- Witchcraft, Superstition, and Observant Franciscan Preachers: Pastoral Approach and Intellectual Debate in Renaissance Milan by Fabrizio Conti
Fabrizio Conti’s book brings to light a hitherto unknown aspect of the intellectual genesis of the European witch hunt, namely the contribution of a group of preachers belonging to the Observant branch of the Franciscan order and all based at the Milanese convent of Sant’Angelo between the mid-1400s and the first twenty years of the 1500s. During these decades, while witchcraft prosecutions were reaching very high levels in several parts of Europe including the Italian northern regions, a series of tracts, mostly the work of Dominican inquisitors, argued that witches were the members of a new heretical sect, led in person by the devil to the perdition of Christendom, and that only by exterminating such heretics could the Church save religion and humankind from destruction. The Milanese Franciscans studied by Conti, by contrast, did not see the rise of witchcraft as such an alarming threat, and followed a much softer, pastoral approach to what they considered to be simply one of the facets of the sin of superstition. Through a close examination of a cluster of collections of sermons, Conti’s book situates these Franciscan preachers’ position within the context of Renaissance homiletic literature and practice, highlighting their role as early proponents of a more skeptical consideration of witchcraft.
The first two chapters introduce the convent of Sant’Angelo, an important and very rich center of Observant Franciscans, patronized by Milan’s ruling families, Visconti and Sforza, and home to a group of famous preachers. These are the protagonists of the book and include the likes of Angelo of Chivasso, author of a very popular summa of cases of conscience, Bernardino and Bartolomeo Caimi, Antonio of Vercelli, Michele Carcano, Samuele Cassini, and especially Bernardino Busti (c. 1450–1515), whose Rosarium sermonum (1498) is the main focus of Conti’s analysis. The friars at Sant’Angelo’s were at the time prolific authors of collections of sermons, many of which [End Page 272] were printed. Often borrowing material from each other’s compilations, Milanese Observant Franciscans produced works that could function at the same time as a resource for fellow preachers (as summae of preachable topics), and as a comprehensive expounding of doctrine at a time in which catechism was not yet a popular genre.
Chapters 3 through 5 analyze how fifteenth-century preachers characterized the sin of superstition within the multiple grids available at the time. Bernardino of Siena and Antoninus of Florence, for example, treated superstition as a form of pride, but did not distinguish further between its many types because these did not have a specific place in the traditional scheme they used, based on the seven sins. Milanese Franciscans showed a much more consistent attention toward superstition, which they examined thoroughly through the newly adopted scheme of the Ten Commandments. Busti, in particular, categorized superstition as a sin against the First Commandment and listed fifteen different types of it. These range from Aquinas’s classic triad (idolatry, divinatory superstition, vain observances) to invocations of demons, maleficium, brevia (scrolls with magical formulas), belief in shape-shifting, blasphemy, and more types still.
The core of Conti’s book lies in Chapters 6 through 8, which focus on the way Observant Franciscans dealt with witchcraft and related beliefs. In this area, Busti and his fellow Franciscans consistently showed the same position, which was markedly different from that of contemporary Dominicans. This latter group equated casters of malevolent spells (malefici, feminine maleficae) with the lamiae,or strigae, that is, witches participating in the Sabbat, or ludus diabolicus (the “game of the devil”), in which they renounced Christianity and defiled the sacraments. Milanese preachers instead distinguished between the two groups. They understood strigae (or strige) as women and men who were tricked by the devil into believing they rode or flew at night, turned into cats or other animals, and joined a company of revelers, the so-called ludus Dianae (the “game of the...