The Malleus Maleficarum and the Construction of Witchcraft: Theology and Popular Belief
There is perhaps no historical text more associated in the popular imagination with the horrors of the European witch hunts than the infamous Malleus maleficarum, commonly ascribed to the Dominicans Heinrich Kramer (Institoris) and Jacob Sprenger (in fact much evidence points to Kramer as the sole author). Proclaimed to be the great witch-hunting manual of the late-medieval and early-modern period, the Malleus has been held by some as a definitive statement of authoritative conceptions of witchcraft. In fact, scholars of the fifteenth, sixteenth, and seventeenth centuries have long recognized that the Malleus was in many respects an idiosyncratic work, that its influence was far from pervasive, and that its authority was far from absolute. A major goal of Hans Peter Broedel’s study is to modify what may indeed now be an overly developed tendency to argue against the importance of the Malleus and its centrality in the construction of witchcraft. He does not return to any simplistic notion of completely pervasive influence, nor does he claim the Malleus is representative of the all currents of European thought on witchcraft. Rather, by exploring the work’s uniqueness, he seeks to uncover what made it for several centuries such a compelling statement of the idea of witchcraft.
Few works as well known as the Malleus have been the subject of as little focused study. Although the work is mentioned in virtually every account of European witchcraft, this is the first scholarly book in English, and one of [End Page 124] only a few in any language, devoted entirely to the treatise. Those expecting a straightforward overview of all aspects of the Malleus’ composition, context, circulation, and impact will be disappointed, however. Broedel has a specific and quite focused argument, indicated in his subtitle. His main analytical point is that the Malleus, more than any other contemporary treatise on witchcraft, effectively fused theological concerns about demonic magic with popular conceptions of harmful magic (maleficium) widely held in European society. If anything, according to Broedel, the Malleus leaned toward the side of popular conceptions at the expense of theological ones. This is what made the work such an enduring success. Scholars broadly recognize that the particular image of diabolical witchcraft that formed in Europe in the fifteenth century was the result of a fusion of common conceptions of maleficium and more elite, learned concerns about diabolism entailed in such magic. The Malleus, according to Broedel, represents one of the most effective integrations of those two aspects of the construction of witchcraft.
Broedel begins with the authorship of the treatise. Both Kramer and Sprenger were Dominicans (although he recognizes the arguments for Kramer’s sole authorship, Broedel continually refers to both men throughout). As such, they were members of a religious order dedicated to preaching and pastoral care of souls. Also in their roles as inquisitors, Dominicans were necessarily exposed to popular beliefs. Throughout his book, Broedel argues repeatedly that because of these essentially Dominican tendencies of its author(s), the Malleus became a far more practical work rather than a purely theoretical one. In its accounts, authorities could see notions of harmful magic similar to what they would encounter in the testimonies of ordinary laypeople brought before them for questioning. Thus, the Malleus proved more useful than other more purely abstract accounts of witchcraft.
One vexing problem for authorities bent on prosecuting witches was the degree to which theological insistence on the demonic nature of maleficium could actually reduce human culpability. If demons both tempted humans to will evil upon their neighbors and then carried out evil actions on their behalf, the culpability of human spell-casters could appear quite small. Many medieval authorities debated this point. The Malleus very clearly laid blame on the human actor. Broedel argues this was because it more fully accepted popular conceptions of witchcraft than did other works. While common people were not ignorant of the church’s teachings that maleficium operated via demonic power, they were naturally less concerned with abstract demonology and more inclined to locate the source of evil directly in some human being. By accepting this approach, the Malleus made prosecution of witches [End Page 125] less problematic for the authorities who relied on its guidance, and so again proved a highly useful tool.
Broedel pursues similar arguments through other points, concluding with the Malleus’ famous concentration on the gender of witches and the essentially gendered nature of witchcraft. The Malleus provides philosophical, physiological, and theological reasons for the particular proclivity of women for witchcraft, namely their inferior mental and spiritual capacities and their greater susceptibility to demonic temptation. Yet Broedel locates the root of its attitude toward women primarily in its greater acceptance of popular notions that women were more inclined to witchcraft than were men. More theoretical demonologies often ignored the issue of witches’ gender. In accusations brought by common people in courts, however, the accused were usually female.
It would be churlish to fault Broedel for pursing a particular line of analysis and writing a focused study. Yet the absence of any more general or technical analysis of the Malleus, while not undermining his arguments, leaves them open to question. For example, on the particularly “Dominican” character of the Malleus, there is no doubt that Dominicans were, through both preaching and inquisition, very much exposed to popular beliefs. But they were also engaged in shaping those beliefs, not just passively observing them. Moreover, other authorities, both clerics and lay judges, would have had similar exposure to popular beliefs, and several also authored witchcraft treatises. Broedel does compare the Malleus to other treatises at many points, but to my mind what is called for to buttress his central arguments is a thorough and systematic comparison of the Malleus to one or more other treatises of differing authorship.
As already noted, Broedel does not advance a simplistic notion of the influence or authority of the Malleus. His lines of analysis do keep circling back, however, to the conclusion that the work’s particular fusion of theological and popular concerns made it uniquely useful to subsequent authorities. Yet how widely used was the Malleus? We know how often it was reprinted, but how often did it stand open on prosecutors’ desks? This is an enormously vexing question, and perhaps an impossible one to answer, but any study whose central argument rests on an assumption of the Malleus’ broad and enduring utility must try. Broedel also regards the Malleus as more unique than I do. I agree with him that the work is terribly idiosyncratic, but so were most witchcraft treatises. They all to some degree incorporated specific local conceptions as well as general theoretical ones. On any number of particular points I grew uncomfortable with Broedel’s tendency to categorize [End Page 126] the Malleus as uniquely unique, its depictions of witchcraft seemingly set against some sort of otherwise universally accepted standard.
This is not to say that I find Broedel’s analysis to be wrong. I agree with many of his points. Yet even where I agree, I would like to see more extensive and systematic comparisons of the Malleus’ approach to that of other treatises. Thus, while this is the first scholarly book in English devoted to the Malleus, I hope it will not be the last. In making the Malleus the focus of sustained attention, Broedel has begun to address a serious gap in the study of European witchcraft. More work remains to be done.