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The Scourge of Demons

The Scourge of Demons: Possession, Lust, and Witchcraft in a Seventeenth-Century Italian Convent

Jeffrey R. Watt
Volume: 12
Copyright Date: 2009
Published by: Boydell and Brewer,
Pages: 312
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  • Book Info
    The Scourge of Demons
    Book Description:

    In 1636, residents at the convent of Santa Chiara in Carpi in northern Italy were struck by an extraordinary illness that provoked bizarre behavior. Eventually numbering fourteen, the afflicted nuns were subject to screaming fits,throwing themselves on th

    eISBN: 978-1-58046-732-2
    Subjects: History

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
  3. List of Illustrations
    (pp. ix-x)
  4. Acknowledgments
    (pp. xi-xii)
  5. Introduction: Nuns, Witchcraft, and the Inquisition
    (pp. 1-20)

    Today in the northern Italian city of Carpi, a small group of nuns pursue a quiet life of prayer and reflection in the Franciscan convent of Santa Chiara, located just a couple blocks to the northeast of the charming central plaza, site of the cathedral and the imposing Pio Castle (see fig. 1). In the seventeenth century, Santa Chiara was one of the most renowned nunneries in the duchy of Modena and the region of Emilia. A small town of about 3,600 inhabitants in the mid-1600s, Carpi had a very strong monastic presence with four monasteries and two convents, the...

  6. Chapter 1 Female Religious, Claustration, and Santa Chiara of Carpi
    (pp. 21-36)

    For centuries Roman Catholic Church leaders had preached that the celibate life was superior to matrimony and believed that women had a stronger libido and were more easily led into temptation than men. Given women’s supposed propensity to lust and commit other sins, the convent was viewed as the site where women could best pursue a life of virtue. A degree of enclosure had always been part of monasticism. The contemplative life, aspired to by both monks and nuns, required a considerable degree of peace, solitude, and separation from the world. Enclosure, however, was always viewed as more essential for...

  7. Chapter 2 The Outbreak and Maleficia
    (pp. 37-72)

    The 1630s began rather inauspiciously for Carpi and the surrounding region. In 1630 northern Italy suffered a serious bout of the plague, images of which were immortalized in novelist Alessandro Manzoni’s descriptions of Milan in I promessi sposi. The plague arrived in Modena in June, and Carpi was ordered quarantined on the twenty-first of that month, as efforts were made to restrict as much as possible movements of people into and out of the town. Over the next few months, thousands succumbed to the plague in Modena, Carpi, and the neighboring countryside before it subsided in November.¹ Nuns in early...

  8. Chapter 3 The Confessor and Love Magic
    (pp. 73-103)

    In 1627 Cardinal Ludovisi of Bologna commissioned the publication of a manual specifically for the confessors of nuns. The guidebook provided the following instructions for those clerics who had this special responsibility:

    The priest will always go to the confessional and deal with the nuns there just as if it were the first time he met them. By doing so, he will be able to hear confessions of the same nun for many years in a holy and exemplary manner. All told, I want to imply that [the priest] not treat the nuns with too much familiarity, even under the...

  9. Chapter 4 The Exorcists and the Demons
    (pp. 104-140)

    The women who were suffering at Santa Chiara received a variety of treatments for their ailments. When they first took ill, a physician and surgeon examined them and prescribed some cures. Once those proved ineffective, emphasis shifted to spiritual remedies. As the malaise of the ten nuns continued, in 1638 the entire community of Santa Chiara started holding special offices daily to beseech God to assuage the ills that plagued them, and the bewitched nuns went to Mass and received the Eucharist every day.¹ A half century earlier, Girolamo Menghi had listed a number of spiritual weapons to protect oneself...

  10. Chapter 5 Sisters Dealta and Ippolita under Attack
    (pp. 141-156)

    Suspicions against Sister Dealta Martinelli predated the Holy Office’s investigation of Santa Chiara’s possessions, and she was the first person witnesses named as a suspect (see chapter 2). In the wake of the attack of St. Mark’s Day (25 April 1638), which occurred just six days after the opening of the hearings, Fiscal Giudici ordered that Dealta be held in isolation in the convent’s infirmary. In one sense, this was a means of protecting her from possible further attacks by the demoniac nuns. But Giudici and Tinti clearly harbored strong suspicions about the nonconformist nun, since they forbade the other...

  11. Chapter 6 Bellacappa’s Defense
    (pp. 157-180)

    Santa Chiara’s witchcraft case was, for the most part, merely an investigation and not a full-blown trial. Although Sister Dealta Martinelli was kept in isolation for several months during the investigation, the Holy Office never formally charged her and, though eventually given an opportunity to speak her mind, she did not have to prepare an actual defense. By contrast, Father Angelo Bellacappa did prepare a defense, supported by a talented canon lawyer. As we shall see, this was far more in response to the accusations of solicitation than of witchcraft.

    In August 1638 Inquisitor Tinti ordered the arrest of Bellacappa,...

  12. Chapter 7 The Waning of the Possessions
    (pp. 181-196)

    In the autumn of 1638, the Congregation of the Holy Office grew increasingly impatient with the convent’s apparently never-ending unrest. In late October Cardinal Barberini wrote a letter to Archpriest Niccolini giving him detailed instructions on what to do with the afflicted nuns. He reiterated that the agitated sisters were supposed to be held in isolation from each other and forbidden to speak with or write to anyone inside or outside the convent. Fearing suicide attempts by the frenetic nuns, Barberini ordered that there be no objects in their cells with which they could do themselves harm.¹ Sharing these fears...

  13. Conclusion
    (pp. 197-214)

    As calm eventually returned to Santa Chiara in Carpi, one is left wondering what actually took place there in the later 1630s. We cannot know for certain, but the Congregation of the Inquisition had no doubts that the Clarisses of Carpi were not the victims of witchcraft. The cardinal-inquisitors believed that the Clarisses had suffered from melancholic humors or, worse yet, may have even feigned their spiritual woes. The Congregation wrote a letter in 1643 to Cardinal Grimaldi, the papal nuncio in Paris, who had earlier written about some nuns in Louviers, Normandy, who were reportedly bewitched and diabolically possessed....

  14. Appendix A Chronological List of the Possessions of Santa Chiara
    (pp. 215-215)
  15. Appendix B Time Line of the Holy Office’s Investigation of the Santa Chiara Case
    (pp. 216-218)
  16. List of Abbreviations
    (pp. 219-220)
  17. Notes
    (pp. 221-278)
  18. Selected Bibliography
    (pp. 279-290)
  19. Index
    (pp. 291-300)