On this date in 1428, Matteuccia di Francesco was condemned and burned as a witch in the Perugian town of Todi. It’s one of the oldest witchcraft cases in Italy for which a complete trial record survives.
Matteuccia was a local wise woman or sorceress dispensing the herbal remedies, potions, and incantations that comprised the everyday magic as experienced by popular superstition — like a homemade contraceptive (ashes of a mule’s hoof mixed into wine: drink up!) for the mistress of the local prelate.
The woman seems to have practiced this openly and (for aught we know) happily in Todi … until Bernardino of Siena holy rolled into town.
Bernardino, now considered a Catholic saint, was a mendicant Franciscan who crisscrossed Italy inveighing against Jews, sodomites, and (you guessed it) witches. Think Savonarola: like that later austere and charismatic firebrand, Bernardino even had bonfires of vanities.
The turmoil was large and the people trembled. The Church and piazza Santa Croce was full of citizens and peasants, women and men, several thousands in number. The shouting of little children and young boys was loud when friar Bernardino stopped preaching and went to the piazza with many other friars and set on fire a pile of four tables of games, several baskets of dice, more than four thousands pairs of old and new card games of great numbers, and placed and attached and hung on every side were much hair and flounces of dresses of women and other things and with a lot of wood underneath. You have never seen a more beautiful fire, and the flames spread in the air and confused the demon enemy of God, bringing glory, honor and praises to the reverence of our master Jesus Christ the highest God.*
Detail view of Sano di Pietro’s 1445 St. Bernardino Preaching in the Campo, showing the saint (brandishing his trademark prop tablets) drawing a crowd in his native Siena’s central plaza. There are many paintings, stretching to centuries after his death, on the theme of Bernardino’s, er, spellbinding sermons.
As pertains specifically to witchcraft, one might say that the import of preachers like Bernardino thundering from the pulpits in the early 15th century was to delegitimate the many Matteuccias around.
Thanks to decades of evolving thought, this formerly accepted sphere of “white magic” was now going to be understood as outright devil-worship: your classic theological zero-tolerance policy.
O you who have used the charm for broken bones, to you, and to him or her who says that she is bewitched, and who makes you believe she is — to all these I say, take heed! For the first to feel the strokes from God’s scourges will be those who have trusted in these enchantments and followed them; and next vengeance will overtake those who have not brought them to justice … When such people say that they wish to cure anyone, do you know what you should do? There is nothing better to do than cry, “To the fire! To the fire! To the fire!”
Wherever one may be, and whoever may know him or her, in any place whatsoever inside or outside the city, straightaway accuse her before the Inquisitor … every witch, every wizard, every sorcerer or sorceress, or worker of charms and spells … such enchanters, every time they have worked any charms or spells have denied God by doing so.
-San Bernardino (Source)
Inspired by our itinerant zealot, Todi tightened up witchcraft laws in 1426, and prescribed the stake and the fagot for violations.
“The church now equated the performance of common sorcery, involving only a few words or simple gestures and aimed at curing or causing illness or affecting the weather, with … a preexisting pact between the sorcerer and demons that made such magic possible,” writes Michael Bailey.** “Indeed, such sorcerers, whom in an earlier era the church had seen more as victims and dupes of demonic illusions and had hardly taken seriously, now became all the more terrible in that they were capable of commanding demonic forces with only a few simple words or signs.”
Matteuccia didn’t have long to enjoy her newfound demonic-command powers before she ran afoul of Todi’s eager witch-hunters. Her words, as filtered through her interrogators, capture the evolving theology-cum-jurisprudence around magic.
After copping to countless trifling hocuses and pocuses — philters for lovers, poultices for injuries, aid and comfort for battered women (apparently, counseling these women was one of her specialties: “adding evil to evil,” according to her persecutors) — her narrative suddenly shifts to the phantasmagorial.
Presumably under torture or the promise thereof, the corner pharmacist is suddenly reporting that she drank children’s blood and transformed into an animal to fly off to Lucifer’s convocations at Benevento. (This is also one of Italy’s first documented invocations of flying to a witches’ sabbat.) Not surprisingly, these scenes are straight out of Bernardino’s own descriptions of what witches do.
The intellectual framework of the inquisitors who pursued Matteuccia now expected to find the latter variety of supernatural diabolism as a corollary and precondition for stocking an impotence enchantment. And like inquisitors are always prone to do, they made sure to find what they were looking for.
* 1424 account of a Bernardino spectacle in Florence, quoted and translated in Nirit Ben-Aryeh’s “Jews and Judaism in the Rhetoric of Popular Preachers: The Florentine Sermons of Giovanni Dominici (1356-1419) and Bernardino da Siena (1380-1444)”, Jewish History, Vol. 14, No. 2 (2000),
** Bailey, “From Sorcery to Witchcraft: Clerical Conceptions of Magic in the Later Middle Ages”, Speculum, Vol. 76, No. 4 (Oct., 2001).