The main purposes of the text were to attempt to systematically refute arguments claiming that witchcraft does not exist, discredit those who expressed skepticism about its reality, claim that witches were more often women than men, and educate magistrates on the procedures that could find them out and convict them. (Montague Summers, from the introduction to the 1928 English translation)
The Malleus Maleficarum was first published by Peter Drach in Speier, Germany, in 1487. Although never officially published by the Catholic Church, the book is considered to have "opened the floodgates of the inquisitorial hysteria" by using church dogma on heresy to harden folklore about witchcraft into a "fiercely stringent code." It influenced centuries of persecution and the execution of hundreds of thousands of accused witches, most of them women, in Europe and the Americas. (Quotes from book dealer's notes.) This edition is the second, published by Drach in 1490.
The papal bull (or decree) Summis desiderantes affectibus, issued in 1484 by Pope Innocent VIII (1484-1492), specifically addressed the malign presence of witches and witchcraft in the Holy Roman Empire and authorized a formal inquisition into their activities. It was one of several official condemnations of heretics and other enemies of Christendom, both groups and individuals, issued during Innocent VII’s reign.
Heinrich Kramer, the primary author of the Malleus maleficarum (1486/7) prefaced the second edition of his witch-hunting manual with the Summis desiderantes affectibus without explicit permission; scholars argue that he considered it likely to bolster the work’s authority with local rulers and clergy. The reputation of Pope Innocent VIII as an affable but corrupt and politically weak pontiff did not necessarily strengthen the bull’s justification of Kramer’s witch-hunting treatise.
The fifteenth century saw advancements in a variety of fields, including the discovery and development of the printing press. Despite developments in many aspects of society, women lived under a cloud of misogyny. The inquisition and the witch hunts that became prevalent during this period made many women targets of mass hysteria and violence.
Witches became the focal point of clerical demonologists who sought to study the manner in which the devil worked through women to interfere with God’s creation and sacraments. One such demonologist was Heinrich Kramer, who wrote a manual for the discovery, interrogation, prosecution, and eventual execution of witches in Europe, the Malleus maleficarum. In the opening passage of the manual, Kramer declares women to be the sole operators of witchcraft.