“My dear young lady, when you are in love, and jealous, and have been flogged by the Inquisition, there’s no knowing what you may do” ― Voltaire, CandideHere’s a tip. If you’re an ordained Catholic priest turned sorcerer in 16th Century Mexico, you should probably expect the Inquisition. Openly bragging about your proficiency in the Dark Arts is fairly inadvisable when a popular form of public entertainment is torturing and spit-roasting witches. This did not seem to faze a certain clergyman named Pedro Ruiz Calderón who went on well-documented trial on January 30, 1540 in Mexico City for claiming command of powers including teleportation, invisibility, hypnotism, a talent for love spells, predicting the future, turning base metals into gold, locating buried treasure, and summoning the occasional demon. While this might get you invited to all the swell fiestas, there is quite literally hell to pay when the Tribunal del Santo Oficio de la Inquisición comes a knocking on your door.
By Calderón’s own admission (in fact he was quite vocal and proud of the fact), before he arrived in Mexico City, he was one heck of a libertine party guy. Native to Guadalajara, Castille, he was the son of minor nobility designated as cristiano viejo (“Old Christians” – a 15-16th Century Spanish socio-legal category used to distinguish those descended from a “pure” Christian background from converted Jews or Muslims). Evidently, the precocious Calderón evinced a fascination with black magic from an early age, attending the University of Alcala de Henares and obtaining a Bachelors in Theology, then traipsing off to the Levant (the Eastern Mediterranean) where he picked up some facility with Chaldean, Greek, Hebrew, and a few other languages popular with your higher class of sorcerer in the 16th Century, among whom he said he studied (when he was arrested, numerous journals written in a secret cipher were discovered).
Once Calderón established some street cred as a wizard, he claimed to have headed for Naples, Italy, where using some of his newfound necromantic abilities, he successfully assisted a local viceroy in locating a stash of buried treasure. Freaking viceroys are always looking for extra cash, and in gratitude he paid Calderón handsomely. Calderón maintained that the prestige accorded to him from this escapade, resulted in the Pope granting him a license to explore a 3000 league deep cave, an ill-fated expedition in which everyone else died, and from which Calderón emerged after three years. During this time, he claimed that he had descended into hell in order to learn the secrets of alchemy, returning with a stack of books popular in Hell, one of which was signed by a demonic aristocrat. He then absconded to Germany to delve more deeply into alchemy, obtaining the personal notebook of famed 13th Century physician and alchemist Arnaldo de Villanueva. During a short stint in Paris, he studied supernatural medicine and exorcism. How exactly he wound up in Mexico City is unclear, but he quite openly shared his preternatural exploits with any who would listen. This would, of course, be his undoing, but is somewhat understandable because after all what good is being a powerful necromancer if you can’t tell anyone. Then you’re just a weird guy with a pile of arcane books and an unhealthy case of necrophilia. Chicks do not dig that. Calderón managed to stay out of the way of the tender mercies of the Inquisition and the secular authorities by alternatively claiming to be a church-licensed teacher of science, a papal legate, and occasionally an Inquisitor as well.
Along comes Juan de Zumárraga, Spanish Basque Franciscan prelate and first bishop of Mexico. He most famously wrote Doctrina breve, the first book published in the Western hemisphere, printed in Tenochtitlan (Mexico City) in 1539. In 1535, on the recommendation of Holy Roman Emporer Charles V, Bishop Zumárraga had received the title and powers of Apostolic Inquisitor of the diocese of Mexico from the Inquisitor General, Álvaro Manrique, Archbishop of Seville, and compared to your average inquisitor and conquistador, he was a bit of an odd duck for his time, making concerted efforts to obtain favorable concessions for the natives and generally make things a whole lot less bloody. But, he was still an Inquisitor, which is like saying he was a Nazi without all that pesky anti-Semitism. As Calderón was rather open about his occult predilictions, Zumárraga had rather full details available to him when he decided to proceed against him in January 1540. “Pedro Ruiz Calderón was tried by the Inquisition for necromancy, the art of divination by contact with the spirits of the dead” (Thompson, 1998, p414). The Inquisition kept pretty good records, and we have the translated version of Calderón’s official denunciation, along with some 30 additional denunciations detailing Calderón’s nefarious activities.
In the City of Mexico, Miguel Lopez de Legaspi, the Secretary of the Holy Office, appeared before his Lordship the Apostolic Inquisitor against Heretical Depravity and Apostasy in order to denounce Br. Pedro Ruiz Calderón, a clergyman residing in this city for having made certain conjuring in order to discover treasures by means of these ceremonies and other invocations of demons. Also he stated that many persons have made it known before him that the said Calderón knows of the Black Arts and that he learned tem from others and can make himself invisible when he wishes and that in one hour he can go from these kingdoms to Castile and return again. Many people also say other vile sounding things against this clergyman Calderón, saying that he practices and believes in superstitious things and that he can wish illness upon anyone. It has also come to his attention that said Pedro Ruiz Calderón has in his possession many forbidden books of superstitions with many conjures and other spells and other suspicious things touching upon heresy. For this reason, he denounces him so that the Holy Office can make a thorough inquisition into the matter and discover the truth of the accusations (Dennunciation and Testimony of Miguel Lopez de Legaspi, Secretary of the Holy Office, against Pedro Ruiz Calderón, Clergyman, for Practicing the Black Arts, January 30, 1540).
When Calderón was brought before the inquisitors to answer the charges, he realized he might have a problem, and made an effort to downplay the extent of his sorcerous hobbies.
When it came time for the interrogation of the defendant, his manner became meek. He had to deny that he was a practitioner of black magic and that he had a papal license. He altered the story of his devil-casting career. Now he asserted that he was merely a spectator while another actually performed the rites. Ruiz Calderon was forced to reveal the location of his library and Zumarraga ordered the books confiscated. The books were inventoried by the Inquisition and included some interesting items. There were the usual doctrines, breviaries, and the like. The library included an archive of letters written in a mysterious cipher. Books of Albertus Magnus, Dominican sermons, manuals of chanting, the lamentations of Jeremiah, and various philosophical treatises rounded out the collection. The most interesting part of the Ruiz library were the books on sorcery. There was a book of Dr. Arnaldo de Villanueva on methods to be used in finding buried treasures. There were several treatises on healing, and one which prescribed the method of casting out devils from the sick and insane. The inquisitors were most disappointed that the book containing the signature of the prince of devils was not found in the library. Since his case was ridiculously weak, Pedro Ruiz Calderon decided to confess and throw himself upon Zumarraga’s mercy (Greenleaf, 1961, p115-121).
Clearly, Calderón’s legal defense team had by this point pretty much given up the ghost. In short, he was screwed. The best he could hope for was that Zumárraga wouldn’t burn him on the spot. Now, curiously even though, “Zumárraga, true to the hierarchical notion of doctrinal responsibility, noted in the sentencing that he was especially guilty given that he was an educated man.” (Nesvig, 2009, p118), he nonetheless handed down a rather lenient sentence by April 4, 1540. Calderón was to abjure his crimes while holding a candle during a mass in the cathedral church; he was forbidden to say mass for a period of two years, his books were confiscated, but shockingly he was not defrocked. Calderón was then exiled back to Castile, where the Archbishop of Toledo was set to re-examine the case and assign additional penance.
Meanwhile, Calderón had developed some sort of pulmonary illness while incarcerated and “was taken immediately to the hospital after the sentencing, because the next day, April 5, 1540, he was visited there by the Inquisition notary, Miguel Lopez de Legazpi, and others. From the events related in the closing paragraphs of the process we learn that Pedro Ruiz Calderon was still recounting his exploits as a practitioner of black magic from his hospital bed. He told of other books of great value which he possessed and which contained incantations and other devices that could be utilized in the recovery of buried treasure. His parting tale was about an incident in Sevilla when the devil appeared to him in the confessional and he actually confessed Satan! It is a pity that we have no record of the career of the sacerdote de misa after he fulfilled his exile in Spain” (Greenleaf, 1961, p115-121). At this point Pedro Ruiz Calderón disappears entirely from the historical record. We have no indication if he made it back to Seville and what became of him. Unless he actually could teleport and lived his life out on some sunny island away from the spotlight, chatting it up with his infernal buddies. Perhaps, schools of sorcery should teach that the first rule of necromancy is that you don’t talk about necromancy. Sadly, most folks have a need to share their awesomeness with others, which in the case of dubious activities, can get you in trouble with the local authorities. Vanity would seem to be the Achilles heel of many folk. I guess we’re not built that way, or as Julian Casablancas said, “Vanity can easily overtake wisdom. It usually overtakes common sense”.
Chuchiak, John F. The Inquisition in New Spain, 1536-1820: A Documentary History. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2012.
Greenleaf, Richard E. Zumarraga And the Mexican Inquisition, 1536-1543. Washington: Academy of American Franciscan History, 1961.
Nesvig, Martin Austin. Ideology and Inquisition : The World of the Censors in Early Mexico. New Haven, CT, USA: Yale University Press, 2009.
Thompson, John. “Santísima Muerte: On the Origin and Development of a Mexican Occult Image”. Journal of the Southwest 40.4: 405–436, 1998.