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Malleus Maleficarum: The Book that caused bloodshed in Europe

Updated: Aug 9, 2021

In 1484, Pope Innocent VIII issued a papal bull endorsing the work of two Dominican Inquisitors, Jacob Sprenger (1436-1495), and Heinrich Krammer (1440-1505 who were entrusted with the task of suppressing the witches. They were chosen because of their ability and intelligence but mainly, because of their devotion to the dogma. Thus in 1486 Malleus Maleficarum was published and in the following centuries it became the "weapon against witchcraft"; the basic manual that established the inextricable link between magic and the female sex. It was originally published in Germany and was quickly translated while many copies were published in Europe and especially in England. The effects of the manual have been particularly felt in America's famous "witch trials" for at least 200 years. Malleus Maleficarum is commonly known as "The Witch Hammer" (In Latin Maleficarum means "malice", "viciousness", "malice", " charm" and Malleus means "hammer").

In essence, this book is the law by which witches -but also those who were involved in the art of witchcraft- were put on trial during the Holy Inquisition. It is a thorough study and meticulous text that proves inconceivable, fanatical, and sexist. It is believed that the Pope's real purpose when he issued the papal bull in 1484 was to exterminate the Protestant resistance and to consolidate Pope Alexander IV's1258 decision to persecute heretics. Thus, Malleus Maleficarum spread throughout Germany, England, and the rest of Europe, and Catholic and Protestant courts soon adopted it. Within a period of 135 years, it was in its 34th edition and had surpassed all books, except the Bible.

The time was right. As if by coincidence, the typography had begun and so the reading material covered a growing field. Europe was flooded with religious contradictions, controversies, and intrigues, all in a climate where the kings and queens received daily threats for their lives and their murders were the most common criminal acts. Information regarding the action and background of Krammer and Sprenger is incomplete. We know, however, that both were abbots of the Dominican Order, but when they arrived in Germany with the seal of the Pope, they received a very cold reception, characterized as unpleasant personalities and there were a few pastors who expelled them, mentioning that they used ecclesiastical money for their comforts. Both men were later found to be involved in all kinds of illegal activities. They also had a rich literary work and in particular, Krammer, who in 1485 wrote a clear textbook of witchcraft which was later included in Malleus Maleficarum. He was originally appointed Inquisitor in 1474 in the provinces of Tyrol, Bohemia, Salzburg, and Moravia, where he deceitfully accused people of witchcraft and tortured them to death. The Bishop of Brixen investigated the case and eventually expelled him. As for Sprenger, the following characterization was said: "he is a dangerous and malicious fanatic, who indulges with pleasure in the absurd and even more in the sensual".

As early as the 13th century, Europe was occupied by the obsession with the fear of witchcraft. This paranoia lasted a total of four whole centuries, that is, until the end of the 17th century. Because the occult art of witchcraft was dark and obscure to medieval people, interpretations of the phenomenon differed from place to place. That caused general confusion, suspicion and, uncontrollable fantasies that over time developed into mass paranoia. In 1486, Malleus Maleficarum was published to put an end to the disorganization of the minds of millions of frightened people and to finally clarify the meanings and characteristics of magic, to clarify the image of the "witch", so that the accusations were legal and the punishments lawfully and theologically-justifiable and well-founded! It is therefore a very peculiar work, which is considered the most important in the phenomenon of magic. In essence, it is a guide for every Inquisitor, theologian, and in general for every opponent of witchcraft, Satanism, and the strange phenomena it causes. It is a manual on magical knowledge, on its manifestations and characteristics, and on how the priest and theologian of the time must deal with them. Also, it shows us not only the way the 'god-fearing' people of the Middle Ages looked at witches but also how witches acted and functioned, showing that most Inquisitors were much more knowledgeable about witchcraft than most who practised it. In this light, it becomes clear that the hunt against witches was not just a "mass hysteria" as historians have described it, but was based on very specialized observations by highly educated people, intentions that show that these people believed that they were participating in a secret "world war" against the demons that invaded everyday reality in various ways.

Malleus Maleficarum was not a text with special originals. It was based on other related texts, such as Nicholas Emerick's Directorium Inquisitorum in 1369, which was one of the first books to combat witchcraft. In other words, Malleus Maleficarum's role was not to approach the issue in a detailed way but its purpose, as the title shows, was to "crush" the witches. Also, in the opinion of various men in power, such as Judge Jean Bodin, was that there were "covens" of witches throughout Europe who practised magic and their purpose was " destroy in any way the existing power".

The third part of Malleus Maleficarum refers to the judicial measures - at an ecclesiastical and political level - against witches and heresies in general. Thus, the authors turn their half-hearted zeal into a strict and specific court code. This part of the book is divided into 3 sections and has a total of 35 questions. Among other things, it states that the testimonies of witnesses who are hostile to the accused should be considered valid and acceptable to the court! Confessions during torture must also be considered valid. If the witch did not say all the details required by the interrogation, then the public prosecutor could add as many other details as his imagination dictated. The witch almost always admitted the most monstrous accusations, but even added graphic details to them. Judges have the right to lie to the accused promising leniency if they confess "for the good of society"! However, he allowed some leniency for some crimes but stressed that the death penalty is acceptable; since the more witches killed, the better. In some cases, a lawyer was allowed to be appointed by the prosecutor, but if he showed excessive zeal in defence, he risked being accused of witchcraft!

The authors also give clear instructions to the judges: they should always have the Holy Books, Holy Water, and crosses on them. They have to cut the witch's hair (because her hair is supposed to be all her magic power), and force her to walk naked, with her back to the judges because if they look her in the eye she can cast a spell on them to pity her!

Despite its brutality, Malleus Maleficarum was much loved and used. By 1520 it had been reprinted 14 times and another 16 by 1669. What was most revered was that it identified witchcraft with heretical Christian doctrines! There are also really few trials in which the suspect was not found guilty, but they were also acquitted after death! Today, Malleus Maleficarum has been condemned by all religions as well as by pagans, atheists, agnostics, or scientists.

Malleus Maleficarum is mainly responsible for the mass hysteria of the Holy Inquisition of the Middle Ages, for the heinous torture and killing of hundreds of people in those years, including many children, as well as and animals as instruments of Satan. The properties of the "suspects" of the dead and all the accused were confiscated as "possessions by satanic means". Hundreds of families were left homeless and destitute due to the accusation of a family member, dead or not! The strange thing is that when the law on the confiscation of the property of the accused was repealed, the 'witch hunt' stopped soon after ...


-Specifically on December 9, 1484, the papal parliament was issued under the name Desiderantes Affectibus.

-The word witchcraft, now clearly takes on the meaning of heresy, and for this reason, it is persecuted, and not for any crimes that exist anyway.

-From the executions of the 16th and 17th century only, 20% were male. In Iceland alone, 90% of the accused were, paradoxically, men.

-In fact, before the 19th century, when popular magic prevailed, the Church itself was the one that discouraged such beliefs.

Until the end of the 10th century, the punishments for witchcraft were basically repentance, fasting and prayer. Even if a woman had killed a man with a magic potion, all she had to do was fast for 7 years, that is, eat only bread.

-In 1252 Pope Innocent III approves of torture during the examination of the accused,

which also increases the number of culprits (since they confessed to avoid death by torture).

-This test was used extensively by witch hunter Matthew Hopkins and until 1219 was formally illegal. It was approved after James I.

-In 1684 the last witch was executed in England. In 1690, about 25 people were executed in Salem, Massachusetts, USA, because of the madness that had gripped the region. In 1745 the executions in France stopped, in 1770 they stopped in Spain, in 1775 they stopped in Germany, in 1782 in Switzerland and in 17in Poland. The "witch hunt" stopped, relatively, but the executions in some locations in Europe and North America continued until the 20th century !! (see Forbidden Books - Chapter Malleus Maleficarum (p. 200) Author Lena Adamopoulou Archetype Publications, 2002 Thessaloniki)

Diakidi Anastasia

University of the Aegean / Department of Mediterranean Studies

For the course of Medieval History by G. K. Savvidis ,

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