Weak Women: Powerful Witches - The Malleus Maleficarum

WITCHCRAFT. Institoris, Henricus (c.1430-1505); Sprenger, Jacobus (c.1436-1495)

Malleus maleficarum.

Nuremberg: Anton Koberger, 17 January 1496


Chancery quarto: 20.3 x 15 cm. 20.3 x 15 cm. 160 leaves (including final blank.) Collation: A-V8

SIXTH EDITION (1st ed. 1486/7).

A fine copy in 19th-c. three-quarter leather and paste paper boards, spine gold-ruled in compartments, corners lightly bumped, very light wear. Aside from light finger-soiling to the title and second leaf, a very clean, crisp copy. A rare edition. Only 9 copies in North America: JCB, Georgetown, LC , OSU,  Huntington, UCLA, Illinois, Penn, Yale.

The most important and most sinister work on demonology ever written. It crystallized into a fiercely stringent code previous folklore about black magic with church dogma on heresy, and, if any one work could, opened the floodgates of the inquisitorial hysteria [... it was] the source, inspiration, and quarry for all subsequent treatises on witchcraft" (Robbins, Encyclopedia of Witchcraft and Demonology).

The primary purposes of the Malleus Maleficarum were to explain the phenomenon of witchcraft (paying special attention to the nature of witches’ sorceries and powers, and the exact nature of the evil that they inflict upon the world); to attempt a systematic refutation of arguments claiming that witchcraft does not exist, to discredit those who expressed skepticism about its reality, to claim that witches were more often women than men, and to educate magistrates on procedures for prosecuting, torturing, convicting, and executing witches.
The first part concerns the three necessary concomitants of witchcraft: 1. The Devil, 2. A witch, and 3. The permission of God that witches may work evil in the world. The pact between the devil and the witch provides the necessary link between the natural and supernatural worlds. Institor and Sprenger explain that a witch must “perform four deeds for the increase of that perfidy [i.e. their pact with the devil,] that is, to deny the Catholic faith in whole or in part through verbal sacrilege, to devote themselves body and soul to the devil, to offer up to the Evil One himself infants not yet baptized, and to persist in diabolical filthiness through carnal acts with incubus and succubus demons”

More specifically, we learn that witches who are midwives “in various ways kill children conceived in the womb, and procure an abortion.” If they do not kill the children in utero, they offer the newborns to the Devil. The author also explains how men are seemingly turned into beasts or how witches work an illusion “so that the male organ appears to be entirely removed from the body.”

The second part explains the methods by which the works of witchcraft are wrought and directed, and how they may be successfully annulled and dissolved. This part includes such details as how witches copulate with Incubi, how devils entice people to become witches, how they make women barren, and men impotent. It includes a number of remedies for the maladies that witches inflict upon mankind.

The third part relates to judicial proceedings (both ecclesiastical and civil) against witches and all other heretics, with grim details on the procedures for imprisonment, the calling of witnesses (and deciding whether the accused may know the names of her accusers), shaving the accused to reveal devils’ marks and “tokens”, and torture while under examination “to overcome their obstinacy in keeping silence and their refusal to confess.”

Weak Women: Powerful Witches

The rationale behind the authors’ assertion that women are more susceptible to becoming witches than are men is, as might be expected, a deeply misogynistic one. Women’s intellectual inferiority, lack of self-governance, weakness of memory, lack of discipline (a “natural vice”), their “inordinate affections and passions” (lust, sadness, desire for vengeance, etc.), and their deceptiveness and secrecy, cause them to be more susceptible to the coaxing of devils. Moreover, a woman’s natural ability to beguile men by inflaming their passions (lust, anger) makes men in turn susceptible to the lures of devils. Thus, women are even culpable when men become wizards themselves. This presents a sort of paradox, for it is through women’s natural weaknesses that they are the more powerful of the sexes in working witchcraft:

“All witchcraft comes from carnal lust, which in women is insatiable… [and for] the sake of fulfilling their lusts they consort even with devils. It is no matter of wonder that there are more women than men found infected with the heresy of witchcraft. And in consequence of this, it is better called the heresy of witches than wizards, since the name itself is taken from the more powerful party.”( Book I. Question 6, 47)

ISTC ii00168000; Goff I-168; H 9246*; Klebs 926.6; BMC II, 441; BSB-Ink I-229; See Coumont, Demonology and Witchcraft : an annotated bibliography : with related works on magic, medicine, superstition, &c.