In Italy (as in Spain), the rubric of “magic” rarely involved witchcraft and apostasy to the Devil; and even when it did, the Italian Inquisitors, unlike secular judges, rarely punished the crime with death. […]

What can be said about the relative severity or leniency of inquisitorial justice? What was the outcome in the thousands of trials recorded in the appendices to this essay? Despite popular notions to the contrary, only a very small percentage of cases ended with capital punishment…In his studies of the Friuli witchcraft trials, Carlo Ginzburg encountered neither the use of torture in the proceedings nor a single execution; in fact, only rarely was a case brought to a conclusion.

E. William Monter and John Tedeschi, “Toward a Statistical Profile of the Italian Inquisitions, Sixteenth to Eighteenth Centuries”. The Inquisition in Early Modern Europe: Studies on Sources and Methods (1986)

The Roman Inquisition was reconstituted in 1542 to combat the menace of Protestantism in the Italian peninsula, whereas the Spanish Inquisition had been created more than half a century earlier to deal with massive numbers of converted Jews. […]

Wherever one turns, therefore, it appears that Italian Inquisitors were becoming preoccupied with superstitious magic and witchcraft well before 1600 – unlike their Spanish counterparts, who held barely 2 percent of their pre-1615 trials for such offenses. In the seventeenth century this Italian concern with magicians and witches persisted, while the attention that needed to be devoted to heretics continued to diminish. Illicit magic alone constituted over 40 percent of all cases both at Venice and in the Friuli and for close to 40 percent in Naples. Even in Sicily, where it accounted for only 25 percent Holy Office activity after 1615, illicit magic was the largest single category and the 310 trials for this offense were the largest total from any of the twenty Spanish tribunals during this period. After 1600, prosecution of magicians dominated the business of the Italian inquisitions, far more dramatically than it ever did in any part of the Spanish system: in the nine Castilian tribunals, for example, “superstition” accounted for only 12 percent of the 6,240 trials held between 1615-1700. As late as the decade 1701-1710, illicit magic accounted for 69 percent of all Venetian inquisitorial cases and 61 percent of those at Naples.

E. William Monter and John Tedeschi, “Toward a Statistical Profile of the Italian Inquisitions, Sixteenth to Eighteenth Centuries”. The Inquisition in Early Modern Europe: Studies on Sources and Methods (1986)

The Sicilian Inquisition was of course not a Roman tribunal at all, but the Venetian Holy Office also differed from other branches of the Roman system. The most important peculiarity (not unique to Venice, however,) was the requirement that lay representatives of the Serenissima, known as the Savii sopra Eresia, should sit alongside the clerical members of this tribunal. Venice imposed other special rules as well, such as the requirement that all Inquisitors must be Venetian citizens; the inadmissibility of denunciations and testimony forwarded by courts outside the dominion; and the prohibition against the confiscation of a convicted heretic’s property.Perhaps the most serious Venetian infringement on ordinary inquisitorial procedure was the extent of competition from local secular courts, which claimed jurisdiction in many cases involving such offenses as bigamy, blasphemy, perjury to the Inquisition, and some forms of suspected witchcraft.

E. William Monter and John Tedeschi, “Toward a Statistical Profile of the Italian Inquisitions, Sixteenth to Eighteenth Centuries”. The Inquisition in Early Modern Europe: Studies on Sources and Methods (1986)

Those modern scholars are in error, for example, who assume that the notorious Malleus Maleficarum, the work of two German Dominicans first published in 1486, remained “the standard manual for the persecutors of the next two centuries, not only in Catholic but in Protestant countries as well”. On the contrary, a philosophy entirely opposed to that of the Malleus was gaining ascendancy in the tribunals of the Holy Office throughout the second half of the sixteenth century and was made normative thanks to the Instructio pro formandid processibus in causis strigum, sortilegiorum & maleficiorum which began to circulate in manuscript at least as early as 1624 and was incorporated into the Sacro Arsenale (beginning with the edition of 1625), the most widely followed Italian inquisitorial handbook of the age. At the close of the sixteenth century, even Martinus Del Rio, an unquestioning enemy of witchcraft, had separated himself from many of the teachings pronounced by the Malleus Maleficarum a hundred years before.

John Tedeschi, The Prosecution of Heresy (1991)

It may not be an exaggeration to claim, in fact, that in several respects the Holy Office [of the Inquisition] was a pioneer in judicial reform.

The defense attorney was an integral part of Roman trial procedure at a time when he played only a ceremonial role in the great imperial legal code, the Constitutio Criminalis Carolina (1532) and was being deliberately excluded by the French Ordinance of Villers-Cotterets (1539). In England felons were denied the right to counsel until 1836. Whereas in inquisitorial courts the defendant received a notarized copy of the entire trial (with the names of the prosecution witnesses deleted) and was given a reasonable period of time to prepare his reply to the charges, in secular courts the evidence against him was read and he had to make his defense on the spot. Skepticism in regard to witchcraft invaded Roman legal circles at a time when other parts of Europe remained in the grip of a witchhunting mania. Not least among the reasons which spared Italy the epidemics of bloody persecutions which ravaged northern Europe from the late sixteenth through much of the seventeenth century, was the insistence by the Inquisition that the testimony of a suspected witch was of extremely limited validity as a basis for prosecution against others. Judges were instructed, for example, to discount testimony of a witch against persons whom she named as participants at Sabbats since it was assumed that frequently they were transported to these nocturnal reunions not physically but in illusions inspired by the Devil.

And, if it is true, as John Langbein asserts in his book, Prosecuting Crime in the Renaissance, that the beginning of imprisonment for punishment, rather than for the purpose of custody during the trial, can be traced back on the continent only to the closing decades of the sixteenth century, then the Inquisition, through its centuries-long practice of incarcerating ad poenam, must be regarded also as a pioneer in the field of penology, at a time when secular judges, in pronouncing sentence, had as alternatives only the stake, mutilation, the galleys, and banishment.

John Tedeschi, The Prosecution of Heresy (1991)

Since the time of the Enlightenment, if not already long before, we have been victims of a form of self-illusion of a steadily growing humanity which has freed itself from the shackles of the past and approaches a glorious future where rationality, logic, and tolerance dominate. Not surprisingly, certain objects, such as the chastity belt, or ideas, such as courtly love, serve supremely well as icons of a past world as we imagine it, either in idealistic terms, or highly pejoratively, whereas the present does no longer accept those or has changed them thoroughly out of utter disrespect and ridicule. The danger, of course, rests in our tendency to replace one myth with another, and the more we deride and criticize institutions, people, and ideas from the past, the more we submit to a mythical ideology determined by a teleological presentism (giving absolute priority to the own present world) which enjoys radical priority over pastism (giving priority to a historical thinking about the past as an entire alternity). As Kathleen Biddick defines the former: “Presentism looks into the mirror of the Middle Ages and asks it to reflect back histories of modernist or postmodernist identities”.

For instance, freedom, tolerance, and democracy are commonly claimed as the highest ideals of the modern Western world, in radical contrast to the Middle Ages which were determined, without chronological or any other order, by the Inquisition, the phenomenon of the witch-craze, pogroms against Jews, and the Crusades, that is by highly irrational, intolerant, dogmatic, and authoritarian methods and principles. This binary opposition is as wrong as could be, since neither side squarely fits into these black-and-white categories, but mythical thinking prefers such contrasts since they facilitate the explanation of human history, whether correctly or not. This history, or the cultural development, has always been much more complex and diversified than is commonly assumed. We can easily identify outstanding representatives of medieval tolerance, and, by the same token, representative of modern tyranny, and vice versa. The crimes of the present ought not to be weighed differently than the crimes of the past. Correspondingly, outstanding intellectual, literary, or artistic accomplishments by medieval people ought not to be treated as irrelevant or outdated in comparison with works produced in the modern time. Undoubtedly, we live in a much improved, perhaps more civilized, world characterized by enormous advances on the political, technological, scientific level. But this does not justify the perpetuation of wrong ideas and subjective value judgments concerning the past with regard to its standards of ethics, morality, philosophy, aesthetics, and even technology and sciences.

Albrecht Classen, The Medieval Chastity Belt: A Myth-Making Process (2007)

Thus the problem of our time remains—to have good government with personal liberty; to have a maximum of security with a maximum of liberty. For the solution of such a problem, democracy offers no solution, because the masses, choosing between freedom and the illusion of economic security, will usually head straight for the will-o’-the-wisp. After having fallen prey to the fausse idee claire of democracy they will succumb to the even falser idee claire of national or international socialism. When we mention the masses, all the optimistic demagogy about the superb qualities of the Common Man comes to our mind. Indeed, the old monarchies were far from being models of perfection. The ancien regime, if we look merely at its seamy side, was made up of murder, inefficiency, corruption, narrowness, immorality, procrastination, intrigue, egoism, deceit and pettiness and it had long been in need of radical reform when it disappeared.

Yet it never promised a New Dawn or a Paradise on Earth and it must be conceded that it relinquished the stage of history with little opposition, almost in the expectation that the bombastically heralded New Experiments were bound to fail. And fail they did! The ancien regime had lasted a thousand years, and for over a hundred years the Continentals had tried to make a synthesis with the new forces. Then the stage was entirely left to the “Dawnists,” to our noble friend, the Common Man, and bankruptcy arrived not within a thousand years, but within half a generation. It came in a swift and deadly way. It murdered liberty by entirely new methods and it repeated the errors of the Old Government on a colossal scale: all the persecutions of Jews through the ages were dwarfed to microscopic size by Hitler’s delirious mass murders, and all the victims of the Inquisition burnt at the stake through centuries did not amount to one-fourth of the number of those cremated alive one afternoon in Dresden, when among 150,000 killed at least two-thirds perished fully conscious in the fiery flames…and this without an inquest, without the slightest effort to establish a real or even a subjectively imputed guilt at the very end of a war. To the horrors of the concentration camps almost girdling the globe we are at a loss to find any parallel.

Thus, the crown to many a European, especially to a Central European, indeed is a symbol of freedom—not only when he thinks of the terrors of the East, but also when he reflects upon the sly process of enslavement in the West.

Erik Ritter von Kuehnelt-Leddihn, Liberty or Equality: The Challenge of Our Time (1940)