- The Scourge of Demons: Possession, Lust, and Witchcraft in a Seventeenth-Century Italian Convent
The abolition of the Roman Inquisition in different states of the Italian peninsula in the course of the eighteenth century caused much harm to [End Page 258] inquisitorial archives. A notable exception is the archives of the Inquisition of Modena, which escaped this fate. As a result, the territories formerly controlled by the inquisitor of Modena have become a kind of promised land for modern scholars, who can find in the local depositories a wealth of documents lost forever elsewhere in Italy. For this book, Jeffrey R. Watt has delved into material that amounts to “perhaps the richest extant registers of any Italian Inquisition” (p. xi) and condensed his findings into a fascinating narrative recounting a crisis of mass-possession in the Franciscan convent of Santa Chiara in the city of Carpi. During this protracted affair, which lasted from 1636 until 1639, no fewer than fourteen inhabitants of the convent fell victim to demonic fits and served as the demons’ spokeswomen while enraptured. After medical cures proved ineffective, exorcists took over, providing at best some temporary relief; however, they did not succeed in permanently expelling the unclean spirits from their victims. Sentiments in the monastery soon turned against one of the Clarissas (a “maverick nun,” as the author has termed her) who, according to abundant testimony, “was never happy as a nun” (p. 47). Having never fully adapted to monastic life—perhaps a conscious choice—she became a prime suspect for having caused the woes of her fellow sisters by malefice. A second suspect was a former confessor to the Clarissas of Santa Chiara, who during his tenure had allegedly allowed himself indecent talk and even touching while meeting the nuns in the confessional.
In the spring of 1638, more than two years after the outbreak of the crisis, the Modenese Inquisition began its investigation into the affair. At first, a representative of the inquisitor made his way to Carpi, followed by the inquisitor himself; finally, as the Congregation of the Holy Office in Rome was running out of patience with the continual turmoil within the walls of Santa Chiara, it appointed special commissioners in order to bring the affair to an end. Significantly, the cardinal-inquisitors in Rome, especially cardinal Francesco Barberini, who was presiding over the Congregation, proved immune to the rumors of maleficent witchcraft to which the demons’ incursions into the convent were imputed. The reaction of the cardinals in this case is perfectly coherent with the “pragmatic skepticism” that current research has ascribed to the Roman Inquisition in the matter of witchcraft. Without denying the possibility of demonic interference into human life, the Holy Office was very demanding when it came to the factual proof of witchcraft. Thus, the cardinal-inquisitors anticipated a broader development in the history of European witchcraft, as witch-hunting was not brought to a halt by skeptical thinkers, but slowly faded away thanks to rising requirements for judicial convictions. [End Page 259]
In the case of the Clarissas of Santa Chiara in Carpi, the Holy Office advocated spiritual remedies such as hearing sermons and frequent partaking of the sacraments. Significantly, they formally excluded exorcisms, acknowledging that the exorcists were a part of the problem rather than of its solution. The afflicted nuns were to be isolated from their “healthy” sisters, and talk about witchcraft and possession was banned. In the end, these measures proved successful and the ailing nuns recovered from their afflictions; at the same time, one notes that this course of action, the silencing of nuns, eventually deprived them of their only—albeit highly destructive—way of expressing their otherwise “unspeakable” feelings. The nun accused by the possessed Clarrissas of having bewitched them was, together with her sister, transferred to a convent in Modena; the case of the second suspect (the former confessor of Santa Chiara) remained “open,” though he was banned from hearing confessions of nuns in the future.
Jeffrey Watt provides...