Ecclesiastical Tribunals and “Superstition” in Early Modern Europe (Fifteenth–Nineteenth Centuries)

A special issue of Religions (ISSN 2077-1444).

Deadline for manuscript submissions: 15 September 2024 | Viewed by 1553

Special Issue Editors

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Guest Editor
Department of International Studies, University of Urbino, 61029 Urbino, Italy
Interests: European (mainly Italian) religious history; early modern history; heretics; witchcraft trials

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Guest Editor
Florence Department, Syracuse University, Syracuse, NY 13244, USA
Interests: history of ideas; witchcraft; inquisition; magic; Italian religious history

Special Issue Information

Dear Colleagues,

The editors of this volume seek to invite contributions about the ways in which Christian churches (both Protestant and Catholic) in Europe dealt with what theologians defined as “superstition”.

This is a term that cannot be included sic et simpliciter in our historiographical lexicon as it expresses a (necessarily relative) judgment of value: for Calvinists, for example, the adoration of the holy host is “superstition”, if not outright “idolatry”, while for Catholics it is a perfectly orthodox devotional practice. By "superstition", therefore, we mean the forms of religiosity judged to be out of line with the standards imposed on clergy and laity in the age of "confessionalization"—an age also defined as the Counter-Reformation when referring to the Catholic world. Regarded until recently as a symptom of a superficial Christianization (Delumeau) of the masses, or even of paganism, "superstitions" are nothing more than what historians and anthropologists have called, for lack of a better definition, "popular culture" (Burke) or " popular traditions ".

The first objective of the volume will be to focus on the differences in the approach to “superstition” by the authorities in charge of controlling the religious behaviors and beliefs of the Europeans. Editors will welcome contributions discussing the prosecution of "superstitions" for either doctrinal or legal reasons by all types of courts. This includes the Inquisition (Roman, Spanish and Portuguese), which has been overrepresented in recent scholarship, as well as the tribunals deriving their power from an "ordinary" authority (as defined by Catholics), such as those of the bishoprics, and other tribunals still, such as the secular courts tasked with this charge in the Protestant countries, often in in collaboration with the universities’ faculties of theology.

The second focus specifically concerns what the judicial sources document, often beyond their scope: trial records in fact reveal stories and descriptions of devotions, rituals, charms, spells, and exorcisms which are precious testimonies for scholars of popular traditions. Some of those customs were recorded eventually, with small differences, in the reports of nineteenth- and twentieth century folklorists who gathered them for purposes that differed totally from those of ecclesiastical judges (Ginzburg, "The inquisitor as anthropologist").

This is precisely the third focus of the volume: investigating the changes that turned the "fight against superstitions" of the early modern period into the "recovery of popular traditions" which began throughout Europe in the late eighteenth century. Even such recovery, however, did not exclude forms of repression of popular culture, albeit in the name of modernity and reason, as evidenced, for example, by the surveys of the Napoleonic administrations in the early nineteenth century.


Bailey, Michael. 2007. Magic and Superstition in Europe. Lanham: Rowman & Littlefield.
Burke, Peter. 1978. Popular Culture in Early Modern Europe. New York: Harper & Row.
Cameron, Euan. 2010. Enchanted Europe: Superstition, Reason, and Religion, 1250-1750. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Delumeau, Jean. 1977. Catholicism between Luther and Voltaire: A New View of the Counter-Reformation. London- Philadelphia: Westminster Press.
Ginzburg, Carlo. 1989. “The Inquisitor as Anthropologist”. In Id., Clues, Myths, and the Historical Method. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press.
Ginzburg, Carlo. 1983. The Night Battles: Witchcraft & Agrarian Cults in the Sixteenth & Seventeenth Centuries. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press.
Goodare, Julian, and Martha McGill, eds. 2020. The Supernatural in Early Modern Scotland. Manchester: Manchester University Press.
Ostling, Michael, ed. 2018. Fairies, Demons, and Nature Spirits. London: Palgrave Macmillan.
Stokes, Laura. 2011. Demons of Urban Reform: Early European Witch Trials and Criminal Justice, 1430-1530. London: Palgrave Macmillan.
Tausiet, María. 2014. Urban Magic in Early Modern Spain. London: Palgrave Macmillan.
Thomas, Keith. 1971. Religion and the Decline of Magic. London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson.

Dr. Guido Dall'Olio
Dr. Matteo Duni
Guest Editors

Manuscript Submission Information

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  • religion
  • superstition
  • popular culture
  • witchcraft
  • magic
  • folklore
  • Catholic Church
  • Protestant Churches
  • inquisition
  • tribunals
  • ecclesiastical

Published Papers (1 paper)

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12 pages, 256 KiB  
The Donna de Fora: A Sicilian Fairy–Witch in the Early Modern Age
by Claudia Stella Geremia
Religions 2024, 15(2), 161; - 29 Jan 2024
Viewed by 1175
In this paper, my objective is to delve into the history of women accused of practicing witchcraft in Sicily during the early modern period. This investigation draws upon documented evidence from the Spanish Inquisition spanning from 1516 to 1782, along with archival records [...] Read more.
In this paper, my objective is to delve into the history of women accused of practicing witchcraft in Sicily during the early modern period. This investigation draws upon documented evidence from the Spanish Inquisition spanning from 1516 to 1782, along with archival records and the ethnographic works of nineteenth-century scholars. The focal point of my research is the enigmatic figure known as donna de fora (the ladies from outside) in the Italian context. To illuminate this subject, I employ an analysis of seventeenth-century Inquisition trial records and oral traditions documented by anthropologist Giuseppe Pitrè in the late nineteenth century. The donne de fora represent a distinctive and intriguing group as this term appears exclusively within the Inquisitorial records of Sicily. They were perceived as supernatural entities, characterized as “part witches, part fairies”. According to beliefs of the time, these women’s spirits would depart from their bodies during sleep to convene with higher-ranking fairies. Notably, the trials and the Edict of the Diocese of Girgenti (Agrigento) in 1656 document that the most significant gatherings of these figures occurred during the night of Saint John, between the 23rd and 24th of June. Through an examination of trial records, we gain insights into how these women were perceived by their contemporaries, as well as an understanding of their societal roles and the ritual practices they engaged in. Moving forward to the late nineteenth century, ethnologist Giuseppe Pitrè conducted a comprehensive study of local rituals and popular folklore, and he collected various objects and documents related to supernatural beliefs, including those associated with the donne de fora in the regions around Palermo. My research is centered on archival records containing Pitrè’s notes, unpublished drafts, and correspondence with scholars in Italy and Europe discussing this phenomenon. Based on my findings, I aim to establish a connection between Pitrè’s material discoveries and contemporary beliefs regarding donne de fora and witchcraft in Sicily. Full article

Planned Papers

The below list represents only planned manuscripts. Some of these manuscripts have not been received by the Editorial Office yet. Papers submitted to MDPI journals are subject to peer-review.

Title: Unveiling Superstition in Vieste: popular culture and Ecclesiastical Tribunal in 18th Century Naples

Abstract: This paper aims to explore the shift from episcopal to state authority and the diminishing focus on magical phenomena in two trials of 1713 within the Diocese of Vieste, Kingdom of Naples. Analyzing cases involving magic, superstition, exorcism, and witchcraft, the objective is to understand ecclesiastical dynamics and societal beliefs during this transformative period. Rita di Ruggero's trial reveals complex interactions between state and ecclesiastical authorities, offering insight into the evolving ecclesiastical-state relationship. Another 1713 trial involving Angela Carella explores accusations of bewitchment, contributing to our understanding of enduring witchcraft paradigms. The study aims to illuminate dynamics between the church, magical practices, and the territorial context, providing insights into this less-explored period in inquisition history. It also highlights complexities in episcopal court proceedings in the Kingdom of Naples, where jurisdictional concerns often overshadowed efforts to combat superstition. Aligned with Ernesto de Martino's observations, the study underscores nuanced interplays between local beliefs, jurisdictional disputes, and the broader socio-political context within these ecclesiastical courts. Keywords: ecclesiastical tribunals; superstition; magic; kingdom of Naples

Title: The Mystical Visions of Anna Katharina Emmerich and the Impacts of Catholic Romanticism in 19th-century Germany

Abstract: As a result of a close relationship established between Romanticism and Catholicism in the struggle against modernity in the early 19th century, a significant number of mystical phenomena, especially involving visionary women, spread throughout Europe during the 19th century. The works of Anna Katharina Emmerich stood as one of the earliest and primary influencers in this regard. Her mystical visions were transcribed and published by a Romantic intellectual who had converted to Catholicism in that same context: Clemens Brentano. However, despite inspiring various mystical phenomena in a catholic field, Emmerich’s visions raised suspicion within the Catholic Church due to the presence of supposed pagan and superstitious elements from Brentano’s Romanticism in her descriptions. The suspicion has resulted in an ongoing difficulty in advancing her canonization process. In light of this debate, this article aims to discuss the impacts of the union between romanticism and Catholicism in early 19th-century Germany. It focuses on the mystical visions of Anna Katharina Emmerich, transcribed by Clemens Brentano, and examines how elements deemed “superstitious” and “pagan” by the Catholic Church contributed to the dissemination of her writings among the Catholic population, whereas it also explores the limited acceptance of these writings within the Catholic Church.

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