Sunday, January 29

Pau Castell, historian of the witch hunt: “Catalonia was an epicenter”

There were thousands of judicial processes and executions. Women who, accused of causing epidemics and calamities in their towns and cities, ended up branded as witches and tortured and killed. There are no conclusive data on the real scope of this historical phenomenon, for example in terms of executed women. Neither in Spain nor in Europe. But an investigation in Catalonia managed to name and surname up to 700 prosecuted for the fictitious crime of witchcraft between the 15th and 18th centuries.

The map of the witch hunt: they recover the cases of 700 women prosecuted in Catalonia

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Behind that work, which was published in the magazine Sapiens, there is the professor of History at the University of Barcelona, ​​Pau Castell, dedicated for 15 years to the search, town by town, file by file, of the judicial traces of the witch hunt. This investigation is what has led the majority of parties in the Parliament of Catalonia to approve this week a resolution proposal that calls for repairing the memory of these women.

Castell brings academic rigor to a phenomenon, that of the witch hunt, on which myths, historical reinterpretations and much literature have been poured for centuries. Regarding the feminist slogan that has made a fortune in recent decades, the one that says that “we are the granddaughters of the witches that they could not burn”, he adds: “Statistically, we are the granddaughters of those who designated their neighbors as witches, who spread false rumours, who testified at their trials and who eventually attended their executions to applause”.

Since when is there evidence of accusations of witchcraft in what is now Catalonia and Spain?

The crime of witchcraft appears as such in the fifteenth century in different regions of southern Europe. It is known as the cradle of the witch hunt and ranges from central and northern Italy to Switzerland, the French Languedoc and even the Pyrenees, including Catalonia, where the documentary evidence we have is very early. The most cited example is the Ordinaciones de los Valles de Àneu, in the Pyrenean region of Pallars Sobirà. It is the first legal expression of the crime at a Catalan and European level. A law from 1424. From then on, the crime was consolidated and spread through treaties and jurisprudence throughout Europe, until the great hunts of the 16th and 17th centuries.

What do we understand by the crime of witchcraft?

It is a crime that appears at the end of the Middle Ages and the first thing to say is that it is imaginary. It is an intellectual construction, based on the idea that there are men and women who are part of a heretical and demonic sect, who meet at night, abjure their faith and cause illness and death by evil means. This begins at the level of the intellectual elites of the moment, theologians and jurists, but it is a belief that ends up spreading to the bulk of the population, concerned above all about these curses. They fear that there are people, neighbors who live among them, who are part of this cult and cause the death of their children, their cattle… It is the antisocial component that fuels the phenomenon of witch hunts.

What was the profile of the women accused of witchcraft? Did they have something in common?

You can’t do a robot portrait. But there is one constant: most are in situations of marginality and that makes them more vulnerable to accusations. Outsiders, for example. Women who come from abroad and who point them out because after a few weeks a child has died. Widows too. Poor, beggars, women with mental problems… In general, all of this makes the accusation easier because they are women without family or social support.

One idea that has been investigated is whether they were women persecuted for hoarding certain knowledge: wise women, healers…

This is a vision that was born in the 19th century. It is closely linked to romantic nationalism, with characters like the Brothers Grimm or Jules Michelet. They redraw the witch as a wise woman, the woman doctor, carrier of knowledge of the ancient European nations, and opposed to the Catholic Church. This vision made a fortune at a popular level and remains a stereotype, but it has nothing to do with historical reality. Documentation is not supported.

What used to be the processes of hunting, trial and sentencing of those accused of witchcraft?

From the outset, we must situate ourselves in the local framework. The dynamics against witches rarely leave this context. Before coming to trial, there are processes of stigmatization against people, especially women, by their neighbors. The rumour, the bad reputation… They are circulating. So, when a misfortune arrives, such as an epidemic, mortality or a hailstorm, this triggers the neighbors to ask the authorities and pressure to judge these women. Before the judicial process, the culture medium is needed. From here, comes a criminal trial like so many others. With the difference that with the Catalan criminal law of the time it is impossible to prove that a woman is a witch. No test. Given this, and given the seriousness of the crime and the social hatred it arouses, the courts end up bending the procedural guarantees.


Yes, torments. Tortures. But not only. Torture existed and was legal, it was contemplated and regulated, to extract the truth from the mouths of the accused. But in practice, even that was not respected in witch trials. The abuse of torture was used to extract self-incriminating confessions. Without the confession it was impossible. In the hundreds of trials that I have analyzed in Catalonia there is not one in which there is evidence beyond recognition.

And they were always executed?

In most of these secular courts, presided over by the battles (mayors) or attorneys, yes. Death sentence and hanging.

Another myth that you debunk, at least in Catalonia, is that it was the Inquisition that led this hunt. They were local courts.

The Court of the Holy Office was generally skeptical about the crime of witchcraft. Especially at the beginning of the 16th century, with the famous Junta de Granada, they addressed this issue because it is happening above all in Catalonia, Navarra and Aragón. If they are women who abjure their faith and the devil appears to them, the Inquisition must take action on the matter, but when they intervene they see that there is nothing like that. That these women are not heretics. And beyond that, if they are suspected of killing creatures or poisoning cows, this is not a matter for the Inquisition. In Catalonia, of all those that I have found, those sentenced to death by this court do not reach ten.

This is what explains why in Castile there are practically no women convicted of witchcraft. Because there the Inquisition had more control over the territory. Catalonia, Aragon and Navarra, where there is more hunting, are more autonomous and remote territories.

What space does Catalonia occupy in terms of the intensity of the witch hunt?

Catalonia was an epicenter at the level of the Hispanic monarchy and is comparable to the great European areas of witch hunts.

Are there estimates of its actual reach? You have documented 700 judicial processes in Catalonia alone.

It is impossible. Talking about figures in this phenomenon is very difficult. We do not keep more than a small part of the documentation that was generated. In the Catalan case, due to the references we have, in certain periods we went from more than 1,000 women executed. This gives us an idea of ​​the quantities. But I usually talk about thousands, because we can’t spin that fine. In 15 years of searching, I have given a name and surname to 700 accused, but not all of them were murdered.

On the vote in Parliament, which has approved urging the Government to “repair” the memory of these women, what is your opinion as a historian?

They are acts of reparation that have been made in other countries. They are fine. I hope it serves to give it visibility and that the general public knows this part of history. Topics broken. But we must flee from the complacent discourse that looks at a past of savages and misogynists from a supposedly enlightened and advanced present. Above all because if we analyze the phenomenon in depth, we see that the logic and dynamics that existed are perfectly valid today. I am referring to the idea of ​​looking for an internal enemy to accuse of all your ills.

Who is he thinking of?

It has happened against Jews, lepers, homosexuals… These are historical examples. Now it happens with the migrant population and especially with the Muslim confession, who are targeted in times of crisis and social instability.