The 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.
I believe it’s much more likely that the Letter of Approbation was genuine, but that the Malleus itself was never actually read by the gentlemen who endorsed it. I think it’s much more likely that Dr. Edward Peters was correct when, in his section of the work Witchcraft and Magic in Europe: Volume Three – The Middle Ages [page 239], he stated; “The approval of the theological faculty of Cologne was arranged through a complicated series of academic negotiations – it, too, does not address the remarkable qualities of the work itself. It is doubtful whether Innocent VIII or the theological faculty of Cologne ever read the work.”
Also, according to Dr. Christopher Mackay, whose recent translation represents a reliable modern scholarly edition of the Malleus Maleficarum, “The argument was made in the nineteenth century by a scholar hostile to what the Malleus stood for that the approbation was a forgery by Institoris and that Sprenger had nothing to do with the composition. The evidence for this is in my view very tenuous (and the main argument is clearly invalid). Nonetheless, once the argument was put forward, it took on a life of its own, and people continue to advance arguments in favor of the idea that Sprenger’s involvement was a falsification perpetrated by Institoris, despite the fact that this argument was vitiated from the start.”
Whether or not the work was ever officially banned by the Catholic Church, the Malleus Maleficarum became the de-facto handbook for witch-hunters and Inquisitors throughout Late Medieval Europe. Between the years 1487 and 1520, it was published thirteen times, and between 1574 to 1669 it was again published sixteen times.
The Malleus Maleficarum perhaps owes most of its popularity to Johannes Gutenberg. It was the invention of the printing press in the middle of the fifteenth century that allowed the work to spread so rapidly throughout Europe.
– Wicasta Lovelace References & Links – Wikipedia – Malleus Maleficarum – Cornell University – Malleus Maleficarum (Latin text) – Original Site Introduction