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The Malleus Maleficarum and King James: Defining Witchcraft

Malleus MaleficarumThe Malleus Maleficarum and King James: Defining Witchcraft

Elizabeth Mack

Voces Novae: Chapman University Historical Review, Vol 1, No 1 (2009)

Abstract

Heinrich Kramer’s Malleus Maleficarum was a medieval treatise on witchcraft, describing the nature of witchcraft and the appropriate punishment for accused witches. After disappearing into obscurity in the early sixteenth century, it resurfaced during the rise of the early modern witch hunts. The reprinting of the Malleus at this time has often led to the belief that the medieval text played a large role in this rise in witch hunts. However, a comparison of the Malleus to later works shows a shift in the definitions of witchcraft during the early modern era. This is especially evident in the work of King James I of England both in his own treatise the Daemonologie and in the 1605 case of Anne Gunter, in which James showed a particular interest. When compared to the work of King James, Kramer’s misogynistic definition of witchcraft no longer fits. Early modern witchcraft shifts away from the Malleus and develops the idea of possession, evident in the case of Anne Gunter, which is an entirely new concept never mentioned by Kramer.





Witches, demons, and sorcery have become improbable notions in modern society, no longer having a place in the realm of reality as they once did. Medieval and early modern witchcraft was based on theological and intellectual ideas which were not imaginary to people, but intrinsically connected to their reality. A common misconception is that they were pagan ideas of the uneducated masses. However, the development of the belief and definition of witchcraft was largely influenced by the academic work of scholars. A noted scholar, Heinrich Kramer, wrote the best known medieval treatise on witchcraft, the Malleus Maleficarum, first printed in 1487. Historians often credit this text as being especially influential in the significant increase in witch prosecutions during the second half of the sixteenth century. Hans Peter Broedel discussed the role of the Malleus in his work on the subject, The “Malleus Maleficarum” and the construction of witchcraft. Broedel outlined the definitions for “witch” and “witchcraft” which came about by the mid-sixteenth century, arguing that “since the Malleus played a significant role in this evolution of terms, it seems reasonable to focus upon this text”. However, a comparison of the Malleus to later works shows a shift in the definitions of witchcraft during the early modern era. This is especially evident in the ideas of witchcraft laid out by King James I of England (VI of Scotland), both in his own treatise on witchcraft, the Daemonologie, and in the 1605 case of Anne Gunter, in which James showed a particular interest. James was an active figure in the witch-hunts of early modern England. A systematic comparison between the Malleus and the definitions of witchcraft found in the Daemonologie and Gunter’s case strongly suggest that this text was not as influential in later witch-hunting as some historians believe.

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