Maleficarum (The Witch Hammer), first published in 1486, is
arguably one of the most infamous books ever written, due
primarily to its position and regard during the Middle Ages. It
served as a guidebook for Inquisitors during the Inquisition,
and was designed to aid them in the identification, prosecution,
and dispatching of Witches.
It set forth, as
well, many of the modern misconceptions and fears concerning
witches and the influence of witchcraft. The questions,
definitions, and accusations it set forth in regard to witches,
which were reinforced by its use during the Inquisition, came to
be widely regarded as irrefutable truth.
Those beliefs are
held even today by a majority of Christians in regard to
practitioners of the modern “revived” religion of Witchcraft, or
Wicca. And while the Malleus itself is largely unknown in modern
times, its effects have proved long lasting.
At the time of the writing of The Malleus Maleficarum,
there were many voices within the Christian community (scholars
and theologians) who doubted the existence of witches and
largely regarded such belief as mere superstition.
The authors of the
Malleus addressed those voices in no uncertain terms, stating:
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 immediate, and
lasting, popularity of the Malleus essentially silenced those
It made very real
the threat of one being branded a heretic, simply by virtue of
one's questioning of the existence of witches and, thus, the
validity of the Inquisition. It set into the general Christian
consciousness, for all time, a belief in the existence of
witches as a real and valid threat to the Christian world. It is
a belief which is held to this day.
It must be noted that during the Inquisition, few, if any, real,
verifiable, witches were ever discovered or tried. Often the
very accusation was enough to see one branded a witch, tried by
the Inquisitors' Court, and burned alive at the stake.
Estimates of the
death toll during the Inquisition worldwide range from 600,000
to as high as 9,000,000 (over its 250 year long course); either
is a chilling number when one realizes that nearly all of the
accused were women, and consisted primarily of outcasts and
other suspicious persons.
...anyone who did
not fit within the contemporary view of pious Christians
were suspect, and easily branded "Witch". Usually to devastating
It must also be noted that the crime of Witchcraft was not the
only crime of which one could be accused during the Inquisition.
By questioning any part of Catholic belief, one could be branded
branded heretics by virtue of repudiating certain tenets of
Christian belief (most notably Galileo, whose theories on the
nature of planets and gravitational fields was initially branded
challenged the Church were arrested for heresy (sometimes
formerly accepted writers whose works had become unpopular).
Anyone who questioned the validity of any part of Catholic
belief did so at their own risk. The Malleus Maleficarum
played an important role in bringing such Canonical law into
being, as often the charge of heresy carried along with it
suspicions of witchcraft.
It must be remembered that the Malleus is a work of its time.
Science had only just begun to make any real advances. At that
time nearly any unexplainable illness or malady would often be
attributed to magic, and thus the activity of witches. It was a
way for ordinary people to make sense of the world around them.
The Malleus drew
upon those beliefs, and, by its very existence, reinforced them
and brought them into the codified belief system of the Catholic
Church. In many ways, it could be said that it helped to
validate the Inquisition itself.
While the Malleus itself cannot be blamed for the Inquisition or
the horrors inflicted upon mankind by the Inquisitors, it
certainly played an important role. Thus has it been said that
The Malleus Maleficarum is one of the most blood-soaked
works in human history, in that its very existence reinforced
and validated Catholic beliefs which led to the prosecution,
torture, and murder, of tens of thousands of innocent people.
The lasting effect of the Malleus upon the world can only be
measured in the lives of the hundreds of thousands of men,
women, and even children, who suffered, and died, at the hands
of the Inquisitors during the Inquisition.
At the height of its
popularity, The Malleus Maleficarum was surpassed in
public notoriety only by The Bible. Its effects were even
felt in the New World, where the last gasp of
the Inquisition was felt in the
English settlements in America (most notably in Salem,
Massachusetts during the Salem Witch Trials).
It is beyond the scope of this article to adequately examine the
role of the Malleus in world history, or its lasting effects.
At the very least,
The Malleus Maleficarum (The Witch Hammer) offers to us
an intriguing glimpse into the Medieval mind, and perhaps gives
us a taste of what it might have been like to have lived in
- Wicasta Lovelace
The Dominican monks
Heinrich Kramer and James Sprenger
assembled many fairy tales and magic stories, nightmares, hearsay,
confessions and accusations and put this all together as factual
information in what became the handbook for the witch hunters,
examiners, torturers and executioners, called the Malleus
Maleficarum, a title which was translated as Hammer of
It was published in 1487, but two years previously the
authors had secured a bull from Pope Innocent VIII,
authorizing them to continue the witch hunt in the Alps which
they had already instituted against the opposition from clergy and
secular authorities. They reprinted the bull of December 5, 1484 to
make it appear that the whole book enjoyed papal sanction.
Anybody with a grudge or suspicion, very young children included,
could accuse anyone of witchcraft and be listened to with attention;
anyone who wanted someone else’s property or wife could accuse; any
loner, any old person living alone, anyone with a misformity,
physical or mental problem was likely to be accused.
season was declared on women, especially herb gatherers, midwives,
widows and spinsters. Women who had no man to supervise them were of
course highly suspicious.
It has been estimated by
Dr. Marija Gimbutas, professor of archaeology at the
University of California, that as many as 9 million people,
overwhelmingly women, were burned or hanged during the
witch-craze. For nearly 250 years the Witches’ Hammer was the
guidebook for the witch hunters, but again some of the
inquisitioners had misgivings about this devilish book.
letter dated November 27, 1538 Salazar advised the
inquisitioners not to believe everything they read in Malleus
Maleficarum, even if the authors write about it as something
they themselves have seen and investigated (Henningson p.347)