Witchcraft in Southern Europe

The lands of Southern Europe, Spain and Italy, each had a long association with the black arts. Some of the earliest true witch trials in Europe had occurred in Italy, including a trial at Rome in 1426 and one at Todi in 1428. In Spain, it was long rumored that secret schools operated to train pupils in black magic at Toledo and Salamanca (although the training here was more along the lines of learned, ritual Demonic magic, or necromancy, and not witchcraft). Nevertheless, although belief in witchcraft and Demonic sorcery was widespread, the witch-hunts in these lands were relatively mild, especially when one considers the number of executions that the trials produced. In Italy, where the hunts were more severe, probably around 1,000 witches were executed. For comparison, consider the fact that in Scandinavia, probably around the same number of witches were executed in Denmark alone, which had a population less than 1/20th that of Italy. In the British Isles, England and Scotland, where the combined population numbered about half of Italy’s, authorities executed at least 50 percent more witches. Witchhunts were even more limited in Spain, with only around 300 executions, and virtually no executions took place in Portugal.

The single greatest cause of the limited severity of witch-hunting in southern lands was clearly the presence of large, bureaucratic, and highly centralized ecclesiastical Inquisitions. Although papally appointed inquisitors had operated in Europe since the mid-13th century and were in theory answerable to Rome, in fact throughout the Middle Ages they had never been part of any overall, centralized organization. In the early-modern period, in the lands of Southern Europe, such organizations first came into existence. The Spanish Inquisition was created in 1478 as a national institution under the control of the Spanish king, not the pope in Rome. From a supreme council in Madrid, the Inquisition closely controlled the operation of numerous regional tribunals. Similarly, the Holy Office of the Roman Inquisition was founded in 1542 by Pope Paul III to supervise and control the operation of other inquisitorial tribunals throughout Italy (with varying degrees of success—the Inquisition in Venice was notoriously independent).

The existence of these Inquisitions helped to restrain witch-hunting activity in several ways. First, as has been shown to be true of large, centralized judicial structures elsewhere, the Inquisitions were less inclined to panicky reactions based on local fears of witchcraft and were more concerned with matters of procedure and the careful accumulation and weighing of evidence. It is significant to note that charges of diabolismin connection to witchcraft, although rooted in Christian Demonology and theological principles, were largely absent from trials conducted in southern lands. The major exception was the severe outbreak of witch-hunting in the Basque lands in northern Spain from 1609 to 1614, in which highly detailed accounts of diabolical sabbaths emerged. Nevertheless, the courts in Spain and Italy rarely forced confessions of diabolic activity on the accused, as often happened in northern lands. Torture was only rarely applied, and almost always under strict procedural controls. Also, in the absence of clear evidence of diabolism, the courts of the Inquisitions were extremely hesitant to impose death sentences. The accused might still be convicted of performing sorcery of some sort, but this was often regarded as a matter for more lenient punishment, the object being to correct error and eliminate superstition, not to eradicate a perceived satanic threat to Christian society. Although secular courts in Spain and Italy seem to have been slightly harsher in matters of witchcraft than inquisitorial courts, when such matters came under their jurisdiction they in general appear to have followed the model set by the Inquisitions of careful consideration of evidence and adherence to procedure rather than blind panic.


Historical Dictionary of Witchcraft – Written by Michael D. Bailey

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