- Witchcraft and Inquisition in Early Modern Venice by Jonathan Seitz
Historians of witchcraft are increasingly turning to micro-history to provide insights into a broad range of early modern beliefs and practices. Jonathan Seitz’s Witchcraft and Inquisition in Early Modern Venice is no exception. His close investigation of Inquisition witch trial records from the Venetian Holy Office between 1550 and 1650 provides insights into early modern mentalities, particularly how Venetians from all social levels distinguished between natural and supernatural phenomena. At a broader level, Seitz also explores the impact of the Reformation, the relationships between elite and popular culture, the role of medicine and science, and challenges the historical notion of ‘disenchantment’ or ‘secularization’ of the early modern world.
For early modern Venetians, like most Europeans throughout the seventeenth century, distinguishing the natural from the supernatural was a complex process. While post-Reformation Church authorities put considerable effort into condemning superstition, divination, and invocation, the witch’s sabbath and demonic pact rarely featured in the witch trials of early modern Venice. Although belief in witchcraft was pervasive and persistent, Venice had no witchcraft indictments or executions in this period. Seitz argues that this absence was the result of legal complications, rather than an indication of a significant step towards enlightened secular thinking or skepticism. Unlike some areas of northern Europe and Scotland, where [End Page 276] torture was used to extract confessions, the Venetian inquisitors had to rely on ambiguous categories of material evidence of witchcraft, such as physiological symptoms of illness and the presence of suspicious objects in the homes of the bewitched sick. In essence, the Venetian witch trials hinged on the evidence of experts, who were called upon by the Holy Office to distinguish the supernatural from the natural.
Physicians were highly regarded by the inquisitors as witnesses in suspected cases of maleficio, more so than clerical exorcists or healers. Most of the physicians consulted in witchcraft cases were educated at the University of Padua, famous for its naturalistic approach to medicine. Symptoms of bewitchment described by witnesses were suggestive of bodily corruption: swelling of body parts, discolouration of the skin, severe pain, and vomiting, particularly vomiting of strange objects for which there was no natural explanation. Because it was generally believed that supernatural illnesses were impervious to natural medicines, the opinion of physicians seemed crucial to the diagnosis of supernatural illnesses. And yet, in most cases, physicians insisted that illnesses caused by witchcraft were beyond their jurisdiction. In their testimony before the Inquisition, they nearly always refused to commit themselves to a supernatural diagnosis. However, Seitz’s perceptive investigation of the records reveals that when physicians were called before the Tribunal to give evidence in a private capacity, when members of their families were thought to be bewitched, they demonstrated the same belief in witchcraft as ordinary Venetians. They interpreted symptoms as supernatural and stressed that the suspicious objects found in the bedclothes of the sufferers were convincing proof of maleficio, an assertion they never made in their capacity as expert witnesses.
Clerical healers or exorcists, on the other hand, were leaning towards a naturalistic approach to the treatment of supernatural illnesses. Seitz’s detailed exploration of exorcists’ manuals reveals that material signs and physiological symptoms were increasingly endorsed as crucial indicators of witchcraft during the seventeenth century; far more important, in fact, than the manifestations of demons. Unlike the physicians, when called as expert witnesses at witchcraft trials, exorcists acknowledged that the presence of suspicious objects was an important aspect of their interpretation. Yet exorcists tended to treat victims of witchcraft with a combination of herbal remedies, combined with ritual and blessing, rather than the expulsion of demons. Their herbal remedies were generally in keeping with naturalistic approaches, aimed at restoring the humoral balance of the patient. Seitz argues that the way in which exorcists distinguished natural from supernatural phenomena closely resembled those of their patients and the wise-women healers who were also consulted in these cases. Healing...