European Pagan Memory Day

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TREATISES ABOUT WITCHES IN THE 15TH CENTURY

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Since the fourteenth century, at the end of the struggle against heresies and when the scourge of pestilences, wars and famine was increasing, the inquisitorsí attention started to focus on witches, but itís in the fifteenth century that many treatises about witchcraft have been written, all of them distancing themselves from the Canon Episcopi and affirming the reality of witchcraft. Some writers correctly recognize the practices condemned in the Canon as traces of the ancient paganism and distinguish those from current witchcraft, while some others deal with the reality of the witchesí flying: this seems to be the last wall to knock down to affirm that witches really exist, even from a canonical point of view, thatís the reason why it is often matter for important passages in the treatises, and sometimes for whole treatises.

So itís in Alfonso Tostatoís Commentaria (Commentaries), in which, in the Quaestio XLVII, quotes passages from the Bible and from stories of saints to demonstrate that the devil can really carry bodies by the air (in Matthewís gospel it is said that the devil carried Jesus up to the templeís pinnacle and some enemies of saints are told to have sent devils to bring back those saints as prisoners); since devils are wicked angels and since they havenít lost their powers when they fell, they can carry even more than one man to far places, in the same way that angels of light make the heavens turn. Then, in the Commentaria we find the connection between Dianaís reunions as named in the Canon and devilís reunions: the Canon itself says that women who believe that they go to Dianaís game are deceived by the devil and since there are no other deities apart from the christian god, the Diana they see must be a devil who took her appearance, so these women join with the devil. The Canon also says that these women are called to serve Diana, but Alfonso Tostato denies this, because the devil canít force people to obey him, so women going to the "game" made a pact with the devil.

So the detachment from the Canon is definitive: the following writers said that the Canon was talking about pagan cults, different from present witchcraft, that the Canon forbade to believe in the existence of the goddess Diana or Erodias, but not in the night flying; so witches became devil worshipper, heretics, a wicked sect that inquisitors had to root out. In order to do that, the church needs theological and juridical instruments; Johann Nider, Bernardo Basin and Jean Vineti came to her rescue.

Johann Nider is the author, between 1435 and 1437, of a dialogue between a theologian and an illiterate, the Formicarius (The anthill), beginning from the observation that in Germany believers were decreasing while some facts were happening, similar to miracles, but not miracles because they belong to god. He writes down many anecdotes about children killed by magic practices and then eaten by wicked people, self-confessed offenders talking about pacts with the devil and various ceremonies; Nider agrees with the faculty of theology of Paris, which recognized in 1398 the reality of magic and its relation with the devil. He doesnít talk about witches but about "evil makers", who make evil because the devil gives them the power to do that, while heís sceptic about the night fly and tells another anecdote about it, a tale of a saint man who wanted to observe a woman who told him she flew by night to Diana, but saw only the woman fall asleep and dream of being before Venus (itís the first time this goddess is cited about night gatherings), and so demonstrates the inconsistency of these tales. By his character the theologian, Nider affirms that these wicked people must be held, but not through the work of other wicked people: faith protects from the evil, damages made by material things (as an example, a lizard, buried under oneís doorstep to cause infertility) can be deleted by removing that material thing, without any further superstition, but, above all, "in touch with law, the evil maker loses all the forces of his evils". Itís clear that Nider is calling the intervention of the law against them, but Bernardo Basin had already answered the call with his Tractatus exquisitissimus de magicis artibus et magorum maleficiis (Wonderful treatise about magic arts and magiciansí spells, 1432), in which he identifies in canon law the dispositions needed to struggle against magic arts. After Basinís treatise comes the Tractatus contra daemonum invocatores (Treatises against people invoking demons), by Jean Vineti, inquisitor in Carcassonne. Vineti detaches himself immediately from the Canon, remarking the difference between those women deceived by the devil and modern heretics invoking demons, sacrificing children to them; like Tostato, Vineti quotes biblical passages and passages from the Summa theologiae (The summa of theology) by Thomas Aquinas to demonstrate the reality of the night fly, of sexual intercourses with devils and of wicked spells.

Another step toward the explosion of the witch hunt is made by a Dominican friar, Nicolas Jacquier, author of the Flagellum haereticorum fascinariorum (The scourge of heretic charmers), whose aim is to demonstrate the reality of witches (the fascinarii - charmer), to legitimate the persecution and lead the church to the intervention against these men, women and clergy who are aware accomplices to the devil in acting against humanity. These ones, unlike the women of the Canon, are a true heresy and a sect, worshipping the devil as a god and gathering in "diabolic synagogues" (in many countries witch hunt becomes closer to hebrew hunt, and in the same period the theologian Pierre Mamoris, in his Flagellum maleficorum (The scourge of evil makers), uses for the first time the word "sabbath" meaning witch gathering), not dreaming, but when awake, and everything happens there really happens; this is demonstrated, according to Jacquier, by the fact that these places and the devil being inside them disappeared when some people who were there crossed themselves. The reality of evil spells was considered a proof of the pact with the devil and the spreading of this practice due to the devils themselves, with the "agreement of an angry god, despised" by the many "christian sinners".

In spite of all the attempts of finding in law the juridical instruments to persecute witches, the law is not still precise enough, so Girolamo Visconti, logic professor in Lombardia, comes to the Duke of Milanís help in trials against witches. This is the first time the word "witch" (Italian: "strega") appears; the Italian word comes from the ancient word stria, from the latin strix, who was a mythological being hunting children. Visconti wrote two pamphlets, the Lamiarum sive striarum opusculum (Pamphlet of lamias or witches) and the Opusculum de striis (Pamphlet about witches). In the first pamphlet, the mind changing is clear: in the Canon, despising people who believed in the reality of what women dreamt was encouraged, in this pamphlet fool is he who denies these "magic charms" which are a consolidated reality, striking especially children. For these heretic women, going to the "game" for real and not in dreams, "the right punishment is the stake". Reversing completely every common sense logic, Visconti says that if the "game", the pact with the devil, the gatherings, the sacrifices, the profanations of the cross, hadnít been real, the judges wouldnít have established the punishment of the stake, so, since these women are condemned to the stake, all these facts are real. Other proofs in favour of the reality of the "game" in Viscontiís pamphlet might be even funny, if they hadnít caused so much harm: as an example, the game canít be a dream because those people said they went to the game just after dinner, but Aristotle said that vapours of the food coming up from the stomach prevent from dreaming and so the game canít be a dream. The women of the Canon donít go really to the game, as proved by those who observed them sleeping while they said they were taking part to the game, and it isnít possible that the animals being eaten during the gathering could return to life from their bones, at will of the "Lady of the game". So, if all this is a dream, these women shouldnít be condemned to the stake because of dreaming, but Visconti, at the end of his pamphlet, stresses the reality of evil spells and devil pacts and quotes Augustin, according to whom "being pleased of a false guilt is a guilt in itself": so the women who donít detach themselves from what they dream, but believe itís true, are guilty and so they deserve the stake. And this is what will happen during the centuries to come.

Manuela Simeoni

 

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