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the witches

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06 March 2021

Women and the Inquisition: a rereading outside of the Black Legend


 “Here comes the witch! Here comes the witch! To death [with her]! To the stake! Prepare the fire! Light the place of fire! The witch has arrived!” This is what the inhabitants of Zardino shouted from the streets, from the houses and from the balconies, in Sebastiano Vassalli's beautiful novel La chimera (The Chimera), at the arrival of the cart with the young woman who was to be burned at the stake. It was just any old day in the seventeenth century and Antonia was an ordinary girl.  She was only guilty of being beautiful, intelligent and of showing signs of an unwelcome nonconformity in her simple life. This was enough for the parish priest and the inhabitants of the village to call her a witch and to burn her in the fire.

How many Antonias have there been in history? How many women have been called witches and have suffered an atrocious death? There are many dramatic and shocking stories in literature like those told by Vassalli, Manzoni, Eco, and Sciascia, and these are just the first ones that spring to the writer's mind.

So many [Antonias] in cinema, too. Do you remember the witch in the wonderful Dies Irae by Theodor Dreyer? Witches are part of the collective imagination, of history and they often crop up in the news.  Recently, the Catholic diocese of Eichstatt in Bavaria apologized for the hunting of innocent women that took place in Germany between the 15th and 18th centuries. Accused of conspiring with the devil, 25,000 people, mostly women, were targeted. “A bleeding wound in the history of our Church,” said Bishop, Gregor Maria Hanke.

However, the most recent Vatican studies give other numbers and reach different conclusions. The historical-theological commission established for the Jubilee, the results of which were published in 2004, has debunked the “black legend” that has shrouded the Inquisition, the ecclesiastical tribunal established by Paul III, for centuries.  On the occasion of the Jubilee, just four years before earlier, John Paul II had solemnly asked for forgiveness for the sins committed by the Church. However, the experts, who in the meantime were at work on the issue, made it known that the data from their work on the Inquisition did not hold up to what they previously believed, that the witch hunt did not involve the numbers that had been transmitted and thought to be accurate for centuries. It is true that during the years of the Inquisition there were tens of thousands of trials, but only 1.8% ended in burning at the stake, and the instances of torture were not as frequent. For example, out of 125,000 trials by the Spanish Inquisition only 59 cases led to a sentence of burning.  The Portuguese Inquisition burned four people and the number in Italy was 36. 

Overall, the burnings at the stake did not exceed a hundred.

It was not therefore - as was believed for centuries - the sorcerers, the purveyors of magic potions, the Satan-worshippers, the protagonists of the Sabbath or, as is probable, the women experts in herbs and medicines who practiced popular medicine, the midwives, who were the object of the Church's fears.  They were not the women the Church feared between the sixteenth and eighteenth centuries.

So, then what?

The subject of the Vatican commission’s research was into the eradication of witches, the burning at the stake and the violence against innocent women, which did occur and certainly involved physical harm, -especially in the Middle Ages, not in the following centuries-, during the Inquisition. In addition, documentation from the Middle Ages is scarce. On the other hand, perhaps the data has not been sufficiently studied yet. What is available, however, is less clear than that of the centuries that followed and that reveal other fears, other struggles, and other discriminations.

It so happened that the moment one curtain closed telling a different truth about the Inquisition another curtain rose, showing an even more surprising situation and telling an even more tragic and more interesting story. Alejandro Cifres, the director of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith’s archives, which hosted a study day on the Inquisition and women in June 2014, describes this new situation very clearly: “In the modern age, that is, from the sixteenth to the eighteenth century,” he says, “witches and burnings were isolated and peripheral episodes.  The concerns of the Church were quite different then”. In addition, there were other women the Church feared and repressed. The Inquisition was a “rationalist, cautious and moderate” body. It was not concerned with a few marginal female figures, but rather “with the Protestant Reformation that was spreading throughout Europe and conquering great countries”.  The church was, therefore, committed above all to the fight against heresy.  Moreover, she was attentive and concerned to stem the phenomenon of affected sanctity, of mystics, of the power of the monasteries, of the freedom of expression widely exercised by women that bordered on heresy and in which heresy could trespass. The ecclesiastical tribunal was therefore committed “against the female charisma that strongly influenced society, the church and politics”, and not against naive commoners who were experts in herbs or had a questionable character.

The feminine genius in those centuries -and as recognized a few centuries later by John Paul II-, developed in an unexpected way, for the Inquisition was wary, and therefore investigated, condemned, and, above all subjected women to cast iron control.

“I would not use the word “fear”, but rather “arrogance” says Cifres. The Church, during those years, thought it controlled everything, it had excessive self-confidence and distrusted anyone else with power.  Women had power, and convents exercised it; there were many nuns and they were protagonists. This is why they had to be contained”.

At the beginning of the modern era, the fear of women - or the Church's arrogance towards them - was extensive and grave.  The situation during those centuries was populated by lesser-known protagonists, and it is only relatively recently that they have begun to be discovered and studied. The ecclesiastical tribunal accused above all the “fake saints, women bearers of prophecies and new values”, confirms Gabriella Zarri, an historian, and author of the research Le sante vive (The living saints). These “women, who enjoyed religious and political prestige, were considered capable of miraculous events and with a large popular following". We find them again, recounted with care and attention, in the text Women and the Inquisition, a volume edited by Marina Caffiero and Alessia Lirosi. There were so many of them and their mindset was so flexible and elastic, even to the point of open and repeated transgression, that, writes Marina Caffiero, “the archives of repression are also those that bear witness to freedom. The strength rather than the weakness of women”.

It is easy to loose oneself in the hundreds of stories, biographies and narratives that recount what happened; nevertheless, the overall picture is clear enough. So who are the women that the Inquisition wanted to control and repress? In the sixteenth century, in central and northern Italy, the living saints, the “blessed of the prince” and the saints of the court devoted their charisma to those who reigned to give prestige. They intervened forcefully in the political sphere and determined the decisions of those in power.

The Counter-Reformation swept these women away, for this model of ecclesiastical hierarchy did not permit charisma and prophecy. When this was combined with women’s natural weakness, it looked at it with suspicion and, above all, it controlled women in the cloisters where female religiosity and any transgression was subjected to the rigid rules exercised by confessors. They wanted to control everything but they could not.  They were unable, for example, to supervise the writing in which – as Marina Caffiero tells us - the aspiration to prestige and power remained strong, as well as a model of all-female holiness that even in the 17th century managed to find a way to impose itself. “The prophetic spirit overflows from the cloistered walls”, explains the historian, and the visionaries and prophetesses continue to assert themselves “as figures of local veneration, of popular pilgrimage, of devotion even by the religious”. They gained, therefore, authority and power once again. There are still unknown and fascinating stories of nobles and commoners who proposed their own idea of sanctity, who affirmed prophetic gifts and charismatic powers.

The Church feared these women and besides wanted to control and silence them. That they could be considered dangerous for the hierarchy and usurpers of the sacred masculinity when Luther's heresy spread is actually obvious. Less straightforward was the resistance that continued over the centuries, the insistence with which the transgression that female religiosity and charisma was reproposed. As Marina Caffiero affirms, “at the end of the seventeenth century, prophetism was the obligatory way of women's religious expression given their exclusion from the priesthood and from the public and official decision making.”

Their religious expression resisted the enlightenment, and 18th century rationalism, which brought new protagonists to the fore, and where the struggle between charisma and hierarchy had taken place for centuries. These are the Convulsionaries, the women who through the language of the body, once again, wanted to influence choices, and claimed to direct life and values. They are the ones who tried to stop the Church's retreat from modernity. That is not why suspicion towards them is lessened. Even if attacked by a modernity that wants to marginalize her, the Church continues to be afraid of women. In the eighteenth century, and then in the nineteenth, they continued to remain “witches”, that is, real or potential subverters of an order that did not consider them. Even if they were not burned at the stake, they were kept in the margins.

It is precisely in the light of history and stories that it is peregrinating to ask the question, how much of that fear remains today? How much of this still determines behavior and decisions?

by Ritanna Armeni