut phramea potentissima conterens." (Generally translated into English as The Hammer of Witches which destroyeth Witches and their heresy as with a two-edged sword).[1]
Author(s) Heinrich Kramer and, credited but under modern academic dispute, Jacob Sprenger
Date 1486
Date of issue 1487

The Malleus Maleficarum[2] (commonly rendered into English as "Hammer of [the] Witches";[3] Der Hexenhammer in German) is a treatise on the prosecution of witches, written in 1486 by Heinrich Kramer, a German Catholic clergyman. The book was first published in Speyer, Germany, in 1487.[4] Jacob Sprenger is also often attributed as an author, but some scholars now believe that he became associated with the Malleus Maleficarum largely as a result of Kramer's wish to lend his book as much official authority as possible.[5] Both purported writers of the work were Dominican clergy, and the work came about as “the result of a peculiarly Dominican encounter between learned and folk traditions, an encounter determined in part by the demands of inquisitorial office, and in part by the requirements of effective preaching and pastoral care.”[6] In 1490, three years after its publication, the Catholic Church condemned the Malleus Maleficarum, although it was later used by royal courts during the Renaissance, and contributed to the increasingly brutal prosecution of witchcraft during the 16th and 17th centuries.

Kramer wrote the Malleus shortly after being expelled from Innsbruck by the local bishop after a failed attempt to conduct his own witchcraft prosecution. Kramer's purpose in writing the book was to explain his own views on witchcraft, systematically refute arguments claiming that witchcraft does not exist, discredit those who expressed skepticism about its reality, claim that those who practised witchcraft were more often women than men, and to convince magistrates to use Kramer's recommended procedures for finding and convicting witches.[7]


Magic, sorcery, and witchcraft had long been condemned by the Church, whose attitude towards witchcraft was explained in the canon Episcopi written in about 900 AD. It stated that witchcraft and magic did not really exist, and that those who believed in such things "had been seduced by the Devil in dreams and visions into old pagan errors".[8] Until about 1400 it was rare for anyone to be accused of witchcraft, but heresies had become a major problem within the Church by the 13th century,[9] and by the 15th century belief in witches was widely accepted in European society. Those convicted of witchcraft typically suffered penalties no more harsh than public penances such as a day in the stocks,[10] but their persecution became more brutal following the publication of the Malleus Maleficarum, as witchcraft became increasingly accepted as a real and dangerous phenomenon.[11]

In 1484 Heinrich Kramer had made one of the first attempts at prosecuting alleged witches in the Tyrol region. It was not a success: he was expelled from the city of Innsbruck and dismissed by the local bishop as a "senile old man". Kramer was opposed by the local clergy partly because of his eccentric behavior (as the Bishop of Innsbruck's verdict indicates), and partly because he didn't hold any official position as an Inquisitor despite his efforts to make himself into one. According to Diarmaid MacCulloch, writing the book was Kramer's act of self-justification and revenge.[10] Some scholars have suggested that following the failed efforts in Tyrol, Kramer and Jacob Sprenger (also known as Jacob or Jakob Sprenger) requested and received a papal bull Summis desiderantes affectibus in 1484. It allegedly gave full papal approval for the Inquisition to prosecute what was deemed to be witchcraft in general and for Kramer and Sprenger specifically.[12] Malleus Maleficarum was written in 1486 and the papal bull was included as part of the preface.[12]


The Malleus Maleficarum was published by Kramer (Latinised as "Institoris")[13] and Sprenger in 1487. Scholars have debated how much Sprenger contributed to the work. Some say his role was minor,[14] and that the book was written almost entirely by Kramer, who used the name of Sprenger for its prestige only,[13] while others say there is little evidence for this claim.[15]

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 has not been universally questioned; Christopher S. Mackay rejects Hansen's theory as a misunderstanding.[16] Nevertheless, it is well established by sources outside the "Malleus" that the university's theology faculty as a whole condemned the book for unethical procedures and for contradicting Catholic theology on a number of important points. Hence the Malleus' claims about an endorsement from the same faculty is at best a misleading approval granted by only a small percentage of the faculty, and at worst a complete forgery. Scholarly opinion is divided on the latter point, but there is general agreement that even if it were genuine it was misrepresented by Kramer, as was the copy of "Summis desiderantes" whose inclusion implies a Papal endorsement of the "Malleus" although "Summis desiderantes" had been issued before the "Malleus" was written.[17][18][19][20] The Malleus Maleficarum drew on earlier sources such as Johannes Nider's treatise Formicarius, written 1435/37.[21]

The book became the handbook for secular courts throughout Renaissance Europe, but was not used by the Inquisition, which even cautioned against relying on the work.[22] Between 1487 and 1520 the work was published thirteen times. It was again published between 1574 and 1669 a total of sixteen times. Regardless of the authenticity of the endorsements appearing at the beginning of the book, their presence contributed to the popularity of the work.


Title page of an edition dated 1669

The Malleus Maleficarum asserts that three elements are necessary for witchcraft: the evil intentions of the witch, the help of the Devil, and the Permission of God.[23] The treatise is divided into three sections, each one aimed at different audiences. The first section is aimed at clergy and tries to refute critics who deny the reality of witchcraft, thereby hindering its prosecution. The second has no specific audience and seems to exist simply to lay the foundation for the next section. It describes the actual forms of witchcraft and its remedies. The third section is to assist judges confronting and combating witchcraft, and to aid the inquisitors by removing the burden from them. However, each of these three sections has the prevailing themes of what is witchcraft and who is a witch. The Malleus Maleficarum relies heavily upon earlier works such as Visconti and, most famously, Johannes Nider's Formicarius (1435).[24] It also draws heavily from the works of Augustine and Aquinas.

Section I

Section I examines the concept of witchcraft theoretically, from the point of view of natural philosophy and theology.[25] Specifically it addresses the question of whether witchcraft is a real phenomenon or imaginary, perhaps "deluding phantasms of the devil, or simply the fantasies of overwrought human minds".[26] The conclusion drawn is that witchcraft must be real because the Devil is real. Witches entered into a pact with Satan to allow them the power to perform harmful magical acts, thus establishing an essential link between witches and the Devil.[26]

Section II

Matters of practice and actual cases are discussed, and the powers of witches and their recruitment strategies.[27] It states that it is mostly witches, as opposed to the Devil, who do the recruiting, by making something go wrong in the life of a respectable matron that makes her consult the knowledge of a witch, or by introducing young maidens to tempting young devils.[27] It details how witches cast spells, and remedies that can be taken to prevent witchcraft, or help those who have been affected by it.[28]

Section III

Section III is the legal part of the Malleus Maleficarum that describes how to prosecute a witch. The arguments are clearly laid for the lay magistrates prosecuting witches. The section offers a step-by-step guide to the conduct of a witch trial, from the method of initiating the process and assembling accusations, to the interrogation (including torture) of witnesses, and the formal charging of the accused.[29] Women who did not cry during their trial were automatically believed to be witches.[30]

Major themes

The treatise describes how women and men become inclined to practice witchcraft. The text argues that women are more susceptible to demonic temptations through the manifold weaknesses of their gender. It was believed that they were weaker in faith and more carnal than men.[31] Michael Bailey claims that most of the women accused as witches had strong personalities and were known to defy convention by overstepping the lines of proper female decorum.[32] After the publication of the Malleus, it seems as though about three quarters of those individuals prosecuted as witches were women.[33] (Though in some countries, including Iceland, the majority were men.) Indeed, the very title of the Malleus Maleficarum is feminine, alluding to the idea that it was women who were the villains. Otherwise, it would be the Malleus Maleficorum (the masculine form of the Latin noun maleficus or malefica, 'witch'). In Latin, the feminine "Maleficarum" would only be used for women, while the masculine "Maleficorum" could be used for men alone or for both sexes if together.[34]

The Malleus Maleficarum accuses male and female witches of infanticide, cannibalism and casting evil spells to harm their enemies as well as having the power to steal a man's penis. It goes on to give accounts of witches committing these crimes.

The ancient subjects of astronomy, philosophy, and medicine were being reintroduced to the West at this time, as well as a plethora of ancient texts being rediscovered and studied. The Malleus Maleficarum often makes reference to the Bible and Aristotelian thought, and it is heavily influenced by the philosophical tenets of Neoplatonism.[35] It also mentions astrology and astronomy, which had recently been reintroduced to the West by the ancient works of Pythagoras.[36]


Demons are the ones who tempt humans to sorcery and are the main figures in the witches’ vows. They interact with witches, usually sexually. The book claims that it is normal for all witches “to perform filthy carnal acts with demons.”[37] This is a major part of human-demon interaction and demons do it “not for the sake of pleasure, but for the sake of corrupting.”[38] It is worth noting that not all demons do such things. The book claims that “the nobility of their nature causes certain demons to balk at committing certain actions and filthy deeds.”[39] Though the work never gives a list of names or types of demons, like some demonological texts or spellbooks of the era, such as the Liber Juratus, it does indicate different types of demons. For example, it devotes large sections to incubi and succubae and questions regarding their roles in pregnancies, the submission of witches to incubi, and protections against them.

Witches in the Work

Malleus Maleficarum has a very specific conception of what a witch is, one that differs dramatically from earlier times. The word used, Malefica, carries the implicit condemnation that other words also referring to women with supernatural powers, lacked. 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. 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, the witch became Satan's puppet.”[40] 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 (malefica) on others.”[41]

Witches were usually female. The reasons for this is the suggestion that women are “prone to believing and because the demon basically seeks to corrupt the faith, he assails them in particular.”[42] They also have a “temperament towards flux” and “loose tongues.” [42] They “are defective in all the powers of both soul and body”[42] and are stated to be more lustful than men. The major reason is that at the foundation of sorcery is denial of faith and “woman, therefore, is evil as a result of nature because she doubts more quickly in the faith.” [43] Men could be witches, but were considered rarer, and the reasons were also different. The most common form of male witch mentioned in the book is the sorcerer-archer. The book is rather unclear, but the impetus behind male witches seems to come more from desire for power than from disbelief or lust, as it claims is the case for female witches.

Factors stimulating widespread use

The Malleus Maleficarum was able to spread throughout Europe rapidly in the late 15th and the beginning of the 16th century due to the innovation of the printing press in the middle of the 15th century by Johannes Gutenberg. The invention of printing some thirty years before the first publication of the Malleus Maleficarum instigated the fervor of witch hunting, and, in the words of Russell, "the swift propagation of the witch hysteria by the press was the first evidence that Gutenberg had not liberated man from original sin."[44] The Malleus is also heavily influenced by the subjects of divination, astrology, and healing rituals the Church inherited from antiquity.[45]

The late 15th century was also a period of religious turmoil. The Malleus Maleficarum and the witch craze that ensued took advantage of the increasing intolerance of the Reformation and Counter-Reformation in Europe, where the Protestant and Catholic camps, pitted against one another, each zealously strove to maintain what they each deemed to be the purity of faith.[46]


Between 1487 and 1520, twenty editions of the Malleus Maleficarum were published, and another sixteen between 1574 and 1669,[47] but there is scholarly agreement that the book's publication was not as influential as earlier modern historians believed.[48][49][lower-alpha 1] According to MacCulloch, the Malleus Maleficarum was one of several key factors contributing to the witch craze, along with popular superstition, and tensions created by the Reformation.[10]

In 1490, only three years after it was published, the Catholic Church condemned the Malleus Maleficarum as false. In 1538 the Spanish Inquisition cautioned its members not to believe everything the Malleus Maleficarum said, even when it presented apparently firm evidence.[50]

Reception and Translations

The Latin book was firstly translated by J. W. R. Schmidt into German in 1906, an expanded edition of three volumes was published in 1923. Montague Summers was responsible for the first English translation in 1928.

See also



  1. "In its own day it was never accorded the unquestioned authority that modern scholars have sometimes given it. Theologians and jurists respected it as one among many informative books; its particular savage misogny and its obsession with impotence were never fully accepted", Monter, The Sociology of Jura Witchcraft, in The Witchcraft Reader, p. 116 (2002)


  1. The English translation is from this note to Summers' 1928 introduction.
  2. Translator Montague Summers consistently uses "the Malleus Maleficarum" (or simply "the Malleus") in his 1928 and 1948 introductions. [1] [2]
  3. In his translation of the Malleus Maleficarum, Christopher S. Mackay explains the terminology at length – sorcerer is used to preserve the relationship of the Latin terminology. '"Malefium" = act of sorcery (literally an act of 'evil-doing'), while "malefica" = female performers of sorcery (evil deeds) and "maleficus" = male performer of evil deeds; sorcery, sorceress, and sorcerer."
  4. Ruickbie (2004), 71, highlights the problems of dating; Ankarloo (2002), 239
  5. See for example Hans Peter Broedel, The "Malleus Maleficarum" and the Construction of Witchcraft: Theology and Popular Belief (2003) p. 19.
  6. Broedel (2003), p. 10.
  7. Ankarloo & Clark (2002), p. 240.
  8. Pavlac (2009), p. 29.
  9. Pavlac (2009), p. 31.
  10. 10.0 10.1 10.2 MacCulloch, Diarmaid (2004). Reformation: Europes House Divided. Vintage Books, 2006. pp. 563–68. ISBN 0-14-028534-2.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  11. Trevor-Roper (1969), pp. 102–105.
  12. 12.0 12.1 Russell, 229
  13. 13.0 13.1 The Malleus Maleficarum and King James PDF (222 KB): Defining Witchcraft. Elizabeth Mack.
  14. Russell (1972), 230
  15. Mackay (2006), p. 103.
  16. Mackay (2006), p. 128.
  17. 'But both the papal letter and the Cologne endorsement are problematic. The letter of Innocent VIII is not an approval of the book to which it was appended, but rather a charge to inquisitors to investigate diabolical sorcery and a warning to those who might impede them in their duty, that is, a papal letter in the by then conventional tradition established by John XXII and other popes through Eugenius IV and Nicholas V (1447–55).', Joyy et al., 'Witchcraft and Magic In Europe', p. 239 (2002)
  18. "So successful was this stroke of advertising strategy that the authors hardly even needed the approval of the Cologne University theologians, but just for good measure Institoris forged a document granting their apparently unanimous approbation.", Ibid., p. 115
  19. "there is not a shred of evidence that Innocent VIII ever saw the Malleus Maleficarum or had the faintest notion of the ideas it contained", Peters, The Magician, the Witch, and the Law, p. 173 (1978)
  20. "It is doubtful whether either Innocent VIII or the theological faculty of Cologne ever read the work.", Joyy et al., Witchcraft and Magic In Europe, p. 239 (2002)
  21. Bailey (2003), p. 30.
  22. 'In 1538 the Spanish Inquisition cautioned its members not to believe everything the Malleus said, even when it presented apparently firm evidence.', Jolly, Raudvere, & Peters(eds.), 'Witchcraft and magic in Europe: the Middle Ages', page 241 (2002)
  23. Russell, 232
  24. Russell, 279
  25. Broedel (2003), p. 20.
  26. 26.0 26.1 Broedel (2003), p. 22.
  27. 27.0 27.1 Broedel, 30
  28. Mackay (2006), p. 214.
  29. Broedel (2003), p. 34.
  30. Mackay (2006), p. 502.
  31. Bailey (2003), p. 49.
  32. Bailey (2003), p. 51.
  33. Russell, 145
  34. Maxwell-Stewart (2001), p. 30.
  35. Kieckhefer (2000), p. 145.
  36. Kieckhefer (2000), p. 146.
  37. Mackay (2009), p. 125.
  38. Mackay (2009), p. 283.
  39. Mackay (2009), p. 309.
  40. Ben-Yehuda (1980), p. 3.
  41. Mackay (2009), p. 19.
  42. 42.0 42.1 42.2 Mackay (2009), p. 164.
  43. Mackay (2009), p. 166.
  44. Russell, 234
  45. Ankarloo & Clark (2002), p. 77.
  46. Henningsen (1980), p. 15.
  47. Russell, 79
  48. "The effect that the book had on witch-hunting is difficult to determine. It did not open the door 'to almost indiscriminate prosecutions' 50 or even bring about an immediate increase in the number of trials. In fact its publication in Italy was followed by a noticeable reduction in witchcraft cases", Levack, The Witch-Hunt In Early Modern Europe, p. 55 (2nd edition 1995)
  49. "Nor was the Malleus immediately regarded as a definitive work. Its appearance triggered no prosecutions in areas where there had been none earlier, and in some cases its claims encountered substantial skepticism (for Italy, Paton 1992:264–306). In 1538 the Spanish Inquisition cautioned its members not to believe everything the Malleus said, even when it presented apparently firm evidence", Joyy et al., Witchcraft and Magic In Europe, p. 241 (2002)
  50. Jolly, Raudvere, & Peters(eds.), "Witchcraft and magic in Europe: the Middle Ages", page 241 (2002)


  • Ankarloo, Bengt; Clark, Stuart, eds. (2002). Witchcraft and Magic in Europe, Volume 3: The Middle Ages. University of Pennsylvania Press. ISBN 0-8122-1786-1.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  • Bailey, Michael D. (2003). Battling Demons: Witchcraft, Heresy, and Reform in the Late Middle Ages. Pennsylvania State University Press. ISBN 0-271-02226-4.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  • Broedel, Hans Peter (2003). The Malleus Maleficarum and the Construction of Witchcraft: Theology and Popular Belief. Manchester University Press. ISBN 9780719064418.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  • Henningsen, Gustav (1980). The Witches' Advocate: Basque Witchcraft and the Spanish Inquisition. University of Nevada Press.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  • Kieckhefer, Richard (2000). Magic in the Middle Ages. Cambridge University Press.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  • Mackay, Christopher S. (2006). Malleus Maleficarum (2 volumes). Cambridge University Press. ISBN 0-521-85977-8.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles> (Latin) (English)
  • Maxwell-Stewart, P. G. (2001). Witchcraft in Europe and the New World. Palgrave.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  • Pavlac, Brian (2009). Witch Hunts in the Western World: Persecution and Punishment from the Inquisition through the Salem Trials: Persecution and Punishment from the Inquisition through the Salem Trials. ABC-CLIO. ISBN 9780313348747.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  • Trevor-Roper, H. R. (1969). The European Witch-Craze: of the Sixteenth and Seventeenth Centuries and Other Essays. Harper Collins. ISBN 0-06-131416-1.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>

Further reading

  • Flint, Valerie. The Rise of Magic in Early Medieval Europe. Princeton University Press. Princeton, NJ. 1991
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    (payment required)
  • Institoris, Heinrich; Jakob Sprenger (1520). Malleus maleficarum, maleficas, & earum haeresim, ut phramea potentissima conterens. Excudebat Ioannes Gymnicus.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
This is the edition held by the University of Sydney Library. [3]
  • Ruickbie, Leo (2004). Witchcraft Out of the Shadows. Robert Hale. ISBN 0-7090-7567-7.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  • Russell, Jeffrey Burton (1972 repr. 1984). Witchcraft in the Middle Ages. Cornell University Press. ISBN 0-8014-9289-0. Check date values in: |year= (help)<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles> (bibrec[dead link])
  • Summers, Montague (1948 repr. 1971). The Malleus Maleficarum of Kramer and Sprenger. ed. and trans. by Summers. Dover Publications. ISBN 0-486-22802-9. Check date values in: |year= (help)<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  • Thurston, Robert W. (November 2006). "The world, the flesh and the devil". History Today. 56 (11): 51–57.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles> (payment required for full text)

External links