When Rainer Decker was researching a sensational seventeenth-century German witchcraft trial, he discovered, much to his surprise, that in this case the papacy functioned as a force of skepticism and restraint. His curiosity piqued, he tried unsuccessfully to gain access to a secret Vatican archive housing the records of the Roman Inquisition that had been sealed to outsiders from its sixteenth-century beginnings. In 1996 Decker was one of the first of a small group of scholars allowed access. Originally published as Die Papste und die Hexen, Witchcraft and the Papacy is based on these newly available materials and traces the role of the papacy in witchcraft prosecutions from medieval times to the eighteenth century. Decker found that although the medieval church did lay the foundation for witch hunts of the sixteenth to eighteenth centuries, the post-medieval papacy, and the Roman and Spanish Inquisitions, played the same kind of skeptical, restraining role during the height of the witch-hunting frenzy in Germany and elsewhere in Europe as it had in the trial that was the initial focus of his research. Witchcraft and the Papacy overturns a large body of scholarship that confuses the medieval papacy with its markedly skeptical successors, and that mistakenly portrays the papacy as fanning rather than quelling the flames of the witchcraft mania sweeping northern Europe from the mid-sixteenth century onward.
Rainer Decker is the Director of the Department of History at the Secondary Teachers' Training Institute in Paderborn, Germany. H. C. Erik Midelfort is professor of religious studies and history at the University of Virginia, author of Exorcism and Enlightenment, and the translator of Wolfgang Behringer's The Shaman of Oberstdorf (Virginia).