All About History
The Basque witch trials
Despite its reputation for in tolerance and in erupted Spain’ s basque hinterland, the inquisition craze witch a became a force of restraint when cruelty,
Uncover the surprising role of the Inquisition in Spain’s witch craze
In November 1610, six people were executed for witchcraft in Logroño, a town over 120 kilometres from Pamplona. Another five people, who had died in captivity, were burned in effigy. The local tribunal of the Spanish Inquisition had been sifting evidence and extracting confessions for more than a year and now, before thousands of onlookers, the hapless victims — people who had denied all charges against them — were put to death.
The truth was undeniable — the European witch craze had arrived once again in northern Spain. Mercifully, November 1610 marked the end of the killings but, over the coming years, many more men, women and children would come under intense scrutiny.
At first, this supposed outbreak of witchcraft was thought to be limited to a handful of villages, chiefly Zugarramurdi, but fears of an organised, wide-ranging sect quickly emerged. People would be charged with the all too predictable litany of demonic offences. Tales would spread of secretive night-time Sabbaths with their lascivious dances and sexual liaisons with the Devil: “Couplings so horrible,” as one contemporary put it, “that it is a horror to tell.” Murders and mishaps were blamed on the mischief of witches who supposedly scoured the local hillsides to find toads for their poisonous brews. Bizarre, nocturnal aerial jaunts were reported, with the witches sometimes transforming into houseflies or ravens.
From the outset, however, not everyone was convinced of the veracity of these sensational stories. Pedro de Valencia, one of the royal chronichlers, suggested that “some of the things they have admitted are so improbable that many people will refuse to believe them,” so perhaps it was wiser to “consider the whole story to be something the witches dreamed up.”
Even some within the Spanish Inquisition, which was charged with overseeing the trials and executions at Logroño, exhibited scepticism. Alonso de Salazar y Frías had arrived in Logroño in June 1610, appointed as the local tribunal’s new and rather junior inquisitor.
Salazar, said to have graduated from the illustrious University of Salamanca and with an impressive career as a lawyer underway, Salazar was not slow to express his doubts. His qualms appear to have been shared by both the crown and the Inquisition’s central body in Madrid, the Suprema, and Salazar was charged with conducting a visitation of the Basque region between May
1611 and January 1612.
He conducted interviews with hundreds of people: both those who had confessed to practising witchcraft and those who had levelled accusations. His lodestone was the application of rigorous evidential tests as he exposed animals to supposedly deadly potions. He also organised the physical examinations of women who claimed to have had sexual relations with the Devil and compared accounts of the sites of alleged Sabbaths with the actual locations.
The results were striking. The potions killed no animals, the virginity of many of the women was still intact, and testimonies concerning night- time meetings simply did not tally with physical realities. As Salazar explained in one of a series of reports to the Suprema, far too much was “false, fake and fraudulent,” so “the witches are not to be believed.” But what could have possessed people to tell such self-incriminatory stories about themselves? Perhaps, he opined, they were delusional. If the Devil was at work, his methods were subtle indeed.
The 80-year-old Maria de Echevarría from Oronóz, for example, had made a confession out of “heartfelt contrition,” but “what this good woman was confessing about her witchcraft was, without doubt, nothing but a dream.” She claimed to have fallen asleep and then been whisked away to Sabbaths, and yet “nobody ever met or saw her leaving or return, not even her own elderly daughter who slept in the same bed.” Another woman insisted that, after surrendering to Satan, three toes had been taken from her left foot. However, it turned out that she had lacked the toes since infancy.
Salazar was blunt: “I have not found a single proof, nor even the slightest indication, from which to infer that an act of witchcraft has actually happened.” The accusers, often acting out of malice, could not be trusted and the accused were either caught up in fantasy or had been “weakened by the fierce inducements and sinister methods used to extort their declarations.” A climate of fear and paranoia had provided “a reason for everything to be immediately thought of as witchcraft. This grows at every telling and today, in fact, there is no fainting fit, illness, death or accident that is not attributed to witches.” The fact that, at the very same time, a witch-hunting frenzy had been raging on the French side of the border had only added to the mood of panic.
During his visitation, Salazar was armed with an edict of grace, allowing him to reconcile to the Church anyone who confessed their supposed crimes. Over 1000 people received this dispensation, most of them children under the age of 14. Moreover, his reports confirmed the Suprema’s growing belief that events in northern Spain had spiralled out of control. Salazar suggested the Inquisition should “make known its deep regret for the ill treatment suffered by the accused,” and argued that “all confessions and testimonies in the present witchcraft case are to be declared invalid.”
The Suprema heeded his advice and swiftly issued instructions about how future investigations ought to be conducted: facts were to be checked and re-checked and, at every turn, attention was to be paid to the constant “doubt prevailing in these cases.” Most pleasingly of all, those who perished at Logroño in 1610 may have been exonerated.
Unsurprisingly, not everyone was delighted by Salazar’s manoeuvres. One of his critics could not “understand how any sensible and intelligent person can bring himself to doubt the truth.” Everyone surely realised that witchcraft was a real and urgent threat since this “has been absolutely proved and acknowledged by all the scholars in Christendom.” Salazar was acting on “no other basis than his own volition.”
Others suggested that Salazar himself was in league with the Devil. Such assaults make it
At the witches’ nocturnal Sabbaths in the Basque region, the Devil was sometimes said to appear as a he-goat
very tempting to position Salazar as a forwardthinking trailblazer of rationalist attitudes towards witchcraft, perhaps even to see him as something of maverick. A little caution is required, however. He was neither as progressive, nor as out-of-step with his times, as has sometimes been suggested.
Salazar wasn’t questioning the fundamental notion that witchcraft existed, or that it was the result of dangerous alliances with the Devil. He simply concluded that it was not being practised on an epic scale in the specific case of northern Spain in the first and second decades of the 17th century. “The real question,” as he put it, was “are we to believe that witchcraft has occurred... simply because the witches say so?” The evidence told him no, and he acted as he did because of a sharp legal mind rather than a tender heart or some kind of proto-modern sensibility.
It would be erroneous to believe that Salazar was unusual in his sceptical attitude towards charges of sorcery. The Spanish Inquisition’s reputation might lead us to assume that it was endlessly pursuing witches and subjecting them to horrendous punishments but we would be mistaken. It is certainly true that during the decades following the Spanish Inquisition’s foundation in the late 15th century, witchcraft was perceived as a matter of grave concern. Witches could readily be perceived as a target of the tribunal’s mission to eradicate heresy: they were abandoning their baptismal vows by offering fealty to the Devil and they were reputed to abuse holy words and holy objects in their rituals.
The first burnings occurred during the 1490s and some of the local branches of the Inquisition, notably at Zaragoza, adopted a stern approach to any whispers of witchcraft. From quite early on, however, a cautious attitude, not dissimilar to Salazar’s, developed. The default position for many inquisitors was that witches were likely to be deluded rather than genuine acolytes of Satan and detailed rules of enquiry were being enforced by the mid-1520s. The duty, as one edict from the Suprema insisted, was to determine whether the person who confessed to witchcraft had “really and truly committed the crime they have confessed, or whether they are in fact fooled.”
Strikingly, the procedures of the Spanish Inquisition were relatively lenient in cases of witchcraft when compared to the ecclesiastical authorities of Protestant Northern Europe were often a good deal tougher. In Spain, torture was not routinely applied, property was typically not seized from the accused, and the death penalty was rarely pursued.
Local tribunals occasionally adopted more aggressive methods but these were often frowned upon by the Suprema. The last official executions of witches by agents of the Spanish Inquisition took place in Aragon in the mid-1530s, and then in Catalonia in the late 1540s.
“The default position for many inquisitors was that withces were likely to be deluded” Some thought witches snuck through tiny wall openings or transformed into animals to suck the blood of babies
Tribunals in the south of Spain hardly ever seemed to concern themselves with cases of witchcraft. Even the Zaragoza tribunal, after intolerant beginnings, only dealt with a handful of magic and witchcraft accusations between 1550 and 1600, with no death sentences passed down.
In 1568, someone was sentenced to the galleys for teaching spells and a soothsayer was whipped in 1574. Only a single case concerning fully fledged witchcraft came to judgement during these five decades, when a 30-year-old woman, charged with killing animals and people through malevolent magic, was whipped and banished for four years.
Across the Iberian peninsula, in fact, the vast majority of executions for witchcraft were conducted by the secular authorities and the Inquisition’s relatively restrained approach was replicated in other Mediterranean countries. In Venice, for example, the local tribunal dealt with more than 600 trials related to magic between 1550 and 1650. The vast majority resulted in acquittals and there was not a single execution.
Events in the Basque Country between 1609 and 1614 were a rarity. The complicity of the Suprema in the early stages of the persecution was out of character and quickly shifted to a more measured approach — this was precisely why Salazar was dispatched on his visitation.
The region had, admittedly, always sustained a reputation as a mysterious hotbed of witchcraft, and outbreaks of persecution were hardly unknown. Still, when Salazar voiced his concerns, he was reacting to the overzealous strategies of his local superiors and sustaining a long trend of caution and scepticism. But none of this diminishes the significance of Salazar’s work and early modern Europe had developed a new way of conceptualising witchcraft. It was now seen as a satanically inspired, highly organised secret sect. Salazar may not have questioned the possibility of the Devil intervening disastrously in human affairs but, when faced with specific suggestions of witchcraft, he was known to behave with an extraordinary rigour and circumspection.
The Spanish term ‘Brujas’, used to describe Satanic witches, may come from a Catalan word for nocturnal demons
“The vast majority of executions for witchcraft were conducted by the secular authorities”