Centuries-old witch hunt in Spain killed 700 women | Story

Dancers perform in Sant Feliu Sasserra square during the town’s annual Witches’ Fair, or Fira de les Bruixes, on October 31, 2017.
© Town Hall of Sant Feliu Sasserra

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<p>The village of Sant Feliu Sasserra is perched on a hill in a pine wooded region of Catalonia.  Fifty-three miles north of Barcelona, ​​the place retains a medieval feel, with a 10th-century church in the square and cobbled lanes lined with old sandstone block houses.  A simple three-storey building with a pair of Spanish flags draped from the top-floor windows serves as the <em>complement</em>, or town hall.  Came to this peaceful village of 600 because of a big date with history that made headlines across Europe – a vote by the Catalan Parliament to apologize for the over 700 condemned “witches” in the region for three centuries from 1424, when Catalonia enacted the first European law banning witchcraft.</p>
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a small building stands on a hill overlooking a village

View of Serrat de les Forques, the steep hill where the inhabitants of Sant Feliu once hanged those convicted of witchcraft.


Catalonia has been a center of witchcraft trials in Europe for over 300 years; widespread illiteracy and the region’s history of relative autonomy from central authority in far-away Madrid made it subject to the whims of feudal lords and their minions. But with rare exceptions, the archives faded into obscurity and hundreds of stories went untold until a University of Barcelona graduate student named Pau Castell made a discovery in the archives of a mountain village near the French border.

While researching the role of women in medieval Catalonia, Castell was browsing the archives of a castle in Sort when he came across an account from 1548 about a servant accused by neighbors of a series of unexplained infant deaths and crop failures. Under torture, the man implicated his master, another man and two women. The other two men were hanged, possibly with one of the women.

Castell was horrified by the episode – and intrigued by the lack of academic research on the larger topic. He refocused his thesis on witches and spent the next decade traveling to town halls and archives all over Catalonia. Castell has collected stories and compiled a digital database – recently made available to the public – of witchcraft trials, including names of defendants, dates of their trials, and verdicts. Although his first memorable witchcraft case involved men, he would learn that many more women were convicted of witchcraft.

From his home in Barcelona, ​​Castell tells me that calamitous events — “deaths of newborn babies, the death of livestock, bouts of hailstorms” — have often catalyzed vicious persecutions against acquaintances and neighbors. “In these moments of social unrest, fingers are pointed at individuals within the community who have already been stigmatized,” says Castell.

Another impetus for Catalonia’s reconciliation movement came from Clàudia Pujol, editor-in-chief of Sapiens, a Barcelona-based magazine on Catalan history and culture. She was inspired by efforts in Scotland between 2020 and 2021 to grant clemency to 4,000 women tortured and killed after the National Witchcraft Act 1563. In collaboration with Castell, now professor of history at the University of Barcelona, ​​Pujol has endeavored to publicize all known witchcraft trials in Catalonia since 1424. Sapiens published an interactive map online, launched a campaign on social networks, produced videos and organized conferences and workshops in town halls and schools, all under the heading: No noise. Eren does. (“They weren’t witches. They were women.”)

Pujol’s campaign culminated in a vote in the Catalan parliament last January to grant posthumous pardons to witches who were executed – some 700 people, mostly women. “We are the heirs of witches, poisoners and healers,” said Jenn Díaz, an MP who voted in favor of the pardon, at the time. The gesture, though symbolic, signified a watershed moment of accountability for centuries of injustice. Local officials have renamed several streets in memory of murdered women, and Catalonia may soon add the study of witchcraft persecutions to the high school curriculum, to show students how easily ignorance and rumor can escalate into violence.

A notable exception to the historical tendency to ignore the subject is Sant Feliu Sasserra, where 23 women were prosecuted for witchcraft between 1618 and 1648. Six were executed by hanging on a hill just outside the village. Not far from the town hall, and opposite the church, is the Center for the Interpretation of Witchcraft, on the top floor of a two-storey house. It opened its doors in 1998, relying on rare documentation in this isolated region of Lluçanès, where the persecutions reached their climax at the beginning of the 17th century. A guide named Queralt Alberch leads me past plaques recounting the history of early 17th-century trials and executions, and an exhibition hall filled with jars of dried roots, plants, and other natural remedies. “The victims were always single women, and they came from the margins of society,” she tells me. Traditional healers were often accused of being in cahoots with the devil. Alberch plays a harrowing short film on a movie screen that recreates the trial of a Caterina Trenca, using real courtroom transcripts. “If you tell me the truth, the trial will be canceled and you will die faster,” the prosecutor told the accused. “I haven’t done anything wrong, neither against people nor against God,” she replies. Trenca is then tied face down on a support in a dungeon and the torturer spins a wheel and the support rips her tendons and muscles. A notorious witch hunter of the time, Joan Malet, wandered from village to village, identifying witches based on supposed invisible marks on their backs and shoulders that only he claimed to see. Thirty-three women were hanged based on Malet’s testimony; the Spanish Inquisition finally accused him of false charges and burned him at the stake in Barcelona in July 1549.

a 16th century illustration of an arrest

A 16th century print depicts the arrest of witch hunter Joan Malet in 1549 in Valencia on false charges and his subsequent execution at the hands of the Inquisition in Barcelona.

Courtesy © Abacus / Sàpiens

For all its wickedness, the system was highly regulated, according to Castell’s research. Courts issued notes stipulating approved methods of torture – the most common was hanging an accused witch from the ceiling by her thumbs, known by the Italian word strappata– and demanded extensive record keeping. “The notaries were right about the torture sessions,” Castell tells me. “They took notes on everything, the cries, the silences, the whispers. I remember transcribing the minutes for the first time, and when I got to the torture I had to stop and have a cigarette and then come back. Legal textbooks forbade authorities from torturing a person for more than three long sessions over three days and considered innocent anyone who resisted that long without confessing. Such laws, however, were often honored in violation. “If they wanted a confession,” says Castell, “they would continue to torture.” After three centuries of this rural terror, the Spanish Inquisition and the King of Spain extended their power to the hinterland and largely ended the persecutions in Catalonia in 1622, although witchcraft trials continued sporadically, in remote areas, until 1777. .

children play outside in front of a church

A group of children dramatize the story in front of the Church of Sant Feliu Sasserra during the annual Witches’ Fair in 2018.

© Town Hall of Sant Feliu Sasserra

Not everyone supported the campaign to commemorate these forgotten victims of the community panic. Fourteen deputies from two right-wing parties in Catalonia voted against the issuance of pardons. Six others abstained. And some observers have questioned the value of openness so long after the fact. “Forgive long-dead witches will not help them,” Jan Machielsen, a lecturer in history at Cardiff University in Wales, wrote this year in response to Scotland’s apology to “all those [in Scotland] who have been accused, convicted, vilified or executed under the Witchcraft Act”. Machielsen noted the contrast to the Salem witch trials, where survivors were cleared immediately afterwards and, in 1711, received financial compensation from the Province of Massachusetts Bay. Nevertheless, said the researcher, “if we decide that it will help us as a society, we should officially recognize the injustice”.

Pardons have a deep resonance in contemporary life. As Scottish First Minister Nicola Sturgeon pointed out in her apology, they can serve to remind people of the ‘deep misogyny’ – in the form of ‘daily harassment, online rape threats and sexual violence’ – that n has not yet been relegated to history. scrap heap. Pujol thinks acknowledging institutionalized cruelty can get people thinking about how unexamined bias can harm others, especially the weak and those on the margins of society. “In the end,” says Pujol, “the witchcraft persecutions were perpetrated by people just like us.”