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  • Witchcraft and Inquisition in Early Modern Venice by Jonathan Seitz
  • David Lederer
Jonathan Seitz. Witchcraft and Inquisition in Early Modern Venice. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2011. xi + 286 pp. Ill. $99.00 (978-1-107-01129-8).

While the title of Seitz’s analysis of Venetian inquisitorial records adverts to an explication of witchcraft persecutions, the contents and results of his research are substantially germane to medical history. Theoretically, the author explores the boundaries between natural and supernatural phenomenon with particular reference to mentalities, the role of the material and demonic in magic, and, importantly, the delineation of competency over accusations of maleficium. The vast majority of the study is dedicated to the role of medical experts—the clergy as spiritual physicians and university-trained natural physicians—in the determination of the natural or supernatural etiology of illnesses popularly attributed to witchcraft. Therefore, while trial records and inquisitorial procedures frame his analysis, Seitz focuses on contemporary understandings of illnesses and treatments.

The book itself is broken down into nine chapters, though these become progressively uneven depending upon the amount of material available to support individual points. The main body of evidence derives from 600 trials brought before the Venetian inquisition from 1550 to 1650 (housed in the Archivio di Stato, with almost all records missing from 1593 to 1610), of which 120 involved maleficia, that is, magic intended to inflict physical (and occasionally mental) harm. Seitz expands upon these through a laudable investigation of related materials made available to the public since the recent opening of the Archive of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith in the Vatican. In addition, he consults an array of contemporary printed sources on demonology, medicine and exorcism, organized under the rubric of “libraries.”

The theoretical introduction lays out the central ideological problem: the delineation of natural from supernatural phenomenona and the gray areas in between, particularly della Porta’s realm of natural magic and the popular understanding of nature. Throughout, Seitz goes on to demonstrate how Venetians at all levels of society saw both natural and supernatural causes at work in accusations of witchcraft.

Chapter 1 will be familiar territory to those familiar with Ruth Martin’s study of the mitigating influences of inquisitorial procedure on witch trials, usually arising from an illness purportedly caused by magic. Seitz hones in on inquisitorial skepticism, limited use of torture, and the rarity of executions. He outlines procedures, denunciations, testimony of eye witnesses, the interrogation of the accused (constitutus), the defensive phase, and sentencing when the accused was occasionally found guilty. Chapter 2 considers afflictions and material evidence presented as proof of maleficium: reminiscent of allegations from the anti-Cathar inquisition of Le Roy Ladurie’s Montaillou, these included feathers, wax statues, bits of bone, and other objects described as sporchezza (literally “filth”) hidden about the household or corruption vomited as poison.

The remainder addresses Gentilcore’s tripartite concept of medical pluralism, examining the role of experts in healing and testimony. Evidence on wise women as popular healers is scant, and the inquisition viewed their activities [End Page 197] with skepticism. Spiritual physic by ecclesiastical exorcists and university-trained physicians takes center stage. Although the inquisition even harbored misgivings about clerical medical practitioners, lay people viewed them as integral to the diagnosis and treatment of disease. Over time, natural physicians gained prominence and their testimony was rarely questioned. However they operated within religious constraints (e.g., the requirement for patients’ auricular confession) and deferred to clergy in all matters supernatural with the laconic protestation, “not my profession.” Seitz lays out four chapters on spiritual and medical physicians, providing archival evidence and an overview of standard handbooks. Although the inquisition privileged medical healers, the population at large (including medical practitioners!) could not be disciplined into a similar set of beliefs. At the end of the day, professional experts, material evidence, and natural causes gained influence in Venice and Italy more generally, while jurisprudence continued to dominate cases for maleficia in the empire to the north.

Overall, Seitz provides a detailed reconsideration of Venetian witch trials, focusing on medical understandings rooted in inquisitorial procedure and popular mentalities. More recent literature on witchcraft and exorcisms...


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pp. 197-198
Launched on MUSE
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