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The Devil of the Inquisitors: Cases of Maleficium and Witchcraft

The Devil of the Inquisitors: Cases of Maleficium and Witchcraft
© Photograph by Катерина Романова

Accusations made by demoniacs against those presumed responsible for their torments allowed exorcism — the practice that permitted those accusation to be formulated in the first place — to be used as evidence in proceedings in witchcraft trials. This is precisely what happened, for example, in the well-known French cases of the seventeenth-century that resulted in death for the majority of those implicated. However, the admission of the evidence of demons into trial rested upon a series of assumptions that at the height of the Counter-Reformation were part of a highly contentious debate about the nature of possession and its remedy. The first and most important of these was that demon possession could occur by maleficium — in other words, that it was possible for witches or wizards to “send” the devil into another body. But more than that, many exorcists thought not only that the devil could speak through the body of a demoniac, but that when he did so he was bound to speak truthfully. In this respect, if he confessed the name of the witch who had sent him, such an assertion could be used as proof in a court of law. The fact that demons could speak through demoniacs and that they would answer truly had ample scriptural precedent: Christ, for instance, commanded the demons inhabiting the body of a man from the country of the Gadarenes to identify themselves (Mark 5:9). The same, though, could not be said of the perceived relationship between demon possession and maleficium — this had no scriptural precedent.

Until the later Middle Ages, accounts of exorcism, which were generally found in the vitae of saints, tended to depict possession as a trial that had to be overcome. In this sense, such accounts tended to underline the charisma of the exorcist, establishing his holiness unequivocally through his battle with demons. Although St. Augustine had suggested that it was possible for people to make a “pact with the devil” as early as the fifth-century, medieval possession was generally not seen as caused by human interference, although, of course, humanity’s naturally sinful state made the entrance of a devil into a body easier. However, this conception of possession began to change in the later Middle Ages. Part of the reason for this is that the practice of exorcism began to be consolidated into a formal and official rite. But this happened at precisely the time that the fusion of maleficium and diabolism was reaching its maturity, creating what Brian P. Levack has dubbed the “cumulative concept of witchcraft.” Central to this new conception of witchcraft, though, was its insistence on the dynamic physical collaboration between witches and demons for the implementation of the maleficium.

The idea that demon possession could be caused by maleficium that resulted, at least in part, from the nefarious human action, found its first expression towards the end of the fifteenth-century in Heinrich Krämer’s ‘Malleus Maleficarum’. Although this idea is one of the many novelties found in the German monk’s work, its development and implications have yet to be adequately assessed in the modern literature. The ‘Malleus Maleficarum’ is also unique in that it contains an entire treatise on possession and exorcism that includes a number of exorcistic formulae. In itself, this is unique for a work of this type from this period. But it is also significant that these long and detailed discussions about exorcism close the second of the three sections of the text, for this is the part of the work dedicated to maleficium and its remedies.

To Heinrich Krämer, it is clear that exorcism served only as the penultimate means of combating witches, for it was strictly a defensive weapon, limited just to curing victims. Instead, he saw the final and conclusive remedy for witchcraft as a trial at law — ideally, one that would end with the death of the hapless accused. This is an important innovation, for as David Gentilcore and others have made clear, exorcism does not function as a sacrament per se; rather it ought to be deemed a sacramental, for it does not operate automatically — or in theological terms ex opere operato. In this sense, its effectiveness in dispelling a possessing demon is not guaranteed in the way that a verdict against a bewitching witch would be. So, according to Heinrich Krämer — a theologian — the most effective way to fight witchcraft would not be through exorcism; it would be by means of human justice. Exorcism may be wholly necessary and theologically appropriate, but its efficacy could never be taken for granted — by contrast, in rooting out the problem at its human source, the secular law courts offered an alternative remedy against possession that was completely effective.

Thus, the ‘Malleus Maleficarum’ marks a significant new development in possession theory. Beyond just entrenching a cumulative concept of witchcraft in the form of a printed text, this was the first major treatise that both described the work of witches and the appropriate remedies to be used to redress the damage they inflicted. But more than this, Heinrich Krämer focused on the distinction between “superstitious” and orthodox ways of curing the victims of witches; in so doing, he showed himself aware of the ambiguity inherent in the art of exorcism, for it could prove very close to popular notions of magical healing and necromancy. In this way, then, exorcism and witchcraft became closely bound together in the pages of the ‘Malleus Maleficarum’. That said, Heinrich Krämer never went so far as to assert that the successful exorcism of a demoniac could be used as proof against an accused witch.

Even the important treatises of men such as Bartolomeo Spina, Giovanni Pico della Mirandola, Silvestro Prierias, and Paolo Grillando that followed in the decades after the ‘Malleus Maleficarum’ did not address the link between possession and exorcism in this sense, limiting themselves instead to investigating aspects of the witches’ Sabbath, the nature of maleficium, and to issues concerning the appropriate procedure to be adopted in witchcraft trials.

Despite the many modern studies on the subject, what seems clear so far — albeit through a glass darkly — is that witch hunting, at least until the second half of the sixteenth-century, was carried out through the auspices of the customary judicial system. That is to say, it proceeded without becoming entangled in the debate over exorcism. This was, of course, hardly surprising given that the boundaries between the exorcistic arts, magic and necromancy were, as we have already seen, still rather vague. This, in turn, led to notable diffidence on the part of the ecclesiastical hierarchies, as will become clear below.

This dynamic changed dramatically in the latter part of the sixteenth-century, as instances of demon possession seemed, at least to contemporaries, to increase, and the role of the various actors involved in discerning, diagnosing and treating the afflicted came to be dramatically redefined. What seems particularly striking is that the leading part of the drama is increasingly given over to the demoniac. Indeed, if appropriately guided the demoniac — or the possessing demon — could be made to demonstrate such things as the unreality of heresy by cowering at the trappings of the faith, and proving such hotly contested issues as the doctrine of the real presence. With the possessing demon now ironically shown to be a font of truth, his identification of the witch who sent him to do her bidding could be used as crucial testimony at law, often resulting in a conviction and execution for the accused.

This change in the role of the demoniac in the possession drama is also reflected in the writings of the period. Almost a century after the publication of the ‘Malleus Maleficarum’ the Franciscan friar Girolamo Menghi da Viadana took up Heinrich Krämer’s idea of binding the exorcistic arts and witch hunting closely together in his 1576 ‘Compendio dell’Arte Essorcistica’. Yet Girolamo Menghi da Viadana did not write this treatise to assert abstract, theoretical positions — it was based upon years of practical experience and observation. Girolamo Menghi da Viadana had worked as an exorcist in Bologna, and almost certainly drew upon this experience, and that of other exorcists from the region, as the basis for his text. But what seems more crucial for the development of Girolamo Menghi da Viadana’s thinking is that from around 1560 there had been a number of attempts to convict people at law for maleficium on the basis of the expert testimony of the exorcists and the evidence they extracted by means of the exorcisms they conducted.

Indeed, it is clear that in some cases exorcisms were even conducted while the trial of an accused witch was taking place in order to bolster the evidence against her. On January 25th, 1563, for instance, the Dominican friar Vincenzo da Bologna, vicar of the inquisitor Antonio Balducci da Forlì, helped three other exorcists dispossess several nuns of Santa Margherita. This exorcism had taken place because it was the only way to demonstrate that the woman responsible for the possession was suor Ippolita Bovio, who was being tried by the inquisitor. In this case, at least, the inquisitor’s vicar served as both exorcist and judge.

In this sense, then, Girolamo Menghi da Viadana resurrected a crucial part of exorcism-maleficium model set out in the ‘Malleus Maleficarum’, but he did so not only on the basis of reading and study but through practical experience and observation. Despite the circulation of the Girolamo Menghi da Viadana’s ‘Compendio dell’Arte Essorcistica’ and several others he penned, the link he suggested between exorcism and witch-hunting was never really accepted by the judges. At least this seems to be the case in Italy, for there the work of exorcists was almost always met with diffidence by Inquisitors. Indeed, in the famous ‘Instructio pro formandis processibus in causis strigum, sortilegorum et maleficorum’ (issued around 1620, but that reflected the practice of the tribunal from the last decades of the sixteenth-century), members of the Roman Inquisition were explicitly told to treat as questionable and disregard any proof brought forward by exorcists against witches. This stands in stark contrast to the situation in seventeenth-century France where the methods used by exorcists were welcomed: the renowned cases in Aix-en-Provence, Loudun, and Louviers, in fact, turned on the basis of evidence gathered during exorcisms. But even in these cases, the judges expressed some misgivings about the methods the exorcists used and were reluctant to accept the testimony they extracted from possessing demons at face value, with important consequences for the conduct of witchcraft trials.

The link forged by the theologians between exorcism and witchcraft, then, only appears at certain times during the long history of witch prosecution. Even though it was one of the tools adopted by the inquisitors from the ‘Malleus Maleficarum’, its assertion in Italy and France in the sixteenth- and seventeenth-century tended to feed scepticism rather than foment persecution and only really did so at the highest levels of judicial authority, that is, with the Cardinals of the Congregation of the Holy Office and the French judges. This demonstrates, once again, the profoundly ambiguous nature of exorcism, situated uncomfortably between prescribed and proscribed practices.


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