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Witch Hunting for Dummies: The 15th-Century Witchcraft Manual

Cornell’s witchcraft collection has an original copy of the Malleus Maleficarum, an early witch-hunting handbook.

Malleus Maleficarum (Photo: Cornell University Library, Kroch Library, Division of Rare Books and Manuscripts, BF1569.A2 I59 1519 tiny)

German clergyman Heinrich Kramer really had it out for witches.

A member of the Dominican order of preachers, Kramer started amassing power in the 1470s and by the 1480s was zealously attempting to prosecute witches. Not everyone approved of his approach—he was expelled from one city following a failed witch-catching attempt—but Kramer thought his methods should be adopted more widely. He collected them all in one place and published the resulting book in 1487, as the Malleus Maleficarum—a handbook for witch hunting.

The first edition of the Malleus Maleficarum was put out by one of the most successful printers in Germany, and it covered all the witch basics. It described witchcraft and tried to prove, definitely, that it must exist; it explained witches’ powers and how they recruited new members; it detailed, step-by-step, how to conduct the trial of a witch, starting with who might be “fit and proper” judges for witches and extending to how the judge might protect himself from witches’ spells.

There’s much discussion on how to get through “the great trouble caused by the stubborn silence of witches” and under what conditions torture should be used. (Kramer recommends that if threats or promises haven’t worked to find out the truth of a witch’s witchiness, “let her be often and frequently exposed to torture, beginning with the more gentle of them.”) 

The book went through multiple printings; later editions cite the popular Dominican reformer Jacob Sprenger as a collaborator, though modern scholars believe his name was added only for its influence and that he had little hand in book’s contents.

The Malleus Maleficarum was once thought to be the handbook for witch-hunting, but more recent scholarship has decided that it was less influential than once thought. It was previously believed to have been a guidebook for trying witches in the Spanish Inquisition: a 1484 papal bull that precedes the main text of the book explicitly allows witchcraft prosecutions as part of that campaign. Now, though, scholars believe that the leaders of the Spanish Inquisition didn’t put that much stock in the book. By the 1530s, at least, they were actively warning their people away from it.

But the Malleus Maleficarum was influential enough that the Wolkenstein-Rodenegg barons, who controlled a region of South Tyrol in Italy that was known for its witches, had a copy, dated to 1519. In the 17th century, the Rodenegg castle actually became the site of a famous witchcraft trial, in which a man was executed for his dabbling in the dark arts.

That Wolkenstein-Rodenegg copy of the Malleus Maleficarum is now part of the witchcraft collection at Cornell University, which is one of the most extensive in the world. It was begun by Andrew Dickson White, the first president of the school, and his librarian, George Lincoln Burr, who had long been fascinated by witches and the violence against them. He became “a witch-hunter in the book shops,” he joked, and by 1894, the collection included most of the world’s important witchcraft books. When White became ambassador to Germany in 1897, the two had a chance to expand the collection even more.

Today, Cornell’s witchcraft collection includes everything from Harry Potter memorabilia to the world’s largest collection of witchcraft posters. But the Malleus maleficarum is one of the oldest items in the collection. With witches, it’s always nice to have the classics on hand.

Join curator Laurent Ferri for a tour of the entire witchcraft collection on Obscura Day, a worldwide day of exploration on April 16.