Demonology: The Malleus Maleficarum -

Proliferating Witch Hysteria

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Malleus Maleficarum: The Hammer of Witches


(title page from 1669 Lyons edition of Malleus Maleficarum as found in Robbins 339)

  • written in 1486 by two German Dominicans, Heinrich Kramer and Jakob Sprenger


  • sold more copies than any other book except the Bible until 1678 (Guiley 222)


  • based on the Biblical command in the book of Exodus: "Thou shalt not suffer a witch to live" (Robbins 337)


  • "became the guidebook by which inquisitors and judges conducted themselves and which subsequent writers used as a foundation for their own works" (Guiley 222)

While the Malleus Maleficarum was the first comprehensive book of witchcraft and witchcraft prosecution, its authors did not create all their theories on witches. Although witch hunting had certainly not reached its peak in Europe at this time, beliefs about witchcraft were widely popular and prosecution of witches was not unheard of. Up to this point, the prosecution of witches was mostly the job of the ecclesiastical courts, whose influence did not extend beyond the church. One of the major contributions of the Malleus Maleficarum was that it popularized the belief of witchcraft as heresy, a crime against God. Previously, the courts had mostly pursued witchcraft when it involved maleficia, or harmful acts. With the publication of the Malleus Maleficarum and subsequent changes in judicial law, the persecution of witches became the business of the elites and the civil courts and thus witchcraft hysteria began to spread like wildfire.

One of the reasons the Malleus Maleficarum was so popular was because of the reputations of its authors:

 Jakob Sprenger

  • 1436-1495 (approx)
  • prior and regent of studies of the Cologne Convent
  • later became Dean of Cologne University
  • 1488 - named provincial of the Province of Germany

 Heinrich Kramer

  • 1430-1505 (approx)
  • prior of the Dominican House in Schlettstadt in Lower Alsace
  • 1474 - appointed inquisitor for several German provinces
  • the Bishop of Brixen expelled him as inquisitor for using fraudulent tactics to convict witches
A Papal Bull from Pope Innocent VIII in 1484 gave Kramer and Sprenger the power to prosecute witches. The Bull, whose intent was to quell Protestant objection to the Inquisition, was an important precedent to the Malleus Maleficarum, which was adopted as a witch hunting manual by both Catholics and Protestants in Germany, France, and Italy.



(an illustration from the 1497 Paris edition of Malleus Maleficarum as found in Robbins 340)

The Malleus Maleficarum "crystallized into a fiercely stringent code previous folklore about black magic with church dogma on heresy, and...opened the floodgates of the inquisitorial hysteria" (Robbins 337).
The Malleus Maleficarum is divided into 3 parts:

Part 1 discusses beliefs about witches and their practices Witches were thought to:

  • completely renounce God and the Catholic faith
  • have carnal relations with the Devil
  • offered children as human sacrifices to the Devil

Part 1 also discusses the Biblical and theological basis of witchcraft.

  • God gives the Devil his power and thus prevents him from destroying the world.
  • because the Bible says there are witches, not believing in witches is heresy

Part 2 discusses in detail how witches cause harm and how that harm can be prevented.

  • emphasizes the importance of the Devil's Pact in proving heresy
  • details speficic acts of maleficia, such as harm to crops and cattle
  • discusses a wide range of spells and sorcery
  • many of the stories of witchcraft used for evidence in this section came from inquisitions conducted by the authors



Part 3 is chiefly concerned with the legal aspects of trying and convicting witches

  • outlines procedures for taking testimony, questioning suspects and torture
  • states that the identity of an accuser may be withheld from the suspected witch
  • judges are allowed to lie to the accused and promise immunity if they confess

The authors justified their harsh tactics because it was believed necessary to vigorously persecute witches in order to protect the pious and the innocent from the danger of the devil

information in this table taken from Robbins, Guiley, and Kramer. 

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