Witchcraft, Superstition, and Observant Franciscan Preachers – Review by Borbála Lovas

december 22nd, 2016 § 0 comments


Fabrizio Conti, Witchcraft, Superstition, and Observant Franciscan Preachers: Pastoral Approach and Intellectual Debate in Renaissance Milan, Turnhout, Brepols, 2015.

The new volume of the Europa Sacra series, published in 2015, concentrates on late-medieval Italy, specifically Milan. The name of the author is well-known to those familiar with the connections between the Observant Franciscans and witchcraft. Having published and presented papers for several years, this volume by Fabrizio Conti is a welcome revision of his PhD dissertation that was defended at Central European University, Budapest in 2011.

The study of the Observant Franciscans and their views on witchcraft is frequently one-sided and limited. Historians have typically focused on the leading figure of the movement, Bernardino da Siena. More nuanced and detailed studies exist almost exclusively in Italian. Fortunately, in addition to providing a fresh perspective on the topic in English, Conti connects the study with recent trends in Central European studies (such as those concentrating on Pelbartus de Temesvár and Osvaldus de Lasko). Focusing on the third generation of observant friars, who produced texts that were largely reprinted, Conti highlights the oeuvre of Benardino Busti alongside other important figures of the Franciscan friary of St. Angelo in Milan – Michele Carcano, Antonio da Vercelli, Bartolomeo Caimi, Angelo Carletti da Chivasso, Samuele Cassini – active from the last decades of the fifteenth century to the first two decades of the sixteenth.

The main aim of the book is to analyze the fine line between acts allowed and forbidden by the perspective of the Franciscan friars. Grounded in the writings of the chosen friars, Conti shows the growing skepticism concerning witchcraft in their works. A path to a moderate stance that the author names as “pastoral” – Busti’s consilium concerning the Jews of Milan is one example of this – is seen as the home to these developments. Rather than producing an edited collection of sermons, the monograph is a careful examination of the texts, the regulation of confession, and beliefs about superstition and witchcraft. Though Conti states the book “is not focused on the actual preaching activity of the friars on the ground”, the study incorporates a rich corpus of original sermons (translated by the author into English). In addition, using pastoral literature such as handbooks for confession, Conti provides a different perspective to the generally studied literature of trials and demonology. Although this is overtly not his focus, Conti does not neglect to consider the social arena behind the texts, as showed by the examination of numerous trials held in Northern Italy, such as those of Venegono Superiore in Lombardy. The book illuminates the two ‘mythologies’ of witchcraft among the Franciscans, one centered on beliefs considered real, the other unreal. The ludus bariloti, the ‘game of the keg’, is listed as real under the ‘invokers of demons’ category, with traditional figures of witches such as Finicella and Santuccia being the main representatives of this realistic approach; the ludus Dianae, ‘game of Diana’, appears under a different category (“those who believe they can shapeshift”) as unreal as far as beliefs such as the sabbath, night flight and shapeshifting are concerned. While the Dominican Order was generally moving towards the view that witches Sabbaths and night-flights were physically real (but Conti highlights that more nuanced ideas were present also among the Dominicans), these Observant Franciscan friars were going in a different direction. Conti proposes an interesting schema that opposes Franciscans, as preachers and confessors to Dominican inquisitors. The condemnation of some preachers’ view by Heinrich Kramer and the opposition between Cassini and the Dominican Vincenzo Dodo contribute to Conti’s reasoning on this point.

The book consists of three parts. Part I, Preachers and Confessors at the End of the Fifteenth Century (chapters 1–3) paints the general geographical, historical, literary, and pastoral background and introduces the Observant Franciscan preachers and confessors active in Milan and the literary sources used in the book. Part II, The First Commandment and Superstition (chapters 4–5), examines superstition from religious and intellectual viewpoints, specifically through the fifteen main categories for pastoral purposes considered by Milanese friars, who deemed it a sin against the First Commandment. Part III, From Superstition to Witchcraft (chapters 6–8), analyzes the framework of the friars on superstition in relation to witchcraft, with categories such as the invokers of demons, those who believe they shapeshift and fly at night, and maleficium examined.

The chapters are as follows. The first one provides a broad perspective and context, beginning with the history of the Franciscan Observance and concluding with the third generation of Observant Franciscans. The second chapter focuses on Bernadino Busti’s Rosarium Sermonum (1498), a two-volume compilation of eighty Lenten sermons with a central topic of penance and confession, while examining the pastoral context (with comparison to Caimi’s Interrogatorium) and the role of the preacher within society. The third chapter focuses on confession and superstition, a “distinctively multifaceted sin”. The fourth provides a close analysis of Sermon 16 of the Rosarium by Busti connected to the Observant Franciscans’s view of superstition. The fifth charts the fifteen categories of superstition (including dreams, enchanters, idolatry, invocation of demons, maleficium, seers, textual amulets, vain observances), found in the sermon featured in the previous chapter, used by the Franciscan authors. The final three chapters are linked by the theme of how superstition turns into witchcraft. In the sixth chapter, Conti continues with the text by Busti, showing how the core witchcraft stereotypes (idolatry, sorcery, and diabolism) developed while not becoming seen, as the Dominican tradition did, as an organized sect. The seventh shows how old mythical and folkloric traditions were transformed into superstitions and examines the reoccurring question of what should be considered real when one can be deceived by a diabolical illusion. The final chapter examines the text and reception of Cassini’s Questiones lamearum, which placed in opposition to the Dominican viewpoint the Franciscan view of the Witches Sabbath being unreal.

The main merit of the volume is its clear depiction of how official and unofficial beliefs about superstition and witchcraft appeared in Franciscan pastoral texts, and how the main arguments were systemized in the Observant Franciscan community. Conti’s detailed analysis provides a new perspective on superstition and witchcraft and a clear picture of an Observant Franciscan milieu in Northern Italy and Milan firmly rooted in less familiar sources.

Borbála Lovas
junior researcher,
"Humanism in East Central Europe", MTA-ELTE Research Group
A szerző az MTA-ELTE
"Humanizmus Kelet-Közép-Európában"
Lendület Kutatócsoport junior kutatója


2015-ben új kötet jelent meg az Europa Sacra sorozatban, melynek témája a késő középkori itáliai, pontosabban milánói obszerváns ferences szerzetesek harmadik generációjának, az 1590-es évektől az 1620-as évekig működő szerzetes íróknak a boszorkányság és babonaság témakörét érintő, a boszorkányhit valóságalapját kritizáló művei. Bár Conti könyvének főszereplője az elemzett szövegeket tekintve a Temesvári Pelbárt és Laskai Osvát kortársának tekinthető Bernardino Busti és böjti prédikációi, a szerző a St. Angelo konvent más, eddig hasonlóan kevéssé kutatott és a nemzetközi közönség számára szinte ismeretlen tagjai, Michele Carcano, Antonio da Vercelli, Bartolomeo Caimi, Angelo Carletti da Chivasso, Samuele Cassini műveit, prédikációs és bűnbocsátó tevékenységét is bemutatja. A gazdag forrásanyaggal dolgozó angol nyelvű kötet részletes betekintést ad az itáliai ferencesek harcába a domonkosok és az inkvizíció által támogatott és sikeresen épített boszorkányságfelfogás ellen.


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