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The Scourge of Demons


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In 1636, residents at the convent of Santa Chiara in Carpi in northern Italy were struck by an extraordinary illness that provoked bizarre behavior. Eventually numbering fourteen, the afflicted nuns were subject to screaming fits, throwing themselves on the floor, and falling abruptly into a deep sleep. When medical experts' cures proved ineffective, exorcists ministered to the women and concluded that they were possessed by demons and the victims of witchcraft. Catering to women from elite families, the nunnery suffered much turmoil for three years and, remarkably, three of the victims died from their ills. A maverick nun and a former confessor were widely suspected to be responsible, through witchcraft, for these woes.
Based primarily on the exhaustive investigation by the Inquisition of Modena, The Scourge of Demons examines this fascinating case in its historical context. The travails of Santa Chiara occurred at a time when Europe witnessed peaks in both witch-hunting and in the numbers of people reputedly possessed by demons. Female religious figures appeared particularly prone to demonic attacks, and Counter-Reformation Church authorities were especially interested in imposing stricter discipline on convents. Watt carefully considers how the nuns of Santa Chiara understood and experienced alleged possession and witchcraft, concluding that Santa Chiara's diabolical troubles and their denouement -- involving the actions of nuns, confessors, inquisitorial authorities, and exorcists -- were profoundly shaped by the unique confluence of religious, cultural, judicial, and intellectual trends that flourished in the 1630s.

Jeffrey R. Watt is professor of history at the University of Mississippi.


A solid microhistorical study, persuasively arguing that possession and witchcraft were "cultural phenomena". [.] The book is a welcome contribution that enhances our knowledge of the less-studied territory of the seventeenth-century activities of the Modenese Inquisition. CANADIAN JOURNAL OF HISTORY, December 2010

Thoroughly examines a compelling case of possession and witchcraft in a wealthy convent in Carpi in the 1630s. [.] The story unfolds gradually with a narrative style, and historiographical debates are smoothly brought into the account. HISTORIANS OF WOMEN RELIGIOUS OF BRITAIN & IRELAND, December 2010

Absorbing, illuminating and scholarly. [.] Watt's gift for historical narrative is remarkable. [.] This book is a major contribution to historical understanding of post-Tridentine religious life. It has shifted our perspective and broadened our understanding of female convent life. This book is an exemplar of broad and deep research and careful analysis of the sources. It is a brilliant example of historical narrative. It should be read and admired by scholars, assigned to students and enjoyed by readers interested in early modern European religious and gender studies. JOURNAL OF CHURCH HISTORY, June 2010

This adept study. has succeeded in finally placing the nuns' experiences in their full context. Watt has provided an expert and comprehensive study of one important case, presented as a laudably compelling read. JOURNAL OF ECCLESIASTICAL HISTORY, April 2010

Whereas the fifteenth- and sixteenth-century records of the Inquisition of Modena have attracted considerable attention, the extensive documentation pertaining to the seventeenth century remains largely unexplored. Watt's analysis of these later records is therefore a timely addition to the burgeoning field of Inquisition studies. RENAISSANCE QUARTERLY [Tamar Herzig]

Stimulating and sound [.] a welcome addition to the ever-growing list of studies on the social and religious history of early modern Europe. Recommended. CHOICE, February 2010

An impressive and even exemplary job of archival scholarship that will be of interest to scholars of witchcraft and possession, and of Inquisitorial processes. SIXTEENTH CENTURY JOURNAL, XLI, no. 4, 2010


First Published: 15 Mar 2009
13 Digit ISBN: 9781580462983
Pages: 312
Size: 9 x 6
Binding: Hardback
Imprint: University of Rochester Press

Details updated on 29 Apr 2016


  • 1  Nuns, Witchcraft, and the Inquisition
  • 2  Female Religious, Claustration, and Santa Chiara of Carpi
  • 3  The Outbreak and Maleficia
  • 4  The Confessor and Love Magic
  • 5  The Exorcists and the Demons
  • 6  Sisters Dealta and Ippolita under Attack
  • 7  Bellacappa's Defense
  • 8  The Waning of the Possessions

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