Stereotypes and assumptions have a way of taking on a life of their own, as the case of Foucault’s ‘ships of fools’ made clear some decades ago. This was the fanciful notion, expounded by Foucault in his influential Madness and Civilization, that in late medieval Germany people with mental disorders were put afloat on boats along the major rivers and literally ‘cast out’ from the community by being left to drift on the waters, waters of course having a purifying connotation as well. That particular myth was thankfully debunked some years ago, in a seminal article by W. B. Maher and B. Maher, ‘The Ship of Fools: Stultifera Navis or Ignis Fatuus?’, American Psychologist, 37 (7), 1982, pp. 756-61. I have discussed this whole sorry episode of the modern assumptions regarding medieval fools and ships in my first book (p. 28), so there is no need to belabour the whole point again here.

However, popular myths surrounding disability in the medieval period still tend to view the period itself as one of barbaric darkness, and one where people we now call disabled were invariably demonised. One such series of myths is associated with the surmised link between the Middle Ages, witches, and disability. Lately I have been having a lot of conversations, both verbal and electronic, with people who keep asking me: “Surely in the Middle Ages witches did x, y, or z”. The preamble “surely” is a dead give-away, and sets my internal alarm bells ringing that I am about to hear one of these popular myths. If the “surely” is amplified with a “but”, as in “But surely disabled people were treated as witches/outcasts/devil’s children”, then it’s time for red alert.

The text blamed for all this modern stereotyping is the Malleus maleficarum, generally translated as ‘The Hammer of the Witches’ (although strictly speaking the maleficae who are to be hammered can be translated as female evil-doers, the Latin word maleficae being related to modern English ‘malefactor’). This text was first published in December 1486 (as far as meticulous research by Behringer, et al, pp. 22-26 indicates) and had been reprinted a second and third time by 1490/91 and 1494 respectively. I have used a new translation from the oldest Latin printed edition [Heinrich Kramer (Institoris), Der Hexenhammer. Malleus Maleficarum, trans. Wolfgang Behringer, Günter Jerouschek and Werner Tschacher with intro. and ed. by Günter Jerouschek and Wolfgang Behringer, Munich: dtv, 2006], which these editors and translators felt it was necessary to produce because of the mountains of misconceptions and misinterpretations of the Malleus arising from earlier modern editions and translations.

So what does Dr Google have to say on the supposed link between disability, witches and the Middle Ages? I keyed the terms “Malleus maleficarum” and “disability” into our modern oracle, and here are four of the top hits:

The website has this to state on the subject: “1494: Malleus Maleficarum, or translated “The Hammer of the Witches,” is a witch hunting manual which discusses seizures as a characteristic of witches. The manual was written by two Dominican Friars with the authority of the pope.”

By seizures this website presumably refers to epilepsy (or what in medieval texts is often called the falling sickness). What has the Malleus actually got to say on the subject? Not a lot, when it boils down to it. Epilepsy is mentioned three or four times, but then in the context of one of many illnesses that can be caused by sorcery. Note that witches were believed to cause epilepsy, not that epilepsy is a disorder that witches themselves have (as the popularisation appears to misread). In fact, the most complete discussion of epilepsy by the Malleus occurs in Book II, part 1, chapter 11, on how magic can inflict illness, but this is itself extremely brief. Even more against the grain of the modern misreading is the fact that Kramer actually uses the example of epilepsy to point out that epilepsy (and leprosy) are problems that commonly arise only through long-standing and underlying issues and defects of the internal organs (fols 67ra-67rb in Speyer 1486, p. 461 in Behringer). Therefore Kramer has to reluctantly concede that there are ‘natural causes’ for things like epilepsy, and only sometimes are such diseases caused by malicious magic.

Next up was the site, which stated: “The Malleus Maleficarum of 1487 declared that these children were the product of the mothers’ intercourse with Satan.”

By this are probably meant the changelings. However, the changeling topos is an old folklore story, that goes back centuries before the Malleus was written. Anyone interested in pursuing the pre-history, so to speak, of the changeling should look at Jean-Claude Schmitt’s book The Holy Greyhound. In the Malleus, changelings are mentioned in Book II, 1,3 (pp. 386-87 in Behringer), where it is asked whether demons can exchange children, a question answered in the affirmative with reference to Guillelmus Parisiensis (that is William of Auvergne, De universo 2,3,25) and incorporating all the stereotypical elements of the changeling (they cry incessantly, cannot have their hunger stilled even by four or five nurses, although they never seem to gain weight they are very heavy). In Book II, 2,8 (pp. 593-94 in Behringer) the passage is repeated in more detail, for instance the Latin term “campsores” is mentioned alongside the German “wechselkind”, and three differentiating characteristics of changelings are cited (their insatiable hunger without growth, exchange by incubi demons for the real child, and appearance of demons in the shape of the changeling child). Here Kramer also tries to explain how a loving God can permit such evil, arguing that this is punishment for the excessive love of parents for their children, as well as punishment for (mainly female) belief in superstition. Thus the blame is firmly laid on the parents, especially the mother, not on the changeling (or disabled) child itself.

Thirdly came with this extract: “In medieval times, witchcraft became linked with disabled people. During the ‘Great Witch Hunts’ of 1480-1680, the Malleus Maleficarum, a book also known as ‘The Hammer of Witches’, went to 70 editions in 14 languages. It told how to identify witches by their impairments, by ‘evidence’ of them creating impairments in others, or by them giving birth to a disabled child.”

You will notice how this is almost verbatim the same wording as can be found on the fourth and last site,, which conveniently manages to condense all the previous three stereotypes into one handy summary: “Back in the medieval times it was led to be believed disability was associated with witchcraft, evidence of such barbaric claims was engrossed by the Malleus Maleficarum, a book which was published in 14 languages and 70 editions. The book provided a guide on how to spot genuine witches by their impediments and their ability to give birth to babies with disabilities.”

It is difficult to tell who has been copying whom, in fact it barely matters, since the main point is that, surprise surprise, the Internet is a great place for the mushrooming of myths. Nowhere in the Malleus is there any mention whatsoever of blind, lame or epileptic people (the terms Kramer uses rather than the modern anachronism ‘disability’) being witches. In fact, Kramer is singularly uninterested in the physical appearance of witches. Witches tend to be female, that is all the Malleus remarks about their physical characteristics. All that popularised stuff about witches having a third nipple, being an ugly old crone or supposedly being disabled in some general way is later mythologising that is completely unsubstantiated for the medieval period in general and this text in particular.

Finally, let’s place the main author of the Malleus, Heinrich Kramer (‘Kramer’ is a small shop keeper in German, thus his Latinised name is Institoris), in the context of his times. I say ‘main author’, since by some authorities the prior of the Dominican convent in Cologne, Jakob Sprenger (1437-1495), is credited with co-authorship to a greater or lesser degree (the jury is still out on this case). Despite the massive influence this infamous book reached in later centuries, being blamed for the ideological foundations on which the witch-crazes and witch-hunts of the early modern period rested, in his own time Kramer’s work was far from universally accepted. The Dominican Kramer (c. 1430-1505) was inquisitor in the southern German-speaking regions, and during his lifetime was not exactly an uncontroversial figure. One particular episode may illustrate this (see Eric Wilson, ‘Institoris at Innsbruck: Heinrich Institoris, the Summis Desiderantes and the Brixen Witch-Trial of 1485′, in Robert W. Scribner and Trevor Johnson [eds], Popular Religion in Germany and Central Europe, 1400-1800, New York: St Martin’s Press, 1996, pp. 97-100). In the autumn of 1485 Kramer was engaged on his inquisitorial duties in the diocese of Brixen, Tyrol, causing amongst other things the arrest of seven women on accusations of witchcraft. The local magnates, bishop included, felt that due judicial proceedings were not correctly followed, and raised doubts concerning Kramer. On 2 November 1485 all women were released, and within a fortnight Kramer was told to leave the diocese, which he refused to do, instead trying to re-open the prosecution. A letter survives from the bishop of Brixen dated 14 February 1486, in which he complains about Kramer. Kramer is said to have become childish due to senility (“propter senium gantz chindisch sein worden”) in his obsession to persecute, and the bishop recommends his retirement to a monastery, there to remain without causing further trouble; the bishop regarded Kramer as a dangerous and mad fanatic (“realiter mihi delirare videtur”) whom he tried to get rid of as quickly as possible (p. 63 in Behringer).

This is certainly not the picture of universal acclaim for the prosecution of ‘witches’ that later historiography has tried to present. As the editors of this new German translation noted: “The central message of the ‘Hammer of the Witches’ is that the damages purported to have been caused by witches are actually ascribed to them. The notable element of this message was that it reflected widespread beliefs among the populace in general, but that it stood in marked contrast to a theological tradition, which since Augustine held that magic had no directly effective powers, and that practitioners of magic were only to be punished because they had put their faith in demons and not in God.” (Berhringer et al, p. 18 ) During Kramer’s lifetime a number of voices criticised the belief in witches or their supposed abilities, notably the preacher at the cathedral of Passau, Ulrich Molitor, whose tractate of 1489 tried to prove the impossibility of witches flying, transforming into animals, or magically influencing the weather. One should note that in all of this disabled people hardly matter, neither as perpetrators of maleficium nor as victims of the supposed malefactors.