Hello again, fellow historio-medico aficionados, and welcome to the latest installment of CPP Curiosities, our semi-regular series delving into interesting, unusual, or otherwise thought-provoking episodes in medical history. We are in the midst of October and Halloween is just around the corner. While the COVID-19 pandemic has significantly altered the shape of the season, we at the Center for Education are in the Halloween spirit. We feel, global pandemic or not, there is never a wrong time for a scary story. Past ghoulish entries include medical treatments involving eating human remains, the cryonically frozen head of baseball legend Ted Williams, and graverobbing on top of graverobbing on top of graverobbing.
In the spirit of the season, Amanda McCall is back again to talk about a unique item in The Historical Medical Library of The College of Physicians of Philadelphia: Malleus Maleficarum, a 15th century guidebook to finding and prosecuting suspected witches.
Take it away, Amanda!
In this season of spooky and haunting things, I’ve decided to take this opportunity to tell you about a very spooky and seasonally appropriate book we at The College of Physicians of Philadelphia have hidden away in our amazing Historical Medical Library. The Malleus Maleficarum, or, as usually translated, The Hammer of the Witches, has been part of the library collection since The College acquired it from a renowned New York bookseller sometime prior to 1922. The Malleus Maleficarum played a pivotal role in how the prosecution of witches and witchcraft hysteria progressed throughout history.
The Malleus Maleficarum was written in 1486 by two German clergymen, Henrich Kramer and Jakob Sprenger. Kramer’s place as a churchman and inquisitor put him in a position to notice how the search for, and trial of, witches were conducted, and he seemed to believe the methods could be improved upon. He petitioned Pope Innocent VIII for more power and authority in the hunting and prosecution of those accused of witchcraft. In response, in 1484, Pope Innocent VIII issued a Papal Bull (a decree issued by the Pope) that acknowledged witchcraft as a real and a serious threat and granted Kramer and Sprenger the extended power Kramer had requested. Approximately a year later, Heinrich Kramer was expelled from the town of Innsbruck where he was overseeing the trial of several accused witches after a local bishop accused him of taking an inappropriate interest in one of the accused. It is believed that because of this criticism, Kramer began writing the Malleus Maleficarum.
The Malleus Maleficarum is split into three main parts that highlight the reality of witchcraft, what witchcraft looks like in practice, and how best to try and convict them. The first part discusses the foundation of what witches believe in, specifically the complete renouncement of God and the Catholic faith. It also sets out to solidify the belief that witches are indeed real, stating that the Bible specifies the existence of witches. By extension, Kramer and Sprenger argue not believing in witches and witchcraft is heresy. The second part of the Malleus Maleficarum explores the different ways witches can cause harm, highlighting specific spells and methods of sorcery. There are several stories in this section taken directly from the authors’ inquisitions. The third section examines the best practices for trying and convicting suspected witches. It outlines the different ways the inquisitor and judge are allowed, even encouraged, to mislead and lie to the accused. For example, judges and inquisitors are allowed to withhold the name of the accuser and lie to the accused, falsely promising immunity if they confess. This section also explains how best to interview the accused witch including methods of torture for gathering a confession.
Before the publication of Malleus Maleficarum, witchcraft and the witches that practiced it, were perceived in a vastly different way. Trials for witchcraft still occurred, but they only took place in church courts, and witches only appeared in front of these courts if their “magic” and “spells” had directly harmed someone (maleficia). Punishments were also much less severe, frequently no more than spending a day in the stocks. It was a pale shadow of the brutality that would come later. One of the most dramatic changes that the introduction of the Malleus Maleficarum enacted was the belief that witchcraft was no average crime but actually a form of heresy. Declaring witchcraft heresy proclaimed it a crime against God. This meant that not only must it be prosecuted no matter what, but it also moved the prosecution of witches into the realm of civil courts and the elite members of society, seemingly making it a more public and hysteria inducing event.
The Malleus Maleficarum significantly changed what being sentenced to witchcraft meant and how the inquisitors and judges conducted themselves. It influenced the course of witchcraft hysteria by making it a widespread, rampant issue rather than the seemingly infrequent religious matter it once was.
For more information on the copy of the Malleus Maleficarum in The Historical Medical Library of The College of Physicians of Philadelphia, check out this video featuring former College Librarian Beth Lander.
Birks, Arran. “The ‘Hammer of Witches’: An Earthquake in the Early Witch Craze.” The Historian. Accessed October 21, 2020.
Hoffman, Whitney and Stephanie Bortis. “Malleus Maleficarum: The Hammer of Witches.” The Witching Years. Accessed October 21, 2020.
“Malleus Maleficarum.” Wikipedia. Accessed October 21, 2020.
As always, thank you Amanda for another fascinating and insightful piece. If you want to read more entries by Amanda, check out her pieces on corpse medicine, Henrietta Lacks and the HeLa cells, and the contested legacy of James Marion Sims. We hope you all have a safe, healthy, and happy Halloween season. Don’t forget to wear a mask, and we’ll catch you on the strange side!