The Dark History of Magic: Malleus Malleficarum

malleus malefic arumWitches are an integrated part of our lore, our culture and our stories. We’ve all studied the Salem Witch Trials in school, and who hasn’t heard of Hermione Granger? Shows such as Charmed and Sabrina the Teenage Witch are ever popular, and few women have not dressed as a witch on halloween at least once in their lives –  pointy hat, broomstick and warty nose in all. But these fun fictions aside, magic has a way of bleeding into the real world in violent and unpredictable ways. For witches, this dark history is tightly tied to the Malleus Maleficarum.

Latin for “The Hammer of Witches” (or “Hexenhammer” in German) the Malleus Maleficarum is one of the most infamous and bloody medieval writings on witches, giving us some insight into how women were seen in the fifteenth century, when witchcraft was deeply feared. This book would have made Sabrina the Teenage Witch cower in a corner, as it described the rules and guidelines for identifying, interrogating, prosecuting, convicting, and killing suspected witches.

The History of the Malleus Maleficarum 

The Malleus Maleficarum was written – unsurprisingly – by two religious men. Jacob Sprenger and Heinrich Kramer, two Inquisitors for the Catholic Church, penned this guide in 1486. It was first read by the masses in Germany in 1487.

Jacob Sprenger was prior and regent of studies of the Cologne Convent. He later became Dean of Cologne University and in 1488, was named provincial of the Province of Germany. Heinrich Kramer was prior of the Dominican House in Schlettstadt in Lower Alsace. In 1474, he became inquisitor for several German provinces. In addition to adding fuel to the witch hunt fire, the Malleus Maleficarum was successful in large part to the reputations of its authors.

In 1484, Kramer and Sprenger were granted the power to prosecute those they deemed to be witches via a papal bull from Pope Innocent VII. The point of the bull was to squash protestant objection to the inquisition. Following the bull, the Malleus Maleficarum was widely adopted as a witch hunting manual by catholics and protestants in Germany, France, and Italy.

It may surprise you to learn that this witch hunting manual was banned in 1490 by the catholic church. There were people in the christian community (mainly scholars and theologians because educated people are always the ones with the most sense) who doubted the existence of witches at all. But the authors of the Malleus Maleficarum so passionately believed they were able to convince the majority of it’s necessity, saying “Whether the belief that there are such beings as witches is so essential a part of the catholic faith that obstinacy to maintain the opposite opinion manifestly savors of heresy.”

The book remained in use for 300 years across the world, especially during witch trials in England and scatterings of Europe. Thanks to his book, the misconceptions and fears about women who acted outside the norm – considered witches – were reinforced and given teeth. These misconceptions became irrefutable truth and gave accusers a tool to act on their fears.

The Malleus Maleficarum was the de facto guide for detecting and persecuting witches, including the rules and procedures by which their torture and death must be carried out. It is difficult to know precisely how many people lost their lives do to this inquisition. Estimates run from 600,000 to as high as 9 million. Whatever the real number is, it can be argued that this is likely one of the most harmful books ever written.

The Malleus Maleficarum cited reasons for accusing and punishing women for witchcraft as varied as:

  • Being old
  • Being a midwife
  • Being Jewish
  • Being a Gypsy
  • Having a weird birthmark or skin deformity
  • Living alone
  • Being mentally ill
  • Owning medicinal herbs

From our modern perspective such a list is nonsense. Most women, including myself, would fall under suspicion with standards such as these. But the fear that is birthed out of ignorance is never all that far away. Consider christian protestors today who believe that feminists are representatives of the devil as an example. Such views are most certainly on the edges of our modern world, science and reason have rightly pushed them there. But such things always lurks there at the shadowy edges.

Use in the USA 

Fear of witches spread all over the world, and was notable especially in the english settlements in America. We all know about the Salem Witch Trials in Salem, Massachusetts. We learn about it in school and watch films (The Crucible is one of the best of these in my opinion) and plays based on the horrors that took place there. The Malleus Maleficarum gave these ideas the strength to travel across the sea and take hold of communities in the new world.

It is impossible to tell the exact effect the Malleus Maleficarum had on witch hunting in America. There is little to no documentation now how exactly the manual was used in trials. But it’s not hard to see that it added fuel to the fire. For example, witches were often tortured into confessing or naming other women to be witches. The number of confessed or accused witches grew and grew, which satiated people’s suspicions and quelled doubts. These confessions provided “frightful proofs that the Devil is still alive,” as it was later put in America in the Salem witch trials.

The Book Itself 

This awful piece of literary history is split into 3 sections. Part 1 discusses and defines witchcraft. It claims that women who are witches renounce god and catholicism, have “carnal relations” with the devil, and routinely sacrifice kids to the devil. It also adds in a clever little loophole to combat anyone who disagrees. There’s a bit that basically says that since the bible expressedly states that there are witches, not believing in witchcraft makes you a heretic.

Part 2 talks about all the awful things witches do and how they can be stopped. It targets all the things god-fearing men of the 1400s worried about. It claimed that witches frolic with satan, can ruin crops and kill cattle, and can cast spells against which they had no protection. The authors even made up some examples!

Part 3 is where things get legal. It thoughtfully outlines how to take testimony, how to question a suspect… and then how to torture the hell out of them. It gives rules and guidelines, like how the person being tortured has no right to know who actually accused them to begin with and how judges can lie in order to get the answers they want.

So next time you’re sitting down to watch Charmed, consider the lengths people used to go to to condemn a woman for doing anything they considered outside of the norm for the day. No matter what shenanigans Sabrina gets up to, she should consider herself damn lucky.



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