Malleus Maleficarum, Witch Hunter Manual
Perhaps the most spectacular manifestation of early modern European discrimination against women was the conviction of thousands of women for witchcraft. Over three centuries, more than 40,000 people were executed as witches, 75 percent of them female. The greatest witch hunts occurred from the 1550s to the 1660s in the Franco-German borderlands, areas wracked by the religious struggles of the Reformation.
The following excerpt comes from the most famous manual for witch hunters, the Malleus Maleficarum (Hammer of Witches) written in 1487 by a Dominican monk, Heinrich Kramer (1430-1505). The Pope appointed Kramer an inquisitor in 1484, with the mission to eliminate heresy in southern Germany. Kramer moved ruthlessly to do away with witches, who were believed to gain evil powers through pacts with the Devil. Written to justify his actions, Kramer’s manual presented witchcraft as a growing threat to Christianity, arguing that witches not only used their powers against common folk, but also led Christians to perdition. Kramer also argued that women were particularly susceptible to the crime because of their inability to control their passions, a commonly-held viewpoint. Although never officially accepted by the Church, Kramer’s work greatly influenced secular magistrates across Europe; it was they who ordered the execution of the majority of so-called witches.
This source is a part of the Women in the Early Modern World, 1500-1800 teaching module.
The First Part Treating of the Three Necessary Concomitants of Witchcraft, Which are the Devil, a Witch, and the Permission of Almighty God
Question VI. Concerning Witches who copulate with Devils. Why is it that Women are chiefly addicted to Evil Superstitions?
Therefore, let us now chiefly consider women; and first, why this kind of perfidy is found more in so fragile a sex than in men. And our inquiry will first be general, as to the general conditions of women; secondly, particular, as to which sort of women are found to be given to superstition and witchcraft; and thirdly, specifically with regard to midwives, who surpass all others in wickedness . . .
As for the first question, why a greater number of witches is found in the fragile feminine sex than among men; it is indeed a fact that it were idle to contradict, since it is accredited by actual experience, apart from the verbal testimony of credibly witnesses . . .
For some learned men propound this reason; that there are three things in nature, the Tongue, an Ecclesiastic, and a Woman, which know no moderation in goodness or vice; and when they exceed the bounds of their condition they reach the greatest heights and the lowest depths of goodness and vice. When they are governed by a good spirit, they are most excellent in virtue; but when they are governed by an evil spirit, they indulge the worst possible vices . . .
Others again have propounded other reasons why there are more superstitious women found than men. And the first is, that they are more credulous; and since the chief aim of the devil is to corrupt faith, therefore he rather attacks them… The second reason is, that women are naturally more impressionable, and more ready to receive the influence of a disembodied spirit; and that when they use this quality well they are very good, but when they use it ill they are very evil….The third reason is that they have slippery tongues, and are unable to conceal from the fellow-women those things which by evil arts they know; and, since they are weak, they find an easy and secret manner of vindicating themselves by witchcraft….All wickedness is but little to the wickedness of a woman. And to this may be added that, as they are very impressionable, they act accordingly.
But because in these times this perfidy is more often found in women than in men, as we learn by actual experience, if anyone is curious as to the reason, we may add to what has already been said the following: that since they are feebler both in mind and body, it is not surprising that they should come more under the spell of witchcraft . . .
But the natural reason is that she is more carnal than a man, as is clear from her many carnal abominations. And it should be noted that there was a defect in the formation of the first woman, since she was formed from a bent rib, that is, a rib of the breast, which is bent as it were in a contrary direction to a man. And since through this defect she is an imperfect animal, she always deceives . . .
And indeed, just as through the first defect in their intelligence that are more prone to abjure the faith; so through their second defect of inordinate affections and passions they search for, brood over, and inflict various vengeances, either by witchcraft, or by some other means. Wherefore it is no wonder that so great a number of witches exist in this sex . . .
To conclude. All witchcraft comes from carnal lust, which is in women insatiable. See Proverbs xxx: There are three things that are never satisfied, yea, a fourth thing which says not, It is enough; that is, the mouth of the womb. Wherefore for the sake of fulfilling their lusts they consort even with devils. More such reasons could be brought forward, but to the understanding it is sufficiently clear that it is no matter for 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 of wizards, since the name is taken from the more powerful party. And blessed be the Highest Who has so far preserved the male sex from so great a crime: for since He was willing to be born and to suffer for us, therefore He has granted to men the privilege.
Kramer, Heinrich. Malleus Maleficarum. Translated by Rev. Montague Summers. London: J. Rodker, 1928.