It has been observed that “it is quite impossible to appreciate and understand the true and inner lives of men and women in Elizabethan and Stuart England, in the France of Louis XIII and during the long reign of his son and successor, in Italy of the Renaissance and the Catholic Reaction – to name but three European countries and a few definite periods – unless we have some realization of the part that Witchcraft played in those ages amid the affairs of these Kingdoms. All classes were affected and concerned from Pope to peasant, from Queen to cottage girl.”
Witchcraft was inextricably mixed with politics. Matthew Paris tells us how in 1232 the Chief Justice Hubert de Burgh, Earl of Kent, (Shakespeare’s “gentle Hubert” in King John), was accused by Peter do Roches, Bishop of Winchester, of having won the favour of Henry III through “charms and incantations”. In 1324 there was a terrific scandal at Coventry when it was discovered that a number of the richest and most influential burghers of the town had long been consulting with Master John, a professional necromancer, and paying him large sums to bring about by his arts the death of Edward II and several nobles of the court. Alice Perrers, the mistress pf Edward III, was not only reputed to have infatuated the old King by occult spells, but her physician (believed to be a mighty sorcerer) was arrested on a charge of confecting love philtres and talismans. Henry V, in the autumn of 1419, prosecuted his stepmother, Joan of Navarre, for attempting to kill him by witchcraft, “in the most horrible manner that one could devise.” The conqueror of Agincourt was exceedingly worried about the whole wretched business, as also was the Archbishop of Canterbury, who ordered public prayers for the King’s safety. In the reign of his son, Henry VI, in 1441, one of the highest and noblest ladies in the realm, Eleanor Cobham, Duchess of Gloucester, was arraigned for conspiring with “a clerk”, Roger Bolingbroke, “a most notorious evoker of demons”, and “the most famous scholar in the whole world in astrology in magic”, to procure the death of the young monarch by sorcery, so that the Duke of Gloucester, Henry’s uncle and guardian, might succeed to the crown. In this plot were further involved Canon Thomas Southwell, and a “relapsed witch”, that is to say, one who had previously (eleven years before) been incarcerated upon grave suspicion of black magic, Margery Jourdemayne. Bolingbroke, whose confession implicated the Duchess, was hanged; Canon Southwell died in prison; the witch in Smithfield was “burn’d to Ashes”, since her offence was high treason. The Duchess was sentenced to a most degrading public penance, and imprisoned for life in Peel Castle, Isle of Man. Richard III, upon seizing the throne in 1483, declared that the marriage of his brother, Edward IV, with the Lady Elizabeth Grey, had been brought about by “sorcery and witchcraft”, and further that “Edward’s wife, that monstrous witch, has plotted with Jane Shore to waste and wither his body.” Poor Jane Shore did most exemplary penance, walking the flinty streets of London barefoot in her kirtle. In the same year when Richard wanted to get rid of the Duke of Buckingham, his former ally, one of the chief accusations he launched was that the Duke consulted with a Cambridge “necromancer” to compass and devise his death.
One of the most serious and frightening events in the life of James VII of Scotland (afterwards James I of England) was the great conspiracy of 1590, organized by the Earl of Bothwell. James with good reason feared and hated Bothwell, who, events amply proved, was Grand Master of more than one hundred witches, all adepts in poisoning, and all eager to do away with the King. In other words, Francis Stewart, Earl of Bothwell, was the centre and head of a vast political plot. A widespread popular panic was the result of the discovery of this murderous conspiracy.
In France as early as 583, when the infant son and heir of King Chilperic, died of dysentery, as the doctors diagnosed it, it came to light that Mumolus, one of the leading officials of the court, had been secretly administering to the child medicines, which he obtained from “certain witches of Paris”. These potions were pronounced by the physicians to be strong poisons. In 1308, Guichard, Bishop of Troyes, was accused of having slain by sorcery the Queen of Philip IV of France (1285-1314), Jeanne of Navarre, who died three years before. The trial dragged on from 1308 to 1313, and many witnesses attested on oath that the prelate had continually visited certain notorious witches, who supplied him philtres and draughts. In 1315, during the brief reign (1314-1316) of Louis X, the eldest son of Philip IV, was hanged Enguerrand de Marigny, chamberlain, privy councillor, and chief favourite of Philip, whom, it was alleged, he had bewitched to gain the royal favour. The fact, however, which sealed his doom was his consultation with one Jacobus de Lor, a warlock, who was to furnish a nostrum warranted to put a very short term to the life of King Louis. Jacobus strangled himself in prison.
In 1317 Hugues Géraud, Bishop of Cahors, was executed by Pope John XXII, who reigned 1316-1334, residing at Avignon. Langlois says that the Bishop had attempted the Pontiff’s life by poison procured from witches.
Perhaps the most resounding of all scandals of this kind in France was the La Voison case, 1679-1682, when it was discovered that Madame de Montespan had for years been trafficking with a gang of poisoners and sorcerers, who plotted the death of the Queen and the Dauphan, so that Louis XIV might be free to wed Athénais de Montespan, whose children should inherit the throne. The Duchesse de Fontanges, a beautiful young country girl, who had for a while attracted the wayward fancy of Louis, they poisoned out of hand. Money was poured out like water, and it has been said that “the entire floodtide of poison, witchcraft and diabolism was unloosed” to attain the ends of that “marvellous beauty” (so Mme. de Sévigné calls her), the haughty and reckless Marquise de Montespan. In her thwarted fury she well nigh resolved to sacrifice Louis himself to her overweening ambition and her boundless pride. The highest names in France – the Princesse de Tingry, the Duchesse de Vitry, the Duchesse de Lusignan, the Duchesse de Bouillon, the Comtesse de Soissons, the Duc de Luxembourg, the Marguis de Cessac – scores of the older aristocracy, were involved, whilst literally hundreds of venal apothecaries, druggists, pseudo-alchemists, astrologers, quacks, warlocks, magicians, charlatans, who revolved round the ominous and terrible figure of Catherine La Voisin, professional seeress, fortune-teller, herbalist, beauty-specialist, were caught in the meshes of law. No less than eleven volumes of François Ravaison’s huge work, Archives de la Bastille, are occupied with this evil crew and their doings, their sorceries and their poisonings.
During the reign of Urban VIII, Maffeo Barberini, 1623-1644, there was a resounding scandal at Rome when it was discovered that “after many invocations of demons” Giacinto Contini, nephew of the Cardinal d’Ascoli, had been plotting with various accomplices to put an end to the Pope’s life, and thus make way for the succession of his uncle to the Chair of Peter. Tommaso Orsolini of Recanate, moreover, after consulting with certain scryers and planetarians, readers of the stars, was endeavouring to bribe the apothecary Carcurasio of Naples to furnish him with a quick poison, which might be mingled with the tonics and electuaries prescribed for the ailing Pontiff, (Ranke, History of the Popes, ed. 1901, Vol. III, pp. 375-6).
To sum up, as is well observed by Professor Kittredge, who more than once emphasized “I have no belief in the black art or in the interference of demons in the daily life of mortals”, it makes no difference whether any of the charges were true or whether the whole affairs were hideous political chicanery. “Anyhow, it reveals the beliefs and the practices of the age.”
Throughout the centuries witchcraft was universally held to be a dark and horrible reality; it was an ever-present, fearfully ominous menace, a thing most active, most perilous, most powerful and true. Some may consider these mysteries and cantrips and invocations, these sabbats and rendezvous, to have been merest mummery and pantomime, but there is no question that the psychological effect was incalculable, and harmful in the highest degree. It was, to use a modern phrase, “a war of nerves”. Jean Bodin, the famous juris-consult (1530-90) whom Montaigne acclaims to be the highest literary genius of his time, and who, as a leading member of the Parlement de Paris, presided over important trials, gives it as his opinion that there existed, no only in France, a complete organization of witches, immensely wealthy, of almost infinite potentialities, most cleverly captained, with centres and cells in every district, utilizing an espionage in ever land, with high-placed adherents at court, with humble servitors in the cottage. This organization, witchcraft, maintained a relentless and ruthless war against the prevailing order and settled state. No design was too treacherous, no betrayal was too cowardly, no blackmail too base and foul. The Masters lured their subjects with magnificent promises, they lured and deluded and victimized. Not the least dreaded and dreadful weapon in their armament was the ancient and secret knowledge of poisons (veneficia), of herbs healing and hurtful, a tradition and a lore which had been handed down from remotest antiquity.
Little wonder, then, that later social historians, such as Charles Mackay and Lecky, both absolutely impartial and unprejudiced writers, sceptical even, devote many pages, the result of long and laborious research, to witchcraft. The did not believe in witchcraft as in any sense supernatural, although perhaps abnormal. But the centuries of which they were writing believed intensely in it, and it was their business as scholars to examine and explain the reasons for such belief. It was by no means all mediæval credulity and ignorance and superstition. MacKay and Lecky fully recognized this, as indeed they were in all honesty bound to do. They met with facts, hard facts, which could neither have been accidents nor motiveless, and these facts must be accounted for and elucidated. The profoundest thinkers, the acutest and most liberal minds of their day, such men as Cardan; Trithemius; the encylcopædic Delrio; Bishop Binsfeld; the learned physician, Caspar Peucer; Jean Bodin; Sir Edward Coke, “father of the English law”; Francis Bacon; Malebranche; Bayle; Glanvil; Sir Thomas Browne; Cotton Mather; all these, and scores besides, were convinced of the dark reality of witchcraft, of the witch organization. Such a consensus of opinion throughout the years cannot be lightly dismissed.
The literature of the subject, discussing it in every detail, from every point of view, from every angle, is enormous. For example, such a Bibliography as that of Yve-Plessis, 1900, which deals only with leading French cases and purports to be no more than a supplement to the Bibliographies of Græsse, the Catalogues of the Abbé Sépher, Ouvaroff, the comte d’Ourches, the forty-six volumes of Dr. Hoefer, Shieble, Stanislas de Guaita, and many more, lists nearly 2,000 items, and in a note we are warned that the work is very far from complete. The Manuel Bibliographique, 3 vols., 1912, of Albert L. Caillet, gives 11,648 items. Caillet has many omissions, some being treatises of the first importance. The library of witchcraft may without exaggeration be said to be incalculable.
It is hardly disputed that in the whole vast literature of witchcraft, the most prominent, the most important, the most authorative volume is the Malleus Maleficarum (The Witch Hammer) of Heinrich Kramer (Henricus Institoris) and James Sprenger. The date of the first edition of the Malleus cannot be fixed with absolute certainty, but the likeliest year is 1486. There were, at any rate, fourteen editions between 1487 and 1520, and at least sixteen editions between 1574 and 1669. These were issued from the leading German, French and Italian presses. The latest reprint of the original text of the Malleus is to be found in the noble four volume collection of Treatises on Witchcraft, “sumptibus Claudii Bourgeat”, 4to., Lyons, 1669. There is a modern German translation by J.W.R. Schmidt, Der Hexehammer, 3 vols., Berlin, 1906; second edition, 1922-3. There is also an English translation with Introduction, Bibliography, and Notes by Montague Summers, published John Rodker, 1928.
The Malleus acquired especial weight and dignity from the famous Bull of Pope Innocent VIII, Summis desiderantes affectibus of 9 December, 1484, in which the Pontiff, lamenting the power and prevalence of the witch organization, delegates Heinrich Kramer and James Sprenger as inquisitors of these pravities throughout Northern Germany, particularly in the provinces and dioceses of Mainz, Cologne, Tréves, Salzburg, and Bremen, granting both and either of them an exceptional authorization, and by Letters Apostolic requiring the Bishop of Strasburg, Albrecht von Bayern (1478-1506), not only to take steps to publish and proclaim the Bull, but further to afford Kramer and Sprenger every assistance, even calling in, if necessary, the help of the secular arm.
This Bull, which was printed as the Preface to the Malleus, was thus, comments Dr. H.C. Lea, “spread broadcast over Europe”. In fact, “it fastened on European jurisprudence for nearly three centuries the duty of combating” the Society of Witches. The Malleus lay on the bench of every magistrate. It was the ultimate, irrefutable, unarguable authority. It was implicitly accepted not only by Catholic but by Protestant legislature. In fine, it is not too much to say that the Malleus Maleficarum is among the most important, wisest, and weightiest books of the world.
It has been asked whether Kramer or Sprenger was principally responsible for the Malleus, but in the case of so close a collaboration any such inquiry seems singularly superflous and nugatory. With regard to instances of jointed authorship, unless there be some definite declaration on the part of one of the authors as to his particular share in a work, or unless there be some unusual and special circumstances bearing on the point, such perquisitions and analysis almost inevitably resolve themselves into a cloud of guess-work and bootless hazardry and vague perhaps. It becomes a game of literary blind-man’s-bluff.
Heinrich Kramer was born at Schlettstadt, a town of Lower Alsace, situated some twenty-six miles southwest of Strasburg. At an early age he entered the Order of S. Dominic, and so remarkable was his genius that whilst still a young man he was appointed to the position of Prior of the Dominican House at his native town, Schlettstadt. He was a Preacher-General and a Master of Sacred Theology. P.G. and S.T.M., two distinctions in the Dominican Order. At some date before 1474 he was appointed an Inquisitor for the Tyrol, Salzburg, Bohemia, and Moravia. His eloquence in the pulpit and tireless activity received due recognition at Roma, and for many years he was Spiritual Director of the great Dominican church at Salzburg, and the right-hand of the Archbishop of Salzburg, a munificent prelat who praises him highly in a letter which is still extant. In the late autumn or winter of 1485 Kramer had already drawn up a learned instruction or treatise on the subject of witchcraft. This circulated in manuscript, and is (almost in its entirety) incorporated in the Malleus. By the Bull of Innocent VIII in December, 1484, he had already been associated with James Sprenger to make inquisition for and try witches and sorcerers. In 1495, the Master General of the Order, Fr. Joaquin de Torres, O.P., summoned Kramer to Venice in order that he might give public lectures, disputations which attracted crowded audiences, and which were honoured by the presence and patronage of the Patriarch of Venice. He also strenuously defended the Papal supremacy, confuting the De Monarchia of the Paduan jurisconsult, Antonio degli Roselli. At Venice he resided at the priory of Santi Giovanni e Paolo (S. Zanipolo). During the summer of 1497, he had returned to Germany, and was living at the convent of Rohr, near Regensburg. On 31 January, 1500, Alexander VI appointed him as Nuncio and Inquisitor of Bohemia and Moravia, in which provinces he was deputed and empowered to proceed against the Waldenses and Picards, as well as against the adherents of the witch-society. He wrote and preached with great fervour until the end. He died in Bohemia in 1505.
His chief works, in addition to the Malleus, are: Several Discourses and Various Sermons upon the Most Holy Sacrament of the Eucharist; Nuremberg, 1496; A Tract Confuting the Errors of Master Antonio degli Roselli; Venice, 1499; and The Shield of Defence of the Holy Roman Church Against the Picards and Waldenses; an incunabulum, without date, but almost certainly 1499-1500. Many learned authors quote and refer to these treatises in terms of highest praise.
James Sprenger was born in Basel, 1436-8. He was admitted a novice in the Dominican house of this town in 1452. His extraordinary genius attracted immediate attention, and his rise to a responsible position was very rapid. According to Pierre Hélyot, the Fransican (1680-1716), Histoire des Ordres Religieux, III (1715), ch. XXVI, in 1389 Conrad of Prussia abolished certain relaxations and abuses which had crept into the Teutonic Province of the Order of S. Dominic, and restored the Primitive and Strict Obedience. He was closely followed by Sprenger, whose zealous reform was so warmly approved that in 1468 the General Chapter ordered him to lecture on the sentences of Peter Lombard at the University of Cologne, to which he was thus officially attached. A few years later he proceeded Master of Theology, and was elected Prior and Regent of Studies of the Cologne Convent, one of the most famous and frequented Houses of the Order. On 30 June, 1480, he was elected Dean of the Faculty of Theology at the University. His lecture-room was thronged, and in the following year, at the Chapter held in Rome, the Master General of the Order, Fra Salvo Cusetta, appointed him Inquisitor Extraordinary for the Provinces of Mainz, Trèves, and Cologne. His activities were enormous, and demanded constant journeyings through the very extensive district to which he had been assigned. In 1488 he was elected Provincial of the whole German Province, an office of the first importance. It is said that his piety and his learning impressed all who came in contact with him. In 1495 he was residing at Cologne, and here he received a letter from Alexander VI praising his enthusiasm and his energy. He died rather suddenly, in the odour of sanctity – some chronicles call him “Beatus” – on 6 December, 1495, at Strasburg, where he is buried.
Among Sprenger’s other writings, excepting the Malleus, are The Paradoxes of John of Westphalia Refuted, Mainz, 1479, a closely argued treatise; 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, Cologne, 1475. Sprenger may well be called the “Apostle of the Rosary”. None more fervent than he in spreading this Dominican elevation. His zeal enrolled thousands, including the Emperor Frederick III, in the Confraternity of the Most Holy Rosary, which was enriched with many indulgences by a Bull of Sixtus IV. It has been observed that the writings of Father James Sprenger on the Rosary are well approved by many learned men, Pontiffs, Saints and Theologians alike. There can be no doubt that Sprenger was a mystic of the highest order, a man of most saintly life.
The Dominican chroniclers, such as Quétif and Echard, number Kramer and Sprenger among the glories and heroes of their Order.
Certain it is that the Malleus Maleficarum is the most solid, the most important work in the whole vast library of witchcraft. One turns to it again and again with edification and interest: From the point of psychology, from the point of jurisprudence, from the point of history, it is supreme. It has hardly too much to say that later writers, great as they are, have done little more than draw from the seemingly inexhaustible wells of wisdom which the two Dominicans, Heinrich Kramer and James Sprenger, have given us in the Malleus Maleficarum.
What is most surprising is the modernity of the book. There is hardly a problem, a complex, a difficulty, which they have not foreseen, and discussed, and resolved.
Here are cases which occur in the law-courts to-day, set out with the greatest clarity, argued with unflinching logic, and judged with scrupulous impartiality.
It is a work which must irresistibly capture the attention of all mean who think, all who see, or are endeavouring to see, the ultimate reality beyond the accidents of matter, time and space.
The Malleus Maleficarum is one of the world’s few books written sub specie aeternitatis.
7 October, 1946.
In Festo SS. Rosarii.
NOTA – To Dr. H.J. Norma I wish to express my grateful thanks for his kindness in having read through the proofs of the Malleus Maleficarum. Those who realize the labour and sacrifice of time such a task demands will best appreciate the value of such generous assistance. – M.S.