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 notion’s to the contrary, only a very small percentage of cases concluded with capital punishment. Canon law prescribed that only the obstinate and unrepentant who refused to be reconciled to the church, those who had suffered previous convictions for formal heresy, or those who were convicted of especially heinous crimes were liable to the death penalty.

The available figures on the numbers of those handed over by the Inquisition to the secular arm suggest that the executed were relatively few. Only four of the first thousand defendants who appeared before the tribunal of Aquileia-Concordia (1551-1647) were put to death. A tentative calculation for Venice has counted 14 executions between 1553 and 1588, plus 4 deaths occurring in prison and 4 extraditions to deaths in Rome between 1555 and 1593. Only 12 executions for heresy have been counted for Malon during the second half of the 16th century (but on the basis of incomplete documentation), and only one, in 1567, for the religious heresy in Modena; and of the more than two hundred sentences (several involving more than one defendant) contained in the Trinity College manuscripts mentioned above, for parts of the years 1580-1582, only four called for condemnations to the stake.

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. The names of 97 victims of the Holy Office in the city of Rome for the period 1542-1761 have been extracted from the records of the archconfraternity, whose function it was to accompany the condemned to their deaths. As for Spanish inquisitorial courts, they executed approximately 820 people between roughly 1540 and 1700, out of a total of more than 44,000 cases, for a rate of 1.9 percent.

John Tedeschi, The Prosecution of Heresy (1991)

Apart from Bologna (which saw seven protestants and saw one of the four executions on this list), protestants appear rarely in the figures from central and southern Italy: a conventicle of five women who celebrated their own communion at Ancona provided the only significant episode. From Tuscany southward, magic was the most common charge. Naples at self-reported only one sentence against a female Judaizer. Taken all in all, these documents add up to a tantalizing snapshot of the general activities of the Roman Inquisition moment when the holy office of the Venetian Republic resembled of those throughout northern Italy in their preoccupation with protestant heresies, while those in the duchies of the Po valley or Tuscany were already turning to the prosecution of illicit magic as their chief concern.

John Tedeschi, The Prosecution of Heresy (1991)

The Roman Inquisition was reconstituted in 1542 to combat the menace of Protestantism in the Italian peninsula, where as the Spanish Inquisition had been created more than half a century earlier to deal with massive numbers of converted Jews. The nature of what was considered “heresy” in each system reflects these original concerns. In northern and central Italy, “Lutheranism “overwhelmingly dominated the first generation of inquisitorial activity, lasting until the 1580s. The venetian records offer a truly remarkable example: over its first 35 years (1547-1582) this holy office tried more than 700 “Lutherans” among its first 1,200 cases- plus 36 Anabaptists, 68 cases of “heresy in general,” 20 of eating meat during Lent, and almost 90 concerned with possession or reading of prohibited books. Approximately 80 percent of these early cases, therefore, concern protestant or crypto-protestant behavior. In the Venetian Terrafirma, Aquileia-Concordia showed a similar concentration on such offenses during its first 38 years (1557-1595); of its initial 380 cases, 200 or four suspected product to Paris sees and 74 for consuming meat during Lent (A possible indication of northern influences at work). In this rural area of low literacy there were only 12 cases of prohibited books. Again, over 75 percent of these cases may have involved Protestant sympathies. […]

In the Spanish portions of southern Italy our statistics suggest a different meaning in the holy office’s concern with heretics. Although a sizable share of the earliest preserved cases from Naples maybe classified as heresy trials, if you deal with protestants; in fact, through 1620 accused Mohammedans outnumbered reputed protestants by more than five to one. The diligent Spanish inquisitors uncovered large numbers of Protestants, but here too these were numerically swamped by the followers of Islam. Before 1560, the Sicilian Holy office tried more than 50 Protestants (more than any other tribunal in the Spanish system) and only eleven Moslems; but between 1560 and 1615, they judged nearly four Moslems for every protestant (471 and 138 respectively).

John Tedeschi, The Prosecution of Heresy (1991)

In the course of the sixteenth century it became the practice increasingly for Rome to be kept minutely informed about developments in the outlying inquisitions, and it was customary for the latter to send detailed reports of trials in progress or completed – and then await instructions before passing sentence. The central tribunal’s quest for uniformity resulted in a series of measures which assigned the final disposition of all but the most ordinary cases to Rome. There are many letters, almost sarcastic in tone, in which members of the Congregation attempt to differentiate for the benefit of the local officials what is ordinary from what is not.

John Tedeschi, The Prosecution of Heresy (1991)

It has become customary to speak of the inquisitor as the representative of high culture and thus, often incapable of grasping the moral and intellectual world of socially and culturally subaltern defendants. (The possibility of a reverse situation is generally not raised.) Yet, among these officials there must have been many of modest, rural background who had been raised in a milieu of folk traditions.

Moreover, there seems to be evidence, again provided by the Instructio, that jailers, certainly not typical representatives of high culture, who had more intimate proximity to the imprisoned women than did the judges, were often guilty themselves of suggesting what they should confess at the interrogations.

John Tedeschi, The Prosecution of Heresy (1991)

It is well known and frequently lamented that the Archive of the Holy Office in Rome is inaccessible even to serious scholars. Behind this obstruction of legitimate research there is nothing more sinister than bureaucratic obstinacy and inertia, which time may overcome. Actually, if the doors of the Congregation for the Doctrine of Faith (formerly the Inquisition) were to be thrown open tomorrow we probably would not find terrible secrets; in fact, we would find relatively few documents, mainly doctrinal decrees and the paper of the now defunct Congregation of the Index, which were transferred to the palace of the Inquisition when it discontinued its censorship activities in 1917.

The Archive of the Holy Office was impoverished by several terrible depredations. The first occurred on 18 August 1559, when a Roman mob celebrated the death of Pope Paul IV by sacking the headquarters of his most cherished institution, liberating its prisoners and burning its records. A second took place more than two and a half centuries later when, to fulfill Napoleon’s dream of a central archive for the empire and a supra-national center of learning in Paris, valuable books and manuscripts were removed from libraries and archives of conquered Europe, including the Vatican. More than three thousand crates were distributed over several convoys; the first set out from Rome in the dead of winter, February 1810, and attempted the long and laborious journey over the Alps. The convoys were accompanied by archivists of the Church, whose feelings we can imagine when they watched two wagons disappear into the rushing water of a torrent at Borgo San Donnino, near Parma, or when eight cases slid into a canal on the road between Turin and Susa.

John Tedeschi, The Prosecution of Heresy (1991)

In 1610, however, during the famous trial against the witches of Zugarramurdi, the Inquisition Council deviated from its normal practice by confirming the death sentences of six witches found guilty of the crime of witchcraft. It seems that the inquisitors of Logrono, which in the meantime had become the seat of the Inquisition for Navarra and the Basque-speaking provinces, had let themselves be influenced by the French judges who were involved in a large-scale witch-hunt on the other side of the Pyrenees. The Spanish inquisitors had even received letters from the French judge, Pierre de Lancre, who did not for a moment doubt the reality of witchcraft (Lancre 1613, 143f; compare Henningsen 1980, 250f).

Not long afterwards, however, the Council realised that the burnings of 1610 had been a serious mistake, and returned to its old policy mentioned above. After the sad affair of Logrono, therefore, no witch was burned by the Spanish Inquisition, in Spain, or in the Spanish dependencies in Italy and the New World. This did not mean, however, that a stop had been put to witchcraft and sorcery trials; on the contrary, their numbers had increased although the death penalty had been abandoned. Thus, during the ninety years from 1610 to 1700, I estimate that the Spanish Inquisition held more than five thousand witch trials.

Gustav Henningsen, “The Witches’ Flying and the Spanish Inquisitors, or How to Explain (Away) the Impossible [1],” (2009)

Witchcraft has always been controversial to the western mind because it involves human individuals engaged in impossible activities, such as flying, shape-shifting, and making oneself invisible. The mediaeval Church condemned belief in witchcraft, considering it to be pagan superstition. “Who is there,” asks the Canon Episcopi, “that is not led out of himself in dreams and nocturnal visions, and sees much when sleeping, which he has never seen when awake?” The famous code continues with the question: “Who is so stupid and foolish as to think that all these things which are only done in spirit, happen in the body” (quoted in Kors and Peters 1972, 29-31).

For reasons that are still not very clear, the Church changed its mind and came to accept witchcraft as a diabolic reality. The change occurred in the decades around 1400 and paved the way for the prosecution in the courts of people regarded as witches. This was the beginning of the European witch persecution, which, in some regions, was to last until the end of the eighteenth century. There were, however, sectors of the intellectual elite that remained sceptical towards the existence of witchcraft, and one of these sectors was the Inquisition. […]

In 1526, the Council of the Spanish Inquisition issued a set of instructions for cases of alleged witchcraft. It contained so many reservations, however, that during the remainder of the sixteenth century nobody was executed for the crime of witchcraft, except in a few cases where the situation had gone out of the Council’s control.

Gustav Henningsen, “The Witches’ Flying and the Spanish Inquisitors, or How to Explain (Away) the Impossible [1],” (2009)

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)