In lieu of an abstract, here is a brief excerpt of the content:

Reviewed by:
  • Witchcraft and the Papacy: An Account Drawing on the Formerly Secret Records of the Roman Inquisition
  • Michael D. Bailey
Witchcraft and the Papacy: An Account Drawing on the Formerly Secret Records of the Roman Inquisition. By Rainer Decker. Translated by H. C. Erik Midelfort. Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 2008. 262 pp. $45.00 (cloth).

This engaging book will be of interest, for different reasons, to two different audiences. Decker has undertaken to write a brief, lucid account of the persecution of witchcraft in Western Europe from the Middle Ages to modern times, with particular respect to the role played by the Roman papacy and papally appointed inquisitorial authorities in that persecution. His goals are to counter the “black legend” of “the Inquisition” still prevalent in popular imagination, and more broadly to demonstrate that “the Church” was not the principal guiding force behind medieval and early modern witch trials. He writes in short, easily digestible chapters without excessive notation, clearly aiming at a general readership. At the core of this wide-ranging survey, however, is a more in-depth study of the handling of witch trials by the Roman Curia and above all by the central council of the Roman Inquisition. The weekly minutes of this body, preserved in the archive of the Holy Office in Rome and open to scholars only since 1998, form the source base for that study.

Because the Roman Inquisition was established in 1542, Decker’s first several chapters, dealing with the medieval period, are almost exclusively a general overview of the role of the papacy and papal inquisitors in the slow emergence of the concept of diabolical witchcraft and the earliest European witch trials. He points out that for much of the Middle Ages, the papacy had little effective control over far-flung church institutions and that the persecution of magicians and witches, such as [End Page 145] there was, was mostly in the hands of bishops or more local ecclesiastical officials, or secular courts. He also highlights the skepticism of early medieval legal rulings regarding “witchcraft,” particularly the famous canon Episcopi, which condemned women not for flying at night to real demonic sabbaths, but for believing the deceptive illusions of demons that tricked them into thinking that they did so.

In the later medieval period, the papacy and its inquisitors began to take a more direct hand in the definition of magical crimes and the persecution of witches. Papal inquisitors into heresy, first officially designated in 1231, initially paid little attention to supposed magical crimes, but did, in the course of the fourteenth century, help to define perceived demonic components of magic more clearly, which served to make magical practices heretical and thus subject to their authority. Also in the early fourteenth century, popes John XXII and Benedict XII issued important rulings against magic and instigated legal proceedings against individuals who appeared to be practicing harmful magic against them directly. Decker hastens to note, however, that these people were typically male clerics engaged in varieties of learned necromancy, not witches. Even with a papal official who clearly was zealously engaged in the persecution of witches, the German inquisitor Heinrich Kramer, author of the infamous Malleus maleficarum, Decker stresses that Kramer’s actions and opinions cannot be read as a direct cipher for “the papacy” or “the Church,” since he often encountered resistance from other ecclesiastical officials.

Moving into the early modern period, Decker articulates how papal inquisitors active in northern Italy, where a number of witch trials were taking place in the late fifteenth and early sixteenth centuries, operated in conjunction, and sometimes competition, with regional secular authorities. He also briefly discusses the Spanish Inquisition, established in 1478 as a body separate from all but the most nominal papal control, and its hesitancy to prosecute diabolical witchcraft or promote large-scale witch hunts. After the founding of the Roman Inquisition, Decker begins to concentrate on the operations of that institution, and particularly its central council in Rome, which oversaw inquisitorial activity across most of Italy and some other regions as well. Here he provides a good deal of new information, but ultimately these records serve mainly to confirm what we already...