Theology and popular belief

The Malleus Maleficarum is one of the best-known treatises dealing with the problem of what to do with witches. Written in 1487 by a Dominican inquisitor, Heinrich Institoris, following his failure to prosecute a number of women for witchcraft, it is in many ways a highly personal document, full of frustration at official complacency in the face of a spiritual threat, as well as being a practical guide for law-officers who have to deal with a cunning, dangerous enemy. Combining theological discussion, illustrative anecdotes and useful advice for those involved in suppressing witchcraft, the treatise's influence on witchcraft studies has been extensive. The only previous translation into English, that by Montague Summers in 1928, is full of inaccuracies. It is written in a style almost unreadable nowadays, and is unfortunately coloured by Institoris's personal agenda. This new edited translation, with an introductory essay setting witchcraft, Institoris and the Malleus into clear English, corrects Summers' mistakes and offers an unvarnished version of what Institoris actually wrote. It will undoubtedly become the standard translation of this controversial late medieval text.

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Contested categories

This chapter reveals the extent to which the category ‘witch’ was contested in late fifteenth-century Germany. In Helena Scheuberin's trial, all the learned men believed in witchcraft. Up to a point, Bishop Golser and his representatives had supported the inquisitor with no real enthusiasm; they certainly had not interfered with his investigation. Nor did they object to prosecuting those who caused injuries through magic. They and the inquisitor simply disagreed about how a witch should be recognised, and, on a more fundamental level, about what a witch actually was. This was not simply an isolated confrontation between inquisitorial and local authorities, but rather a reflection of a much more widespread debate within the learned, ecclesiastical community over these same issues. Therefore, the problem of the construction of witchcraft in fifteenth-century Europe is examined, with particular reference to the text, the ‘Hammer of Witches’ or the ‘Malleus Maleficarum’, one of the best-known, most quoted and, indeed, most infamous of all medieval texts brought into existence because of the insults of an otherwise obscure woman, Helena Scheuberin.

in The Malleus Maleficarum and the construction of witchcraft
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This chapter provides an understanding of the basic arguments of Henry Institoris and Jacob Sprenger's ‘Malleus Maleficarum’: its origins, structure and methods, locating the text and its authors in space and time, as the products of both Dominican and German experience. The arguments of the text aim to demonstrate the existence and prevalence of witchcraft, and the terrible threat it poses. The text provides sufferers from witchcraft with a broad range of remedies, both legal and spiritual, of proven effectiveness, and is also a guide for civil and ecclesiastical authorities to the successful detection and prosecution of witches. Institoris and Sprenger provide a remarkably complete picture of their witch, along with descriptions of her origins, habits and powers. Before this image could be plausible, even intelligible, to a theologically sophisticated audience, however, they had to define appropriate relationships between witchcraft and established conceptual fields. In order to construct a category of ‘witch’ on the basis of such beliefs, theoreticians were obligated to make it compatible with a learned, theologically informed worldview.

in The Malleus Maleficarum and the construction of witchcraft
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The authors of ‘Malleus Maleficarum,’ Institoris and Sprenger, began their analysis of witchcraft by observing that, for witchcraft to have any effect, three things must concur: the devil, the witch and the permission of God. This chapter follows in the inquisitors' footsteps and examines the relationships between witchcraft, God and the Devil, revealing how the authors reconciled data from testimony and experience with their assumptions about the nature of the universe. For them, as for us, the devil provides a convenient starting point, because the witchcraft of the text depends upon an unusual conception of what the infernal side of the Christian pantheon is all about. The inquisitors' devil is not amenable to simple definition; nor is it easy to determine in what form and to what extent the devil was actually present in people's minds. They embraced an oddly bifurcated devil; a being of transcendent but mechanical power for evil, and a creature whose physical presence was more often than not of an almost trivial appearance. This disjunction between impressive diabolic power and minimal diabolic presence demanded a mediator who could channel and direct disordering and harmful forces on earth. In the text, Malleus, the witch, becomes the effective agent of diabolic power, a living, breathing devil on earth in respect to those around her.

in The Malleus Maleficarum and the construction of witchcraft

This chapter provides an understanding of the relationship between the will of God, witchcraft and misfortune. An obvious corollary to a belief in witches is the perception that certain kinds of recognisable injuries or misfortunes are due to witchcraft, and many people in medieval Europe were prepared to accept certain kinds of misfortunes as the result of witchcraft or harmful magic. A problem faced by all witch theorists was to explain why a just God would grant permission for witches to wreak such havoc upon the world. The belief in a powerful, aggressive, threatening witch corresponded to a mechanical and liberal view of divine permission. Where God provided meaningful oversight to demons, witchcraft was not particularly threatening. If, however, God was so offended by human sin that virtually all diabolic requests to visit punishment upon it were approved, witches were free to utilise the power of the devil almost automatically. While God and the devil retreated into mechanical passivity, the efforts of their human followers became increasingly important. The witch becomes the effective agent of diabolic power, a living, breathing devil on earth in respect to those around her. For this reason, the arguments of the text focus as much upon spiritual remedies as upon the power of witches, and upon the thin but critical line that separates the diabolic power from the divine.

in The Malleus Maleficarum and the construction of witchcraft

In a universe where God and the devil had, to such an extent, abandoned their traditional roles, learned theologians had plenty of space in which to carve out the new category of witchcraft. Although the broad contours of late-medieval learned conceptions of witchcraft were determined by basic metaphysical assumptions, the specific form these conceptions took was primarily the result of the evidence and experience available to various authors. This chapter discusses the epistemological problems posed by belief in witchcraft. It examines how motifs drawn from traditional beliefs about spectral night-traveling women informed the construction of learned witch categories in the late middle Ages. In the case of Institoris and Sprenger, their category ‘witch’ responded to their experience as inquisitors, which included extensive familiarity with the oral testimony of victims of witchcraft and of accused witches themselves. Their witches were the common people's witches, those unpleasant and unpopular individuals held responsible for damaging crops, souring milk and causing illness out of petty malice. Institoris and Sprenger were predisposed to accept almost any consistent body of testimony at face value. Their notion of witchcraft retained congruence with traditional beliefs lacking in the constructions of authors with different experience or epistemological orientations.

in The Malleus Maleficarum and the construction of witchcraft

This chapter discusses a different set of ideas about the construction of learned witch categories in the late Middle Ages, all of which, from the clerical perspective, revolved around the idea of direct or indirect commerce with the devil: heresy, black magic and superstition. In late medieval times, witchcraft was a composite – a combination of motifs derived from a number of quite different traditions: those associated with monstrous female spirits, animal transformation, demonolatrous heresy, maleficent magic and superstition being among the most prominent. The resulting composite figures were in no way haphazard; rather, each one of these established categories were used as a kind of conceptual template to provide the underlying principles around which one version of witchcraft was ordered and constructed. In the text, as in some other German texts, the witch was defined through her maleficium and practice of magic. Many French models of witchcraft depicted the witch more as a demonised heretic – a being defined by her willing entry into the demonic pact and her worship of the devil. In every case, however, the template originally chosen by the witch theorist both defined and restricted the field of his inquiry and the scope of his investigation, while determining, at the same time, the inherent plausibility of his definition of ‘witch’ and ‘witchcraft’, and the extent to which these categories could be used to drive witchcraft persecutions.

in The Malleus Maleficarum and the construction of witchcraft

The fact that a greater multitude of witches was found among women than among men was so obviously a fact to the authors of the ‘Malleus Maleficarum’ that, despite scholastic custom, it was completely unnecessary to deduce arguments to the contrary. This chapter argues that Institoris and Sprenger's much noted emphasis upon women as the overwhelming practitioners of witchcraft is quite probably descriptive rather than prescriptive in nature. Nonetheless, their interpretation of this apparent fact was very much their own, and depended closely upon their intense fear of the disordering power of female sexuality. Just as the person of the witch is closely identified with that of the devil in the text, Malleus, so too does unbridled female sexuality come to be all but indistinguishable from demonic power. For all their misogyny, Institoris and Sprenger never accuse chaste virgins of witchcraft. Indeed, one of the most remarkably virtuous characters to be found in their text is a woman, a ‘poor little virgin and most devout’, who was able to cure bewitched persons by merely reciting the Lord's Prayer with complete faith.

in The Malleus Maleficarum and the construction of witchcraft