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Reviewed by:
  • Agents of Witchcraft in Early Modern Italy and Denmark by Louise Nyholm Kallestrup
  • Gerhild Scholz Williams

Gerhild Scholz Williams, Louise Nyholm Kallestrup, Gerhild Williams, Louise Kallestrup, witchcraft, early modern witchcraft, Italian witchcraft, Danish witchcraft

louise nyholm kallestrup. Agents of Witchcraft in Early Modern Italy and Denmark. Basingstoke and New York: Palgrave, 2015. Pp. xv + 206.

The book under review compares witchcraft prosecutions in a small town in Southern Italy (Orbetello) with those in Jutland, Denmark (Viborg) during the seventeenth century. The former prosecutions were handled by the Roman Inquisition, the latter by secular courts. This meant that the distance between the two locales was not only geographic but also confessional, demonstrating the differences between Catholic and Lutheran approaches to the witch phenomenon. Basing her detailed examination on numerous court records in both jurisdictions, Kallestrup shows that accusations of witchcraft do not only differ in substance, but also in severity of punishment.

A semantic exploration of what exactly is meant by the witch, witchcraft, and the pact with the Devil in both locales signals the complexity of not only the concept but, more specifically, of how both cultures approached the reality of the phenomenon in their midst. It is clear that, in spite of the geographic distance, both communities formulated strict laws against witchcraft [End Page 414] and magic. As was the case across western Europe, all legal proceedings rested on the authority of the same well known and frequently cited demonological treatises, which were applied to the local specifics.

The great strength of this study lies in its comprehensive examination and reconstruction of local court records and proceedings. As the stories of individual prosecutions unfold, the participation of the populace in the accusations, denunciations, eventual convictions, and even executions comes alive, based on the minute details unearthed by the author. Before the reader gets to those, the author surveys the legal tools on which each of the prosecuting authorities rested their judgments, and thus their definitions of what exactly the power of the witch was, what constituted witchcraft, and how its benevolent, healing version differed from its malevolent effects. It turns out that the understanding among the people who felt impacted by magical powers practiced by cunning-folk or witches diverged greatly, not only in the two geographic locations, but also among people in the same small communities.

Investigating the differences between the Danish and Roman legal procedures, this study suggests that after the 1617 Witchcraft Regulations, the Law of Jutland tended to move away from burning and toward hanging, and also toward the exiling and confiscation of property. Members of the nobility were beheaded before being burned. Only one execution by beheading of a noblewoman was recorded in 1621.

The Roman Inquisition seemed to have employed a greater variety of penalties. In Orbetello, the punishment of choice was apparently public whipping and exile. It is interesting that in the mid-seventeenth century, a time when navies around the Mediterranean were always in need of galley slaves, additional punishments included not only imprisonment and fines, but also galley duty. The difference in penalty between the Danish and the Inquisition suggests that the lightest sentence applied by (Protestant) Danish courts matched the harshest meted out by the Inquisition, which looked upon witchcraft as a sin that needed repentance and absolution, and not necessarily severe physical punishment.

After a comparison of both legal systems, Kallestrup investigates local examples in both jurisdictions. It turns out that witches in Italy apparently practiced mostly love magic and magic directed at marital problems, impotence, and infertility. They differed from those in Denmark, who were primarily involved in crimes against property such as bewitchment of livestock, and influencing the impact of the weather on harvests, in addition to quarrels among villagers.

To bring a suspected witch to trial in Orbetello, reliable witnesses had to initiate an investigation supported by trustworthy accusations and reliable [End Page 415] denunciations. In Jutland, testimony and formal accusations, if substantiated by witnesses, would lead to a trial. In both jurisdictions, each narrative included information about who participated in magic rituals, when, and where (benevolent or malevolent). Kallestrup presents an interesting Danish example of witchcraft that involved the "birth" of a...


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pp. 414-416
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