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Naples, Kingdom of

Relative to north-central Italy, the southern Kingdom of Naples participated only marginally in early witch hunts during the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. Chronicles did not record any persecutions in the south; the vast demonological literature, both Italian and European, contained no traces of activity in the south compared to references to northern Italy, where the large numbers of trials and the zeal demonstrated by inquisitors such as those in Como merited commendation from Heinrich Kramer, the author of the Malleus Maleficarum (The Hammer of Witches, 1486). Except for a few late-sixteenth-century works such as Giovanni Lorenzo d’Anania’s (Anania) De Natura Daemonum (Of the Nature of Demons, Venice, 1589), Leonardo Vairo’s De Fascino (On Enchantments, Venice, 1583), and, later, medical examiner Pietro Piperno’s De magicis affectibus horum dignotione, praenotione, curatione, medica, stratagemmatica, divina, plerisque curationibus electis, et De Nuce beneventana maga . . .(On Magical Ailments, Their Diagnosis, Prediction, and Treatment with Select Cures, Medical, Strategic, and Divine, and On the Walnut-Tree of Benevento; Naples, 1634), literature on the theme of witches remained underdeveloped and did not influence debate about their repression.

Although references to inquisitorial activity concerning witchcraft are scarce, it is possible to trace a general picture of the attitudes adopted by local ecclesiastical authorities toward witchcraft from documents conserved in the diocesan historical archives of Naples and from the sentences and abjurations conserved in the Trinity College Library in Dublin, which anticipated and in some ways inspired the changes in the official position outlined in Instructio pro formandis processibus in causis strigum, sortilegiorum et maleficiorum (Instruction for Conducting Trial Procedures Against Witches, Sorcerers, and Evildoers, ca. 1620).

Three witches (called janare or magare in southern Italy) were condemned to death in 1506 by the inquisitor-general of the Kingdom of Naples, and around 200 trials were initiated by Beneventan archiepiscopal curia, the outcome of which is unknown. Otherwise, nothing is known of the repression of witchcraft in southern Italy before trials were conducted in Naples in 1574, 1580, and 1590; between 1582 and 1601, 143 trials were held in the capital (Romeo 1990, 20, 166–167, 179). In the rest of the kingdom, trials against superstition were recorded at Bitonto in 1594; at Capua, where 130 cases of magic were tried between 1600 and 1715; and at Gallipoli, where three sorceresses were tried for witchcraft in 1600. Throughout this region, judges—regardless of the gravity of the errors confessed—merely required the accused to repent, recant their errors, and accept spiritual penances (D’Ippolito 1996, 425–437).

Documents from the Holy Office conserved at Trinity College Library in Dublin contain numerous cases in which subjects of the Kingdom of Naples appeared spontaneously before the tribunal of the Inquisition in Rome to confess they were sorcerers or necromancers, together with a few inquiries from local ecclesiastical tribunals in Naples, Lecce, and Teano. These trials also provide evidence that pagan spirituality was so profoundly imbued with official Christianity that it was experienced and practiced without any sense of wrongdoing. The judicial sentences indicate that the inquisitors were principally concerned with punishing the error of “believing that it is right to serve the work of the devil” (Trinity College Library, Dataria, Vol. 1228, ff. 111–114). The nature of these offenses, mostly entailing minor suspicions of heresy, and the primarily spiritual penalties imposed were never very severe (e.g., whipping, confinement to a cloister for regular clergy, formal imprisonment for a brief period, or, at worst, five years in the galleys). The Congregation of the Holy Office demonstrated a “southern” orientation that seemed far less rigorous than the attitude of Milan’s famous cardinal-archbishop, St. Carlo Borromeo.

In general, the severity of southern Italian authorities against superstitions was restricted to their definitions of what constituted illicit use of the sacraments and sacramental objects. At the same time, ecclesiastical authorities sought to strengthen the thaumaturgical-defensive system of sanctioned traditional rituals (especially exorcism) and increase such forms of popular devotion as the cult of saints while limiting their repressive action to intimidating marginal and subaltern segments of society to discourage them (without much success) from engaging in magic spells and syncretistic practices. In the late sixteenth century, a “campaign of aggression and intolerance” was directed [Page 802] against superstitions, in line with Sixtus V’s Coeli et Terrae Creator (Creator of Heaven and Earth, 1586) and Immensa Dei Aeterni (The Infinity of the Eternal God, 1587). Notwithstanding the gravity of the apostasies committed by the accused (participation in the Sabbat, homage to or pact with the Devil) and the atrocities they confessed (often spontaneously), no known cases involved accusations of diabolical witchcraft. The principal goal was instead to circumscribe and relativize the errors of the faithful: exorcism was preferable to burning at the stake because it transformed the witch into someone possessed by the Devil (Romeo 1990, 244).

Southern tolerance was also associated with the futile efforts of southern bishops to eradicate superstitions practiced by their clergy. Even after the Council of Trent, even higher-level southern monks lived in concubinage, moral laxity, and superstition. Numerous sentences from the Trinity College Library records detailed proceedings against members of the secular and regular clergy, including some cases against ordinary diocesan clerics accused of dealing with the Devil. A somewhat classical interpretation attributes such corruption among southern Italian clergy to the particular structure of the Church in the region, which was more receptive to it. This institution was controlled by laypeople and managed by refractory clergy who were often ignorant and superstitious, indifferent to the spirit of reform, and unresponsive to an inner religiosity founded on the purity of the evangelical message. These conditions are crucial to understanding the failure of the post-Tridentine Church’s commitment to Christianizing the countryside. Ancient superstitions continued to thrive among the faithful. Southern bishops who lamented the presence of rites and cults of pagan origin frequently denounced them in the late seventeenth century and throughout the eighteenth century (Tamblé 1996, 545). Twentieth-century anthropologists and folklore scholars studied these same beliefs and practices.

Paolo Portone; Translated by Shannon Veneble

See also:

borromeo, st. carlo; d’anania (anania), giovanni lorenzo; inquisition, roman; italy; malleus maleficarum; piperno, pietro; superstition.

References and further reading:

De Rosa Gabriele. 1978. Chiesa e religione popolare nel Mezzogiorno. Rome-Bari: Laterza.

D’Ippolito Lucia. 1996. Spunti per una ricerca sulla stregoneria nel territorio della diocesi di Oria. Pp. 425–437 in Stregoneria e streghe nell’Europa moderna. Convegno internazionale di studi (Pisa, 24–26 marzo 1994). Edited by Giovannea Bosco and Patrizia Castelli. Pisa: Pacini.

Monter William. 2002. “Witchcraft Trials in Continental Europe 1560–1660.” Pp. 1–52 in The Period of the Great Witch Trials. Vol. 4 of The Athlone History of Witchcraft and Magic in Europe. Edited by Bengt Ankarloo and Stuart Clark. London and Philadelphia: Athlone and University of Pennsylvania Press.

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. DeKalb: Northern Illinois University Press.

Romeo Giovanni. 1990. Inquisitori, esorcisti e streghe nell’Italia della Controriforma. Florence: Sansoni.

Sallmann Jean Michel. 1986. Chercheurs de trésors et jeteuses de sorts: La quête du surnaturel à Naples au XVIe siècle. Paris: Aubier.

Tamblé Maria Rosaria. 1996. “Streghe, guaritrici, indovino.” Pp. 541–565 in Stregoneria e streghe nell’Europa moderna. Convegno internazionale di studi (Pisa, 24–26 marzo 1994). Edited by Giovannea Bosco and Patrizia Castelli. Pisa: Pacini.