Sprenger, Jakob (1436-1495)

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Sprenger, Jakob (1436-1495)

Dominican inquisitor of Cologne, Germany, generally associated with Heinrich Kramer author of Malleus Maleficarum, a sourcebook directing the witchcraft persecutions in Europe. Sprenger was born in Basel, Switzerland, and became a novice in a Dominican house. He rapidly rose to a responsible position, and in 1468 the Dominican General Chapter ordered him to lecture at the University of Cologne on the sentences of Peter Lombard. He soon became master of theology at the university and was elected prior and regent of studies of the Cologne convent. On June 30, 1480, he was elected dean of the faculty of theology at Cologne University, and a year later he became an inquisitor for the provinces of Mainz, Trèves, and Cologne and traveled extensively throughout these provinces. In 1488, he was elected provincial of the whole German province.

His earlier writings included: The Paradoxes of John of Westphalia Refuted (1479) and The Institution and Approbation of the Confraternity of the Most Holy Rosary, which was first erected at Cologne on 8 September in the year 1475 (1475). This latter work recorded his activities for the Confraternity of the Most Holy Rosary, which brought him praise from leading Dominicans as an apostle of the rosary.

In 1484, at the time the pope released the Inquisition to deal with witchcraft, now redefined as Satanism, Sprenger became involved with Heinrich Kramer in trying alleged witches and sorcerers. In the following year, Kramer prepared a treatise on witchcraft (later published as the Malleus Maleficarum ) that circulated in manuscript. Sprenger then added his name to the finished work, first published in 1486. Malleus Maleficarum embodied the new direction in the church's consideration of witches. It became the authoritative manual for inquisitors, judges, and magistrates in dealing with accusations of witchcraft, which multiplied over the next several centuries. Interestingly, the Reformation of the sixteenth century did not slow these accusations, as witchcraft was accepted by Protestants as thoroughly as by Roman Catholics. The book went into some thirty editions between 1486 and 1669, and it was published in French, Italian, and English editions, as well as in German.

Sprenger died December 6, 1495, at Strassbourg, where he was buried.