Malevolent manual for bloodshed and torture

Malleus Maleficarum - The Malleus Maleficarum
July 6, 2007

James Sharpe immerses himself in new versions of 'the maddest yet the most damaging book in world literature'

The Malleus Maleficarum is a book with a reputation. In 1978, Mary Daly declared that to understand early-modern witch-hunts, which by her interpretation were a male massacre of female witches, one needed to look no further than the Malleus , whose authors provided "abundant reasons to justify the gynocidal maniacs who controlled society and culture". In 1896 a more sober and better informed observer, the German pioneer historian of the witch hunts Sigmund Riezler, called the Malleus "the maddest yet the most damaging book in world literature".

These comments point to the wide influence the Malleus Maleficarum is held to have enjoyed: as the back cover of my well-thumbed Arrow Books edition of Montague Summers' 1928 translation puts it, "in the struggle of the Church with witch-craft it became the indispensable authority for the inquisition. Behind every bloodstained act in this struggle, the denunciations, the tortures and the burnings, lies this book".

Modern academic historians of witchcraft are generally less hyperbolic about the Malleus Maleficarum . Nevertheless, the importance of this vast, rambling monument to late medieval scholasticism remains firmly established. It did three things: it summed up 15th-century thinking about what was perceived as the new heresy of demonic witchcraft; it reassured secular judges that they were empowered to try witches and instructed them how to do it; and, in some remarkably misogynistic passages, it highlighted the connection between witchcraft and women (" maleficarum " is, of course, a female form).

There has long been a perceived need for a good English-language edition of this most notorious of demonological tracts to replace that of Summers, marked as it is by the translator's idiosyncratic approach to his subject, a faux medieval prose style and a number of infelicities and inaccuracies. We are now fortunate to have two such translations published within a few months of each other.

P. G. Maxwell-Stuart would seem to be an excellent choice to provide an edited translation of the Malleus Maleficarum , possessing as he does the necessary linguistic skills and an unrivalled knowledge of late medieval and early modern magical texts. His translation is deft and supported by sound scholarship. But it has two major problems.

The first is that it is excerpted. What Maxwell-Stuart regards as the important passages are translated in full, but much of the text of the Malleus is compressed into summaries. This was apparently done to keep within an agreed word limit, Manchester University Press presumably thinking that a full version would prove too expensive to produce. It is worth pointing out, however, that in 2000 the Deutscher Taschenbuch Verlag produced a complete German translation of the Malleus with a more substantial introduction than that offered here for a very reasonable £12.50 or so (at the rate of exchange at the time).

Second, the blurb inviting the potential reader to buy the book claims that Summers' is the only previous translation into English. Unfortunately, presumably while Maxwell-Stuart's translation was in production, Cambridge University Press published what must surely become the definitive English language edition of the Malleus Maleficarum , translated and accompanied by a full edition of the Latin text by Christopher S. Mackay.

Mackay provides not only the Latin text and a very accessible and fully annotated translation, but also a very generous introduction. This discusses the intellectual foundations of the Malleus , gives the biographies of the two Dominican friars who authored it, Jacob Sprenger and Heinrich Kramer (normally Latinised as Institoris), and also provides a list of its main sources. Mackay is excellent in showing how the Malleus drew heavily on previous works and how these were blended into a new synthesis on satanic witchcraft and how to combat it.

Mackay also reopens some scholarly debates about the Malleus . He argues, contrary to accepted wisdom, that the University of Cologne's printed approbation of the work was not a forgery. He also suggests - again contrary to modern scholarship, which would see the Malleus as solely or mainly the work of Institoris - that Sprenger, a more profound theologian than Institoris, was responsible for part one of the book, in which the theoretical aspects of the heresy of witchcraft are laid bare. In so doing, he demonstrates just how complex was the context in which the Malleus was created, a point that is largely obscured by the way in which the book is so often read, and cited, simplistically.

None of this is to deny the scholarship and originality that Maxwell-Stuart brings to his edition of this formidable demonological work. Indeed, the two introductions to these translations are well worth reading together, for they are in many ways complementary. Maxwell-Stuart, for example, is very strong on late medieval magic and also on the 20th-century reception of the Malleus, Mackay having little to say on the latter. Both authors agree that, surprisingly given its many reprintings, the Malleus seems to have had little impact in stirring up witch-hunting (my own researches suggest that its importance was minimal in Protestant England). They also both downplay its misogyny, although one suspects that many of their readers will remain unconvinced on this last point.

Together these two translations demonstrate how the Malleus Maleficarum , a book much more frequently referred to on the basis of a superficial reading than studied closely, was a work of considerable complexity that was produced in a specific historical and intellectual context. Understanding of this context (despite the areas of unresolved scholarly dispute) does much to undermine the book's reputation for fomenting witch-hunting.

Scholars and PhD students will seek out Mackay's edition, while undergraduates studying early modern witchcraft will be directed to Maxwell-Stuart's. Ironically, the general reader, including those Wiccans who understandably find the Malleus rather upsetting, will probably stick with Summers' translation. Sadly, once again first-rate academic research on the European witch-hunts will have minimal impact on popular thinking about that subject.

James Sharpe is professor of history, York University.

Malleus Maleficarum: Volume one: The Latin Text Volume two: The English Translation

Editor - Christopher S. Mackay
Publisher - Cambridge University Press
Pages - Volume one: 720, Volume two: 615
Price - Two-volume set £155.00
ISBN - 9780521859776
Translator - Christopher S. Mackay

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