Prosecuting Witches: A How-To Guide for Every Library

By Jamie Cumby |

For Halloween, we at Preserving the World’s Rarest Books are looking at an infamous early modern text on the supernatural: the Malleus Maleficarum.  This guide for prosecuting cases of witchcraft draws on anecdotes ripped from the experiences of its Inquisitor author. It was first printed in 1487 (USTC 746011) and went through eight editions in its first ten years. By 1621, it had gone through two dozen editions. Its colourful tales of Maleficium (harmful magic) have made it a classic for current readers with an interest in the occult, as well as for early modern readers with a sincere belief in witchcraft.

It was written by a Dominican Inquisitor, Heinrich Kramer (aka Institoris), with the contributions of his fellow monk and inquisitor Jacob Sprenger.  The pair had been granted a bull, Summus desiderantes affectibus, by Pope Innocent VIII in 1484 that licensed them to prosecute witches throughout much of the German lands.  Kramer wrote the text in an environment of widespread belief in the imminent end of the world, and in the context of Dominican calls for reform.  For its author and many of its readers, the Malleus Maleficarum was a weapon in an epic struggle against the Devil.  The first part of the text deals with the concept of witchcraft, and argues for the real and present threat that witches posed.  Then Kramer moves on to discuss how witches worked their magic and recruited new members, with suggestions to clergy and prosecutors for how to help those afflicted with witchcraft.  The third and final section deals with procedure for trials, including passages advocating the use of torture to extract confessions.  Interestingly, the work’s evocative title, which translates to ‘hammer of witches’ did not come from either Kramer or Sprenger, but from the preface to the 1487 edition entitled ‘Author’s defense of the Malleus maleficarum’.

f. 1 Malleus Maleficarum
Malleus Maleficarum, Perne Library at Peterhouse, Cambridge, N.7.17. USTC 746016.

The edition of the Malleus we would like to highlight today came from the celebrated Nuremburg workshop run by Anton Koberger, whose Revelationes Sancte Birgitte we have previously discussed. Koberger printed two quarto editions of the Malleus in rapid succession, the first in 1494 (USTC 746013), and the second in 1496 (USTC 746016). The second edition was slightly larger than Koberger’s first Malleus, at 160 leaves or 40 printed sheets, compared with 1494’s 144 leaves, or 36 printed sheets.  The difference in length does not reflect changes to the printed text, but rather the use of slightly larger types, which can be seen by consulting the digital copies of the 1496 edition from John Carter Brown Library (J496 .K89m) and the 1494 edition at Bibliothèque Municipale de Lyon (Rés Inc 199).  After the 1496 edition, the first flurry of printings of the Malleus, which had appeared at a rate of nearly one edition per year, came to an end.

Up until this point, many of our blog posts have highlighted examples of editions with relatively low survival rates.  This copy of Koberger’s 1496 Malleus Maleficarum is an especially well-surviving book, of which at least 98 of copies are known to survive in libraries around the world.  However, other incunabular editions survive much more poorly.  It seems that copies of Koberger’s 1496 Malleus, were more carefully preserved by successive generations of owners, perhaps because of the prestige of the Koberger press.

Peterhouse copy ex libris
Bookplate from the Peterhouse copy, N.7.17. USTC 746016.

The Perne Library at Peterhouse in Cambridge holds a copy (N.7.17) of the 1496 edition, which came to the library from a controversial figure.  It had belonged to Andrew Perne, who was elected Master of Peterhouse in 1554, and served until his death in 1589.  Perne was a prominent Tudor clergyman caught in the midst of the confessional tumult of his day.  He was notorious among his peers for flip-flopping on major doctrinal issues, following the prevailing religious and political climate.  Notably, he preached a sermon condemning Martin Bucer and Paul Fagius when their bones were burnt following their heresy trials in 1557, and a sermon celebrating the two Protestants when they were rehabilitated in 1560.  However, Perne was a highly effective University administrator, bringing in record enrollment numbers to Peterhouse and helping advance favorable tax legislation for Oxbridge Colleges. He bequeathed much of his extensive library to Peterhouse, and gave the funds to begin the construction of what is now the Perne Library, which houses the College’s rare materials.

The legacy of the Malleus casts a long shadow.  It served as a reference point for witch trials in the following three centuries, though recent scholarship has cast doubt on whether Kramer and Sprenger’s methods were ever closely followed. It is also notorious as an example of contemporary misogyny.  Though the passages that discuss carnality as the source of women’s inherent disposition towards witchcraft are not unique, the work’s sheer popularity served to spread the idea that women were more likely to be witches.  The many printed copies found their way to the libraries of influential ecclesiastical and legal figures who were in the business of policing orthodoxy, for use as part of their work.  Copies like Andrew Perne’s show the early reach and importance of the Malleus Maleficarum for clergymen, even those who were not particularly consistent in their religious convictions.


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Jamie Cumby received her PhD at the University of St Andrews in 2018.  She is currently a Senior Editor on Preserving the World’s Rarest Books, and has been affiliated with the USTC project since beginning her PhD in 2014.  Her ongoing work explores the development of the publishing industry in Lyon before the Wars of Religion, with special attention to the Compagnie des libraires.  She is also St Andrews’ contributor to the Material Evidence in Incunabula database. You can follow her on Twitter at @JECumby.


Images used with permission of the Perne Library at Peterhouse in Cambridge.

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