Off the Shelf: H.C. Erik Midelfort

March 19, 2000 — H.C. Erik Midelfort, professor of history, translation of Rainer Decker, "Witchcraft and the Papacy: An Account Drawing on the Formerly Secret Records of the Roman Inquisition." University of Virginia Press.

When Rainer Decker was researching a sensational 17th-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 16th-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 18th century. Decker found that although the medieval church did lay the foundation for witch hunts of the 16th to 18th centuries, the post-medieval 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-16th century onward.