The Role of Women as Portrayed in the Malleus Maleficarum

The Role of Women as Portrayed in the Malleus Maleficarum

By Brandon Anthony Sexton

When Druids and Mystics Ruled Harshly Over the Superstitious Peasants, edited by Stacey Dearing and Will Eberle (Aquinas College Undergraduate Seminar Witchcraft Papers, 2000)

Introduction: Witchcraft itself has many connotations; today some of those are witches, brooms, magic, and the occult. In the 15th century the term was associated with the brooms and magic as well, but also with the end of the world and the coming of Christ, the battle between good and evil. These feelings prompted people to reach for salvation of their souls and to seek those who might be in league with the Satan and his devils. The moral people had to hunt out the suspects of this heinous crime. To help them identify the followers of Lucifer, Heinrich Kramer wrote the “Malleus Maleficarum,” and it was “written to give teeth to the papal bull by Pope Innocent VIII.” Where did he get his ideas for witchcraft? From what sources did he draw? Kramer relied on Aristotle, Augustine, Abelard, and Aquinas for most of his information on women. The roll of women had been a discussion dominated by men, as they tried to explain the place of women in the world. Kramer took his negative views of women in regards to their roles in witchcraft to a new level compared to his historical brothers, and these views helped to fuel the witchcraze.

Kramer sought the help of Pope Innocent VIII to fight the works of witches, by adding papal authority to his trials. Prior to Innocent’s Bull, there is strong evidence that Kramer’s trials from 1482 to 1484 were “not received well by the authorities.” The people who welcomed him at first would grow tired of “his persecutory zeal” and cast him out. Due to this resistance Kramer came before the new pope and asked for a Bull to support his ideas. The idea of a Bull on witchcraft was nothing new, as popes had issued them before. Pope Innocent VIII wrote his Summis Desiderantes to give Kramer explicit authority to prosecute witchcraft in Germany. It recognized the existence of witches and authorized Kramer to take whatever steps he had to stamp out those in league with the devil. “Heedless of their own salvation and forsaking the catholic faith , give themselves over to devils male and female, and by their incantations, charms, and conjurings, and by other abominable superstitions and sortileges, offences, crimes, and misdeeds, ruin and cause to perish the offspring of women”. However, what Kramer did with the Bull was a new scene in an old play.

The Malleus targeted women in their actions with the devil and for their role in witchcraft. It was the “weakness of women” that lead them to look towards Satan. To make a pact with the devil they could do so in both public and private depending on the location and time. The first one was almost “a solemn ceremony, like a solemn vow” which usually took place at a Sabbat. The devil appeared to witches in the body of a man to better tempt their carnal lusts, and would “urge them to keep faith with him.” The devil promised that in return for the vow, he would grant them wealth and a long life; starting first with small acts of witchcraft then gradually getting bigger. After having gained their trust, he would ask “whether she” will forsake God and the Virgin Mary. Also, they must take the cross underfoot and deny the entire Christian religion. Homage had to be paid by the witch to the devil, and she must also give herself “body and soul to him, for ever,” while at the same time trying to increase the membership of those against God. To build credibility for his book, Kramer relied on quotes from some of the church fathers, about why women were more likely to be lead astray.

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