Trail Markers of Doubt | Sojourners

Trail Markers of Doubt

What an Italian Witchcraft Trial Teaches Us About Fear — And Belief

In 1528, Bellezza Orsini, a medicine woman from a village outside Rome, was accused of witchcraft. After being tortured, she wrote an extraordinary confession in which she detailed the practices of her pagan sect. She describes strange dances, exotic rites, even sex with the devil.

It seemed a puzzling turn for Orsini, a mother of three who had saved many lives. Story upon story spilled out of her — layer after layer of graphic iniquity. But ultimately, all it proved that she was as good a fiction writer as she was a healer, according to Paolo Buonora, director of the Rome State Archive.

“It didn’t happen. It’s a false confession. She was tortured — and this confession comes after,” he said when our group met him in the soaring library of the Palazzo della Sapienza, the glorious 17th century Borromini-designed building that houses the archive.

The archive holds the original manuscript of Orsini’s confession — and Buonora brought the yellowed pages featuring her neat print out to show us. That there were pages to show was a function of how she died: not by execution but by suicide (while in prison, she stabbed herself in the neck with a nail, piercing an artery). In the 1500s, if the church authorities managed to extract a confession from an alleged witch, the documents were typically burned with them. “Because it was magic, it was dangerous,” Buonora said. But because she committed suicide, neither she nor the papers were burned.

Why was Orsini charged in the first place? The precipitating incident was the death of a patient — and the subsequent desire, said Buonora, “to find someone to bear the guilt.”

Orsini, though, was no ordinary woman. By our best guesstimates, no more than a fifth of Italians in that era could read. Yet she had a collection of books on medicine, which she consulted to concoct healing oils. This raised her neighbors’ suspicions. What business did this woman have with all these books, with this arcane knowledge? What was really in them?

She tried to explain her passion for learning. “If you learn to read and write, you are willing to go on and on and study. There is no end to it,” Buonora told us, paraphrasing Orsini. “Then you are not quiet. And when you don’t see the end of your path” — in other words, when learning so enthralls you that you can’t stop — “this is witchcraft.”

“This is an extraordinary answer,” Buonora said. “This is not witchcraft — it is knowledge.” And what was on trial in Orsini’s case wasn’t really witchcraft — it was knowledge, and a seemingly unnatural relationship with that untrustworthy thing. The victor? Fear.


We are afraid of so many things, especially things we don’t understand: Science (or, depending on your theology and ideology, “science”); God, or perhaps the idea of God; the other — whatever that means to you, whether it’s the other political party or the other presidential candidate or that other neighborhood or that other race; ourselves.

This first full day of our pilgrimage has focused largely on such fears and their consequences. Buonora and his vice-director, Michele di Sivo, who also showed us the original legal record of the philosopher, scientist, and theologian Giordano Bruno’s last night of life before he was executed for heresy in 1600. (Bruno had challenged the Church’s ideas on everything from outer space to the nature of God — he believed the divine infused everything in the universe.) In the marginalia, there’s even a notary’s sketch, added the next day, of Bruno burning — which, ironically, is the earliest known portrait of Bruno.

Di Sivo described Bruno and Orsini as kindred intellectual spirits: “He thought what the witch had said 80 years before. This is about the relationship between nature and science and religion.” Do we explore, asking questions and delving into mystery? Or do we retreat — or, worse, reject, sometimes violently, thinking that we already know all we need to know?

From the Palazzo della Sapienza, we walked to Rome’s old Jewish Ghetto, where an archivist for the city’s ancient Jewish community talked us through centuries of persecution and perseverance. Perhaps as a signal of the power of books and the knowledge and history they contained, the Nazis stole and destroyed 7,000 of the Roman Jewish community’s books and documents.

From those that survived, he chose a few to show us. One was a 14th century Castilian Torah, its presence in Rome a reminder of the expulsion and subsequent scattering of Spain’s Jews. He also brought out a logbook from World War II, containing the names and addresses of Jews then living in Rome.

We don’t learn quickly.


A pilgrimage must go places we neither know nor completely understand. It’s an expression of faith — real or imagined, a mountain or maybe just a mustard seed. It acknowledges that we want and need more. More what? Perhaps courage. Maybe trust. Certainly a sense that we shouldn’t fear our doubts.

I was reared in a deeply Baptist family that taught all the downsides of doubt. Anyway, what was there to question? We sang “Trust and Obey” all the time during our family devotions.

But lurking underneath our alleged obedience was fear — fear that has repeatedly led us astray, fear that has compelled us to be less than loving, fear that has caused us to lash out. Our history suggests that our doubts, and the longings of our souls that they reflect, might be more reliable trail markers, guiding us on our way.

Just before our group left the Palazzo della Sapienza, Paolo Buonora had offered us a peek into the Church of Sant’Ivo alla Sapienza, which is part of the complex. The space is unusual because of Borromini’s playful use of shape — triangles, circles, hexagons. The sanctuary floor, laid with black-and-white marble in bold geometric patterns, foreshadows Art Deco by more than 250 years.

As we stood on the balcony overlooking the space, I mentioned this unexpected modernity to Buonora. Then I referenced his comments about Orsini, saying that they, too, felt surprisingly current. The fear of what we don’t know or understand seems so prevalent these days, especially in the United States.

Buonora smiled knowingly. “I was talking about this!” he said. He confessed that he hadn’t chosen his subject lightly. “I had the chance to talk about fear to Americans! So … ” I felt, all at once, recognition and shame, solidarity, and sorrow — but also resolve.

“Come, pluck up, heart,” John Bunyan wrote. “Let's neither faint nor fear.” We’ve done both before. We don’t need to again. Time to go a new direction.

Editor's Note: Jeff Chu is on a weeklong group pilgrimage to Rome and the Holy Land, sponsored by the Museum of the Bible. Read his first piece in this series here