The 500 year old book that helped people hunt ‘witches’

Books have always had the power to enchant their readers – figuratively speaking.

But a book that was quite popular from the 15th to the 17th century, and it is infamous, is literally about spells: what witches do, how to identify them, how to make them confess, and how to bring them for quick punishment.

When the fear of witches reached a height of fever in Europe, witch hunters turned to “Malleus Maleficarum” or “The Witch’s Hammer” for guidance. The book’s instructions helped judge some of the tens of thousands of people – almost all women – who were executed during the period. Its bloody legacy extended to North America with 25 suspected “witches” killed in Salem, Massachusetts, in the late 17th century.

As a reference librarian and adjunct professor at General Theological Seminary in New York, I have the rare opportunity to hold an original copy of “Malleus” in my hands and share this piece of history with my students and researchers. Much has been written about the content, but the physical book itself is a fascinating testimony to the story.

“Malleus” was written around 1486 by two Dominican brothers, Johann Sprenger and Heinrich Kraemer, who present their guide in three parts.

The first claims that witches actually exist, sorcery is heresy, and that not fearing the power of the witch is in itself a heresy. The second part goes into graphic details about the witch’s sexual deviation, with a chapter devoted to “the way witches mate with the devils known as Incubi.” An incubus was a male demon believed to have sex with sleeping women.

It also describes the witch’s ability to turn their victims into animals and their violence against children. The third and final part provides guidelines for how to interrogate a witch, including through torture; make her confess; and ultimately judge her.

Twenty-eight editions of “Malleus” were published between 1486 and 1600, making it the definitive guide to witchcraft and demonology for many years – and helped the prosecution of witches get under way.

The authors of the text reluctantly admit that men can be agents of the devil, but claim that women are weak and inherently more sinful, making them his perfect target.

Accusations were often rooted in the belief that women, especially those who did not submit to the ideals of obedient Christian wives and mothers, were likely to be in league with the devil.

Hand-drawn notes and pictures adorn a page from ‘Malleus Maleficarum’, a medieval book about witches.

Christoph Keller, Jr. Library at General Theological Seminary in New York, Author supplied (no recycling)

The authors describe “four horrible crimes that devils commit against infants, both in the mother’s womb and afterwards.” They even accuse witches of eating newborns and are especially suspicious of midwives.

Women on the fringes of society, such as healers in Europe or the slave Tituba in Salem, were convenient scapegoats for the ills of society.

At General Theological Seminary, anyone interested in researching our copy of “Malleus” should make an appointment to visit the reading room of the special collection. Due to the fragility of the book, visitors are asked to wash their hands before touching it.

A striking aspect is its size. “Malleus” is just under 8 inches long, with 190 pages – this book was intended to travel with its reader and stored in a coat or bag.

Our copy is from 1492 and it was published by the famous bookbinder Peter Drach from Speyer, Germany. This makes it a rare example of “incunabula”, as scholars call European books published before about 1501 – the earliest period of printing.

After much wear and tear, this copy was rebound in leather in the 19th century. Small handwritten notes cover most pages. On page 48, a reader spoke e.g. three points and wrote the words “nice religious journey” on the opposite page. Several pages have hand-drawn arrows pointing to paragraphs.

Another point to consider when looking at this edition is its ancestry, which means who has owned it over the years. This copy is originally from the collection of Pastor Edwin A. Dalrymple, who was principal of a school and an episcopal church in Virginia in the mid-19th century. The book moved from his shelves to the Maryland Diocesan Library until it entered our library system.

Perhaps the most interesting aspect of this “Malleus”, in addition to the text itself, is a book plate pasted on its back. This book plate says: “It was the handbook on the witch-hunt in the 15th and 16th centuries. who is accused of witchcraft. “

It is unclear who attached this statement, but its position sounds very true: “Malleus” represents the power of ideas – for better or worse.

Melissa Chim is an adjunct professor and reference librarian at General Theological Seminary.

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