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Witchcraft in Italy during the Renaissance

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The prominence of humanism and the influences of classical rather than medieval society during the Renaissance were contributing factors to the lack of violent action against witchcraft in Italy. A social, political, cultural, philosophical, and geographic survey of Renaissance Italy will justify the claim that it was a time and place of a rational, tolerant, skeptical, and even a sometimes supportive response to witchcraft.

There were many casualties in parts of Western Europe as a result of the execution of alleged witches throughout the history of witch hunting. However, it is important to note a decline in such casualties as geographical perspective moves south from Germany and Poland, where the most deaths associated with witch persecution occurred, to “Italy and Spain [where] there were numerous investigations but few executions.”[1] It is apparent from this lack of execution that there was a particularly thorough legal process in Italy during the Renaissance, very much speaking for its rational response to witchcraft. The emphasis on legal procedure in the Italian courts comes through very much in the conduct of the Spanish inquisitors’ investigation of witches in Italy “and the careful supervision of their work by central authorities.”[2]

An example of restraint and fair legal procedure in the Italian investigation of witchcraft is apparent in the case of Chiara Signorini towards the end of the Renaissance. Chiara was arrested in 1519 when her practice of magical arts had become general knowledge. There was a long inquisitorial process on her behalf and it was not until it became very obvious that her only spiritual knowledge was of witch culture that she was eventually prosecuted. After confirming this through torture, which was used as an absolute last result, Chiara was convicted of witchcraft. Rather than being executed, she was sentenced to life commitment to the Modena hospital for the poor. In contrast to the Italian legal system she was tried by, “had Chiara been in a German court she would surely have been sentenced to death.”[3]

Another notable aspect of Chiara’s case “illustrates well that people both feared yet depended on the magic-workers.”[4] In her community before being arrested as discussed above, Chiara was sought by her neighbours to cure Lady Margherita Pazzani, who was Chiara’s landlord until she was evicted for her magical practices, of her paralysis. This interest and involvement with magical practices by the general public was wide-spread in Italy at the time. The Catholic Church throughout the 1520s had to take measures in order to turn the Italian public from popularizing prophesy and divination.[5]

In addition to the openness expressed by Renaissance Italians to the utilization of the “resource” of witches, there was sometimes the case of belief that witches held counsol with truly benevolent forces. For example, discourse presented by Brian Levack on the goddess Holda who conducts witches flying to the night-time Sabbath notes Italy’s “belief in ‘the ladies of the night,’ mysterious women under the direction of a queen who visited homes for beneficent purposes.”[6] While witchcraft was essentially considered heretical and therefore criminal activity in Italy, there was also some open-mindedness and “interest in the activities of female fortune-tellers and male magicians.”[7] Essentially, there was a general feeling that one could have some involvement in magic without the fear of immediate execution, as was certainly not the case in northern regions such as Germany. In fact, “the only Mediterranean examples of typical witch hunts occurred in northern Spain and Italy, influenced by the more savage French and German hunts across their borders.”[8]

One may also attribute the classical influences of Renaissance Italy, which were of high cultural significance at the time, to an environment more open to the prospects of witchcraft. Examples from classical myth were often used in Renaissance Italy to characterize witches as people who practice love magic, healing, prophesy, and other non-baleful forms of witchcraft. There was also little belief in Italy that witches dealt directly with the devil, and were condemned merely for having beliefs that went against the established religion. In this case, conversion and means of manipulation were the primary reactions to witches, rather than hunting and execution.[9]

Also in the fifteenth century, acceptance of witchcraft was on the rise partly due to “the growing popularity of the comprehensive world view of Renaissance Neoplatonism.”[10] This raised witchcraft to the realm of intelligent speculation and eventually to common culture as the rules and practices of Christianity became somewhat skewed by new philosophies coming from neoplatonism regarding spirits and greater themes of the cosmos. An example of this blurring between the lines of Christianity and witchcraft can be found in the case of Heinrich Cornelius Agrippa who studied in Italy for some time during his career during the Renaissance. He is a good example of why the acceptance of magical beliefs developed because of his own interest in occult magic and his inconsistent adherence to strict religious protocol. However, as asserted by George Mora: “The inability of human reason to grasp the essence of the mysterious reality of the world and, consequently, the necessity for anyone involved in the search for the ultimate entities to open his heart to the infinite dimensions of the divine grace.”[11] Essentially, Agrippa was in favour of branching out beyond Christianity and expanding on it with alternative beliefs, making him the perfect example of a Renaissance individual embracing elements of witchcraft.

There was also the fact that Renaissance Italy was quickly becoming skeptical of witchcraft as a legitimate threat to religion and the state. This as well as again the notion of emphasis being placed on law and justice is apparent in that “the Inquisitions in Spain and Italy, which had become exceedingly painstaking in their legal procedures, seem to have grasped earlier than most other jurisdictions the scale of the difficulty of obtaining satisfactory proof that an accused person was a witch; they appear, too, to have to have been doubtful whether witchcraft was common.”[12] There was also much more concern in these southern regions about the consequences both social and political of frivolously executing and conducting mass witch hunts as often occurred in more northern regions.

Another way in which Renaissance thinking downplayed the threat of witchcraft was the assertion that witches themselves had no real power and were merely under the influence of the devil to believe that they had their own power and could cast spells. In reality, it was believed that the devil deceived women into thinking that they were a magical force of their own. Essentially, the general belief was that “magic and witchcraft were not ‘real’ things and worked through a series of lies, illusions and fictions.”[13] This notion relates well with the Canon Episcopi which emerged in about 906 in a work by Regino of Prüm, an abbot at the time, that asserts that some women are “perverted by the devil, seduced by illusions and phantasms of demons, believe and profess themselves”[14] to have magical control and the ability to be an independent participant alongside demonic beings in night-time escapades.

Another occurrence was the skepticism posed by the Renaissance “humanists like Desiderius Erasmus, Pietro Pompanazzi, and Andrea Alciati [who] attacked certain witch-beliefs.”[15] They also attacked “the scholastic mentality that proved receptive to it.”[16] It was such people of the intellectual realm who questioned the validity of witchcraft and whether it was even worth investigation.

A trend around the beginning of the sixteenth century was the cultural interweaving between standard religion and magical practices. Renaissance humanists were displeased with this tendency and asserted that such confused belief systems could be righted by drawing upon the classical influences of ancient Greece and Rome.[17] This is a prime example of the classical influences of the Renaissance leading the thinkers of the time to disregard witchcraft as a genuine concern.

Desiderius Erasmus, mentioned above, “became the sixteenth century’s most fervent critic of superstition and popular devotionalism.”[18] Erasmus was a Dutch philosopher, but he spent time studying in Italy and is a very relevant figure to Renaissance ideals as discussed thus far. In his “A Terrible Case of Sorcery in Orleans,” Erasmus describes in detail the account of a man and his family who practiced all forms of dark arts and even raised the devil himself. Following this account, Erasmus goes into a discussion about how strict the Church is in punishing various forms of prophets and magical practitioners. The point that he makes is that there is only the rare case of a truly wicked individual drawing upon demonic forces, and that the majority of Church efforts go into condemning people who are barely guilty at all compared the individuals in his account.[19]

Witchcraft in Renaissance Italy has been thus discussed with the rational legal procedures in place to deal with the matter fairly, to the notion that great thinkers of the time and place simply argued against the validity of the threat of witchcraft. The basic conclusion is that the society and culture of Renaissance Italy had a more rational and reasonable rather than a violent and excessively suspicious response to witchcraft.

[1] Anne Llewellyn Barstow, Witchcraze: A New History of the European Witch Hunts (San Francisco: HarperCollins, 1995), 58.

[2] Brian P. Levack, The Witch-Hunt in Early Modern Europe (London: Longman Group Limited, 1995), 223.

[3] Barstow, 118-19.

[4] Barstow, 118.

[5] Gary K. Waite, Heresy, Magic, and Witchcraft in Early Modern Europe (New York: Palgrave MacMillan, 2003), 95.

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[6] Levack, 45.

[7] Barstow, 90.

[8] Barstow, 90.

[9] Levack, 223-5.

[10] Jeffry Burton Russel, Witchcraft in the Middle Ages (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1972), 223.

[11] Waite, 122.

[12] Geoffrey Scarre, Witchcraft and Magic in Sixteenth and Seventeenth Century Europe (Atlantic Highlands: Humanities Press International, Inc., 1988), 21-2.

[13] Gareth Roberts, “The Descendants of Circe: Witches and Renaissance Fictions,” in Witchcraft in Early Modern Europe, gen. ed. Jonathan Barry (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996), 185.

[14] Regino of Prüm, “Canon Episcopi,” in Witchcraft in the Middle Ages, Jeffry Burton Russell (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1972), 76.

[15] Levack, 60.

[16] Lecack, 187.

[17] Waite, 53.

[18] Waite, 53.

[19] Erasmus, Desiderius. “Desiderius Erasmus: A Terrible Case of Sorcery in Orleans (1501).” in Witchcraft in Europe, 400-1700: A Documentary History, ed. Alan C. Kors and Edward Peters (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2001), 231-6.


Jake Ed (author) from Canada on February 17, 2013:

Thank you for your comment. However, my discussion here is strictly historical as I do not hold any spiritual beliefs. I believe that the history of witch persecution is yet another manifestation of oppression and violence against women rather than spiritual combat.

JJ on February 17, 2013:

There are indeed people that practise witchcraft but it needs to be understood that it only affects those that are weak minded are suffering from some form of mental disorder, mild or strong. Witches were afraid of one thing, stregnth and strong minded people. It was these people that in centuries gone by use to burn such evil doers at the stake because of the havoc they caused in vunrable peoples lives. For anyone that believes he or she is cursed, dont turn to someone to break the curse. All you are doing is paying that persons bill. The same goes for clairvoyance, fortune tellers, ect. They are all rubbish and if they did tell the truth they would not be wasting their time on you, they would be making millions by now! Get the Bible or a book which discuss mental power and postive thinking and read it. You will change how you feel and be richer for it.

OldWitchcraft from The Atmosphere on June 28, 2012:

Great job! I read the Barstow book years ago and I think her theories have a lot of merit.

leco on May 02, 2012:

thank you this helped me! (:

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