If you’re familiar with the late Medieval European witch-hunts, chances are you’ve heard of the Malleus Maleficarum (English: the Hammer of the Witches). This text, published in 1487, would have repercussions well into the 17th century. A how-to manual on how to find and convict/exterminate witches and sorceresses, it’s been estimated that some 40,000-60,000 individuals, mostly women, suffered under the frenzy that this dark tome unleashed.
So how the Hell did this book come to be?
The first culprit is one Catholic clergyman by the name of Heinrich Kramer; it was the work of his fevered (and by some contemporary accounts, “senile and crazy”) brain.
His descriptions were graphic, lurid and sexually obsessive. His recommendations were extremely sadistic.
That’s often enough to sell a book.
However, then as now, endorsements matter…
Enter culprit number two:
Pope Innocent VIII.
[Note: I am omitting “co-author” Jacob Sprenger from this discussion; scholars debate his actual involvement with the book]
“It has recently come to our ears, not without great pain to us, that in some parts of upper Germany…many persons of both sexes, heedless of their own salvation and forsaking the Catholic faith, give themselves over to devils male and female, and by their incantations, charms, and conjurings, and by other abominable superstitions and sortileges, offences, crimes, and misdeeds, ruin and cause to perish the offspring of women, the foal of animals, the products of the earth, the grapes of vines, and the fruits of trees, as well as men and women, cattle and flocks and herds and animals of every kind, vineyards also and orchards, meadows, pastures, harvests, grains and other fruits of the earth;”
Now, you might assume this is from the Malleus. It isn’t.
It’s from a Papal Bull called Summis Desiderantes Affectibus, issued by Pope Innocent VIII, at the request of the aforementioned Heinrich Kramer.
So, in essence, Kramer had a Papal seal of approval.
Now you might be tempted into thinking that Innocent was guileless, gullible, or merely a product of his times…
Let’s look at a small sampling of his record:
Remember Tomás de Torquemada? He would be the man who brought us the Spanish Inquisition. He was also directly appointed by Innocent.
Torquemada oversaw the murder of some 3,000 – 5,000 individuals, primarily Jews and Muslims. He also put his full support behind the Alhambra Decree, which forced the expulsion of Jews from Spain – ironic given his own Jewish ancestry.
While supporting the Malleus, Innocent was not so kindly towards every book. The 900 Thesis by Pico della Mirandola was one such text. Pico, who founded the tradition of Christian Kabbalah, composed his work as a defense of religion, philosophy, natural philosophy, and magic.
Innocent was not amused.
He decreed several of Pico’s arguments to be:
In part heretical, in part the flower of heresy; several are scandalous and offensive to pious ears; most do nothing but reproduce the errors of pagan philosophers… a number of them, finally, under the pretext of ‘natural philosophy’, favor [magic] arts that are enemies to the Catholic faith and to the human race.
The 900 Thesis was the first printed text to be universally banned by the Catholic Church.
Most copies were burned.
Innocent also had no problems with slavery.
However, let it not be said that he was stingy.
In fact, when he received a gift of 100 Moorish slaves, he divvied them out among his favorite cardinals.
Now, that’s generosity of spirit.
Given all of this, is Innocent’s Papal Bull concerning witchcraft, which was printed in the preface of the Malleus, really that surprising?
The Malleus Maleficarum went on to become an international bestseller.
How big was it?
For almost 200 years, it had the second highest sales in the Europe, coming in only behind the Bible.
And much of its success lay in its apparent Papal approval, though the Church itself was quick to distance itself from it.
It spread like wildfire, and as it spread, so did the belief in witchcraft, and the need to purge society of it.
This would not just be a Catholic concern; Martin Luther, one of primary fathers of the Protestant Reformation, was every bit a believer in demons. Whatever exceptions he took with Catholic theology, witchcraft wasn’t one of them.
And so the witch hunts flourished.
What’s the take-away?
I propose a new Pagan celebration:
Now I’m not one to ever endorse the burning of books,
But I suspect I could make an exception when it comes to this one…
On that note, the Malleus can be found online at http://www.malleusmaleficarum.org/
For the love of the Goddess,
Or, at the very least, in the interest of decency,
Burn after reading
(while you’re at it, throw in a copy of King James’ Daemonologie to keep it company).