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  • The Malleus Maleficarum and the Construction of Witchcraft: Theology and Popular Belief
  • Elspeth Whitney
Hans Peter Broedel . The Malleus Maleficarum and the Construction of Witchcraft: Theology and Popular Belief. Studies in Early Modern European History. Manchester and New York: Manchester University Press, 2003. x + 210 pp. index. bibl. £16.99. ISBN: 0–7190–6441–4.

Despite a great deal of scholarly effort over the past several decades, untangling the social and intellectual roots of the European witch hunts has proven to be a surprisingly difficult task. Broedel's lucid analysis of the Malleus Maleficarum and its intellectual context is a welcome new piece of the puzzle.

A major virtue of Broedel's study is the clarity with which he analyzes the sometimes convoluted logic of the Malleus and systemically compares the conclusions of its authors to those of other late medieval writings on witches and witchcraft. Although it comes as no surprise that the Malleus was unusual in its own time in its single-minded insistence that witches were the source of evil in the world, Broedel's analysis brings out the full weight of the new paradigm framed by its authors. On the one hand, Institorus and Sprenger (Broedel's preferred nomenclature) challenged the conventional learned view that only "silly, deluded old women" believed in witchcraft by asserting the existence of real witches with real powers to harm. Second, they narrowed the traditional ecclesiastical view of misfortune as caused variously by chance, demons, or the inscrutable workings of God to one which attributed virtually every human ill directly to the malice of these witches. Moreover, Broedel argues, witches come to the forefront of the battle for human souls, while demons were reduced to largely passive conduits for the harmful effects of maleficium, an ironic consequence of the late medieval reconceptualization of the devil as an abstract, autonomous force rather than as a personalized, concrete presence. Drawing upon a grab-bag of folk beliefs and popular stories known to them through their experiences in inquisitorial courtrooms, Institoris and Sprenger grafted tales of cannibalistic, child-killing lamiae or strigae onto widespread beliefs in night-flying, but largely benign, women. At the same time, they amalgamated all sorts of alleged behaviors, including magic, animal transformation, fascination, and magical flight, into a new catchall definition of witchcraft. The final element in the creation of the new witch was the insistence of Institoris and Sprenger, in contrast to most of their contemporaries, that witches were exclusively female: not only was the insatiable sexual appetite of [End Page 672] women the root cause of witchcraft but defining witches as women allowed Institoris and Sprenger to create a "new conceptual field" in which "disordered sexuality is identified with the devil, inverted gender roles and sexual dysfunction with witchcraft, and defective social and political hierarchies with women and women's sins" (179).

Broedel's analysis goes a long way toward making an admittedly idiosyncratic text seem intellectually coherent and plausible in its fifteenth-century context. He is to be commended, especially, for taking the misogyny of the Malleus seriously and integrating the notion of witch as female into the logic of the text as a whole. For Broedel, the power of the Malleus to convince in its own time lies in its pervasive use of personal perceptions and the eyewitness testimony of witnesses, which were then reconciled with accepted traditional authorities. From a modern perspective, therefore, the Malleus becomes a case study in how a loose collection of ideas, fears, and attitudes can be reframed into a new stereotype encapsulating an overwhelming threat to society, with disastrous results both for individual members of the targeted group and for the harmony of society as a whole.

In the end, however, Broedel's analysis seems to raise as many questions as it answers. Why were the authors so persuaded by the personal testimony of witnesses, even when these accounts contradicted traditional authority? Broedel does not offer much of an explanation, beyond an assumed link to the roles of Institoris and Sprenger as professional inquisitors. Yet it would seem to be the very crux of the problem to determine why these writers at this time found their informants...


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pp. 672-673
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Archived 2009
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