Heinrich Kramer and Jacob Sprenger

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Heinrich Kramer and Jacob Sprenger

Excerpt from Malleus Maleficarum (1486)

Reprinted in The Malleus Maleficarum of
Heinrich Kramer and James Sprenger

Edited by Montague Summers
Published in 1971

During the Reformation, in the sixteenth century, witchcraft trials were held throughout Europe by officials of both the Roman Catholic Church and the newly emerging Protestant faiths. The term "Reformation" originated with the movement to reform the Roman Catholic Church. Known as the Protestant Reformation, it was initiated in 1517 when the German priest Martin Luther (see entry) posted his "Ninety-Five Theses" in Wittenberg, Germany, to protest corrupt practices in the Catholic Church. Eventually, advocates of church reform, who were first called Lutherans and then came to be known as Protestants, separated from the church and organized their own religious groups. Almost simultaneously the Catholic Church convened the Council of Trent and was launching reform efforts that became known as the Catholic Reformation or the Counter Reformation (see Roman Catholic Church entry). Part of the Catholic Reformation was the Roman Inquisition, the continuation of a church court established in the thirteenth century to search out and punish heretics (those who violate the laws of God and the church). Although the Inquisition remained separate from the witch trials, it created an atmosphere of hysteria and suspicion that facilitated the targeting of supposed witches as heretics. Yet witch-hunts were by no means carried out solely by the Catholic Church. In fact, Protestants were equally active in hunting and punishing those who violated the strict codes of their new religious groups.

The purpose of the witch trials, specifically, was to discover and punish people who committed heresy by practicing harmful magic or worshiping the devil (also called Satan; the figure that represents evil). Harmful magic was the use of a supernatural or mysterious power that caused death, bodily injury, illness, or some other misfortune. According to thinking at the time, this type of magic, often called sorcery, could harm an entire community, such as when a witch brought down a hailstorm that destroyed crops. Worship of the devil involved not only the making of a face-to-face pact with the evil spirit but also group worship of him in secret ceremonies at night. During these ceremonies, known as sabbaths, witches supposedly ate children, danced naked, and had sexual intercourse with demons, or evil spirits. The word for witchcraft in most European languages could also mean white (beneficial) magic, but most trial judges considered this type of witchcraft to be a lesser offense and punished it less harshly.

Malleus fuels witch-hunts

The concept of witchcraft had gradually been developed over three centuries by theologians (religious scholars) and inquisitors (Inquisition judges). At its root was the Christian belief, first expressed by church fathers in the 1200s and 1300s, that the power of all magic came from the devil. Since magic arose from the devil, it was therefore a form of heresy. By the 1500s the formal charge of heresy was directed against people who were suspected of casting spells and committing evil deeds. Theologians and judges began to think of witches as members of a new and dangerous heretical sect (nonmainstream religious group). Their crimes included rejection of religion and morality, conspiracy (plots against the government), and magical destruction of life and property. Witchcraft had been added to the list of official punishable heresies in 1320, but it did not become a primary target for more than a century. Then in 1484 Pope Innocent VIII (1432–1492; reigned 1484–92) issued an edict, called a papal bull, that ordered the eradication, or complete destruction, of witches and other heathens (those who do not acknowledge the God of the Bible). Although many such edicts had previously been issued, the Papal Bull of 1484 was aided by a recent invention, the printing press, which rapidly spread information about so-called witches throughout Europe.

The printing press also aided the mass publication of more than thirty scholarly works on witchcraft that were written during the fifteenth century. They were the basis of the most famous witchcraft study, Malleus maleficarum (Hammer of Witches), which became the second-best-selling book (the first was the Bible) in Europe for more than two centuries. This work was the official handbook for detecting, capturing, trying, and executing witches. It was written in 1486 by Austrian priest Heinrich Kramer (also Kraemer) and German priest Jakob (also James) Sprenger, at the request of Innocent VIII. As the main justification for persecution of witches, the authors relied on a brief passage in the Bible (the book of Exodus, chapter 22, verse 18), which states: "Thou shalt not suffer a witch to live." According to the Malleus, "it has never yet been known that an innocent person has been punished on suspicion of witch-craft and there is no doubt that god would never permit such a thing to happen…"

The following excerpt, from chapter two of Malleus Maleficarum, describes the three kinds of witches and how they used their powers.

Things to Remember While Reading an Excerpt from Malleus Maleficarum:

  1. The Malleus Maleficarum was a three-part work that described witchcraft in elaborate detail. The first part acknowledged the existence of witches and condemned them as demons and heretics. Much power was given to an accuser, regardless of his or her status in the community, and anyone accused of witchcraft was immediately discredited. The Malleus specified that even criminals, the insane, or children could testify against an accused witch once the person was brought to trial.
  2. The second part of the book described the satanic activities of witches. Special emphasis was placed on the relationship between female witches and the devil. Witches were accused of eating children, having sex with the devil, going to sabbaths with other witches and demons, and having evil connections with animals known as "familiars." Witches were considered the human agents of the devil and were held responsible for any number of imagined or real catastrophes.
  3. The third part of the Malleus outlined the legal procedures required for finding, trying, and executing witches. This section gave free license to lawyers and clergymen, enabling them to take any means necessary to obtain a signed or verbal confession. To protect lawyers and clergy themselves from charges of murder, all accused witches were presumed guilty and their innocence did not have to be proven. Any accused person could be taken from his or her home to the courts and subjected to various methods of extreme torture. The book prescribed these methods in detail, noting various markings that could "prove" a person was a witch. Such "evidence" included, warts, excessive body hair, or extra nipples—all of which gave reason for intense punishment.

Excerpt from Malleus Maleficarum

The method by which they profess theirsacrilege through an openpact offidelity to devils varies according to the several practices to which different witches areaddicted. And to understand this it first must be noted that there are, as was shown in The First Part of thetreatise, three kinds of witches; namely, those who injure but cannot cure; those who cure but, through some strange pact with the devil, cannot injure; and those who both injure and cure. And among those who injure, one class in particular stands out, which can perform every sort of witchcraft and spell,comprehending all that all the others can individually can do.Wherefore, if we describe the method of profession in their case, it willsuffice also for all the other kinds. And this class is made up of those who, against every instinct of human or animal nature, are in the habit of eating anddevouring the children of their own species.


Sacrilege: An outrageous violation of God's laws or practices.


Pact: Contract.


Fidelity: Commitment.


Addicted: To have a compulsive need for something.


Treatise: A written study of a topic or issue.


Comprehending: Understanding.


Wherefore: An explanation or reason.


Suffice: To make do.


Devouring: To greedily eat or use up.


Tempests: Violent weather.


Sterility: Incapable of producing offspring.


Baptism: Symbolic practice used in religion where a person is absolved of their sins by use of water.


Font: A basin that holds holy water for baptisms.


Magistrates: Government officials similar to judges.


Occult: A faction of religion which relies on magic and mythology for its practices.

And this is the most powerful class of witches, who practise innumerable other harms also. For they raise hailstorms and hurtfultempests and lightnings; causesterility in men and animals; offer to devils, or otherwise kill, the children whom they do not devour. But these are only the children who have not been re-born bybaptism at thefont, for they cannot devour those who have been baptized, nor any without God's permission. They can also, before the eyes of their parents, and when no one is in sight, throw into the water children walking by the water side; they make horses go mad under their riders; they can transport themselves from place to place through the air, wither in body or in imagination; they can affect Judges andMagistrates so that they cannot hurt them; they can cause themselves and others to keep silence under torture; they can bring about a great trembling in the hands and horror in the minds of those who would arrest them; they can show to othersoccult things and future events, by the information of devils, though this may sometimes have a natural cause…; they can see absent thingsas if they were present; they can turn the minds of men toinordinate love or hatred; they can at times strike whom they will with lightening and even kill some men and animals; they can make of no effect thegenerative desires, and even the powers ofcopulation, causeabortion, kill infants in the mother'swomb by amere exterior touch; they can at timesbewitch men and animals with a mere look, without touching them, and cause death; they dedicate their own children to devils; and in short, as has been said, they can


Inordinate: Exceeding reasonable limits.


Generative: Having the power of reproducing.


Copulation: The joining of beings in sexual intercourse.


Abortion: Termination of pregnancy.


Womb: Uterus; the place where babies form and develop inside the mother until they are born.


Mere: Small part or segment.


Exterior: Outside.


Bewitch: To cast a spell over.

cause all theplagues which other witches can only cause in part, that is, when the Justice of God permits such things to be. All these things this most powerful of all classes of witches can do, but they cannot undo them.

What happened next…

The Malleus became the guide for civil and church law, going through twenty-eight editions between 1486 and 1600. It was accepted by Roman Catholics and Protestants alike. The most important impact of Malleus was that it united the church and the state, making torture legal as a means of obtaining confessions from accused witches. These methods were extremely efficient. Thousands gave in, no matter how false or ridiculous the charges might have seemed, to save themselves from additional torture. In turn, the confessions fanned mass hysteria, proving that the initial suspicions had been correct and creating an enemy out of innocent people. Officials in some regions used so-called tests that pointed to the guilt of an accused person in various ways. A popular method in England (where torture was considered a crime) was the water test. The results were supposed to determine whether or not a person was indeed a witch—yet nobody could actually pass the test. It involved tying the accused person's arms and legs together, then throwing him or her into a body of water. If the victim sank, he or she was not a witch. Since multilayered clothing was worn at the time, people quite often ended up floating because their clothes created pockets of air that forced them to remain at the surface of the water. Many accused witches were declared guilty by this method, then publicly burned at a stake in the center of town. Burning was considered another test, as well as the most severe form of punishment: it was thought that witches could survive fire because of their association with the devil. The prevalence of the fire test led to this era being called "The Burning Times."


Plagues: Disaster or disease.

Witchcraft prosecutions reached a peak between 1580 and 1660, and officially ended on June 17, 1782, when the last execution was held in Switzerland. Trials took place mainly in France, Germany, and Switzerland, but also extended throughout Western Europe, into pockets of northern and eastern Europe. The witch craze eventually spread to the American colonies, where the famous witch trials began in Salem, Massachusetts, in 1693. Spain was one of the few countries not associated with the witch-hunts because Spanish officials did not believe in witchcraft as defined by the Malleus. In Spain suspected witches were locked up in convents (houses for women who are dedicated to religious life). It is difficult to establish the number of people who were killed in the antiwitch campaign because many died in jails from torture and starvation and were not recorded in official execution counts. Most estimates state that one hundred thousand trials were held and that about half of the trials resulted in executions. On average, 80 percent of the accused were women and 85 percent of those actually executed were women. Most men who were accused were either related to women who had been tried, or they had criminal records implicating them in other crimes against the church and state. Nearly all of the accused were poor or came from the lower classes.

Although there were some vocal opponents of the witchcraft trials, very few survived their own outspokenness. Most were considered guilty by association and were virtually powerless against the campaign. By the end of the seventeenth century, however, two factors brought the persecutions to a halt. First, officials were running out of victims: so many people had been killed that entire regional populations had been altered. The high number of executions began raising concerns about the need to slow down. In response to atrocities in Germany, Holy Roman Emperor Ferdinand II (1578–1637; ruled 1619–37) issued a decree to stop the killings. Other officials slowed down the witch-hunt as they began to realize it was no longer necessary. Another factor that helped grind the machine to a halt was a new European ideology, which envisioned a more rational and ordered universe. This shift in thinking eventually led to the era called the Enlightenment that began in the eighteenth century. By then past history was dismissed as having been the result of ancient, irrational superstitions.

Did you know…

  1. Before the onset of the witch trials in the Reformation period, Jews were especially vulnerable to charges of heresy, as were Muslims (followers of the Islamic religion), homosexuals, and Gypsies (wandering people who originated in India). Many of the same accusations that later fueled the witch-hunts were initially aimed at these peoples. For example, the word "synagogue" (a Jewish house of worship) was redefined to describe a time and place of devil worship. The word "sabbath," traditionally associated with the Jewish day of rest, came to symbolize large group meetings between witches and the devil. Even the stereotyped appearance of a witch was borrowed from the racist caricature (distorted representation of certain physical features) of Jews and Arabs as having extremely large, crooked noses.
  2. One of the most common means of torture was the stretching rack, a device that would slowly tear a person limb from limb as he or she was repeatedly commanded to confess to specific crimes. A similar tool was the strapado, which involved attaching weights to a victim's legs, then slowly lifting the person off the ground so that the legs would begin to tear away from the body. Another method involved the victim being stripped naked and slowly cut in half by being dragged along a very tight rope. Some people were tied to stakes and placed near a fire that would slowly "cook" them. Many others had their eyes gouged out or were beaten, raped, disemboweled (internal organs cut out), dropped from high above the ground, or subjected to numerous devices created specially for the task. Also popular were "Spanish boots," devices that were put on a victim's legs and could work in either of two ways. One used internal vices that would slowly crush the victim's legs, while the other involved pouring boiling water or oil into the "boots."
  3. Relatives of accused witches were charged money for all manner of details involved in a trial. Not only did they pay the salary of the judge, they also bore the cost of food and lodging for the accused in prison. In addition, relatives were charged for the wood and straw used for kindling the execution fire, and they were billed for the lavish banquets typically held for officials before mass executions. In the case of accused people who had no relatives in the region, personal property was confiscated to pay the bills. The result was that many people lost their land, money, and lives while a few witch-hunters and judges accumulated wealth with every successful trial.

For More Information


Barstow, Anne Llewellyn. Witchcraze: A New History of the European Witch Hunts. San Francisco: Harper, 1999.

Summers, Montague, ed. The Malleus Maleficarum of Heinrich Kramer and James Sprenger. New York: Dover Publications, 1971.

Web Sites

Early Modern Europe: The Witch Hunts. [Online] Available http://history.hanover.edu/early/wh.html, April 10, 2002.

Pavlac, Brian A. Women and European Witch Hunts. [Online] Available http://www.kings.edu/womens_history/witch.html, April 10, 2002.

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Heinrich Kramer and Jacob Sprenger

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