Defending a Conservative View on Witches: Juan de Torquemada on c. Episcopi [C.26 q.5 c.12]

Chapter 2
Defending a Conservative View on Witches: Juan de Torquemada on c. Episcopi [C.26 q.5 c.12]


Thomas M. Izbicki


The roles played by certain Dominican friars in the development of witchcraft theories are well known. One need only mention Johannes Nider, Heinrich Kramer (Henricus Institoris), and Bartolomeo Spina as key figures in that history.1 Almost no attention, however, has been paid in this context to the commentary on Gratian’s Decretum composed by Juan de Toquemada (1388–1468), a Dominican theologian and self-taught canon lawyer, during his years in Rome as a cardinal.2 In this commentary, Torquemada devoted attention to the canon Episcopi, one of the key texts in the history of medieval beliefs about witches. Since the theories of Kramer and Spina, in particular, reversed the plain meaning of Episcopi,3 giving credence to reports of such wonders as witches flying through the air that had been dismissed in the canon as illusions, the cardinal’s commentary, with its set of questions on interrelated topics, may allow us to determine whether he contributed to this change of opinion or stood opposed to the trend toward intensive persecution.


Torquemada was a Castilian Dominican who accompanied his provincial to the Council of Constance (1414–1418). After studying theology in Paris, he served as a prior in Castile. When the Council of Basel (1431–1449) convened, Torquemada was chosen consecutively to represent the Dominican order and King Juan II in that assembly. While at Basel, the friar made a reputation both as a zealous defender of orthodoxy and as a defender of papal power. This defense was necessary, in his mind, because proposed reforms included revoking privileges given the friars by the popes to preach and hear confessions, tasks originally belonging to bishops and parish priests respectively.4 Among Torquemada’s contemporaries at Basel were Friars Preachers who had been involved in trials of witches or heretics or who wrote about supernatural phenomena. Nicholas Lami had participated in the condemnation of Joan of Arc, who was herself suspected of diabolical inspiration.5 Heinrich Kalteisen, a prominent papal apologist, had investigated a false Joan.6 Johannes Nider7 and Nicholas Jacquier8 wrote on witchcraft and demonology. An older contemporary, Laurens Pignon, the confessor of Duke Philip the Good of Burgundy, had written against diviners.9 (Other contemporary Dominican writers of the period with interests in this area were Raphael de Pornaxio and Lope de Barrientos.)10


When Torquemada left Basel in 1437, he was upholding Eugenius IV’s effort to translate the council to Ferrara, there to meet with the eastern emperor and prominent Greek churchmen. The eastern ruler and his prelates hoped for aid against the Ottoman Turks, while the pope was eager for increased prestige in his ongoing struggle with the Basel assembly. This effort to promote the reunion of East and West succeeded briefly, but it did not prevent a split in the Latin hierarchy that lasted for a decade. The Basel assembly tried to depose Eugenius, proclaiming a council’s superiority over the pope a dogma; and it tried to replace him with a pontiff of its own choosing, Amadeus VIII of Savoy (Felix V). Torquemada was active both in negotiations with the Greeks and in diplomatic missions meant to promote the Eugenian cause. He was rewarded with promotion to the cardinalate in 1439 and lived in the Roman Curia for most of his remaining years.11 As a cardinal he wrote extensively on many topics, including mystical theology and apostolic poverty; but his best know works were intended to defend the papacy against its critics. His Summa de ecclesia (1453), the most comprehensive overview of the ecclesiastical polity written in the Middle Ages, was supplemented with a commentary on Gratian’s Decretum. That commentary was intended to correct interpretations of key canonistic texts about erring popes and the authority of the Church that the conciliarists had employed in their quarrel with Pope Eugenius.12


Commenting on the entire Decretum or Concord of Discordant Canons meant dealing with many topics with little importance for papalist polemic. Among these texts was the canon Episcopi. This canon is ascribed to a council in Ancyra (modern Ankara), although no original can be found in Greek or Latin. The text is found for the first time in the collection of Regino of Prüm, who may have forged it to support his reforming efforts in Lorraine. This text was transmitted, among others, in the collections of Burchard of Worms and Ivo of Chartres. Eventually it was included in the Decretum of Gratian in Causa 26 question 5 as canon 12.13 The other texts included threatened excommunication of those who consulted enchanters or diviners. Bishops and priests were threatened with deposition from office for consulting augurs, sortileges, and the like. Episcopi, together with the canon Nec mirum, excerpted from a work of Hrabanus Maurus but attributed by Gratian to Augustine of Hippo, treated the wonders supposedly performed by witches or mages as false and fantastical. These vain imaginings were attributed to the devil, who provided illusions but not real wonders.14 Yet the errant women described in Episcopi are not treated lightly, despite their delusions. They were unfaithful to the truth and might lead others into error. The door was open here to the accusation that those who practiced magic were heretics, but deluded women were not regarded as the devil’s willing partners.15 Thus they were not worthy of death.


It is important to read the text of Episcopi in full to understand its interpretation by the canonists and Torquemada, a Paris-trained Thomist:


Bishops and their officials must labor with all their strength to uproot thoroughly from their parishes the pernicious art of sorcery and malefice invented by the devil, and if they find a man or woman follower of this wickedness to eject them foully disgraced from their parishes. For the Apostle says “A man that is a heretic after the first and second admonition avoid.” Those are held captive by the devil. And so holy Church must be cleansed of this pest. It is also not to be omitted that some wicked women perverted by the devil, seduced by illusions and phantasms of demons, believe and profess themselves, in the hours of the night, to ride upon certain beasts with Diana, the goddess of pagans, and an innumerable multitude of women, and in the silence of the dead of night to traverse great spaces of earth, and to obey her commands as of their mistress, and to be summoned to her service on certain nights. But I wish it were they alone who perished in their faithlessness and did not draw many with them into the destruction of infidelity. For an innumerable multitude, deceived by their false opinion, believe this to be true and, so believing, wander from the right faith and are involved in the error to the pagans when they think that there is anything of divinity or power except the one God. Wherefore the priests throughout their churches should preach with all insistence to the people that they may know this to be in every way false and that such phantasms are imposed on the minds of infidels and not by the divine but by the malignant spirit.


Thus Satan himself, who transfigures himself into an angel of light, when he has captured the mind of a miserable woman, and has subjugated her to himself by infidelity and incredulity, immediately transforms himself into the species and similitudes of different personages and deluding the mind which he holds captive and exhibiting things, joyful or mournful, and persons, known or unknown, leads it through devious ways, and while the spirit alone endures this, the faithless mind thinks these things happen not in the spirit but in the body. Who is there that is not led out by himself in dreams and nocturnal visions, and sees much when sleeping which he has not seen when waking? Who is so stupid and foolish as to think that all these things which are only done in spirit happen in the body, when the Prophet Ezekiel saw visions of the Lord in spirit and not in the body, and the Apostle John saw and heard the mysteries of the Apocalypse in the spirit and not in the body, as he himself says “I was in the spirit.” And Paul does not dare to say that he was rapt in the body. It is therefore to be proclaimed publicly to all that whoever believes such things or similar to these loses the faith, and he who has not the right faith in God is not of God but of him in whom he believes, that is, of the devil. For of our Lord is written “All things were made by Him.” Whoever therefore believes that anything can be made, or that any creature can be changed to better or worse or be transformed into another species or similitude, except by the Creator himself who made everything and through whom all things were made, is beyond doubt an infidel.16


It is worth noting that most of the canons flanking Episcopi are concerned with bookish forms of divination and sacerdotal perversions of the sacraments to magical ends, whereas this canon is concerned with the delusions of unlearned women. (One canon, Nec mirum, even quotes Lucan and makes mention of Circe.)17


By Torquemada’s day, the lively tradition of commenting on the Decretum that had marked the emergence of the academic discipline of canon law had largely given way to treatment of collected papal letters. The Ordinary Gloss to Gratian’s collection, compiled by Johannes Teutonicus, continued to be transmitted together with the text, usually in the version edited by Bartholomew of Brescia.18 Other early canonistic comments were transmitted in Guido de Baysio’s Rosarium decreti (c. 1300), which served as a supplement to the Gloss.19 Few commentaries on Gratian’s collection were composed between Guido’s day and Torquemada’s. The most notable among these few are the commentaries by Guido Terreni, a Carmelite theologian,20 and the jurist Dominicus de Sancto Geminiano.21


The Ordinary Gloss has remarkably little to say about Episcopi. Johannes Teutonicus and his sources did address certain of the larger questions raised by the texts in C.26. A gloss on q.2 allowed inquiries into the future in cases of necessity if recourse was had to divine aid.22 Another comment, however, said, glossing a text of Augustine, that such inquiries in to the future could lead to idolatry.23 Speaking of less innocent inquiries into the future, the Gloss cited Augustine to the effect that demons can predict the future but not because of their certain knowledge. Being created of more subtle material than humans, they can make more probable conjectures on the outcomes of events.24 The glosses to q.5 underlined the punishments for making written charms, doing divination or practicing idolatry, linking inquiries into the future with worshipping false gods.25 Inquiries into the effects of stars, moon, and winds were not prohibited; but no one was to believe these created things necessarily guided the course of events.26


At c. Episcopi, however, the Gloss simply referred to its exposition of C.1 q.1 c.23.27 That text was primarily concerned with evil prophets who sold their gift, a form of simony.28 The Gloss said little at that place related to our topic. It did deny that divination was the same thing as prophecy.29 This is not atypical of the earlier canonistic tradition. Writers like Paucapalea, Stephen of Tournai, and Rufinus ignored Episcopi entirely. Rufinus was the only one of the three to mention magic. He said that sortilegi et similes, if they do not cease their activities, were to be excommunicated. If they were clergy, they were to be deposed and relegated perpetually to a monastery. Rufinus cited book 10 of the Decretum of Burchard of Worms c. Qui auguries to support this interpretation of Gratian’s collection.30 The Summa Coloniensis did discuss magic at length. The author asked whether magic could be used to learn the will of God. The reply, that it once was acceptable but no longer was, underlined the threat of idolatry being present in such a practice. The author discussed the several categories of workers of magic listed by Augustine. None of these was a “witch” (in the feminine), and Episcopi went unmentioned.31


Guido de Baysio’s Rosarium said much more on our topic, which it linked to the reconciliation of the excommunicated and their possible deathbed absolution.32 Guido specifically contradicted the Gloss on inquiries made into the future. He called these practices superstitious and illicit, suggested by demons.33 In his condemnations of divinatory practices, most of them were the province of clerics and other learned men, Guido noted how vain curiosity could lead to the worse sin of idolatry.34 The Rosarium, like the Gloss, decried any idea that the stars, not divine providence, governed human affairs.35 It also distinguished between the forecasting of astronomical events and vain efforts at divination from the stars.36 Following Augustine, Guido denounced demonic frauds committed at the temple of Serapis in Alexandria, but he did not stop with the Egyptians.37 The Rosarium decried the superstitions of all humanity, including Christians, as inventions of demons. Guido was quick to distinguish between the legitimate aspects of wearing relics out of trust in God and the saints and efforts by Christians to achieve vain, selfish results through this pious practice.38


Glossing c. Episcopi, Guido said superstition was particularly a vice of those who were governed by their own sensuality. Passing over the references to women who thought they rode with Diana, he focused on the more theoretical issue of the role of reason in the formation of conscience.39 Having said so little, the Rosarium passed on to the attempted misuse of sacramental rites by the clergy for magical purposes.40 Only when glossing c. Nec mirum did Guido distinguish between those who were deluded enough to think they might even change their shapes and those who attempted genuine maleficium