“I’m not a conspiracy theorist – I’m a conspiracy analyst” – Gore Vidal

No witches here…

Nobody expects the Inquisition.  To get it right, that is.  This largely relates to their long and storied history of getting it wrong, not to mention the spasms of theological insanity, questionable interrogation methods, heretic burning, witch persecutions, and general oppression of everybody and everything they could get their hands on.  There just aren’t a lot of nice things to say about the Inquisition.  Keen eye for fashion?  Flair for drama?  That’s about it.  The Inquisition (or as they’re know these days, “the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith”) as an official organization within the Catholic Church, emerged in 12th Century France, mostly dedicated to monitoring the heretical behavior of Catholic adherents or converts and to combat more organized religious dissent (like the Cathars and the Waldensians).  Even in the late Middle Ages, the Inquisition was none too fond of sorcery, but as Europe slipped into the Renaissance and Reformation, as well as other notable milestones such as waves of the Black Death, the Hundred Years War, and what climatologists call “The Little Ice Age”, they really took witch-hunting and the suppression of heresy to the next level, malevolently speaking.   Yet, the tender ministrations and areas of particular interest of the Inquisition varied rather widely on a regional basis.

Of course, even when the Inquisition gets it right, they get it wrong, unearthing sorcerous conspiracies where none exist, and completely ignoring hotbeds of witchy activity.  If it weren’t for all the screaming and murder, they’re true to Monty Python-esque form.  Case in point, the town of Molfetta in the region of Apulia, Italy.  Geographically, the Apulia region is the heel of the Italian boot.  In the mid-16th Century, the Inquisition turned its attention to reported nefarious goings-on in Southern Italy, starting with Calabria (the toe of the boot).  They started with expelling the Jews, forcing the conversion of those too poor to emigrate, as well as rooting out adherents to the Waldensian “heresy”.  The Neapolitan territories had not been traditionally too cooperative with the exigencies of the Inquisition, but by 1561, political and secular authorities saw some advantages to giving them a freer hand – namely the legal confiscation and auction of properties to fill their coffers.

In the exigencies of the moment the papal Inquisition had thus obtained a recognition in Neapolitan territory for which it had hitherto been vainly struggling, but it was intermingled with the episcopal and royal jurisdictions in a manner indicating how little organization there was for action in an emergency. The royal jurisdiction, moreover, asserted itself still further when,  November 13, 1561, the viceroy issued a commission to Fra Valerio as inspector of heretical books throughout the kingdom, authorizing him to go to the points of importation and empowering him to summon to his aid the secular magistrates a commission which was renewed May 8, 1562.  The viceroy also enforced one of the provisions of the Spanish Inquisition, for he laid claim to the confiscations and, on September 17, 1561, he commissioned Dr. Antonio Moles to proceed to the spot and take possession of all the property of those convicted, including the debts due to them.  Apparently there had been general plunder, for he was empowered to enforce the surrender of what had been taken. Dr. Moles seems to have had much trouble with clerics, who had been active in the spoiling and had committed many enormous offences; as clerics they were beyond his jurisdiction, but the vicar of Cosenza sent him an assistant to exercise the necessary spiritual jurisdiction.  As La Guardia and San Sisto had both been burnt and the country laid waste, there cannot have been much left to confiscate, but Dr. Moles seems to have conscientiously stripped the land bare, for when the results were sent to Naples and sold at auction they produced a handsome amount of money (Lea, 1908, p84-85).

Having seen the apocalyptic results of the Inquisition’s depredations in Calabria, the population of Apulia was not keen on facing a similar fate, thus the Inquisition found a lot of unsurprisingly willing converts and concluded that they really didn’t have much of a problem in the Apulian jurisdictions.  Don’t get me wrong.  They were still crazy obsessed with hunting down and exterminating witches and heretics, they simply used a much lighter touch than they had in neighboring Calabria.

The Waldenses of Apulia had a milder fate. The ruin and butchery in Calabria was a warning to all parties. Their lords were powerful nobles the Prince of Molfetta, the Duke of Airola, the Count of Biccari and others who did not wish to see their lands laid waste and depopulated. Fra Valerio was not called in, but a papal commission was procured for Ferdinando Anna, Bishop of Bovino, in whose diocese most of the infected district lay; less inhuman measures were employed and doubtless the savage work in Calabria led the heretics to be accommodating.  Only a few of the more zealous were prosecuted; the mass of the population submitted and seem to have been taken to the bosom of Mother Church without severe penalties (Lea, 1908, p86).

Strangely, the maniacal magistrates of the Inquisition and their secular legal partners in government seem to have walked away, in relative terms, from a center of sorcery in Molfetta, Apulia that thrived well into the 20th Century.  In 1906, a far-reaching “syndicate of sorcerers” was unmasked in Molfetta, plying a nefarious trade in selling magical services and extorting money under threats of sorcerous retribution.

A few months ago the police discovered the existence at Molfetta – a little town in the province of Bari, Italy – of a vast association of sorcerers whose work extended throughout Apulia. Having discovered themselves to be gifted with special faculties, these sorcerers assembled together and promised everyone to free them from enchantment, to save or to ruin people, to create or suppress strife and disagreements, to discover robberies, thieves or assassins, to cause marriage to fail or succeed, to cure the sick, and to liberate prisoners. Whether these promises were fulfilled or not the sorcerers always demanded money of their clients, who were numerous, and whose admiration was unquestioning. Many among them had reasons, based on painful experiences, for believing that these sorcerers were not very clever, but no one dared to own that he had been deluded by the pseudo-sorcery of the group. The larger number of victims moreover were afraid, if they revealed the secrets, of being bewitched themselves. The police have, however, been able to overcome the fears of the good peasants. They have collected the evidence and proofs of 134 delinquencies committed by the best-known sorcerers of the group, of whom twenty-one have been arrested. With the professional objects which have been seized in the course of visitations made in several villages, a little museum of sorcery has been collected. In this are to be found gaming cards, lemons crowned with pins, black ribbands, barrels of tar, bottles of alcohol, herbs of all kinds, hair, the nails of men and of animals, as well as a quantity of other mysterious utensils (Annals of Psychical Science, 1906, p424).

So, by 1906 it was fairly clear that Molfetta was a locus for sorcerous activity (larcenous or otherwise), and as this was the heyday of spiritualism, folks were renewing their interest in all manner of preternatural activities.  When a series of meetings regarding prophecies for the new century were announced, Victorian London was high on the list of venues, but surprisingly, so was tiny Molfetta.

Persons capable of succeeding in such experiments and to forecast the future are so many, that a Congress of Prophets was announced by newspapers to be held in London in May 1906 at Exeter Hall, and about the same time a “trust of witches” was to meet at Molfetta in the province of Ban. It was resolved by the majority of the Congress of Prophets that “the world will come to an end on May 3, 1929, while the minority, a little less pessimistic, believed it would be on April 9, 1931 (Grasset, 1910, p273).

As a side note, it’s curious that the bizarre incident of the teleporting Pansini Boys steeped in Fortean fame occurred near Molfetta in 1901 (see “The Spontaneous Teleportation of the Pansini Boys”).  At any rate, it seems that after dodging the Inquisition in the 16th Century, the sorcerers of Molfetta got themselves organized, which was prudent, but as is the Achilles heel of all conspiracies, “two can keep a secret, if one of them is dead”. In retrospect, the sorcerers of Molfetta managed to survive the lunacy of the witch mania, while actually being witches for which we must give them credit, but is this not just the conspiracy at the root of civilization itself that we embrace as modernism, for as John Buchanan said, “Civilization is a conspiracy. Modern life is the silent compact of comfortable folk to keep up pretenses”.

Finch, L.I. ed. “A Sorcerers Trust in Italy”. The Annals of Psychical Science v3:3. London, 1906.
Grasset, J. 1849-1918. The Marvels Beyond Science: (L’occultisme Hier Et Aujourd’hui; Le Merveilleux Préscientifique) Being a Record of Progress Made In the Reduction of Occult Phenomena to a Scientific Basis. New York: Funk & Wagnalls company, 1910.
Lea, Henry Charles, 1825-1909. The Inquisition in the Spanish Dependencies: Silicy–Naples–Sardinia–Milan–the Canaries–Mexico–Peru–New Granada. New York: The Macmillan Company, 1908.