The Holy Inquisition is best remembered for its pursuit of religious heresy, but newly reviewed evidence suggests that, in Italy at least, witchcraft, sorcery and black magic more frequently attracted its attention.
Investigation has been possible only since the Inquisition's archives were opened in 1998. The archives in Rome were seriously depleted by Napoleon; in Siena, however, where the Holy Office was responsible for most of southern Tuscany, the archives escaped and were later transferred to Rome.
For more than a year, University of Florence historian Oscar Di Simplicio has been working on archives held by the Vatican's Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, the modern descendant of the Holy Office, concentrating on 1580 1640.
"This is the first serious view we have of witchcraft in Italy (in this period). By 1580, the important battle against heresy, mainly against Lutheranism, had been won, so the Catholic courts concentrated on the next most important threat to religious orthodoxy, magic."
Of the magic cases, most were supposed attempts to harm others through evil spells or demonic intervention. The heresy trials, instead, dealt with almost exclusively minor crimes.
Professor Di Simplicio for the first time compared witchcraft in Italy with that in France, Germany, Switzerland and England. "The Italian ecclesiastical courts were much less heavy-handed than the lay courts in other countries.
There was more scepticism of evidence, less inclination to believe confessions extracted by torture. And after 1580, nobody was burnt at the stake."
He noted that although torture was commonly used on the continent to extract confessions, it was not used in England. "The English were more subtle, they kept defendants and witnesses awake for days on end. After four days without sleep, they would confess to anything."
Professor Di Simplicio says his research supports the thesis of recent British researchers that witchcraft in England was not completely different from that on the continent. "We have further confirmation that English witchcraft was simply a variant of the continental mainstream."