IN every age and nation civilization is the product, privilege, and responsibility of a minority. The historian acquainted with the pervasive pertinacity of nonsense reconciles himself to a glorious future for superstition; he does not expect perfect states to arise out of imperfect men; he perceives that only a small proportion of any generation can be so freed from economic harassments as to have leisure and energy to think their own thoughts instead of those of their forebears or their environment; and he learns to rejoice if he can find in each period a few men and women who have lifted themselves, by the bootstraps of their brains, or by some boon of birth or circumstance, out of superstition, occultism, and credulity to an informed and friendly intelligence conscious of its infinite ignorance.
So in Renaissance Italy civilization was of the few, by the few, and for them. The simple common man, named legion, tilled and mined the earth, pulled the carts or bore the burdens, toiled from dawn to dusk, and at evening had no muscle left for thought. He took his opinions, his religion, his answers to the riddles of life from the air about him, or inherited them with the ancestral cottage; he let others think for him because others made him work for them. He accepted not only the fascinating, comforting, inspiring, terrifying marvels of the tradicional theology—which were daily reimpressed upon him by contagion, inculcation, and art—but he added to them, in his mental furniture, the demonology, sorcery, portents, magic, divination, astrology, relic-worship, and miraclemongering that composed, so to speak, a popular metaphysics unauthorized by the Church, which deprecated them as a problem sometimes more troublesome then unbelief. While the uncommon man in Italy was half a century or more ahead of his class beyond the Alps in wealth and culture, the common man south of the Alps shared equally with his transalpine peers the superstitions of the time.
Often the humanists themselves surrendered to the genius or stultus loci, and sprinkled their Ciceronian pages with the spirit or foolishness of their surroundings. Poggio revels in portents and prodigies like headless horsemen migrating from Como to Germany, or bearded Tritons rising from the sea to snatch fair women from the shore.1 Machiavelli, so skeptical of religion, suggested the possibility that “the air is peopled with spirits,” and declared his belief that great events are heralded by prodigies, prophecies, revelations, and signs in the sky.2 The Florentines, who liked to think that the air they breathed made them clever beyond compare, held that all important events happened on Saturday, and that it was a sure misfortune to march out to war by certain streets.3Politian was so upset by the Pazzi conspiracy that he attributed to it a disastrous rainfall that followed it, and condoned the youths who, to end the rain, exhumed the corpse of the chief conspirator, paraded it through the city, and then flung it into the Arno.4Marsilio Ficino wrote in defense of divination, astrology, and demonology, and excused himself from visiting Pico della Mirandola on the ground that the stars were in an unfavorable conjunction5—or was it a whimsy? If humanists could believe so, how could the people, with no advantage of leisure or education, be blamed for thinking of the natural world as the shell and instrument of numberless supernatural powers?
The people of Italy reckoned so many objects as true relics of Christ or the Apostles that one might have furnished from Renaissance Roman churches alone all the scenes of the Gospels. One church claimed to have a swaddling cloth of the Infant Jesus; another, hay from the Bethlehem stall; another, fragments of the multiplied loaves and fishes; another, the table used at the Last Supper; another, the picture of the Virgin painted by angels for St. Luke.6 Venetian churches displayed the body of St. Mark, an arm of St. George, an ear of St. Paul, some roasted flesh of St. Lawrence, some of the very stones that had killed St. Stephen.7
Nearly every object—every number and letter—was believed to have some magic power. According to Aretino some Roman harlots fed to their lovers, as an aphrodisiac, the rotting flesh of human corpses stolen from the cemeteries.8 Incantations were used for a thousand purposes; by the proper one, said Apulian peasants, you could protect yourself from mad dogs. Spirits beneficent or malevolent peopled the air; Satan often appeared, in person or by deputy, to tempt or terrify, to seduce, empower or instruct; demons had a fund of mystic knowledge that could be tapped if one should properly propitiate them. Some Carmelite monks at Bologna (till Sixtus IV condemned them in 1474) taught that there was no harm in seeking knowledge from devils;9 and professional sorcerers offered their expert charms in invoking the aid of demons for paying customers. Witches—sorcerers usually female—were believed to have special access to such helpful devils, whom they treated as lovers and gods; by delegated demonic power these women, in the belief of the people, could foresee the future, fly in a moment over long distances, pass through closed gates and doors, and wreak dire evils upon persons who offended them; they could induce love or hate, produce abortion, manufacture poisons, and cause death by a spell or a glance.
In 1484 a bull of Innocent VIII (Summis desiderantes) forbade resort to witches, took for granted the reality of some of their claimed powers, ascribed to them some storms and plagues, and complained that many Christians, falling away from orthodox worship, had contracted carnal union with devils, and, by spells and magic rhymes, curses and other diabolical arts, had done grievous harm to men, women, children, and beasts.10 The Pope advised the officers of the Inquisition to be on the alert against such practices. The bull did not impose belief in witchcraft as the official doctrine of the Church, nor did it inaugurate the prosecution of witches; popular belief in witches, and occasional punishment of them, long antedated the bull. The Pope was here faithful to the Old Testament, which had commanded, “Thou shalt not suffer a witch to live.”11 The Church had for centuries maintained the possibility of demonic influences upon human beings;12 but the Pope’s assumption of the reality of witchcraft encouraged belief in it, and his admonition to the inquisitors played some part in the witchcraft persecution.13 In the year following the promulgation of the bull forty-one women were burned for witchcraft in Como alone.14 In 1486 the inquisitors at Brescia condemned several alleged witches to “the secular arm”—i.e., to death; but the government refused to execute the sentence, whereat Innocent was much peeved.15 Matters went more harmoniously in 1510, when we hear of 140 persons burned at Brescia for witchcraft; and in 1514, in the pontificate of the gentle Leo, three hundred more were burned at Como.16
Whether through perverse stimulation by persecution, or from other causes, the number of persons who believed themselves, or were believed, to have practised witchcraft rapidly increased, especially in subalpine Italy; it took on the nature and proportions of an epidemic; popular report claimed that 25,000 persons had attended a “witches’ sabbath” on a plain near Brescia. In 1518 the inquisitors burned seventy alleged witches from that region, and had thousands of suspects in their prisons. The Signory of Brescia protested against this wholesale detention, and interfered with further executions; whereupon Leo X, in a bull Honestis (February 15, 1521), ordered the excommunication of any officials, and the suspension of religious services in any community, that refused to execute, without examination or revision, the sentences of the inquisitors. The Signory, ignoring the bull, appointed two bishops, two Brescian physicians, and one inquisitor to supervise all further witchcraft trials, and to inquire into the justice of previous condemnations; only these men were to have the power to condemn the accused. The Signory admonished the papal legate to put an end to the condemnation of persons for the sake of confiscating their property.16a It was a brave procedure; but ignorance and sadism got the upper hand, and in the next two centuries, in Protestant as well as Catholic lands, in the New World as well as the old, burnings for witchcraft were to form the darkest spots in the history of mankind.
The mania to know the future supported the usual variety of fortune-tellers—palmists, dream interpreters, astrologers; these last were more numerous and powerful in Italy than in the rest of Europe. Almost every Italian government had an official astrologer, who determined the celestially propitious times when important enterprises should commence. Julius II would not leave Bologna till his astrologer marked the time as auspicious; Sixtus IV and Paul III let their stargazers fix the hours of their major conferences.16b So general was the belief that the stars governed human character and affairs that many university professors in Italy annually issued iudicia—predictions based on astrology;16c it was one of Aretino’s humorous devices to parody these learned almanacs. When Lorenzo de’ Medici reestablished the University of Pisa he made no arrangements for a course in astrology, but the students clamored for it, and he had to yield.16d In Lorenzo’s erudite circle Pico della Mirandola wrote a powerful attack upon astrology, but Marsilio Ficino, still more learned, defended it. “How happy are the astrologers!” exclaimed Guicciardini, “who are believed if they tell one truth to a hundred lies, while other people lose all credit if they tell one lie to a hundred truths.”16e Yet astrology had in it a certain groping toward a scientific view of the universe; it escaped in some measure from belief in a universe ruled by divine or demonic whim, and aimed to find a coordinating and universal natural law.