The Malleus Maleficarum and the Salem Witch Trials

The Malleus Maleficarum: The Hammer of the Witch

How did this famous book influence the Salem Witch Trials?

If it's in writing, then it must be true. The Malleus Maleficarum is a 15th-century manual composed by Heinrich Kramer to eradicate the infestation of witches invading Europe. As an Inquisitor, he had appointed himself the expert on all things witchcraft. With the support of the Catholic Church, his manuscript had made him an authority on the evildoers. But what was the real motive behind him penning the Hammer of the Witch?

The Players

Heinrich Kramer and Jacob Sprenger wrote the Malleus Maleficarum in 1486, though many scholars question if Sprenger really had any involvement in the work. Both men were members of the Dominican Order and Inquisitors for the Catholic Church. Kramer had received a papal bull in 1484, which directed the Bishop of Strasburg to accept the authority of Kramer as an Inquisitor. So, it was with great pride that Kramer submitted the "Hexenhammer" to the University of Cologne's Theology Department, in 1487, confident they would receive the religious and academic endorsement. But, by 1490, the Inquisition had denounced Heinrich Kramer.

Heinrich Kramer was a bit of a loose cannon and had a gigantic chip on his shoulder. He had an incredibly dull point to prove. Pope Innocent VIII's papal bull acknowledged witches and sorcerers and empowered the Inquisition to prosecute them. Kramer appointed himself the man for the job.

Innsbruck Witch Trials

Directly following the papal bull, Heinrich Kramer headed to Innsbruck to remedy their witch problem. Helena Scheuberin and thirteen other Innsbruck citizens were being accused of witchcraft. Helena, who was married to a successful and respected man of the community, was ruffling some feathers with her independent attitude and frankness. (This seems to be a recurring theme.)

Kramer came into town, took over the pulpit, and expected all to attend his sermons. Helena felt differently. Not only was Helena not showing up for Kramer's scheduled public pontifications, but she was also telling other folks to ditch his performances, as well. It is said that Helena disrupted one of his sermons "by loudly proclaiming that she believed Insitoris (Heinrich Kramer) to be an evil man in league with the devil." She had fueled his fire.

Helena was soon accused of using magic to murder. Jorge Spiess, a local knight, had become terminally ill, and his doctor warned him that visits from Helena Scheuberin would kill him. When he died, Helena was named as his murderer.

Kramer decided to play a large roll in Helena's trial. He accused her and others of sorcery and focused heavily on Helena's sexuality. The bishop found Kramer's accusations questionable and unproven.

At this time, authorities were still regarding sorcery as a minor offense. They didn't directly link it to the Devil's work. Helena Scheuberin and six other women were all either freed or sentenced to penance. Kramer was not happy. Heinrich decided to wear out his welcome in Innsbruck and continue his investigations. Bishop Karl Golser ordered him to leave, and eventually, he did, after being expelled for insanity and a weird obsession with Helena. He returned to Cologne and began his treatise on witchcraft, later to become the Malleus Maleficarum. The Hammer of the Witches was Kramer's revenge.

The Malleus Maleficarum

Strixology is a genre of writing that details the origins, dangers, and powers of witches and witchcraft. It is usually in tandem with theological philosophy or doctrine. Malleus translated is a hammer shape, Maleficarum literally means harmful magic. Strixology in the Malleus Maleficarum redefined what a witch is in comparison to previous definitions, intending to "hammer" out the practice of witchcraft and sorcery. It was written to prove that witchcraft is evil.

To Heinrich Kramer, witchcraft was the antithesis of religion. A witch was, simply put, "Satan's puppet" and filled with diabolical intentions and destined to commit malevolent acts. His book took his own views and opinions on witchcraft, and attempted to make them a doctrine for all to follow. He refuted any arguments that claimed witchcraft did not exist and discredited any skepticism. And he claimed that witches were predominantly women. Kramer's Malleus Maleficarum was to make him an authority on the discovery and persecution of witches.

The book is divided into three sections. The first section is determined to prove the skeptics of witchcraft wrong and to assert that not believing in witchcraft is, in fact, heresy. The second section attempts to show the harm done by witchcraft. And the third section is a literal manual for how to investigate, arrest, and persecute witches. The Malleus Maleficarum defines, quite explicitly, what it means to be a witch.

According to Kramer's book, a witch makes a formal pact with Satan, copulates with Devil spirits, and will frequently make a man's penis disappear. The book details the goal of exterminating witches and how to address any of those who may be a witness in a witchcraft trial. Noting that "quarrelsome women" should not be allowed to be a part of a trial. His generous and authoritative writing provides us with details on when to use a "red hot iron" during prosecution, and how to shave the body to search for tokens and amulets that may be sewn under the skin of the witch. Kramer was thorough.

Heinrich Kramer's Fan Club

The endorsements that Kramer was so sure of didn't come. Top theologians condemned the book as promoting unethical practices and illegal procedures. They also felt that his direction was in contrast to the Catholic Church's doctrines on demonology and Satan. However, Kramer still generated his own fan club.

He was approached by the Nuremberg Council to provide expert advice on a 1491 witch trial. In 1495, the O.P. to Venice (Ordo Praedicatorum - Dominican Oder) requested him to Venice to give lectures and sermons on witchcraft. In 1500 he was appointed as papal nuncio and as Inquisitor to Bohemia and Moravia by Pope Alexander VI.

The Malleus Maleficarum had become the handbook for witch-hunters, Inquisitors, and questionably, the Catholic Church. It was published twenty-nine times between 1487 and 1669. The Hammer of the Witches, a validation for torture and murder, is still wet with the blood of the innocent people who lost their lives to its rhetoric.

In 1505, Heinrich Kramer died in Moravia. Probably still scribbling notes on the evil of women and how to remedy the world of their darkness.

Salem Witch Trials

Though the Salem Witch Trials were 200 years after the European Witch Hunts and Inquisitions, the influence of Heinrich Kramer's Malleus Maleficarum is apparent. Documents describing the accusations and the "proof" of Salem’s accused witchery ring some familiar medieval bells.

The methods of accusation, investigation, and persecution all resembled the dark and heinous instructions in the Hammer of the Witches. By the 1500s, Catholics and Protestants alike had subscribed to the writings of Kramer. So, it's no surprise that in 1684, Increase Mather's essay on those living in the Colonies and in league with the Devil, "Remarkable Providences," cites the Malleus Maleficarum. Heinrich Kramer got his revenge clear across "The Pond."

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