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Witchcraft and the Papacy

An Account Drawing on the Formerly Secret Records of the Roman Inquisition
Rainer Decker. Translated by H. C. Erik Midelfort

BUY Cloth · 280 pp. · 6 × 9 · ISBN 9780813927473 · $49.50 · Nov 2008
BUY Paper · 280 pp. · 6 × 9 · ISBN 9780813927480 · $25.00 · Mar 2010

When Rainer Decker was researching a sensational seventeenth-century German witchcraft trial, he discovered, much to his surprise, that in this case the papacy functioned as a force of skepticism and restraint. His curiosity piqued, he tried unsuccessfully to gain access to a secret Vatican archive housing the records of the Roman Inquisition that had been sealed to outsiders from its sixteenth-century beginnings. In 1996 Decker was one of the first of a small group of scholars allowed access. Originally published as Die Päpste und die Hexen, Witchcraft and the Papacy is based on these newly available materials and traces the role of the papacy in witchcraft prosecutions from medieval times to the eighteenth century. Decker found that although the medieval church did lay the foundation for witch hunts of the sixteenth to eighteenth centuries, the postmedieval papacy, and the Roman and Spanish Inquisitions, played the same kind of skeptical, restraining role during the height of the witch-hunting frenzy in Germany and elsewhere in Europe as it had in the trial that was the initial focus of his research. Witchcraft and the Papacy overturns a large body of scholarship that confuses the medieval papacy with its markedly skeptical successors, and that mistakenly portrays the papacy as fanning rather than quelling the flames of the witchcraft mania sweeping northern Europe from the mid-sixteenth century onward.


"Let there be no mistake: Decker has not produced a nostalgic apology for the Church, for he works historically in the best sense, by seeking the foundation of historical judgment in the only place he can find it, in empirical fact. In place of the 'Black Legend,' he has not erected a 'rosy legend.'... The last witch was burned in Rome in 1572, just a few years before the first true avalanche of trials overtook Germany and France around 1590, and well before the witch craze reached its high point with many thousands of victims, in the period between 1626 and 1631, but not in Italy or on the south side of the Alps, and not influenced by the Roman Inquisition, but rather in the territories of the Holy Roman Empire.

Thomas Brechenmacher · Tagespost, on the German edition

This is a very readable book. The methodology is sound and the exposition steadily draws out the steps towards the development of the early modern witchcraft phenomenon.

Journal of Religious History

Decker has provided excellent answers to questions about the witch trials that, in the past, have been evaluated more on the basis of assumptions than evidence. This book ought to be read by scholars not only of witchcraft, but anyone interested in early modern Catholicism.


One of the great values of Rainer Decker's sweeping treatment of the papacy's role in European witchcraft trials from the late middle ages to the modern era is to contextualize the Church's position on witchcraft against the backdrop of the constant struggle between secular and ecclesiastical authorities, as well as its attempt to limit potential heresey while not enflaming persecutions.

Seventeenth-Century News

On the whole, Decker has written a thoughtful, well-researched, and balanced account of the apacy's response to witchcraft. He adroitly blends the dynamics of local witchcraft cases over six centuries with the variety of ecclesiastical responses that shaped the Catholic Church's understanding of the nature of witchcraft, its distinction between the evil acts themselves and their intent, and ultimately the need for spiritual care and procedural caution.

Seventeenth-Century News

Decker has undertaken to write a brief, lucid account of the persecution of witchcraft in Western Europe from the Middle Ages to modern times, with particular respect to the role played by the Romanc papacy and papally appointed inquisitorial authorities in that persecution.

Journal of World History

Rainer Decker's illuminating study of the papacy's involvement in witch-hunting from the Middle Ages to the nineteenth century represents the most sustained and comprehensive contribution to this revisionism in witchcraft studies.

Studies in Early Modern German History

Decker's book, which was originally published in German in 2003, will find its main audience among ecclesiastical and witchcraft historians as well as those interested in the history of criminal justice. Its broad chronological range, references to the broader history of witchcraft in Europe, and excellent translation by H.C. Erik Midelfort also make it suitable for undergraduates encoutnering the history of witchcraft for the first time.

Studies in Early Modern German History

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