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BORROMEO, ST. CARLO (1538–1584)

One of very few saints with the responsibility for holding a significant number of witchcraft trials, Carlo Borromeo (canonized November 1, 1611) was born in Arona. As the youngest of his brothers, he was destined to pursue an ecclesiastical career. The unexpected election of his maternal uncle Cardinal Gianangelo de’ Medici as pope in December 1559 marked a turning point in his life. Pius IV summoned his nephew to Rome and, despite his age, appointed him cardinal on January 31, 1560.

Laurent Bordelon’s early eighteenth-century satirical representation of the witches’ Sabbat that ridiculed Jan Ziarnko’s 1613 depiction of the Sabbat.

(Brian P. Levack, ed. The Wichcraft Sourcebook, 2004, p. 312)

Through nepotism, young Carlo soon became one of the richest and most prestigious members of the Sacred College. The decisive event of his dazzling rise was his appointment as administrator of the archbishopric of Milan on February 17, 1560. By December 1563, he had been consecrated archbishop of Milan, and made his solemn entrance almost two years later in September 1565. Once settled in the archdiocese, which he no longer left except for brief periods, Borromeo dedicated himself to the rigorous application of the Tridentine decrees. Because of his reform efforts, the pope created him legatus a latere (a papal nuncio, literally “a legate from the side” [of the pope]) in 1565. When Borromeo lost this privilege after his uncle’s death, two subsequent popes, Pius V and Gregory XIII, granted him numerous privileges that other bishops did not possess.

Borromeo had an almost medieval idea of the relationship between lay and ecclesiastical powers, but above all he believed in the unlimited exercise of episcopal jurisdiction, not only over clergy, but in some measure also over the laity, and in well-organized pastoral activity. His position provoked some serious disagreements with the Spanish authorities who governed the duchy of Milan, as well as with the inquisitor at Santa Maria delle Grazie, whose jurisdiction he challenged not only in cases of heresy, but also in those concerning magic, witchcraft, and superstition, which he tried to arrogate to the archiepiscopal tribunal. Despite hostility from Spanish governors, competition with Dominican inquisitors, and weaker relations with Rome after the election of Pius V, Borromeo never wavered in his radical reform activities or in his jealous fostering of episcopal jurisdiction.

Milan, in Borromeo’s view, needed to become the model for carrying out reform in the universal Church, a goal to which the archbishop dedicated himself completely until his death. He remained convinced that in order to combat heresy, which was a very threatening reality in his diocese, he must dedicate his efforts to eradicating the scandals that served the enemies of Catholicism. The task required swift and radical action.

Borromeo was as relentless in his determination to punish anything related to magic and superstition as he was against Protestants. This was evident in the severe sanctions established in his 1568 decree De Magicis Artibus, Veneficiis Divinationibusque Prohibitis (On the Magic Arts, Poisonings, and Prohibited Divinations), renewed eight years later under the title De Superstitionibus (On Superstitions). It held that anyone who practiced the magical arts was to be considered, tacitly or expressly, an accomplice of the Devil. Penalties varied from five years of imprisonment for magicians to seven years imprisonment for causing a storm. He also harshly persecuted harmless popular superstitions inherited from an ancient, syncretistic religiosity (Farinelli and Paccagnini 1989, 81). Convinced as he was that all magic was diabolical, the archbishop saw the witch, defined as the servant of the Devil by the theological and juridical thinking of the day, as a central problem, and the extirpation of [Page 140] witchcraft as essential to the reform of Milanese religion. Increasing persecution against witches therefore became one of the most significant aspects of his pastoral activity. In Lombardy, superstitions had been linked to diabolical knowledge since the late fourteenth century. Practitioners of magic and popular medicine were considered dangerous religious subversives. Only their eradication could restore divine order on earth and thereby reestablish the Catholic Church’s primacy throughout the world. According to Borromeo, bishops were obliged to “exterminate the practitioners of witchcraft” (Farinelli and Paccagnini 1989, 82); to this end, he arranged for priests with knowledge of the diffusion of superstition to send suspects systematically to the archdiocese. These inquiries served as preliminaries to the true and proper persecution, which was conducted in person by the cardinal.

Especially famous was the case of some women from Lecco, who were accused of witchcraft by the archbishop’s tribunal in 1569 and became the center of a sharp controversy between the archbishop and the presiding cardinal of the Roman Inquisition. The disagreement that arose on this occasion between Borromeo, who wanted immediate punishment, supporters of the accused witches, and Rome, which instead requested a more prudent conduct founded essentially on investigation as to whether any substantial facts underlay the accusation, represented a watershed in inquisitorial practices (Prosperi 1996, 373). The letters that Cardinal Scipione Rebiba (1504–1577) sent to Borromeo in the name of the Congregation of the Holy Office (the Roman Inquisition) represented, essentially, the moderate line on the subject of witchcraft, subsequently affirmed in Italy in the last decades of the sixteenth century and culminating about 1620 in the famous Instructio pro formandis processibus in causis strigum, sortilegiorum et maleficiorum (Instruction for Conducting Trial Procedures against Witches, Sorcerers, and evildoers).

Even after this harsh conflict with Rome, Carlo continued to persecute witches with extreme severity. In Roveredo, in Val Mesolcina, in 1583, he personally conducted the arrest and trial of about ten men and women, including the local parish priest, all accused of diabolical witchcraft, against whom the ecclesiastical court eventually issued eleven capital sentences (Farinelli and Paccagnini 1989, 92–96). After Borromeo’s death, his harsh line against popular superstitions continued to distinguish the Milanese archbishopric. Appointed bishop in 1595, Borromeo’s cousin Federico also denounced and repressed magic in all its manifestations, including the simplest thaumaturgical practices. Federico’s own claim to have had personal encounters with the Devil increased the climate of fear that resulted in nine capital sentences against witches in Milan between 1599 and 1630. Although not directly involved with the trials on the same level as Carlo, Federico believed that such death sentences were justified because they were inflicted “justly” (Farinelli and Paccagnini 1989, 103). Federico was responsible for unrealized plans for establishing a place where, after serving their spiritual and judicial penalties, witches would be confined to ensure that the “bad seed” would be eradicated completely (Bendiscioli 1957, 298).

Paolo Portone; Translated by Shannon Veneble

See also:

inquisition, roman; italy; milan; roman catholic church; superstition.

References and further reading:

Agnoletto Attilio. 1984.“Un ‘Indice di superstizioni’ della Lombardia borromaica.” Quaderni milanesi: Studi e fonti di storia lombarda 8: 77–94.

Bendiscioli Mario. 1957. Politica, amministrazione e religione nell’età dei Borromeo. Pp. 1–350 in Storia di Milano. L’Età della Riforma cattolica (1559–1630). Vol. 10. Milan: Fondazione Treccani degli Alfieri per la storia di Milano.

Farinelli Giuseppe, and Ermanno Paccagnini. 1989. Processo per stregoneria a Caterina de Medici (1616–1617). Milan: Rusconi.

Jedin Hubert. 1971. Carlo Borromeo. Rome: Istituto della Enciclopedia Italiana.

Monter William, and John Tedeschi. 1986. “Towards a Statistical Profile of the Italian Inquisitions, Sixteenth to Eighteenth Centuries.” Pp. 130–157 in The Inquisitions in Early Modern Europe. Studies in Sources and Methods. Edited by Gustav Henningsen and John Tedeschi. De Kalb: Northern Illinois University Press.

Portone Paolo. 1996. “Un processo di stregoneria nella Milano di Carlo Borromeo (1569).” Pp. 317–330 in Stregoneria e streghe nell’Europa moderna. Convegno internazionale di studi (Pisa, 24–26 March 1994). Edited by Giovanna Bosco and Patrizia Castelli. Pisa: Pacini.

Prosperi Adriano. 1996. Tribunali della Coscienza. Turin: Einaudi.