Saint Magdalen by Peter Paul RubensThe Malleus Maleficarum (Latin for “The Hammer of Witches”, or “Hexenhammer” in German) is one of the most famous medieval treatises on witches. It was written in 1486 by Heinrich Kramer and Jacob Sprenger, and was first published in Germany in 1487. Its main purpose was to challenge all arguments against the existence of witchcraft and to instruct magistrates on how to identify, interrogate and convict witches.

Some modern scholars believe that Jacob Sprenger contributed little if anything to the work besides his name, but the evidence to support this is weak. Both men were members of the Dominican Order and Inquisitors for the Catholic Church. They submitted the Malleus Maleficarum to the University of Cologne’s Faculty of Theology on May 9, 1487, seeking its endorsement.

While general consensus is that The Catholic Church banned the book in 1490 by placing it on the Index Librorum Prohibitorum (“List of Prohibited Books”), the first Index was, in fact, produced in 1559 under the direction of Pope Paul IV. Therefore such claims are dubious, at best. I believe people are confusing the fact that the Inquisition reportedly denounced Heinrich Kramer in 1490 as being a ban upon the Malleus Maleficarum. Thus far, I’ve yet to find the Malleus on any Index Librorum Prohibitorum (copies of which are available on the Internet – most notably the 1559 and 1948 editions).

The papal bull, which appeared at the beginning of the book, could rightly be said to be misleading, because it addresses Kramer’s and Sprenger’s authorities as Inquisitors in certain lands, not the creation of the Malleus Maleficarum. The Catholic Encyclopedia states “Innocent’s Bull enacted nothing new. Its direct purport was simply to ratify the powers already conferred upon Henry Institoris and James Sprenger, inquisitors, to deal with persons of every class and with every form of crime (for example, with witchcraft as well as heresy), and it called upon the Bishop of Strasburg to lend the inquisitors all possible support.” So Kramer treated the bull as if it was an endorsement of his book, but it was not. However, the inclusion of the bull certainly gave the impression that the Malleus Maleficarum had been granted approval by Pope Innocent VIII.

Some believe that the Letter of Approbation from The Faculty of Theology of the University of Cologne was a falsified document. General consensus is that Heinrich Kramer brought the Malleus Maleficarum before the University of Cologne requesting an endorsement, but was rebuffed. Tradition has it that Kramer forged the document that he included with his work, that he and James Sprenger parted ways on bad terms, and that Kramer was denounced by the Inquisition in 1490. One would expect, however, that had such a document been forged, Mr. Kramer would not have subsequently been able to conduct very popular lectures in Venice starting in 1495, much less be empowered to proceed against the Waldensians and Picards in 1500.

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