The most authoritative and influential sourcebook for inquisitors, judges, and magistrates in the great witchcraft persecutions from the fifteenth through the eighteenth centuries. It was written by Heinrich Kramer, leading inquisitors of the Dominican Order; Jacob Sprenger merely attached his name to the sourcebook.
The book brought folklore and speculation about witchcraft and magic together with the new view identifying witchcraft with devil-worship. That identification turned witchcraft into heresy (rather than a pagan faith) and thus the proper concern of the Inquisition. That change of perspective led to the fierce and relentless persecution that resulted in the deaths of hundreds of individuals accused of practicing the religion of witchcraft, as opposed to merely practicing malevolent magic (i.e., sorcery), which had long been illegal.
This work is in three parts. Part I fulminates against the evil of witchcraft, which is characterized as renunciation of the Catholic faith, homage to the Devil, and carnal intercourse with demons. Even disbelief in the existence of witches and witchcraft was declared a grave heresy. Part II details the specific practices of witches. Part III sets forth rules for legal action and conviction of witches.
The antiquary Thomas Wright, in his book Narratives of Sorcery and Magic (2 vols., 1851), stated:
"In this celebrated work, the doctrine of witchcraft was first reduced to a regular system, and it was the model and groundwork of all that was written on the subject long after the date which saw its first appearance. Its writers enter largely into the much-disputed question of the nature of demons; set forth the causes which lead them to seduce men in this manner; and show why women are most prone to listen to their proposals, by reasons which prove that the inquisitors had but a mean estimate of the softer sex.
"The inquisitors show the most extraordinary skill in explaining all the difficulties which seemed to beset the subject; they even prove to their entire satisfaction that persons who have become witches may easily change themselves into beasts, particularly into wolves and cats; and after the exhibition of such a mass of learning, few would venture any longer to entertain a doubt. They investigate not only the methods employed to effect various kinds of mischief, but also the counter-charms and exorcisms that may be used against them. They likewise tell, from their own experience, the dangers to which the inquisitors were exposed, and exult in the fact that they were a class of men against whom sorcery had no power.
"These writers actually tell us, that the demon had tried to frighten them by day and by night in the forms of apes, dogs, goats, etc.; and that they frequently found large pins stuck in their night-caps, which they doubted not came there by witchcraft. When we hear these inquisitors asserting that the crime of which the witches were accused, deserved a more extreme punishment than all the vilest actions of which humanity is capable, we can understand in some degree the complacency with which they relate how, by their means, forty persons had been burnt in one place, and fifty in another, and a still greater number in a third. From the time of the publication of the Malleus Maleficarum, the continental press during two or three generations teemed with publications on the all-absorbing subject of sorcery.
"One of the points on which opinion had differed most was, whether the sorcerers were carried bodily through the air to the place of meeting, or whether it was an imaginary journey, suggested to their minds by the agency of the evil one. The authors of the Malleus decide at once in favour of the bodily transmission. One of them was personally acquainted with a priest of the diocese of Frisingen, who declared that he had in his younger days been carried through the air by a demon to a place at a very great distance from the spot whence he had been taken. Another priest, his friend, declared that he had seen him carried away, and that he appeared to him to be borne up on a kind of cloud.
"At Baldshut, on the Rhine, in the diocese of Constance, a witch confessed, that offended at not having been invited to the wedding of an acquaintance, she had caused herself to be carried through the air in open daylight to the top of a neighbouring mountain, and there, having made a hole with her hands and filled it with water, she had, by stirring the water with certain incantations caused a heavy storm to burst forth on the heads of the wedding-party; and there were witnesses at the trial who swore they had seen her carried through the air.
"The inquisitors, however, confess that the witches were sometimes carried away, as they term it, in the spirit; and they give the instance of one woman who was watched by her husband; she appeared as if asleep, and was insensible, but he perceived a kind of cloudy vapour arise out of her mouth, and vanish from the room in which she lay—this after a time returned, and she then awoke, and gave an account of her adventures, as though she had been carried bodily to the assembly….
"The witches of the Malleus Maleficarum appear to have been more injurious to horses and cattle than to mankind. A witch at Ravenspurg confessed that she had killed twenty-three horses by sorcery. We are led to wonder most at the ease with which people are brought to bear witness to things utterly beyond the limits of belief. A man of the name of Stauff in the territory of Berne, declared that when pursued by the agents of justice, he escaped by taking the form of a mouse; and persons were found to testify that they had seen him perform this trans-mutation.
"The latter part of the work of the two inquisitors gives minute directions for the mode in which the prisoners are to be treated, the means to be used to force them to a confession, the degree of evidence required for conviction of those who would not confess, and the whole process of the trials. These show sufficiently that the unfortunate wretch who was once brought before the inquisitors of the holy see on the suspicion of sorcery, however slight might be the grounds of the charge, had very small chance of escaping out of their claws.
"The Malleus contains no distinct allusion to the proceedings at the Sabbath. The witches of this period differ little from those who had fallen into the hands of the earlier inquisitors at the Council of Constance. We see plainly how, in most countries, the mysteriously indefinite crime of sorcery had first been seized on to ruin the cause of great political offenders, until the fictitious importance thus given to it brought forward into a prominent position, which they would, perhaps, never otherwise have held, the miserable class who were supposed to be more especially engaged in it.
"It was the judicial prosecutions and the sanguinary executions which followed, that stamped the character of reality on charges of which it required two or three centuries to convince mankind of the emptiness and vanity.
"One of the chief instruments in fixing the belief in sorcery, and in giving it that terrible hold on society which it exhibited in the following century, was the compilation of Jacob Sprenger and his fellow inquisitor. In this book sorcery was reduced to a system but it was not yet perfect; and we must look forward, some half a century before we find it clothed with all the horrors which cast so much terror into every class of society."
The work went into some 30 editions between 1486 and 1669 and was accepted as authoritative by both Protestant and Catholic witch-hunters. Its narrow-minded superstition and dogmatic legalism undoubtedly resulted in hundreds of cases of cruel tortures and judicial murders.
An English translation was published in London (1928; 1948; 1974) by the controversial British scholar Montague Summers, who embodied in his writings a truly medieval attitude toward witchcraft. He declared (in his learned introduction to the work) that the Malleus Maleficarum "is among the most important, wisest, and weightiest books of the world."
Robbins, Rossell Hope. The Encyclopedia of Witchcraft and Demonology. New York: Crown Publishers, 1959.
Sprenger, Jakob, and Heinrich Kramer. Malleus Maleficarum. Edited by Montague Summers. London, 1928.