Italy - Witchcraze! Persecution of Witches

The Element Encyclopedia of Witchcraft: The Complete A-Z for the Entire Magical World - Judika Illes 2005

Witchcraze! Persecution of Witches

Witch-hunting was comparatively mild in Italy. Although there were executions by burning, most of those convicted of witchcraft suffered incarceration flogging, penances, and banishment.

In 1181 the Doge of Venice passed laws forbidding sorcery. Trials and executions of witches in Como were held c.1360. Over 300 were eventually executed.

In 1384 Sibillia, wife of Lombardo de Fraguliati, appeared before Friar Ruggiero da Casale, Inquisitor of Upper Lombardy, accused of “dreadful crimes.” She was punished with various penances but in 1390 she was again accused and sentenced to die by a new Inquisitor.

Fragments of the records survive: Sibillia confessed that for years, every Thursday evening she journeyed to pay homage to a sacred being called “Madame Oriente.” Inquisitors identify Madame Oriente in trial records as “Diana, called Herodias.”

Pierina, wife of Pietro de Bripio also appeared before Friar Casale in the same year, and was also assigned penances for heresy. Just like Sibillia, in 1390 a new local Inquisitor, Friar Beltramino da Cernuscullo, sentenced her to death for backsliding.

Pierina told the Inquisition that she had attended Madame Oriente’s Society every Thursday since she was 16. She described Madame Oriente as “Mistress of the Society” in the same fashion that Christ is “Master of Earth.”

The Society roamed through various houses, feasting and drinking. Madame Oriente blessed them and taught them herbal remedies, spellbreaking techniques, and how to locate lost and missing items. Pierina told the Inquisition that Madame Oriente could resurrect dead animals, but not humans. Devotees sometimes slaughtered oxen and ate them. The oxen’s bones were saved and placed atop the animal’s hide. Madame Oriente struck the hide with her wand and the oxen returned to life but could no longer be used for labor.

Later in the trial transcript, possibly after torture, Pierina confessed to giving herself to a spirit named Lucibello and signing a compact in her blood. At this point, she explains that Lucibello led her to the Society, a point not made previously but more in line with the Witch-hunters’ vision of diabolical witchcraft.

In 1428 Matteuccia di Francesco of Ripa Bianca near Deuta was charged with witchcraft, accused of casting spells to prevent pregnancy, cause impotence and ease pain, as well as journeying to sabbats in Benevento by covering herself with ointment made from dead babies, vultures’ fat, and bat’s blood. Allegedly Matteuccia invoked Lucibello who manifested as a goat and carried her on his back through the air to Benevento. She was burned at the stake on March 20, 1428. (See PLACES: Benevento; TOOLS: Flying Ointments.)

Image 1484: Forty-one people were burned at the stake at Como

Image 1510: In Valcanonica, the Inquisition allegedly investigated over 5,000 witches; 70 were burned

Image 1514: A further 300 people were burned at the stake in Como

In 1520, the Venetian government complained about the number of deaths resulting from witch-hunts. Pope Leo X’s response was to voice his support for the Inquisition.

Information regarding the Benandanti, “those who walk well,” derives from Inquisitorial archives in the Venetian province of Friuli, a crossroads area where Italian, Slavic, Germanic, and other influences meet. (See DICTIONARY: Benandanti.)

The Inquisition first learned of the Benandanti in 1575 when a priest heard reports of a man, Paolo Gasparutto, who healed the bewitched and was said to roam at night in the company of witches and spirits. Summoned, Gasparutto acknowledged his activities and the Inquisition was called in. Trials and interrogations were conducted from 1575 to 1644.

The Inquisition tried to get the Benandanti to confess to witchcraft and consorting with the devil—the usual set of accusations—but the Benandanti resisted. They didn’t deny their activities but insisted that they acted in God’s service and protected people from witches. By 1623, however, some Benandanti had confessed to attending sabbats, making diabolical pacts, desecrating crosses, and vampirism.

The Church was not overly enthusiastic about the Benandanti trials, which were not pursued as aggressively as some others. Punishment tended to be banishment or prison. The last major trial took place in 1644 although a few scattered efforts continued until the end of the century.