Jeffrey R. Watt, The Scourge of Demons: Possession, Lust, and Witchcraft in a Seventeenth-Century Italian Convent, University of Rochester Press, Rochester, NY, 2009. £40, ISBN 9781580462983 (hardback), pp. xii + 300
Reviewed by: Querciolo Mazzonis, Università degli Studi di Teramo, December 2010
This book thoroughly examines a compelling case of possession and witchcraft in a wealthy convent in Carpi in the 1630s. The author reconstructs the events consulting the well-kept documentation of the Inquisition of Modena – particularly the registers with the minutes of the investigation and the correspondence with the Holy Office in Rome. Although the story had already attracted the attention of historians, Watt’s michrohistorical analysis represents the first book-length study. Throughout the book the story unfolds gradually with a narrative style, and historiographical debates are smoothly brought into the account.
The fascinating story is set in the Clarist convent of Santa Chiara in Carpi in the years 1636-39. The convent had not been reformed according to the Tridentine decrees and the lifestyle of the nuns was rather relaxed. As historiography has recently shown, the Council of Trent did not introduce uniform religious reform and the convent in question was not an exception. In the early 1600s the convent of Santa Chiara was well known, especially because it was home of Angela Caterina d’Este, a close relative of three Este dukes of Modena, and abbess of the convent for almost ten years. At the time of the outbreak of possession the convent counted about sixty nuns, virtually all belonging to wealthy families. The convent was also a bone of contention between the Observant Franciscans and the secular clergy, who were supposed to manage the convent, following the dictates of Trent. The outbreak began in 1636, with the illness of two servants of the daughter of the duke Giovan Battista d’Este (brother of Angela Caterina and a Capuchin since 1629), and continued in 1637, when another twelve nuns fell ill (three of them died in 1638). The Estes were convinced that the nuns were victims of devil possession and of witchcraft and thus solicited the intervention of the Inquisition and of the exorcists. Indeed, exorcists, physicians and surgeons visited the nuns and agreed that the devil was responsible for their illness. The possessed nuns were described as ‘frequently throwing themselves on the floor, screaming abruptly without provocation, suffering sudden drastic changes in body temperature, and falling precipitately into a deep sleep from which they could not be awakened’ (pp. 42-43). The local Inquisition interrogated the nuns (albeit not the possessed) and the exorcists between April 1638 and February 1639. Several nuns accused a fellow nun (Dealta Martinelli) of witchcraft and on two occasions they even attacked her physically. She had not adapted to convent life and a former confessor (Angelo Bellacappa, a Franciscan Observant) was suspected of sexual harassment during confession and of use of ‘love magic’. However, the Holy Office in Rome (through Cardinal Barberini) remained sceptical, continuously recommending caution, and ensured proper legal defence to the alleged offenders. Eventually, the Inquisition introduced new strict measures in the convent, temporarily isolating the possessed nuns, transferring the Martinelli’s sisters to another convent, forbidding Bellacappa from confessing nuns for an indefinite period, banning exorcism from the convent, and placing the convent under the jurisdiction of the secular clergy. In Spring 1639 calm returned to the convent.
Throughout the book the author brings several historiographical issues into the story, such as the attitude of the Roman Inquisition towards cases of possession and witchcraft, the role of exorcism, early modern belief in witchcraft, possession, love magic, and their possible causes, the consequences of Tridentine reform on female religious, the importance of social discipline, the role of confession, the notion of femininity and women’s response to it. As the author clearly illustrates, the bloodless case of Carpi confirms that the Roman Inquisition curbed local tribunals in pursuing alleged witches and even cases of possession, and thus cut down executions. The letters by Cardinal Barberini reveal that by the 1630s the sceptics were the majority among the members of the Holy Office. Here Watt stresses the pioneering role of the Holy Office in European judicial history, as it introduced legal procedures that defended the rights of the accused. The author also shows that, by contrast, the exorcists played an important part in fuelling the fears of the devil. As to why the outbreak of possession took place in those years, the book suggests that the main characters of the story, Angela Caterina d’Este (because of her privileges), Dealta Martinelli (because of her antipathy for conventual life) and Bellacappa (because of his sexual advances to the nuns), contributed to spreading tensions within the convent. From this perspective, it is a pity that Watt does not consider the conflict between the Observant Franciscans and the secular clergy, discussed in an article – by Vincenzo Lavenia – and dismissed by the author.
The book evaluates the significance of the case on the relationship between demonic possession and female religious. The author depicts the convent as an enclosed space where tensions could be somatized and fears of the devil – once entered in the convent – become contagious. This is contrasted with male monastic life, as monasteries were not enclosed and the monks had more freedom of movement. Furthermore, Watt interestingly affirms that the nuns were not passive objects in the hands of men, but women exercising agency within an oppressive culture, because they referred to the same cultural stereotypes of the exorcists and played their own part by accepting possession, seeking exorcisms and promoting witch-hunt. Watt even suggests that the language of possession could embody an unconscious inner tension between the obligation to lead a religious chaste life and mundane and sexual attractions, and between forced acceptance of patriarchal values and a desire to rebel against them. Here, however, Watt does not seek to establish if individual possessed nuns actually suffered such conflicts. Finally, the author criticizes the argument that the beliefs in divine and demonic possession had common origins, because in the events of Carpi involved no mysticism. If this was true, spirituality and mysticism could still be relevant to conventual possession, because the expectations towards nuns (of clergymen and nuns themselves) to come close to religious perfection and to their divine spouse (to a certain degree also present in more relaxed convents) made them particularly exposed to fear of sin and diabolical deceit. At the same time it is also possible that since a fundamental connection between women’s mysticism and possession rested in the attitudes towards femininity – the belief that women’s supposedly porous and vulnerable nature made them more prone to supernatural invasion –, the divine and diabolical poles did not have to be necessarily both manifestly present at the same time, but they could also prevail according to the cultural conditions of the time.