What is the Malleus Maleficarum?

Bright Blessings, Witches! Today’s post deals with something called the Malleus Maleficarum. It’s a treatise on witches written in 1486 that is hugely responsible for the 16th and 17th century witch-hunt hysteria that took place in Europe.

While this subject is outside of the normal topic matter for Printable Witchcraft, I feel it’s necessary to talk about the impact this document had on witches. What is it? Who wrote it? Why was it written? What affect did it have on witch-hunting?


Translated to mean ‘Hammer of Witches’ the Malleus Maleficarum is the infamous witch-hunting handbook from the 15th century. The book states that witchcraft and sorcery are considered heresy and its practitioners should be prosecuted accordingly. Things like torture and execution are highly encouraged as the only way to deal with witches.


Heinrich Kramer, a clergyman of the Catholic Church, wrote the Malleus Maleficarum under his Latinized name of Henricus Institor. The book was first published by Peter Drach in 1487 in Speyer, Germany. The author was also an inquisitor within the Catholic Church’s Holy Inquisition whose goal was to battle heresy by putting suspected heretics on trial.

32 years following the first publication of the Malleus Maleficarum, another author was given credit for co-writing the book. Alongside Kramer’s name was put Jacob Sprenger in 1519. He was a theologian and mainly known for his contribution to the witch-hunter’s guidebook. Like Kramer, he too was an inquisitor. It’s important to note, however, many historians question the validity of the addition of Sprenger as an author.


At the end of the 14th century, Europe’s last pagan country was Christianized. Prior to this, the Catholic Church condemned witchcraft and waged war against Pagan ‘superstitions’. The first Christian document to declare the position of denying witch existence is the Canon Episcopi. Written around AD 900, it reads that magick and witchcraft were fantasies and those who believed in them “had been seduced by the Devil in dreams and visions”.

In 1484, knowing the Church’s standpoint on magick and witchcraft, Heinrich Kramer undertook one of the first attempts at bringing charges against alleged witches. He was not successful. In fact, the bishop in charge of the Roman Catholic Diocese of Innsbruck (where this took place) expelled Kramer from the city and called him “senile and crazy.”


They write witch-hunting handbooks. This is what gave Kramer the motivation to write the Malleus Maleficarum. It was written out of revenge and self-justification. It is believed that the Malleus Maleficarum was also written in order to:

-Rationalize his personal views on magick and witchcraft
-Put forth claims that witches were mainly women and seldom men
-Aggressively disprove the argument that witchcraft didn’t exist
-Invalidate those who demonstrated non-belief in witches
-Persuade magistrates to use the procedures for finding and executing witches described in his book


Even though Heinrich Kramer failed in his first attempts at persecuting alleged witches, this did not stop him from trying again. In the same year of his failure – 1484 – Kramer went to the Pope and asked for direct authority to prosecute witches. He received a papal bull, a type of public decree issued by the Pope, called the Summis desiderantes affectibus.

This papal bull explicitly spoke to the harmful presence of witches and witchcraft in the Holy Roman Empire. It authorized complete papal approval for the Catholic Church’s Holy Inquisition to persecute practitioners of witchcraft. What it also gave was individual permission to Heinrich Kramer AND Jacob Sprenger to act on their own accord in the dealings of witches.

In terms of Kramer and Sprenger, scholars dispute the idea that they were working together. They believe that there’s evidence that speaks to Sprenger being an active opponent of Kramer. For instance, Sprenger went as far as banning Kramer from the Dominican convents within his jurisdiction. He also banned Kramer from preaching. This makes sense why historians debate the addition of Sprenger’s co-author credit of the Malleus Maleficarum.


It’s important to note that the preface of the Malleus Maleficarum features a supposed unanimous approval from the University of Cologne’s Faculty of Theology. However, it has been firmly established via sources outside of the Malleus Maleficarum that the University of Cologne’s theology faculty officially declared the book faulted; not only for unethical methods, but for contradiction of Catholic theology on multiple important positions.

“Just for good measure Institoris forged a document granting their apparently unanimous approbation.”

Jolly, Karen et al., Witchcraft and Magic In Europe, p. 115 (2002)

More proof that Heinrich Kramer, AKA Henricus Institor, wrote the Malleus Maleficarum out of self-serving bias.

The Malleus Maleficarum turned out to be the go-to guide for non-religious courts all over Renaissance Europe. However, contrary to popular belief, the Catholic Church’s Holy Inquisition denied any ties to the book, spurned all methods pushed by Kramer, and condemned the author himself only a few years after the book was published.


This is not a detailed, step-by-step breakdown of the book by any means. This is just to give a rough outline of its contents in order to offer context within this post.


The Malleus Maleficarum is made up of the following sections:

  1. Justification (Introduction, Latin Apologia auctoris)
  2. Papal Bull
  3. Approbation by Professors of Theology at the University of Cologne
  4. Main Text in Three Sections


First of all, I must say that the name of this section is enough to point to Kramer and his desperation in proving himself ‘justifiable’ in the failure of his first prosecution attempts. Now that I have that off of my chest, this section briefly goes over the acceptance that sorcery is an act of Satan. These “Satanic acts” motivated Kramer and Sprenger to write the Malleus Maleficarum.


Within the Malleus Maleficarum is a reproduction of the papal bull Kramer and Sprenger received from Pope Innocent VIII. Known as Summis desiderantes affectibus, the papal bull recognizes that the Pope acknowledges that witches are both real and dangerous via the acts of Satan.

The papal bull was issued two years before the book was published. The date is important as it makes the decree from the Pope a general confirmation of witches and witchcraft and NOT an endorsement from the Catholic Church.


Officially titled “The Approbation of The Following Treatise and The Signatures Thereunto of The Doctors of The Illustrious University of Cologne Follows in The Form of A Public Document” this section states the unanimous approval of the book. But as I’ve already pointed out, the document was forged by Kramer in his attempt to legitimize the agenda he was pushing in the Malleus Maleficarum.

The approbation contains a preamble and a two-part resolution. The preamble consists of a general statement surrounding the circumstances of the approval. Things like a list of witnesses, the authors, and notaries are written here.

The two-part resolution is sometimes referred to as two approbations because there are two signings. The difference between the two is that four witnesses in the first signing testify they have read through the entire book and endorse it. The second signing has witnesses who have not read the book but still approve of it and endorse it fully.


In the Malleus Maleficarum, it is claimed that three elements are required for witchcraft:

  1. Evil intentions of the witch
  2. Help of the Devil
  3. Permission of God

The main text is divided into three sections:

  1. The clergy is addressed in attempts to disprove any critics who deny magick, witchcraft, and witches
  2. Description of witchcraft forms and its cures and remedies
  3. Judges are addressed and given ways to handle prosecution when facing trials of witchcraft

Pope Innocent VIII refers to the both of them as “beloved sons” directly in the papal bull Summis desiderantes affectibus. It is with the Pope himself behind them that the Malleus Maleficarum was written. Whether or not Sprenger deserves the co-author credit or not, he was still endorsed by the papal bull.


-Casting Evil Spells
-Power to Steal Men’s Penises

The Malleus book goes into great detail about these accusations and gives accounts of witches perpetrating these crimes.


Before 1400, it was few and far between that anyone was prosecuted for being a witch. However, with the Catholic Church’s Holy Inquisition and its pursuit and prosecution of heretics becoming more and more common, the way was being paved for future witch-hunts and executions.

As time passed, the belief in witches became increasingly accepted within European society. Before the 15th century, anyone convicted of witchcraft only faced public penances, like a day in the stocks. Unfortunately, the penalties evolved into increasingly brutal acts ensuing the book’s publication. This was directly influenced by witchcraft and magick being perceived as a very real and dangerous threat.


Between the years 1560 and 1630, Europe saw its most brutal and cruel prosecutions. As the Malleus was the ultimate witch-hunting handbook, it is not surprising to learn that within the pages of the Malleus Maleficarum that torture was recommended – as was deception – to secure confessions.

“And when the implements of torture have been prepared, the judge, both in person and through other good men zealous in the faith, tries to persuade the prisoner to confess the truth freely; but, if he will not confess, he bid attendants make the prisoner fast to the strappado or some other implement of torture. The attendants obey forthwith, yet with feigned agitation. Then, at the prayer of some of those present, the prisoner is loosed again and is taken aside and once more persuaded to confess, being led to believe that he will in that case not be put to death.”

Malleus Maleficarum

Very ‘good cop, bad cop’ if you will. But what if there was no confession? Torture could not continue on the same day, but it was permitted to resume on another specified day.

“But, if the prisoner will not confess the truth satisfactorily, other sorts of tortures must be placed before him, with the statement that unless he will confess the truth, he must endure these also. But, if not even thus he can be brought into terror and to the truth, then the next day or the next but one is to be set for a continuation of the tortures – not a repetition, for it must not be repeated unless new evidences produced. The judge must then address to the prisoners the following sentence: We, the judge, etc., do assign to you, such and such a day for the continuation of the tortures, that from your own mouth the truth may be heard, and that the whole may be recorded by the notary.”

Malleus Maleficarum


The Malleus book narrates how women and men are seduced by witchcraft, placing emphasis on the female gender being more susceptible to devilish desires due to the weakness of their sex. The authors insisted that women were weaker in faith and more promiscuous than men. It’s believed that the majority of the accused witches who were women boasted bold personalities and were known to buck traditions aligned with “proper” female behavior.

It is thought that after the publication of the Malleus Maleficarum that three-quarters of those executed due to the accusation of witchcraft were women. The reasoning behind the idea promoted by the Malleus book? Women are “prone to believing and because the demon basically seeks to corrupt the faith, he assails them in particular.” Women also have a “temperament towards flux” and “loose tongues”. Also, they “are defective in all the powers of both soul and body” and thought to be more lustful than men.


According to the book, the denial of faith is the root cause of witchcraft. Because women were thought to doubt the faith faster than men, women were more likely to be witches. The instances of a male witch being accused and prosecuted still occurred, but much less often. It was believed that male witches were after power which apparently was much more understandable than women witches acting out of lust or disbelief.

In fact, if we break down the title of the Malleus Maleficarum, it is indeed feminine. This alludes to the notion that women were villains and not men. If the title were Malleus Maleficorum – the masculine format for the Latin noun ‘maleficus’ or ‘malefica’ meaning ‘witch’ – men would be the specified target of the book, or at least both sexes.


Outside of the countless lives lost to persecution, torture, and execution, the Malleus Maleficarum was the inspiration for numerous texts and witch-hunts over the course of the following two centuries. Witchcraft trials brought with them ‘fiendishness’ and ‘diabolism’ as chief charges where they were not common before. While the term witch-hunt wasn’t started with the Malleus book, it certainly did wonders in perpetuating its use that still occurs to this very day.

All of these examples demonstrate just how pivotal the Malleus Maleficarum and its pivotal role in such uncertain times. From what I gathered during my research for this post is just how much one shamed and ego-driven man’s ideas of ‘virtue’ and ‘godliness’ can royally screw things up – for a lot of people.


While it may be an uncomfortable subject in witchcraft and magickal history, the Malleus Maleficarum is important to know and to understand. There are still those out there who are anti-witchcraft. Just look at the uproar over Harry Potter when the books first debuted. After all, those who don’t know history are destined to repeat it.

Published by Pie

Pie Ankiewicz is the Resident Witch of Printable Witchcraft and sister-site Candle Cross Coven. She is a seasoned Eclectic Witch whose practice spans over three decades. Residing in Massachusetts, Pie designs printable Book of Shadows and grimoire pages, blogs about the Craft, and teaches others how to pursue being a practitioner.

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