The title page of an original Compendium Maleficarum

Some Thoughts on the Compendium Maleficarum

The Caution Possum wishes to warn onlookers that this book (and therefore this post, to some extent) deals with religion, xenophobia, misogyny, and “mature subject matter” that’d get at least a PG-13 rating on a good day.

Be kind to yourself and wait for a different blog post if this may be troubling to you. Take care!

I already know this will be a series of blog posts. I know that because I am only like 50 pages in and I have said “This would make a great dungeon,” or “This is a blog post,” or “This is absolutely horrific,” like dozens of times at least. This book has it all: sex, drugs, Satan, in-line arguments with other authors, history lessons, racism and misogyny and xenophobia, a baffling grasp on science that vacillates between “shockingly accurate for the time,” to “how do you also believe this?”. It’s really something else.

It’s also public domain and available on Archive.org – though be forewarned that I’ve been reading it and besides all the aforementioned socially ignoble stuff, I have also already come across a couple missing pages so there may yet be more issues, both in the material and in the scan quality, deeper into the book.

So, what exactly is it?

The Compendium Maleficarum, literally The Book of Witchcraft, was written by an Italian priest named Francesco Maria Guazzo in the early 1600s and published in Italy in 1608. The central purpose was to inform the reader, presumably a literate man of the Catholic faith, on the signs and dangers of witchcraft so that he might recognize it, defend against it, and prosecute those responsible. What it is for our purposes is 200+ pages of absolutely buckwild nonsense that we can turn into RPG inspiration.

If you are into that or just want some more history and background on this stuff, read on.

If you don’t want to read some history stuff specifically, no hard feelings – skip ahead and start reading again somewhere below the cool woodcut artwork.

History lessons for people who slept through the Inquisition

So, it’s 1608, and the Compendium Maleficarum (this book) is released. At the time, Latin was the mother tongue of literacy in Europe, and literacy was primarily the domain of the capital-c Church. Catholicism was the dominant religion of Europe and her various overseas colonies, and the Church was firmly in the midst of the Inquisition, which began centuries before and was meant to root out heresy, schisms, and generally track and eliminate any work of Satan and his evil temptations and schemes. Specifically, the early 1600s were preceded by decades and decades of ongoing and concerted witch-hunts. And I mean literal witch-hunts, with fire and stuff, not the way we use the word now. What really set the Christian world off on its quest to defeat witchcraft took hold a little over a century before, when Pope Innocent VIII released a decree for all of Christendom (a Papal bull being the technical term) which authorized the investigation of witchcraft and witches, and the trials and punishment thereof.

A bunch of sources trace that Papal bull back to having been done at the behest of a particularly zealous psycho Inquisitor from Germany named Heinrich Kramer, who was such a jerk that even his own local bishops were like “Nah, dude, relax,” which didn’t sit well with his ego – so the Pope did him a solid and wrote a formal document that reaffirmed that the Vatican believed in witchcraft and the devil’s evil works and that the Inquisitors should root it out and destroy it, which enabled Kramer to go hog-wild. Naturally, he did, scandalously so, and a lot of other superstitious and cynical people also joined in. Much of the clergy around him thought he was a clown, and detested him, which only drove him to write a book to prove how right and great his campaign against witchcraft was – a different book to the one we are reading, called the Malleus Maleficarum, or The Hammer [Against] Witches. The Vatican ended up saying the book didn’t reflect the Pope’s understanding of witchcraft and eventually banned it, but it was wildly popular with the public and it was reprinted dozens of times in a fairly short span of time owing to demand. Generations of egomaniacs were inspired to wildly overreach into superstition to punish women (and men, and just about anyone else) who displeased them.

To wit, witch-hunts. I think most people are aware, but in brief, the witch-hunts of this period were primarily used by cynical and cruel men – clergy and layman alike – to ruin people, primarily women, for a nearly infinite number of reasons.

Lady rebuff your advances? Witch. Lady inherited valuable land or influence that you’d like for yourself or someone else? Witch. Dude screwed you over in a business deal? His daughter and wife are witches. Lady pregnant with your child out of wedlock? Witch. Dude contradicts your explanation of a biblical lesson? Witch – warlock even! The list of malicious schemes is endless.

So too is the list of tragic and unplanned, almost mundane evils; these were fearful and superstitious times and people went along with the easiest and safest path, often unknowingly guided by what boiled down to propaganda. The Church was the center of the universe, quite literally. It held enormous sway and governed nearly all aspects of life to some extent. Most laypeople were illiterate or quasi-literate themselves. The majority of the natural world was unexplained and life was harsh. Stuff sucked, constantly and with little warning. If you’re a simple Polish farmer for whom the Church is the arbiter of right and wrong and giver of salvation and knowledge, and you hear rumors of witches being arrested in Germany, and then your crop gets schwacked by some hail, and some learned officer of the Church says it was certainly the devil’s work that ruined the harvest for the whole town, and he blames a sharp-tongued girl for consorting with Satan and performing other witchcraft, that… kinda lines up with your experience. And every time a witch is tried and found guilty and punished, it adds to the body of evidence that the next village hears about. They’re even more inclined to believe it next time around. And so it goes – you meant no harm to that sharp-tongued woman personally, but it ended up there anyway.

I’ll take the brave and controversial opinion here that the witch-hunts were bad and used to bludgeon those the Church or opportunistic sadists wanted to punish for any number of reasons. I’m reasonably sure you would take this heroic stance too.

So, anyway, a real keener of a German priest wrote a popular book on witchcraft and the Church eventually disowned it and banned it, but the public (including clergymen!) loved its scandalous detail and fiery rhetoric. As a result, for decades the entirety of the Christian world was pursuing witches in earnest with mounting ferocity and hysteria, and in so doing they were accumulating documents and records and evidence of witchcraft via witch trials taking place all over the globe. But there was no longer an officially-recognized treatise on witches, and witchcraft. Remember, the Church is in charge of all things and most of the clergy – especially those with aspirations of personal glory and promotion within the Church – wouldn’t want to be caught publicly espousing a book the Vatican had banned from use. This presents an opportunity!

Therefore, in the early 1600s, an Italian priest sought to write a new book on witchcraft, one that the Vatican wouldn’t ban and distance itself from. One that could be used as a guide for identifying witches and their works. A book that compiled all the knowledge of witchcraft gathered from several generations of strict witch-hunting and inquisition, along with all the “historical” tales of sorcery that the illicit Malleus Maleficarum and other texts referenced.

That Italian priest was Francesco Maria Guazzo, and his book was the Compendium Maleficarum.

Oh look, a devil!

The Obscene Kiss, in which a witch gets full-on Tinder with the devil’s butt.

Alright, we’re back.

So this book is pretty wild. It’s definitely got all the issues you’d expect from an earnest witch-hunting manual from 1608 to have, let alone the issues that come from the fact that the English translation was written in 1929. I mean, from the start, it’s a treatise on recognizing witchcraft and documenting historical examples of witchcraft with the plain presumption that it’s all real and always has been and presents a clear and pressing danger for Mankind. That’s… got baggage. The conviction with which this is presented and clearly believed by the author is something really fascinating and scary.

So much of the book is straight up nonsensical D&D-grade fantasy that it’s a natural fit for this blog. You have tales of semi-civilized apes interbreeding with humans, an entire chapter on Incubus and Succubus devils and their evil plots to trick humans into bed (not to mention a scientific explanation of how Satan impregnates people with stolen semen). You have a tale about a Polish mayor doing what is absolutely, 100%, a comedic session a crafty party of PCs conning a village. You’ve got Robert E. Howard-worthy stories of unabashed xenophobic nonsense about how an army of enemies of Christendom totally very much definitely did some absolutely vile human sacrifice and desecration to gain evil powers in battle – very real, not at all racist slander against “the other.”

Like, all of this is just in the first 20 pages alone.

The 1600s, and their version of history of humanity, were absolutely ridiculous. It becomes extremely obvious how people (and humans are naturally storytellers) spread tales of dragons and deeds of might and daring. It’s really wild to read this book and be able to see the same threads of fiction – presented as earnest and genuine scientific fact – running through the stories there and all the way into the fiction-presented-as-fiction of the earliest authors of Appendix N.

The very same human imagination can be traced in a straight line from our D&D to its Appendix N to the oral and written traditions of storytelling that those earliest authors were inspired by, and then back from there through this book, and from this book and the beliefs of its time back to the stories – real and imagined both – of antiquity and before. It’s really strange and illuminating. It’s also incredibly inspiring and directly translatable to actual D&D stuff. I have ideas for dungeons, monsters, spells, you name it. Just from some 50 pages so far.

Conclusion? Kinda?

It’s clear to me that this is going to be a recurring subject here for a minute or two, and it’s definitely got a tremendous amount of game fodder packed into each page. I guess writing in a time when ink was precious and printing required manually setting movable type on a printing press meant you really had to cram the salacious good bits into it at maximum density.

This post kinda boils down to mentioning my current reading material while I put together some maps and other things for those ideas I mentioned, for publishing here sometime in the near future. Those Big Ideas will be more suited to their own discrete posts inspired by the book. In the meantime, if you’re so inclined, feel free to read along!

If you do read this book as well and have thoughts on it, or are inspired to make some kind of RPG stuff as a result of it, I would love to check your work out! Let me know on Twitter, where I can be found screaming into dusty tomes under the username @dungeonspossums, or just drop a link in the comments below and I’ll get over to it!

One comment on “Some Thoughts on the Compendium Maleficarum

  1. george

    i’ve got the dover press version of it… which (looking on amazon), not as cheap as it used to be. primary sources are my jam. i like to do this reading style where i imagine primary sources as systemless RPG manuals, take everything they say at face value. used a bit if the Maleficarum for my bestiary… if i ever get around to it, also working on a spell system that leans into it more heavily.

    https://www.drivethrurpg.com/product/357543/A-Groatsworth-of-Grotesques

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