When we say that witch hunt doesnít belong to Middle Ages, we incur the risk of misunderstanding. We donít want to say that people in Middle Age didnít believe in witches, or that witches werenít persecuted, or even that someone felt well-disposed towards them. After all, both the papal bull Summis Desiderantes (1484) and the notorious Malleus Maleficarum (1486) belong to Middle Ages which ends, by convention, in 1492. But since ages donít decline and rise within a day, actually the 15th century, because of Humanism, new conception of past (perceived as well distinguished from present times), new conception of art, neoplatonism and literature, belongs to the new age prepared during 14th century. In the same way, Middle Age prepare the road to the witch hunt. Witches were defined people, usually women, who can cast spell, led by the devil, in order to damage people, even if we have witch recipes for good purposes, too, like helping the harvest by affecting weather, healing people and animals, love potions and so on. Witch hunt is a systematic action led officially by agents of the church who investigate, gather charges, interrogate, torture, gather confessions and make the judgement to be enforced (this was delegated to the secular arm, because ecclesia abhorrit e sanguine, the church recoils from blood), which was a condemn to the stake, even though some "lucky" people could be strangled or hanged before being burnt.
During he Dark Ages the belief in witches, not necessarily followers of the devil, must be quite common, since both Rotari, in his 643 e.v. edict, and Charlemagne, in Capitulatio de partibus Saxoniae, condemn those who killed a woman because they believed she was a witch. Divination is condemned too, as a superstition not worthy of a true christian: the Longobard king Liutprand established fines for he who went or sent his servant or allowed the servant to go to people who practiced this illegitimate art. The Canon Episcopi, falsely dated back to Ancyraís Council (314 e.v.), but more probably a Frank capitulary, warns bishops and their ministers to banish, and "only" banish, people practicing divination and magic, but for what concerns witches, i.e.
"Öcertain wicked women, turned back toward Satan, seduced by demonic illusions and phantasms, believe of themselves and profess to ride upon certain beasts in the nighttime hours, with Diana, the Goddess of the Pagans, (or with Herodias) and an innumerable multitude of women, and to traverse great spaces of earth in the silence of the dead of night, and to be subject to her laws as of a Lady, and on fixed nights be called to her serviceÖ"
the Canon just says that they are women deceived by the devil who leads them away from christian faith and makes them believe to do, but not really do, what they say they did. Itís always the devil who inspires those womenís dreams, but there is no pact with him. The devil isnít believed to be able to change something on the physical plan: he can send dreams and visions to people, but itís only god, the creator, who can change the aspect of things. The Canon Episcopi was validated by the church when Gratian included it in his Decretum, first core of canon law. The so-called "Dianaís society" or "Lady of the gameís society" appearing in this text is clearly a heritage of ancient pagan cults, and Diana, though she had already lost her divine features, was actually a benevolent being, like some sort of elf. The lack of a pact with the devil, that was considered impossible by church authorities, explained the absence of persecution when no other more serious facts, leading to the charge of heresy, happened. The charge of sorcery didnít exist yet. We could say that those "witches" were actually considered mad women.
Another feature that later will be considered typical of witches, is that to provoke hail and bad weather to damage harvests, a belief which was denied as a superstition more suitable for stupid and ignorant people than for christians by Agobard, in his Liber contra insulsam opinionem de grandine et tonitruis (Book against a stupid opinion about hail and thunder), written in 820.
From 12th century on, even if John from Salisbury continued affirming that the sabbath was mere fantasy, while Gratian was finishing his Decretum (1140), the ideas of the existence of a Dianaís society and of the existence of women willing to damage neighbours by their magic, an idea well known even in classic ages (for instance, see the figure of Erichto in Lucanís Farsalia, or of Canidia in Horatius, or of Moeri in Vergilius), begin to merge. The church still considered them mere illusions and it was probably still trying to show itself standing head and shoulders above pagan "superstitions". In the same period the bases for the birth of Inquisition are founded, when several church synods, until the 4th Lateran ecumenic council in 1215, established to use the secular arm to suppress heresies, on the basis of the renewed discovery, happening in those times, of Roman Law, that means of Justinianís Corpus Iuris Civilis, which advoked the task of struggling against non-allowed rites to the state. The 12th century is also a century of religious ferment, in which appeared many mass heretical movements, the most known of which was that of Cathars, born at about the beginning of 11th century and since then considered dangerous by the church (in 1017, 10 heretics were condemned to the stake), which fought it very hardly with wars and massacres. The Cathars were a regular social and religious movement, but they were also charged with some actions that lately will be considered typical of witches: the pact with the devil, the kiss of shame, the devilís changing into a cat (according to Alain de Lille, author of Contra haereticos suis temporis, Against heretics of this time, the word Cathars originated from cato, cat, because Lucifer appeared during their meeting under this guise to receive the kiss on his rear end, but itís a false etymology, of course). During the fight against Cathars, the Inquisitionís powers were strenghten and the Pope avoked it to himself (before, it was delegated to bishops) and delegated it first to Cistercian monks and then to friars, Franciscan ones but especially Dominican ones, who expressly trained their theologians. The pope did this because bishops were accused of being too much lax in looking for likely heretics.
The inquisitor was a temporary magistrate who presented himself to local secular authorities with his own credentials and so obtained the permission to appoint his own college composed by notaries, soldiers, a vicar, jailers. He didnít have to follow the rules for civil procedure, so he didnít have to consider privileges or give the possibility of lodging an appeal. The evidences were prima facie evidences or testimonies, so the charged had to confess and possibly abjure, that was often obtained by threatens, imprisonment, torture, allowed by pope Innocent IV by the bulla Ad extirpanda (1252), which delegated to the bishop the possibility to issue the permit to proceed. The final execution was, as we have already said, delegated to civil executive power, which could be excommunicated if it had refused to proceed: penalties could be fines, corporal punishments or death penalties and sometimes the condemned was forced to bring a mark of shame. This kind of Inquisition spread in 13th and 14th century, but in 15th century his role in struggling against heresies ended.
The first document dealing with a trial against witches is a Consilium by Bartolo from Sassoferrato (1314 Ė 1357), who was interviewed by Novaraís bishop about how they have to judge a witch who was under trial in Orta. The figure of the witch is very different from the women taking part to Dianaís society: she confessed to having stepped on a cross, kneeled in front of the devil and caused the death of some children by spells, and this was the reason why their mothers reported her (we canít avoid asking how these confessions were extorted to her). About this, Bartolo shows very sceptic and relies on church and theologians to decide if really someone could cause someoneís death by spells. So he advised the bishop to deal with the woman as a heretic, to condemn or pardon according to her repentance or lack of it. The first witch put on a stake was condemned in 1340, under charge of heresy, that means that still didnít exist any specific penal procedure for witches.
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