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Thursday, December 23, 2010

The Role of Experts in Identifying Witchcraft

Posted by Darin Hayton on 12/23 at 10:53 PM

In another welcome foray into early modern European science, Jonathan Seitz presented his “Inquiring After Witchcraft: Medicine, Science and the Supernatural in Early Modern Venice” at the most recent PACHS colloquium. Elly Truitt offered the opening commentary.

Jonathan’s paper explores the changing nature of expertise and markers of expert knowledge in 16th- and 17th-century Venice as revealed through inquisition trials for witchcraft. In particular, he draws on a rich cache of trial records the reveal the Inquisition’s efforts to identify and prosecute cases of maleficio. Such cases presented something of a difficulty because they often lacked eyewitnesses and obvious material evidence. Consequently, the Inquisition had to rely on a victim’s symptoms, the appearance of strange objects, and the opinions of experts. Jonathan focuses on the last of these categories, the opinions of experts.

Experts were called on to identify whether or not a sickness had supernatural or natural causes. Inquisition manuals recommended that trials consult with the relevant experts to decide such issues, but this just raises the question: Which individuals had the relevant knowledge and experience to decide such cases? Who, in other words, was the expert and who got to identify the experts? Jonathan shows how different constituencies—notably the Inquisition and the lay population—preferred different experts and how these preferences evolved in post-Tridentine Venice.

Of the three possible experts—wise women, exorcists and healing clerics, and physicians—inquisitors increasingly preferred the physician, and completely rejected the wise woman. Interestingly, physicians often rejected the opportunity to pronounce on a case, claiming that they did not have the expertise to decide. Despite their rejection, inquisitors still preferred their testimony to that of either exorcists or wise women, both of whom might claim such knowledge.

By contrast, ordinary Venetians who brought denunciation charges seemed to prefer exorcists and healing clerics to physicians. Over the same period, ordinary Venetians increasingly relied on healing clerics, perhaps responding to Church pressure that restricted expertise in supernatural matters to an increasingly narrow group of practitioners.

Throughout the academic or professional identity had to be balanced with first-hand knowledge of a particular case. In other words, credentials were insufficient for identifying the expert, but so too did experience fall short.

Elly opened the commentary raising a number of key questions that run throughout Jonathan’s paper, inter alia, experts and expertise, elite vs. lay knowledge, the role of credential as marks of expertise, and defining magic. With respect to experts and expertise, Elly wondered who got to label people experts and why different groups considered different people experts—in some contexts physicians were considered the experts, in others the exorcist? Was there a role for academic or guild credentials in distinguishing experts from non-experts? This seems a time when the notion of expert is changing. Can we see in these trials debates and negotiations about who is and who isn’t an expert, and why?

Elly Truit raised a number of questions in her opening comment on Jonathan’s paper.

Credentials are frequently used to display expertise. How were physicians and exorcists credential? What is the relationship between these mechanisms and institutions of credentialing and the label expert? Does this reflect an elite vs. lay knowledge hierarchy? Did the inquisitors privilege learned or theoretical knowledge over craft or guild knowledge?

And then what about the actual exercise of that expertise? How did physicians identify malefic spirits as opposed to good spirits? Who got to define magic and how? What are the state’s interests, or the Vatican‘s interests, in defining magic or witchcraft in a particular way?

Jonathan began by laying out the structure of the inquisitorial board—three inquisitors and three lay “advisors”—and pointing out that the state and the Inquisition were largely on in agreement when it came to prosecuting witchcraft. The problem was, for both the state and the Inquisition, that in the case of witchcraft they rarely had witnesses to the crime. Other types of magic—natural magic, healing, love magic—were prosecuted differently because the very effects were questioned. Not only were there often witnesses, the purported effects of the magic could be disputed: Did the practitioner actually accomplish what he or she claimed?

Jonathan responds to Elly’s questions.

Witchcraft by contrast rarely had eyewitnesses. Consequently, experts had to interpret the symptoms of the sick person. Inquisitors turned to physicians and exorcists for that expertise. There seems to have been tacit agreement between these two groups as to the boundaries of their expert knowledge. There was a credentialing body for physicians—the College of Physicians—but there also seemed to be a type of credential available to exorcists.

Jonathan fielded a number of questions from the audience.

The issue of expert and expertise animated a number of questions. One set of questions centered on what role expertise played in these trials. Were experts needed in both natural and supernatural cases? How do those two categories relate to the Inquisition’s need to consult experts? Apparently, the Inquisition viewed supernatural as a dependent category—an illness became supernatural when it was judged not to be natural. Interestingly, exorcists were happy to use natural remedies once the physician has rejected a case as supernatural, though the exorcists often blessed these remedies or used them within the context of some ritual.

Another family of questions revolved around the lack of trial convictions. Jonathan situated the trials within the changing nature of religious practice in the Counter Reformation era. There is a way to see these trials as an effort to appropriate for the Church the authority of communication with the spiritual world. Why the trials failed to achieve any convictions remains a bit perplexing. The Inquisition certainly believed in witchcraft, but their preferred experts seemed unwilling or unable to identify witchcraft. The accused were often charged with some infraction, but not witchcraft. What, then, was the social function of these trials, which continued for more than a century? Jonathan admits that he doesn’t have a firm answer for that, particularly since the Inquisition did a reasonably good job keeping the trials secret.

In the end, Jonathan’s paper raised a number of fascinating issues about the changing nature of expertise, about who gets to identify the expert and how different constituencies prefer different experts. The problem of expertise is one that has arisen again in the historiography, so Jonathan’s paper joins a lively discussion about the nature of expertise and its social function.

The current volume of Osiris, Expertise. Practical Knowledge and the Early Modern State, explores the idea of expertise in various early-modern contexts (original cover art here and the table of contents is here)

Jonathan’s paper also raises some questions about the role of witchcraft trials, especially in light of their apparent failure to convict. Why continue to expend the resources if not to discover witchcraft? These are questions that, perhaps, his book will answer, and if not then perhaps he has a topic for his second book.

One final observation: Once again although the audience was not as large as those that attend modern talks, it was nice to see a reasonable turnout for Jonathan’s talk—the audience would have been larger if some of the other early modern scholars in the area had attended—and to enjoy the lively and sustained discussion.

Tags: expert, expertise, pachs colloquium, witchcraft

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Comment posted by Joanna Radin on 12/24 at 11:35 AM

As a historian specializing in 20th century biology, far from the early modern period, I found much of value in Jonathan’s talk.  His work helped me think about my own in new ways and was a reminder of the importance and rewards of venturing beyond one’s intellectual comfort zones.  I’m looking forward to the book!

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