Malleus Maleficarum Introduction

Saint Magdalen by Peter Paul RubensThis introduction to the Malleus Maleficarum was originally posted on the Malleus web site. It was removed and placed here because some took issue with my personal opinions in regard to the Malleus. I didn’t want that to distract from the text of the work itself.  However, I still stand by my comments.
~ Wicasta

The Malleus Maleficarum (“The Witch Hammer”), first published in 1486, is arguably one of the most infamous books ever written, due primarily to its position and regard during the Middle Ages. It served as a guidebook for Inquisitors during the Inquisition, and was designed to aid them in the identification, prosecution, and dispatching of Witches. It set forth, as well, many of the modern misconceptions and fears concerning witches and the influence of witchcraft. The questions, definitions, and accusations it set forth in regard to witches, which were reinforced by its use during the Inquisition, came to be widely regarded as irrefutable truth. Those beliefs are held even today by a majority of Christians in regard to practitioners of the modern “revived” religion of Witchcraft, or Wicca. And while the Malleus itself is largely unknown in modern times, its effects have proved long lasting.

At the time of the writing of The Malleus Maleficarum, there were many voices within the Christian community (scholars and theologians) who doubted the existence of witches and largely regarded such belief as mere superstition. The authors of the Malleus addressed those voices in no uncertain terms, stating: “Whether the Belief that there are such Beings as Witches is so Essential a Part of the Catholic Faith that Obstinacy to maintain the Opposite Opinion manifestly savours of Heresy.” The immediate, and lasting, popularity of the Malleus essentially silenced those voices. It made very real the threat of one being branded a heretic, simply by virtue of one’s questioning of the existence of witches and, thus, the validity of the Inquisition. It set into the general Christian consciousness, for all time, a belief in the existence of witches as a real and valid threat to the Christian world. It is a belief which is held to this day.

It must be noted that during the Inquisition, few, if any, real, verifiable, witches were ever discovered or tried. Often the very accusation was enough to see one branded a witch, tried by the Inquisitors’ Court, and burned alive at the stake. Estimates of the death toll during the Inquisition worldwide range from the scholarly estimate of 1,450 to 1,700, to the popular estimates of 600,000 and as high as 9,000,000 (over its 250 year long course); any of these estimates is a chilling number when one realizes that nearly all of the accused were women, and consisted primarily of outcasts and other suspicious persons. Old women. Midwives. Jews. Poets. Gypsies. Anyone who did not fit within the contemporary view of pieous Christians were suspect, and easily branded “Witch”. Usually to devastating effect.

It must also be noted that the crime of Witchcraft was not the only crime of which one could be accused during the Inquisition. By questioning any part of Catholic belief, one could be branded a heretic. Scientists were branded heretics by virtue of repudiating certain tenets of Christian belief (most notably Galileo, whose theories on the nature of planets and gravitational fields was initially branded heretical). Writers who challenged the Church were arrested for heresy (sometimes formerly accepted writers whose works had become unpopular). Anyone who questioned the validity of any part of Catholic belief did so at their own risk. The Malleus Maleficarum played an important role in bringing such Canonical law into being, as often the charge of heresy carried along with it suspicions of witchcraft.

It must be remembered that the Malleus is a work of its time. Science had only just begun to make any real advances. At that time nearly any unexplainable illness or malady would often be attributed to magic, and thus the activity of witches. It was a way for ordinary people to make sense of the world around them. The Malleus drew upon those beliefs, and, by its very existence, reinforced them and brought them into the codified belief system of the Catholic Church. In many ways, it could be said that it helped to validate the Inquisition itself.

While the Malleus itself cannot be blamed for the Inquisition or the horrors inflicted upon mankind by the Inquisitors, it certainly played an important role. Thus has it been said that The Malleus Maleficarum is one of the most blood-soaked works in human history, in that its very existence reinforced and validated Catholic beliefs which led to the prosecution, torture, and murder, of tens of thousands of innocent people.

The lasting effect of the Malleus upon the world can only be measured in the lives of the hundreds of thousands of men, women, and even children, who suffered, and died, at the hands of the Inquisitors during the Inquisition. At the height of its popularity, The Malleus Maleficarum was surpassed in public notoriety only by The Bible. Its effects were even felt in the New World, where the last gasp of the Inquisition was felt in the English settlements in America (most notably in Salem, Massachusetts during the Salem Witch Trials).

It is beyond the scope of this article to adequately examine the role of the Malleus in world history, or its lasting effects. At the very least, The Malleus Maleficarum (“The Witch Hammer”) offers to us an intriguing glimpse into the Medieval mind, and perhaps gives us a taste of what it might have been like to have lived in those times.

– Wicasta Lovelace

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About Wicasta

Depending upon whom you ask, Wicasta Lovelace is an author, musician, artist, web designer and/or delusional lunatic (which one he is at any given moment depends upon the day of the week, really). He's currently studying Music Industry/Recording Arts at St. Petersburg College in Saint Petersburg, Florida. Wicasta is working on several novels and recording music on his own and with his band, Windhaven. He is the principle editor of the Malleus Maleficarum project, lead author at PaganCentric, curator at Mama Peggy, and systems engineer at Floozees Doozees. You can find him on Google+, Twitter and Facebook.
  • My-Two Cents-Worth

    I would not be too surprised if it came to light most of the women accused of bring witches either spurned advances of prominent men or held title to some valuable asset that was coveted by those self same prominent men.

  • leraye

    Witches exist and have for many years but those who were slautered in the inquisitions were guilty because your Christian God says dodo not covet your nieghbors wife. Men did therefore the woman was persecuted. God says do not commit adultery men did. Therefore women were persecuted. A woman was bad because she had blue eyes, red hair, wrote with her left hand or even had an opinion. A if she usefulness herbs to treat illness she was condemned to death. It was just a way for men to drop blame when they were at fault.

  • JEANNIE

    i stand with Ms. Wicasta. Though whether witches exist or not depends a lot on your definition of witches. Most peoples think of witches as ugly old ladies wearing pointed caps doing evil magic but couldn’t it be possible that witches were actually ladies doing certain rituals which were later labeled as dark magic? or that the witch hunts were actually an attempt to eradicate certain religionsby labeling them devil worship?

  • Sounds like semantics born of a personal grievance of some sort, John. While it’s certainly true there were no Wiccans during the days of the Inquisition, there were certainly witches (although if your perception of what constitutes “a witch” is born of a Christian world-view, we might differ on that conclusion). I’ve always found it rather amazing that many Christians I know are quick to label anything that’s non-Christian as “Pagan”, but those same people quickly turn around and say “I don’t believe in witches”. My question to those people is usually, “Well, do you believe in Jews?” Just because you don’t want to believe in something doesn’t mean it’s not there. But if we’re in a semantic argument over Wiccans, that’s an entirely different subject.

    I stand by my original statement. Most of the people who were prosecuted, tortured and killed as witches during the inquisition were certainly not witches. They were innocents who ran afoul of the wrong people. But that’s hardly evidence that “there’s no such thing as witches”.

  • You wrote: “It must be noted that during the Inquisition, few, if any, real, verifiable, witches were ever discovered or tried.”

    May I suggest a rewrite: “It must be noted that there never were any witches.”

    Or perhaps you could quote Mark Twain:
    “The Bible commanded that they (witches) should not be allowed to live. Therefore the Church, after eight hundred years, gathered up its halters, thumb-screws, and firebrands, and set about its holy work in earnest. She worked hard at it night and day during nine centuries and imprisoned, tortured, hanged, and burned whole hordes and armies of witches, and washed the Christian world clean with their foul blood.
    “Then it was discovered that there was no such thing as witches, and never had been. One does not know whether to laugh or to cry…..There are no witches. The witch text remains; only the practice has changed. Hell fire is gone, but the text remains. Infant damnation is gone, but the text remains. More than two hundred death penalties are gone from the law books, but the texts that authorized them remain.”