1. “the Church believed that all magic, including beneficent magic, was the work of the Devil.”
The following is from Brian P. Levack‘s (John E. Green Regents Professor in History, University of Texas, Austin) Introduction to Witchcraft, Healing, and Popular Diseases, which is Volume 5 of the series New Perspectives on Witchcraft, Magic, and Demonology, published in 2001 by Routledge.
One of the traditional functions performed by magicians in all societies, especially those without an organized medical profession, has been healing.
The use of magic to treat a variety of ailments has been traditionally one of the most common forms of magic. Healers, often known in early modern Europe as wise women or wise men, did not rely exclusively on magic for the performance of their art. They often employed natural remedies, such as herbs, to nurse a person back to health. In this regard they can be considered as practitioners of folk medicine ….
Healing is by definition a beneficient activity, and when its practice involves magic it could be classified as beneficent or “white” magic. Certainly the neighbors and clients of these healers valued their services and considered them beneficial to the community. Healers who also served as midwives, as many of them did during the early modern period, were also regarded as indispensable guardians of the health of the community ….
Clerical authorities agreed to prosecute healers for witchcraft because the Church believed that all magic, including beneficent magic, was the work of the Devil. Clerics also claimed that those who could cure by magical means could use the same demonic power to cause harm. Mary O’Neil writes about the prosecution of healers and practitioners of love magic by the Roman Inquisition in Modena in the late sixteenth century.
2. “accusations of maleficium were invariably against healers.”
Now lets take a look at what Mary O’Neil (Associate Professor, Italian Renaissance and Reformation, University of Washington) has to say in Magical Healing, Love Magic and the Inquisition in Late Sixteenth-century Modena (to which Brian Levack refers above):
Despite the arguments of Renaissance intellectuals for a ‘reformed and learned natural magic’, mainstream theologians since the Church Fathers had maintained that magical effects were achieved only with the aid of the devil, and were necessarily implicitly diabolical. It was because of this orthodox assumption that magical powers derive only from a pact with the devil (whether implicit or explicit), which in turn implied apostasy from the true faith, that the Inquisition had acquired jurisdiction over cases categorized as superstitious.
In the climate of post-Tridentine reform, the local officies of the Roman Inquisition prosecuted such cases with increased frequency. After an intensive period of heresy trials against Protestants from the 1540s to the 1570s, magical and superstitious offenses came to constitute the major focus of late sixteenth- and early seventeenth-century Inquisitorial activity ….
The verbatim trial records reveal a world in which magical remedies were used to deal with the routine hazards of life, especially illness and disease. The major categories of superstitious error prosecuted by the Inquisition were magical healing, love magic and divination, with the largest number of cases directed against healers. Divination techniques were used in a variety of situations, most frequently to find lost and stolen objects including buried treasure, and to identify thieves ….
Concerning healers, according to O’Neil, “Depositions by witnesses indicate that relationships between healers and their clients could be tense, marked by fear and apprehension.” More specifically: “Many healers were denounced to the Inquisition by their former clients, especially after an unsuccessful cure.” As an illustraion, O’Neil tells the story (from 1599) of Diamante de Bisa, who had been called to treat a sick two-year old girl. Two hours after Diamente bathed the child first in water and then in ashes, the girl died.
Diamante was thus denounced to the Inquisition for ‘having destroyed [guasta] and killed a child’ through witchcraft. Failed cures often resulted in such charges even against healers with solid reputations and loyal clients. In Modena, accusations of maleficium were invariably against healers and bear a certain resemblance to malpractice suits.
But the response of the court to these charges is an instructive one, for the Dominican Inquisitor, Giovanni di Montefalcono, resisted the perception of Diamante as a stregawhich was put forward by the bereaved family.
So here we have a case of a professional healer accused of Witchcraft by her neighbors. But that “perception” of the accused is “resisted” by the Inquisitor. According to O’Neil, this case typifies the Roman (and also Spanish) Inquisition for “the moderation of its approach to magical crimes.” [p. 174]
In the specific case of Diamante, the popular perception of her as a Strega (Witch) was rejected by the Inquisition as inappropriate in her case. Instead, she was found guilty of the lesser charge of “superstition”. This came after Diamante’s own testimony in which she recounted “numerous successful cures.”
The court resisted her accusers charge of witchcraft, but Diamante’s testimony about her healing methods placed her firmly in the category of ‘superstitious healer’. She was asked to explain the methods she uses …. Her lengthy replies describe cures which used ointments and herbs along with the sign of the cross …. She was guilty in the eyes of the court, but of performing ‘superstitious medications,’ not of maleficium. The vocabulary of witchcraft (striga, malefica, guastare) is introduced in this trial only by witnesses and is passed over by the court, which uses instead the vocabulary of ‘superstition’. Diamante received a standard penance of standing in front of the parish church during Sunday mass, fasting on bread and water on vigils at the Virgin’s feastdays and reciting weekly rosaries for a year.
At least in Modena there is clear evidence that according to popular beliefs, the ability to heal by itself was considered evidence of Witchcraft. Even in cases that fit the “malpractice” paradigm, many witnesses would present testimony that focused on successful healings performed by the accused. One person who took the stand in 1579 against Maria Mariani, from Villa di Fre, gave just such testimony and justified doing so by stating that “it is commonly said that those who know how to heal also know how to do harm.”
This perception that the power to heal, especially the power to heal the bewitched (maleficati, affaturati or guastati), implied the opposite power to harm was a standard facet of of learned and popular witch beliefs alike. The theological category of maleficia ad sanandum (healing by means of witchcraft) succinctly expresses the same ambivalence, which was, moreover, theoretically required by the implicitly diabolical nature of any magical cure.
3. Maleficia ad amorem
Another major category of accusations brought before the Inquisition in Modena pertained to love magic. It is well worth quoting O’Neil at length on the subject of Incanti Ad Amorem:
The most extreme penalties handed out by the Modenese Inquisition are to be found not in trials against healers accused of malefium
, but in the functionally distinct sphere of love magic. Notwithstanding the difference between causing harm and inducing affection, historians have tended to include these cases in studies of witch trials. This practice has been questioned by one recent scholar; calling for closer attention to the specific acts attributed to and the social roles occupied by persons accused of witchcraft, Richard Horsley [Who Were the Witches?
, 1979, scroll down for full citation] has argued that since love magic had a ‘good end’ it should not be dealth with as equivalent to the harm done by maleficium.
Yet the theologians did exactly that. No distinction between ‘good’ and ‘bad’ magic existed in the eyes of the church
, for its concern focused on the means employed, not on the moral status of the end pursued in any magical act. Officially classified as maleficia ad amorem
, techniques designed to induce passion in another person were particularly objectionable to theological opinion. For in addition to their implicitly (when not explicitly) diabolical source, the express goal of love charms were coercion to sin through the subversion of free will. Interrogations in these trials centered on the question of whether the defendant believed that the devil could force man’s will into sin. Counter Reformation theology was particularly sensitive to attacks on free will associated with predestinarian Protestantism, and was determined to maintain the sinner’s responsibility for his own sins.
Paradoxically, this confessional polemic undermined assumptions of the diabolical efficacy of love magic. The abjurations written for Moranda da Fanano, denounced for incantations and furfanterie
in 1600, illustrates this point:
“I swear that I believe with my heart and confess with my mouth that the demon cannot force the will and free choice [volunta e libero arbitrio
] of man to do evil, and consequently I abjure and detest that heresy which says and upholds the opposite, of which I have been judged lightly suspect for the superstitions and diabolical experiments performed and taught by me to give passion to others.”
In effect, Moranda’s trial for the superstitious use of love charms turned into a trial for the heretical denial of free will implicit in her actions. Inquisitors in the field, starved for the hard theological issues in which they had been schooled, thus exercised their abilities by detecting the finer heretical implications of what were essentially predoctrinal popular errors. The persons tried on charges of love magic were guilty of various things, from heretical opinions on the freedom of the will to ‘apostasy from Christ to the devil’ for believing that their implicitly diabolical spells would work, but they were not, in the theologians’ eyes, able to do what they attempted and wanted to do. By asserting the impossibility that such incantations could cause a person to sin against his will, even with the aid of the devil, the church effectively assumed a skeptical attitude about the reality and efficacy of love magic.
Popular belief did not reach this sophisticated theological level.
While sceptics do turn up in the trial records, they were often disappointed users of love charms whose disillusionment with the results of their experiments followed an initial credulity. Many of the ‘spontaneous denunciations sent from confession’ were made by people who had requested that some love charm be performed on their behalf; they were required to denounce themselves as well as the person who had assisted them. Providers of these services often claimed economic motiation and denied that they in fact believed in what they were doing, but since the Inquisition was concerned above all with the issue of belief, their testimony was clearly self-serving and may not reflect their real attitudes.
Depositions by and about victims of love magic represent the clearest evidence of a general assumption that such procedures were efficacious. The socially inappropriate love affairs in which these people were involved were routinely perceived as the consequences of maleficia ad amorem
. From the point of view of the relatives and friends of the socially superior individual, for whom such a misalliance defiend fundamental principles of social hierarchy, this hypothesis served a crucial explanatory function. For those of lower status, love charms conversely held out hopes of a sudden (indeed magical) transformation of their circumstances. Most of the people accused of using such charms in sixteenth century Modena were women; upper-crust names figure prominently in the lists of men magically pursued by their amorously ambitious inferiors.
It should be pointed out that O’Neil later rejects Richard Horsely’s claim that accusations associated with love magic should be treated separately from other witchcraft accusations. Here is her reasoning:
The idea that one can distinguish between ‘good’ and ‘bad’ types of magic, like the proposal to classify love charms as ‘good magic’ of an essentially different order from harmful maleficia, is not supported by sixteenth-century perceptions, whether popular or learned. The difficulty in making such a distinction lies in the fundamental moral ambiguity of all magical operations.
It must be emphasized that from the Christian perspective (at least that of the sixteenth-century), it is not really accurate to say that all magic is morally “ambiguous”, for the fact is that all magic, or at least any magic that actually worked, was seen, by definition, as automatically diabolical. Therefore anyone capable of, for lack of a better phrase, “real magic”, must have (at the very least) an implicit pact with Satan even if no formal pact had been explicitly entered into. (This view even has a modern parallel, for among some contemporary Pagans there is the saying, attributed to Victor Anderson, that “White Magic is poetry, Black Magic is anything that actually works.”)
One further passage from the section on love magic is also quite interesting:
The people who used love magic were determined to achieve their goals by any means available. If many drew on the power of orthodox ceremonies or called on the assistance of the saints, some went further. Moranda da Fanano was required to ‘abjure, detest and curse’ her hertical use of an oratione ad una stella, and to confirm that ‘it is not licit for faithful Christians to offer prayers to the stars in the manner of pagans.’
4. Conclusion: Witches, Sorceresses, and Maleficae, Oh My!
In her own Conclusions, Mary O’Neil quotes from the official document Instructio pro formandis processibus in causis strigum, sortilegiorum et maleficiorum (Instructions for trying cases against streghe, sorceresses, and evil-doers), which had been drawn up by the Holy Office in Rome and circulated starting in the 1620s:
when a woman is convicted of or confesses to having performed incantations or maleficia in order to heal or for any other purpose, it does not however necessarily follow that she is a formal strix, since the sortilegio can be performed without formal apostasy to the Demon.
According to Henry Charles Lea (1825-1909) in his Materials Toward a History of Witchcraft, which contains (in Part III, “The Delusion At Its Height”) lengthy extracts from the Instructio along with excerpts from a 1636 commentary by Caesar Carena, the section of the Instructio quoted above continues on like this:
although it is not without suspicion, either light or vehement, according to the character of the sorceries. Therefore when a good judge prosecutes a woman, either confessed of convicted of such sorceries, he must not be ready to believe that she is a formal apostate to the demon, though she may be; but when it comes to torture her he should question her as to whether she has had to do with the demon, in accordance with what is said below about torture. Judges must pay special attention to this, for many are thus deceived, thinking that this kind of sorcery necessarily involves formal apostasy to the demon, when arise the greatest wrongs to women accused of it, for inexperienced or careless judges, misled into this presupposition by reading books on sorcery and witches, leave no way, however undue, untried to extort confessions from women who are induced, by evil and unlawful methods, to confess what they had never thought of.
[p. 958 in the 2004 Kessinger edition]
The Instructio serves to emphasize just how unclear the definition of “Witch” was at the time. Looking over the court records from Modena makes it clear that this lack of clarity holds whether we are talking about the theological definition of “Witch”, or its legal definition, or its popular usage. But one thing that is absolutely clear is that whether we look to the Church, the Law, or “the people”, we find incontrovertible evidence to support what all Pagans, Witches, and genuine historians already know: “Witches heal”.