In The Malleus Maleficarum (published 1487), the text’s authors informed readers, “There is a common report current in the districts of the River Etsch, as also in other places, that by the permission of God a swarm of locusts came and devoured all the vines, green leaves and crops” (Part II. Qn 2. Ch 1). As the quote described, the Italian lands around the River Etsch (more commonly known as the Adige River) reportedly suffered a plague of locusts on a biblical scale. Inhabited districts around the river were in such danger of famine that the Catholic Church felt it had to get involved to defeat the army of diabolical insects.
In order to solve the locust problem, Rome allegedly sent a high-ranking holy man to the region. The clergyman, whose name was kept anonymous in the Malleus Maleficarum, allegedly could perform special miracles connected in some way or other to the Keys of Heaven (or Saint Peter), a central symbol in the imagery of the Catholic Church. As the story goes, the unnamed priest formulated a plan to rid the Adige River region of locusts by carrying out a complex ceremony that combined the might of the Keys, the Papal power of excommunication, and the rite of exorcism, all amplified by certain chants. According to The Malleus Maleficarum, the locusts “were suddenly put to flight and dispersed by means of this kind of excommunication and cursing” (Part II. Qn 2. Ch 1). With the holy shooing complete, so the folkloric tale claims, the locusts were defeated and the people in the Adige River region were saved.
Written by C. Keith Hansley
Picture Attribution: (Swarm of Locusts by Emil Schmidt (1839–1909), [Public Domain] via Creative Commons).
- The Malleus Maleficarum by Heinrich Kramer and James Sprenger, translated by Montague Summers (Dover Publications, 1971).