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Witchcraft and Inquisition in Early Modern Venice by Jonathan Seitz (review)

From: Magic, Ritual, and Witchcraft
Volume 8, Number 2, Winter 2013
pp. 217-220 | 10.1353/mrw.2013.0025

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Despite its title, Jonathan Seitz’s book is not primarily a work on witchcraft per se, nor is it a study on the inquisition, strictly speaking. In this sense, the title is misleading, although both topics are of course addressed in this monograph. Instead, it is a subtle discussion of the question how early modern Venetians conceived the boundaries between the natural and the supernatural. The latter manifested itself in the form of bewitchments causing ailments and pains. Those pains differed from ordinary illnesses such as fevers and coughs, as they tended to be chronic. Common symptoms were swellings, vomiting, or the wasting away of the body, which implied its corruption. Another sign of bewitchment was the presence of strange objects that were supposed to be hidden in the household of the victim: “An early modern diagnosis of witchcraft was rarely complete without a check of the bed-clothes, mattress, doorstep, an other key locations for such unexpected and suspicious objects as feathers, bits of plants, stones, strands of hair, or inscriptions” (p. 68). Ailments that resisted the efforts of physicians, often combined with the discovery of suspicious objects, raised rumors of maleficio, which in turn led to accusations of witchcraft.

These accusation were brought before the tribunal of the Inquisition, where a file was established. The resulting records are at the core of Jonathan Seitz’s study, which owes its existence to a lucky coincidence: whereas, in most other parts of the Italian peninsula, the archives of the local branches of the Inquisition were almost entirely destroyed in the events surrounding its abolition in the late eighteenth century, this was not the case in Venice, where “hundreds of trial transcripts and other documents produced by the tribunal from the mid-1500s to the mid-1600s” have been preserved (p. 9). While the Venetian Holy Office, it may seem at first sight, was “fairly typical of the various Italian inquisitions, and of Catholic inquisitions in general,” the author himself admits that it “had its idiosyncrasies” (p. 31). Indeed, the Venetian authorities, whether the Patriarch of Venice or the Venetian state, had a particularly close eye on the tribunal. The state government, “protective of its rights and privileges” (p. 33), appointed three lay assistants in order to oversee the interrogatories. Needless to say, these assistants came from the highest ranks of the society.

The key questions raised in the book regard the boundaries between the natural and the supernatural, as they were perceived by early modern Venetians. Though they may have initially made this distinction instinctively to themselves, in the courtroom, facing the judicial authorities, these Venetians relied on the opinion of specialists in order to buttress their allegations of maleficio. Those experts were, first of all, healing clerics, that is, exorcists, then physicians, and, least commonly, wise-women healers, who appeared only occasionally in the testimonies. Denouncers, especially in the seventeenth century, “constructed an allegation piled high with a variety of evidence [. . .] featuring appeals to outside authorities” (p. 75). Fortunately, we are not bound to rely solely on these denunciations, which have to be considered as constructed narratives, in order to measure the impact of the medical specialists’ testimonies on the outcome of these trials. The Inquisition records contain substantial numbers of exorcists’ as well as physicians’ testimonies, providing a more direct access to the thoughts and practices at work.

Regarding the diagnostic practices of Venetian clerics, the author observes, interestingly, the clerics’ “ongoing commitment to using material signs to identify maleficio,” that is, suspicious objects hidden in the sufferers’ households, and their “gradual shift away from highlighting the involvement of demons in the illness and toward emphasizing the physical symptoms exhibited by the victim” (pp. 110–11). “Overall,” he sums up, “the changes in exorcists’ diagnostic practices through the seventeenth century suggest an increasingly naturalistic or medicalized view of maleficio“ (p. 111). The testimony of one Fra Pietro da Montereale, quoted extensively by the author, provides a telling example of this emphasis on physical symptoms, as the cleric referred to pangs in the heart, stomach ache, hot and cold winds in the abdomen, or pains in the kidneys as signs of bewitchment (pp. 117–18). The failure of natural...

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