- Classical Culture and Witchcraft in Medieval and Renaissance Italy by Marina Montesano
witchcraft, Middle Ages, Renaissance, Italy, Renaissance humanism, linguistics, Classical literature, intertextuality
Marina Montesano has published widely in the history of religion and magic in medieval Italy. In Classical Culture and Witchcraft in Medieval and Renaissance Italy, she explores the connections between ancient sources and the writings on witchcraft from the late medieval and early modern periods, bringing to bear her experience with both language and textual study. To understand the outpouring of writings as well as legal proceedings against witches over the course of several centuries calls, as Montesano notes, for multiple and multivalent explanations. She aims not to replace existing arguments, but to add an important additional factor. These authors, whether humanists or preachers, lived and worked in a literate world that looked to ancient texts as models, authorities, and sources of practical knowledge, and in a legal world that also built upon the Roman past. Many practices they described and associated with witchcraft or with folk practice and superstition (as either the authors themselves or modern scholars employ these various terms) seem to come from ancient sources; thus, in giving them credence the authors were demonstrating not naïveté but learning and even erudition. Montesano begins with the example of Don Aquilante Rocchetta; in describing his pilgrimage to Jerusalem in 1599, he rejected tales of miracles as fabulous yet accepted a local story about jackals who lured their victims into the woods by listening to learn their names in the daytime, then calling for them at night with apparently human voices. For Rocchetta, this anecdote did not represent mere folk tales; rather, it confirmed accounts in Pliny and Aristotle. Montesano's study challenges long-held assumptions that have associated the descriptions of witches and witchcraft practices with non-literate and non-elite culture; she shows convincingly that many of these descriptions had clear antecedents in ancient texts that affected later Italian communities and learned circles at a variety of levels.
To write at manageable length about a very broad topic has called for the setting of fairly tight constraints. Montesano restricts her attention to those classical features that figured particularly in the image of the European witch. Her longstanding interest in language and linguistics is a particular strength here, and she observes early on that to compose a study in English that employs terms such as "witchcraft," on the subject of linguistic traditions with distinctly different concepts and terms, presents its own difficulties. She resolves to minimize her use of such distinctly English terms until she gets to the later period, where they are less intrusive. [End Page 441]
She beings with a survey of Greek sources that include female figures identified with transformative or magical powers, notably Circe and Medea, the types of tools or materials they used, and the names used to identify them and similar figures (among them mánteis, góetes, lamia, empousa). These characters seem to have emerged from oral traditions and were generally ascribed divine origins. Those that arose from Latin traditions were apparently more literary creations; Montesano looks particularly here to Horace and Lucan. She notes the semantic range of many of the terms used to describe not only practitioners, but also the compounds they employed or offered to others: from the Greek pharmaka to medicamentum, veneficium, encantatio, fascinatio, and more. Roman evidence extends to legal concerns, including legislation itself; although evidence for Roman efforts to control and punish such actions dates back to the Twelve Tables, the later influx of new religious practices with the expansion of imperial control raised the levels of legal vigilance. Montesano notes, for example, the use of maleficium in second-century legal sources.
The variety—and the shifts in the range of meanings and usages over time—of Latin terminology is particularly important in understanding the definitions, as well as the texts, of late antiquity. Montesano notes the shifts from classical strix to the later form striga as well as the usages of anus, saga, or encantatrix. The transition to...