On this day December 5, 1484

Pope Innocent VIII issues the Summis desiderantes, a papal bull that deputizes Heinrich Kramer and James Sprenger as inquisitors to root out alleged witchcraft in Germany and leads to one of the most oppressive witch hunts in European history.

Pope Innocent VIII

The bull was written in response to the request of Dominican Inquisitor Heinrich Kramer for explicit authority to prosecute witchcraft in Germany, after he was refused assistance by the local ecclesiastical authorities.

The bull recognized the existence of witches and gave full papal approval for the Inquisition to move against witches and permission to do whatever necessary to get rid of them.

The bull essentially repeated Kramer’s view that an outbreak of witchcraft and heresy had occurred in the Rhine River valley, specifically in the bishoprics of Mainz, Cologne, Trier, Salzburg and Bremen, including accusations of certain acts.

The bull urged local authorities to cooperate with the inquisitors and threatened those who impeded their work with excommunication.

Despite this threat, the bull failed to ensure that Kramer got the support he had hoped for, causing him to retire and to compile his views on witchcraft into his book Malleus Maleficarum, which was published in 1487. Summis desiderantes affectibus was published as part of the preface of the book, signaling papal approval for the work.

The bull, which synthesized the spiritual and the secular crimes of witchcraft, is often viewed as opening the door for the witchhunts of the early modern period. However, its similarities to previous papal documents, emphasis on preaching, and lack of dogmatic pronouncement complicate this view. The Catholic Encyclopedia dismisses the importance attached to the encyclical in the context of the ensuing witch hunts as “altogether illusory”.

Some scholars view the bull as “clearly political”, motivated by jurisdictional disputes between the local German Catholic priests and those of the Inquisition who answered more directly to the pope.

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