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Logo of medhistThe Wellcome Trust Centre of the History of Medicine (UCL)Medical History
Med Hist. 2010 April; 54(2): 274–275.
PMCID: PMC2844270

Book Review

The hammer of witches: a complete translation of the Malleus maleficarum
Reviewed by Joseph Ziegler

Christopher S Mackay.
The hammer of witches: a complete translation of the Malleus maleficarum,  Cambridge University Press,  2009, pp.  657, £17.99, $29.99 (paperback  978-0-521-74787-5). 

When Christopher S Mackay’s acclaimed and monumental bilingual edition of Malleus maleficarum appeared in 2006, a common criticism was that the price for this two-volume set placed both the original work and its modern translation beyond the means of the average university student. The hammer of witches: a complete translation of the ‘Malleus maleficarum’ removes this imperfection. This reasonably priced paperback edition reproduces with minor amendments the English translation that appeared as the second volume of Mackay’s 2006 edition. Readers are offered a full and reliable translation of the 1486 first edition of a text that soon became a most influential tool in conceptualizing and combating witchcraft. From his original and exhaustive introduction, Mackay has created a lucid shortened introductory chapter, which sets out for the neophytes the general intellectual and cultural background of the Malleus. It also includes a concise guide for further reading and helpful maps. Some infelicities were inherited from the first edition (for example, the “Fuggers family” on p. 4, and the (literally correct though utterly unconventional and hence misleading) identification of commentaries on Peter Lombard’s Sentences as “Commentary on Pronouncements”). But the translation is generally excellent, and the clear identification of the sources employed by the Dominican authors (Henricus Institoris and Heinrich Kramer with the possible collaboration of the theologian Jacobus Sprenger), as well as Mackay’s detailed explanatory notes make this volume a wonderful tool for students of fifteenth-century Europe. Missing is the reproduction of a folio from the first Latin edition, which could better link the reader to the original book and its layout. The introduction contains a detailed outline of the work which is a major gateway for every student of the history of witchcraft and the witch-craze.

However it is regrettable that no analytical index was added to this edition. Such a subject-index would have clearly revealed the vast number of topics and themes related to the history of the body and medicine that render this volume invaluable for readers of this journal as well. It would have immensely enhanced this book’s usefulness as a teaching aid and as a stimulating trigger for research. The missing index would have started with entries such as: abortions, abortive births, and amulets (as well as incantations, ligatures, and talismans). The category “body” would refer the reader to sub-categories such as the constructions of the witch’s body, change and (animal) metamorphosis of bodies, bodily deformities, the body of Christ, and the nature of aerial bodies. The letter C would include subjects such as cannibalism, castration, churching, complexion as a cause for revelation and determining factor in character formation, and the afterlife of corpses. This would be followed by demonological explanations for physical disease and irregular passions (hatred or love), as well as demons which possess or assume bodies.

The category of disease would include sub-categories such as disease and sorcery, epilepsy, headaches, heroic love, hysteria, leprosy, mania, and melancholy either caused by nature or by demonic agents. Dreams and dream theory, natural and demonological theories of embryology, visual experience (experientia) as cause of certainty would then follow. The eye as an instrument of vision, theories of vision, the evil eye, tears and crying as indication for sorcery, hair (specifically pubic hair, which the authors repeatedly discuss) removed by shaving as necessary preparation for torture are just some of the bodily members and functions that would appear in such an index. Impotence as a medical condition or caused by sorcery, incubus and succubus, imagery and metaphors of disease and medicine, magical versus natural medicine, spiritual medicine, would all acquire detailed references. A major category would be devoted to midwives and their presumed involvement in sorcery when they intentionally or unwillingly murder newborns at the insistence of demons or offer them to the devil. Immunity to pain, magical painkillers, physicians who compete with witches for predicting the hour of death or who participate in the legal procedure leading to the identification and conviction of sorcerers, nocturnal pollution, natural proneness to and medical conditions for possession, impediments to procreation, and purity and purification would be some of the subjects included in the letter P. “Sex” would direct the curious reader to dysfunctional sex, sex with demons, and to sex differences (how is it that women are found to be tainted with this heresy more often than men and why are women sorcerers greater in number than men while men are more often affected by sorcery? was a central theme which intrigued the authors). Sterility, harmful touch (of the witch) and torture would close such an imaginary index.

All this was just a suggestive and partial selection indicating the richness of medical and bodily themes in this book, which should become a standard text for anyone teaching or interested in the history of the human body in pre-modern Europe and in the wild fantasies associated with it.

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