Fifteen Eighty Four

Academic perspectives from Cambridge University Press


Witch Hunts and The Hammer of Witches – or – Sin, Punishment, and Retribution

First published in 1486–7, the Malleus Maleficarum (Latin for “The Hammer of Witches”) is the standard medieval text on witchcraft.  A famous treatise, it attempted to systematically define and describe forms of witchcraft and its remedies—providing a counter to those who might deny the ‘reality’ of witchcraft and assistance to those judges who might need more information on how to prosecute it.  In short: a fascinating handbook for your everyday Late Medieval European witch-hunter.The Hammer of Witches

Written by Heinrich Kramer, an Inquisitor of the Catholic Church, it remained in print throughout the early modern period.  Last year, Cambridge’s Christopher Mackay translated an accurate version of the manual – the only complete English version available, and the most reliable.

THIS WEEKEND, Mackay will be featured on the National Geographic channel’s program about books used to hunt and try witches.  Check it out!

For the first time ever, an international investigation team joins forces to unravel the mysteries of the Malleus Maleficarum, or Hammer of Witches. Written in 1486, this infamous medieval manual changed the way the Western world saw evil. With detailed instructions on how to find, prosecute and punish witches, the Malleus inspired centuries of accusation and bloodshed on both sides of the Atlantic.

And – just for a teaser – revisit the Boston Globe’s interview with Mackay last spring…


Q&A: Christopher Mackay: A user’s guide to witches

Boston Globe, 8/2/09

Harry Potter should be glad he practices his wizarding in the modern world. European sorcerers had a much less pleasant time of things in 1486, when the Malleus Maleficarum – “The Hammer of Witches” – was first published.

The lengthy tome was medieval Europe’s definitive guide to recognizing and prosecuting witchcraft, the justification for a wave of burnings-at-the-stake – largely of peasant women – that took place from the late 1400s to about 1520. And it helped spread the paranoid notion of a vast satanic conspiracy: a world where demons roamed freely, enticing women to cast spells, kill babies, interfere with procreation, and try to delay the fast-approaching End Times. (At the time, many thought the Earth’s sell-by date was 1535.)

Written largely by a Dominican friar from Germany named Henricus Institoris, republished broadly in its day, the Malleus was last translated from Latin to English in the 1920s. This month Cambridge University Press published a modern translation in a one-volume paperback, “The Hammer of Witches.” We spoke to the translator, Christopher Mackay, a professor of history and classics at the University of Alberta.

Ideas: One thing that occurred to me, reading this book, is that human nature hasn’t changed much in 450 years.

Mackay: The thing that I find most relevant to today is how you view the world around you. You see what you think you’ll see and you don’t see what you don’t think you’ll see. On “CSI,” Grissom says that the facts speak for themselves, but the facts don’t speak for themselves. It’s how you interpret the facts. [Institoris] talks about things like, you can stick a knife into a beam into your barn and you pretend to milk it, and through some razzmatazz you steal the milk from your neighbor’s cow. This is what people really thought. Onto that kind of stuff, he wants to impose this notion of this sect of heretics who are presided over by Satan.

Ideas: Was there a lot of superstition in daily life in Europe in those days?

Mackay: It depends on what you mean by superstition, because, after all, the church itself performed miracles. It’s a matter of degree. The Church has a store of magic at its command that is acceptable – that comes from God and is good – on the one hand. And you can invoke Satan to do similar things, and that’s bad.

Ideas: Was there a hue and cry against witchcraft before the religious inquisitors got involved?

Mackay: It depends on what you mean by hue and cry. People believed in witchcraft, but they didn’t know about satanism. Whether you think you’re just some kind of wise woman and you’re able to say a few spells on some herbs is one thing. Thinking that that person is involved in a conspiracy with Satan is another thing. In terms of the big witch-hunting trials, they were inquisitions that were conducted by the authorities rather than things that happened out of the population. You wouldn’t have crowds of people like in “Frankenstein” with pitchforks and whatnot demanding that so-and-so were killed.

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