The Medieval Review 16.06.29

Conti, Fabrizio. Witchcraft, Superstition, and Observant Franciscan Preachers: Pastoral Approach and Intellectual Debate in Renaissance Milan. Europa Sacra, 18. Turnhout: Brepols, 2015. pp. . ISBN: 978-2-503-54919-4 (hardback).

Reviewed by:

Michael Bailey
Iowa State University

Among religious order, the Dominicans, rather than Franciscans, tend to be the main focus of scholarly scrutiny when witchcraft and superstition are the subjects being explored. The reasons are obvious. The Dominican Order produced Heinrich Kramer, author of the Malleus maleficarum, as well as a number of other important earlier demonologists, such as Nicolas Jaquier and Johannes Nider. Among Franciscans, probably the most famous figure associated with the history of witchcraft in the fifteenth century is Bernardino of Siena, who, while he preached some vitriolic sermons and inspired a number of witch trials by that preaching, never penned a sustained work of demonology. Nevertheless, Franciscans were very much embroiled in debates about the malevolent power of demons and the extent of pernicious superstitions among the laity. By focusing on their contributions, Fabrizio Conti adds a valuable new perspective to these much-studied issues.

Aside from being a fierce opponent of witchcraft, Bernardino of Siena was a leading figure of the reformed or observant movement within the Franciscan Order, which emerged in the fourteenth century but really gathered strength in the early fifteenth. Bernardino was one of the so-called "four pillars" of the observance, along with John of Capistrano, Giacomo della Marca, and Alberto da Sarteano. These men were active mainly in the first half of the fifteenth century. Conti focuses on the subsequent generation, and on the observant community of Franciscans in Milan. In fact, he focuses mainly one friar, Bernardino Busti, whose Rosarium sermonum of 1498 collected eighty Lenten sermons into something of a "summa of preaching materials," through which many of the issues Conti wants to address can be accessed. He includes enough discussion of other figures, however, to ensure that this is not a book just about Busti.

Like many other religious reformers in the fifteenth century, the observant Franciscans of Milan approached issues of superstition, and sin in general, from the standpoint of trying to effect moral reform among the laity. While they drew their basic intellectual categories from established scholastic authorities such as Aquinas and Bonaventure, they innovated, Conti argues, in trying to develop a coherent pastoral approach to dealing with various kinds of sin among the laity, including reliance on magical and superstitious practices. Particularly important, for Conti, are the frameworks or "grids" through which they organized their treatment of lay practices. Not surprisingly, the Ten Commandments dominate as an organizing structure, reflecting their growing importance in this era, as recognized by John Bossy and others. But other frameworks continued to play some role. Busti relied mainly on the Ten Commandments in organizing his sermons, but also made use of the Seven Deadly Sins and Twelve Articles of Faith.

Within the framework of the Ten Commandments, superstition was treated as a violation of the first commandment, as a kind of improper worship akin to idolatry. Here Conti focuses closely on Busti's sermon 16, which addresses this subject at length. He sees Busti as a representative figure. Indeed, he finds the Rosarium to be heavily indebted to two earlier Franciscan works: the Sermonarium in decem preceptis per quadragesimam of Michele Carcano (1492) and the Interrogatorium sive confessionale by Bartolomeo Caimi (1474).

Conti spends a good deal of time cataloging the categories into which Benardino Busti and other Franciscan writers arranged the superstitious practices they wrote to oppose. One of these was outright idolatry. Others included forms of divination, observance of omens, interpretation of dreams, use of amulets, and more elite practices such as necromancy and the ars notoria. Also included among superstitious practices was maleficium, which could be translated as witchcraft. Conti argues, however, that Busti and other Franciscan writers treated maleficium still mainly as simple harmful magic, not as a practice inevitably linked to news, more terrible stereotypes of diabolical, conspiratorial witchcraft emerging in the fifteenth century. They addressed those notions too, however, and it is to witchcraft in this sense that the final third of Conti's book is dedicated.

Conti reserves the term "witchcraft" for when his writers address nocturnal travel to a witches' sabbath, the ludus Dianae, or when they describe witches' supposed belief in their own ability to transform (or be transformed by demons) into cats. Grounded firmly in the tradition of the canon Episcopi, observant Franciscans regarded both of these as entirely illusory--merely the deception of demons worked on the feeble minds of foolish women, and sometimes men. They were by no means unaware of other developing theories of witchcraft, however. They incorporated the notion of witches' traveling to the ludus Dianae on rods anointed with hideous unguents, whereas the canon Episcopi refers only to women riding on animals in the train of the supposed goddess Diana, actually a demon in disguise. Here they reflected a stereotype developing since the early fifteenth century in regions around the western Alps. Conti also notes that they began in some ways to conflate the ludus Dianae tradition with the separate ludus bariloti, that envisioned malefactors magically entering locked houses, to feast, drink from wine barrels, and commit other indecent revelries. This ludus, Franciscan authorities were willing to posit, might reflect real, physical action, but they never allowed that to affect their judgment that travel with Diana was always completely illusory.

One of Conti's main arguments here is that the observant Franciscans resisted what became an increasingly prevalent position in the course of the fifteenth century that night-flight and sabbaths were physically real. That shift is most famously associated with the Dominican writer Nicolas Jacquier, who argued directly for overthrowing the argument, grounded in the canon Episcopi, that it was always necessarily illusory. Conti sees the Dominican Order, as a whole, moving toward that new interpretation, and the Franciscans resisting it. He concludes with an analysis of Samuele Cassini's Questiones Lamearum, which argued not only that demons did not physically transport witches in cases in which sabbaths were being imagined, but that the devil could not physically move any material substance. As a sign of the times, however, he notes that Cassini's treatise was never reprinted after its initial publication in 1505.

Bernardo Busti and the other observant Franciscans in Milan at the end of the fifteenth century and beginning of the sixteenth generally reflected many of the intellectual trends of their day, although of course they occupied their own particular positions within those trends. Conti's detailed exposition of their positions expands our understanding of developing ideas of witchcraft, concern over superstition, and basic issues of preaching and pastoral care in northern Italy in this era.

Copyright (c) 2016 Michael Bailey

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