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Impact of Malleus Maleficarum on persecution of witches in England

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Malleus Maleficorum was a highly significant factor in shaping the ideas behind the sixteenth century persecution, due to its influence on beliefs about witchcraft and about how to deal with problems of witches. The Malleus Maleficorum was published in 1486 and the persecution of witches began in earnest at about this time. This is not to imply direct causality. The Malleus Maleficorum was as much the product of a general climate in which the persecution of witches took place as its instigator. However, the Malleus Maleficorum was influential in expressing and shaping the ideas that underpinned persecution of witches throughout Europe. The fact of widely varying levels of witch persecution throughout Europe as a whole and and even within different localities in England suggests that there were other influences shaping the nature of the persecution of witches. This paper will consider the role of the Malleus Maleficorum in England, arguing that its influence was mediated by a combination of historical factors

The Inquisition was set up in 1199. However, persecution of witches did not reach a significant level begin until the late 15th century, after the publication of the Malleus Maleficorum and the issue of papal bulls against witches. An important Bull was that of Pope Innocent II (1484) who ordered the inquisitors to seek out witches and defined witchcraft as a heresy..

Witches and The Devil

Some of the qualities associated with witchcraft before the publication of the Malleus Maleficorum were expressed in a letter to the inquisitors by Pope Eugenius IV in 1437 (Oldridge, 2002: 4) The letter refers to sacrifice to demons, the concept of a written contract that grants powers to do malicious deeds, the use of wax images, the reversal of Christian symbols and perversion of Christian liturgy. These formed most of the "ingredients of the Renaissance concept of witchcraft" (Oldridge,2002, 14) The 1484 Bull referred to the use of witchcraft to do malicious acts to people and animals. It also spoke of witches consorting with devils, incubi and succubi and of "preventing conceptions" (Hart, 1971: 16)

Other features of the beliefs about witches were that they met at night in groups, sabbats, when they took part in a wide range of shocking and superhuman activities The sources of these beliefs were various, from local folk-beliefs to classical Roman and Greek myths. However, it would be mistaken to imagine that the belief that humans have supernatural powers to do evil was unique to Renaissance and medieval Europe. Anthropologists have identified and studied such beliefs in almost all societies. (Thomas, K ,1971) Beliefs about magic and supernatural powers are not in themselves sufficient to explain persecution. Trevor-Roper argued that set of folk beliefs about magic could not explain the origins of the early modern witch crazes. (Trevor-Roper, 1967) The significant factors in determining whether such a set of beliefs is expressed in violent action against those perceived as having supernatural powers must be sought in the historically specific features of a given situation.

There was widespread acceptance of belief in magical effects - expressed in a variety of forms and at all levels in society. Science and magic overlapped- chemistry grew out of alchemy, for instance. The aristocracy were as likely to consult magicians as poor were to call upon the aid of a local witch. (Queen Elizabeth and John Dee, for example.) The distinction between magical and religious thought is very difficult to make, in any case. It usually reflects to the level of social power of those who make the definition. However, at this time, the social power of the formal Churches was not safe anywhere in Europe. The Reformation had split the Christian world into two camps. Catholic leaders sought to hold on to their power in those countries where it had not been overthrown (such as Spain) and to reclaim it in those countries where Protestants had won control. Protestant rulers, such as Elizabeth, constantly faced with attack from Catholics and sought to extend their influence by encouraging the spread of Protestantism. Neither Catholic nor Protestant Churches were stable. Drives against heresy could represent attempts to avoid the further fragmentation of beliefs.

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At the same time, ideas about the Devil and devils were being developed and expressed in numerous publications, including those listing the various devils that witches dealt with (Hart, 1971: 16) Hart argued that the "enormous literature" on witchcraft (Hart, 1971: 31) had begun to contain new elements - covens, Black sabbats, familiars and pacts with the devil. The latter became the central issue in the persecution in Protestant Europe. Its existence allowed both Catholic and protestant religions to denounce witchcraft as heresy.

Heinrich Kramer and Jacob Sprenger, the authors of the Malleus Maleficorum were German inquisitors. They produced the text that became the central reference. The authors defined witchcraft as heresy. At the same time, they specifically defined witchcraft as female. "It is better called the heresy of witches than of wizards, since the name is taken from the more powerful party."

A central element in the Malleus Maleficorum is its quite astonishing targeting of women, and specifically midwives "who surpass all others in wickedness" (Malleus Maleficorum Part 1 Question VI) The text expresses the idea that more witches are women and explains it in terms very much focussed on female sexuality. They refer to such authoritative sources as the Bible, Cicero, Seneca and others to justify the argument that women are much more prone to vice than are men - feebler in intellect, more prone to wickedness and conclude that "All witchcraft comes from carnal lust which is in women insatiable." The document prefigures the enormous numbers of women who would be tortured, burned or hanged in following century. However, it cannot be claimed that the Malleus brought about the fear and hatred of women that was such a clear feature of the persecution. Rather it reflected a view of women that was already prevalent in the church and the educated world, as attested by the number of authorities that the authors refer to.

Why did the concept of a witch cult become credible to educated Europeans? Anglo argued that the Church's authority gave the evidence reality. Evidence for satanic witchcraft was derived from scripture and the writing of church fathers. "These citations were generally regarded as authoritative and carried at least as much weight as empirical investigations into the alleged activities of witches" (Oldridge, 2002: 17) Thus, the Malleus Maleficorum made a strong case, as its citations were beyond question. Oldridge argued that the persecution became much harder to pursue once the concept of empirical evidence became more widespread in the later 17th century. This argument seems somewhat circular. If the persecution remained as strong, a preference among educated people for empirical evidence and rationality would have not been able to develop.

Oldridge argued, from a technological perspective, that the development of print made it possible for the views expressed in the Malleus Maleficorum to be widely disseminated and for news of sensational trials to be distributed, thus spreading the ideas that fueled the cult. "The result was a largely self-referential and self-perpetuating body of literature, which encouraged exactly the kinds of confessions that could be fed back into the genre as 'evidence'" (Oldridge, 2002: 17-18).

Why therefore did the impact of the Malleus Maleficorum strike England less forcefully than it struck the rest of Europe, particularly Germany or Scotland? One argument is the distinction between Catholic and Protestant religions. The intense hatred of women which is expressed in the Malleus Maleficorum can be understood partly as the product of a religion based on a male priesthood required to be celibate. The philosophy that underpins such religious practice is inevitably likely to appeal to some men who are misogynistic and is unlikely to be challenged when celibacy is a core part of the faith. The triumph of celibacy was still relatively recent in the Roman Church's history (established about three centuries earlier.) In Protestant England, a celibate priesthood was no longer an issue. Hence, levels of religious misogyny were probably lower, at the institutional level.

In England, heresy was not such a pressing concern. The Inquisition was the creation of the Catholic Church; its objective of rooting out heresy, that became mingled with the witch craze, was not the objective of the English church or state. In England, as compared to Germany, Scotland and France, for instance, witches were hanged rather than burned. Torture was not routine. The stress on English trials was largely on the accusations of causing malicious acts maleficium, rather than on heresy or on pacts with the devil. In contrast, in Germany and Scotland for instance, "The worst atrocities were committed in the name of religion" as the accused witches were searched for marks and tortured for evidence of having made pacts with the devil, the ultimate heresy. (Hart,1971 :108)

In England, witch persecutions largely focussed on locally unpopular women in small towns and villages. Conviction levels were low even in the assizes which covered the areas of most activity, such as Essex. Without the formal apparatus of the church - in the person of the feared Inquisitors and the wholehearted backing of the state - locally malicious prosecutions tended to reflect local accusations of having committed malicious acts. Even at the beginning of the persecutions, there were sceptics, such as Reginald Scot. Scot pointed out that burning of all witches would still have no effect in preventing misfortunes such as the worsening climate of the time. He also pointed out that old, poor, sullen, mad and superstitious women were easily convinced of their own guilt, that such women would utter curses to prevent themselves being injured by others and that those who feared them could easily believe their misfortunes were due to the curses. (Scot,1584). It is unlikely that this scepticism was widespread. However, the fact that it could be expressed at all illustrates the different intellectual climate of England, where the Inquisition - and a probable accusation of heresy for protesting the witch persecution - was not a constant cause for fear.

Thus, the Malleus Maleficarum was not the direct source of the impetus to persecute witches, and was less significant in Protestant England than in Scotland or continental Europe. However, it shaped cultural views on witchcraft, identifying the features which were to become central to the persecution, providing witch finders with a template to guide their investigations.


Scot, Reginald, 1584, Discoverie of Witchcraft , London

Sharpe, J.A, (2001) Witchcraft in early modern England

Glucklich, A, (1997) The End of Magic, New York & Oxford, Oxford University Press.

Hart, R 1971, Witchcraft, London, Wayland.

Malleus Malficarum. Extract at

Oldridge, D, 2002, The Witchcraft Reader, London & New York, Routledge

Purkiss, D, (1996) The Witch in History, London & New York, Routledge.

Trevor-Roper Hugh (1967) The European Witch Craze of the 16th and 17th Centuries

Keith Thomas, Religion and the Decline of Magic. Weidenfeld and Nicholson 1971

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