The Malleus Maleficarum, published by Heinrich Kramer and James Sprenger in 1487, was one of the most popular texts on witchcraft and demonic forces during the age of the witch craze. Between sections describing monsters, spells and demonic abilities, the authors of The Malleus Maleficarum included tales of witchcraft that they heard from other inquisitors, or allegedly experienced themselves during their time as active witch-hunters. While most of the stories they recorded focused on the dastardly deeds of witches, some of the tales also contained subtle jabs at the 15th-century religious community.
One humorous criticism of the Christian community was quietly placed into the end of Part II, Question 1, Chapter IX of The Malleus Maleficarum. It comes in the form of a short tale, which took up the space of only one paragraph.
According to the story, an anonymous clergyman went to hear a sermon delivered by an anonymous priest of an anonymous church in an anonymous town. As you can see, names, dates and locations are often lacking in the tales found within The Malleus Maleficarum. Nevertheless, the unnamed clergyman entered the church and took his seat to hear the sermon. As he watched the priest speak, something about preacher’s demeanor made the clergyman in the audience suspect that all was not as it seemed. Somehow, instinct told the attendee that the priest was not a man of God at all, but rather the Devil.
Convinced that Satan was preaching to the congregation, the clergyman listened carefully to every word that the Devil spoke. When the Devil inevitably spoke some blasphemy or heresy, the clergyman planned on denouncing the demonic priest to the congregation, revealing him as Satan. Yet, as the clergyman listened to the sermon, he could find nothing wrong with what the Devil was saying. The theology was correct. The interpretation of scripture was sound. The prescribed advise and religious counsel was pure. Satan channeled his angelic past to deliver the ultimate sermon. To the clergyman’s chagrin, he could not find a single criticism of the Devil’s speech and allowed the sermon to be concluded without interruption.
When the sermon was over and the congregation had funneled out of the church, all that remained in the sanctuary was the priest and the man who had seen the demon within. When confronted, the demonic priest, indeed, confessed that he was Satan. The clergyman conceded that the sermon was perfect, and only asked for an explanation from the Devil as to why he did not deceive the congregation. In response, Satan joked that although he had taught the congregation the way of supreme holiness, none of them would implement his teachings into their lives, making the scheme all the more diabolical.
Written by C. Keith Hansley.
Picture Attribution: (Saint and the devil, by Michael Pacher (1435–1498), [Public Domain] via Creative Commons).
- From The Malleus Maleficarum by Heinrich Kramer and James Sprenger, translated by Montague Summers (Dover Publications, 1971).