A certain Germanic bishop arrived in Rome during the pontificate of Pope Nicholas V (r. 1447-1455) and had quite an adventure while he stayed in the holy city. His story was recorded by the Inquisitors, Heinrich Kramer and James Sprenger, in their infamous Malleus Maleficarum (published around 1487). According to the Inquisitors, the German bishop reportedly fell in love with a Roman ‘girl’ (their description) and he decided to make her his concubine. In exchange for accompanying him back to the seat of his German bishopric, he offered to house her somewhere with nice accommodations and access to servants and wealth. When the bishop shared this plan with his lady love, the girl agreed, but made one condition—she wanted her mother to be allowed to live with her in the bishop’s diocese. The bishop and his paramour came to an agreement and the girl (and her mother) apparently set off for German lands while the bishop finished his business in Rome.
Although the bishop likely wanted to keep a low profile at this point, it only took one day for his life to erupt into scandal and drama. On the next night after the holy man and his concubine had made their arrangement, the bishop fell seriously ill. He was in great discomfort, and felt so hot in the throat and chest that he constantly requested chilled water to cool himself down. The bishop’s advisors and caretakers were shocked by the suddenness of the ailment and they quickly became convinced that something nefarious was afoot. If the illness was not caused by poison, then they were sure the only other cause could be witchcraft. When the bishop was still ill after three day’s time, and normal medical practices were showing no signs of bringing him back to health, the bishop’s servants began to consider more radical methods for a cure. According to the Malleus Maleficarum, the bishop’s servants brought in a local healer, who was considered a benevolent witch.
The healer examined the sickly bishop, and, according to the Malleus Maleficarum, she told her patient, “Your illness has been caused by a spell of witchcraft, and you can only be healed by another spell, which will transfer the illness from you to the witch who caused it, so that she will die” (Part II, question 2, intro). The healer-witch’s words apparently convinced the bishop, and, as he evidently did not think that, nature, medicine, or God would protect him from his illness, he decided that the good witch’s counterspell was his only option. Yet, as the bishop was still in Rome, he resolved to leave his fate in the hands of the pope. Therefore, the bishop sent word to Pope Nicholas V, informing him of his situation and the possible magical cure. The Malleus Maleficarum described the pope’s alleged reaction: “Now the Holy Father loved him [the bishop] very dearly, and when he learned that he could only be healed by the death of the witch, he agreed to permit the lesser of two evils, and signed this permission with his seal” (Part II, question 2, intro). With the support of the Vicar of Christ on his side, the bishop eagerly hired the services of the healer-witch and allowed her to cast her counterspell.
Unfortunately, the aforementioned young concubine had apparently caught whatever illness was plaguing the bishop, and her symptoms began to show at this very inopportune moment. The phrase, ‘correlation does not imply causation’ was incredibly underutilized by witch-hunters, and, unsurprisingly, everyone privy to the bishop’s condition and cure quickly came to believe that the girl was made ill by the healer’s counter-spell, and therefore had to be a witch. When the bishop recovered enough strength to travel, he went to meet with the sickly girl he once intended to have as a concubine. Now, however, he was convinced that she was a witch, and his ultimate goal in meeting with her was to convince her to repent for her alleged witchcraft. As the bishop’s illness and the healer-witch’s convincing words had brought her life to ruin, the Roman girl understandably was irate when she saw the bishop—after all, her short time spent with him had given her a deadly illness and a scandalized reputation. The Malleus Maleficarum described the tense interaction: “the Bishop went out of compassion to visit the girl; but when he entered the room, she received him with horrible execrations, crying out: May you and she who wrought your cure be damned for ever!” (Part II, question 2, intro). The illness, unfortunately, affected the girl much worse than it had the bishop. She reportedly did not recover from whatever it was that afflicted her and faced an unpleasant death. As the Malleus Maleficarum unpityingly stated, she “died miserably. But the Bishop returned home with joy and thankfulness” (Part II, question 2, intro). The bishop did, however, die at some point before the publication of the Malleus Maleficarum around 1487.
Interestingly, Heinrich Kramer and James Sprenger realized that others might use this story as an excuse to make contracts with witches. Therefore, at the end of the story, they were obligated to remind the reader that witchcraft is bad, and that holy water, blessed salts, and exorcisms are better cures than the practices of folk healers. Ultimately, however, they could not come up with a convincing reason as to why the pope and a bishop could hire a witch without consequence, whereas a peasant might hire a witch and face severe or fatal repercussions. Nevertheless, they did attempt an explanation, which resulted in this awkward passage: “Here it is to be noted that a privilege granted to one does not constitute a precedent for all, and the dispensation of the Pope in this case does not argue that it is lawful in all cases” (Part II, question 2, intro).
Written by C. Keith Hansley
Picture Attribution: (Combination of a painting with Pope Nicholas V by Antonio Montúfar (active 1614-1629) with a painting of Shakespearean witches by Daniel Gardner (1750–1805), both [Public Domain] via Creative Commons).
- The Malleus Maleficarum by Heinrich Kramer and James Sprenger, translated by Montague Summers (Dover Publications, 1971).