A manual for witch-hunters

Worried about encountering witches like Macbeth this All Hallows Eve? Turn to a witch-hunting manual such as the Malleus Maleficarum!

Malleus spine - a manual for hunting witches

This famous book, known as “The Hammer of Witches” in English, was written in the 15th century by a pair of inquisitors for the Catholic Church. The text was originally published in Latin, as many books were at the time, and later translated into English and German.

The first part set out the argument that witchcraft was in fact real and was a way for the Devil to gain power, and emphasized the importance of identifying and arresting practitioners of witchcraft. Part two explained the wrongdoings that witches might commit (such as calling up hailstorms or transforming humans into wild beasts), and part three laid out methods for imprisoning, questioning, and passing sentence upon suspected witches. 

Malleus title page - a manual for hunting witches

The Malleus Maleficarum became a popular text as waves of fear of witchcraft and the Devil spread through Europe and later America. Due to its encyclopedic breadth,which included a 39-page index (check out the first page below), many other early modern works about witchcraft referenced and were influenced by it. 

The Malleus Maleficarum was re-published many times throughout the following two centuries; the Folger’s copy is one of those later editions, published in Venice in 1576. It is bound in a sturdy vellum cover with a handwritten title on the spine and leather ties at the edges. (It does not appear to have been owned by any witch hunters, as far as we know.)

If the Malleus Maleficarum seems too heavy for you, both in tone or size, why not try A Pleasant Treatise of Witches instead? This 1673 volume covers much of the same ground as the Malleus, with chapters such as “The manner of the Witches Profession” and “Persons Bewitched”—but is only about a quarter of the length. The Folger’s copy is a travel-sized edition in a polished leather cover, with appropriately pleasant marbled endpapers.

And if you’re less worried about fending off witches, and more interested in actually reading about some spells, you can browse through this “Book of magic, with instructions for invoking spirits” from the Folger collection. This is an elaborate handwritten and illustrated manuscript, divided into parts 1 and 2. (You can read more about how the manuscript was separated and then brought together again in this The Collation blog post.)

Both manuscripts were created around the same time as our copy of the Malleus Maleficarum, but in contrast to “The Hammer of Witches,” which treats magic as a tool of the Devil, the manuscript “Book of magic” contains multiple Biblical references, and invokes God as the source of any magical power. You can learn more about the “Book of magic” and Prospero’s magic book from The Tempest in this Shakespeare Unlimited podcast episode featuring Teller (of the magic-comedy duo Penn & Teller).

One Comment


  • The manuscript Book of Magic is actually two pieces of the same manuscript, acquired 50 years apart and reunited at the Folger. The first 14 pages are still missing, so if anyone reading this happens to have seen them, please let the Folger know!


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