It was compiled by two Dominican inquisitors, Jacob Sprenger and Heinrich Kramer. They submitted the book to the University of Cologne's Faculty of Theology on May 9, 1487; this is usually taken as the date of publication, although earlier editions may have been produced in 1485 or 1486. It was published in a number of editions, thirteen times from 1487 to 1520 and sixteen times from 1574 to the Lyon edition of 1669. The book was popular throughout Europe, although less so in England, and was accepted by both Catholics and Protestants.
Modern translations of the works include a 1906 German translation by J. W. R. Schmidt, titled "Der Hexenhammer", and an English translation (with introduction) by Montague Summers in 1928 which was reprinted in 1948 and is still available until today as a 1971 reprint by Dover Publications (ISBN 0486228029).
The work was originally prefaced by the papal bull Summis desiderantes issued by Pope Innocent VIII on December 5, 1484, the main papal document on withcraft. It mentions Sprenger and Kramer by name (as Iacobus Sprenger and Henrici Institoris) and directs them to combat withcraft in northern Germany. The book itself was not specifically ordered by the Catholic Church. Additionally, the writers attached a letter of approbation from the University of Cologne signed by four teachers.
The book is divided into three sections, the first proving that witchcraft or sorcery existed, the second describing the forms of witchcraft and the third the detection, trial and destruction of witches. There is little original material in the book; it is mainly a codification of existing beliefs and practices with substantial parts taken from earlier works such as Johannes Nider's Formicarius (1435).
The book begins with a discussion of the nature of witchcraft. Part of section explains why women, by their weaker nature and inferior intellect, were supposedly naturally more prone to the lure of Satan. The book title itself has maleficarum, the female noun, and the writers declare that the word femina (woman) is a derivation of fe+minus, faithless. The work declares that some things confessed by witches, such as animal transformations, were mere delusions induced by the devil to ensnare them, while other acts, such as flight, causing storms and destroying crops were real. The book dwells at length on the licentious acts of witches, and even gives space to the question of whether demons could father children on witches. The writing style is serious and utterly humourless; one section quotes a story that is plainly an anti-clerical joke as if it were a real occurrence.
The last section deals with the practical details of the detection, trial and destruction of witches. It covers how much belief to place in witnesses' testimonies and the need to eliminate malicious accusations, but also states that public rumour is sufficient to bring a person to trial and that a too vigourous defence is evidence that the defender is bewitched. There are rules on how to prevent the authorities becoming bewitched and the reassurance, that as representatives of God, the witch can have no power over the investigators. It covers details of how to elicit confessions, including the sequence of torture and questioning to be used; the use of red-hot iron is recommended as is the shaving of the entire body of the accused in search of tokens or marks of the devil.