Sunday, October 1

The hunt for women: persecution, torture and suffering of those accused of witchcraft in the 17th century

Between 1629 and 1651, the Almonacid castle was the scene of interrogations, torture and death sentences for women accused of witchcraft. One of them was Ana Marco, sentenced to death “by dint of the absolute power that corresponds to her excellence in her vassals”, who was executed by garrote in the royal room of the castle. The excellence who gave the order was Count of Aranda at that time, Antonio Ximénez de Urrea.

The fact that these witch hunts were carried out by a Count is something exceptional, since until now those perpetrated by the Inquisition and by municipal justice were known. The processes that took place in Épila and Almonacid are considered a “lordly personified witch hunt in the figure of Antonio Ximénez de Urrea, fifth Count of Aranda”.

This is just one of the reasons why these trials are considered exceptional, as explained by Carlos Garcés Manau, author of the book ‘The Witches and the Countess. Hunts of women in Épila and Almonacid, and the witches of Trasmoz’ published by the Prames publishing house. Garcés also affirms that they are late trials, corresponding to the final phase of the persecution of witchcraft with consequences of death in Aragonese lands. María Vizcarreta, hanged in Épila in 1651, “is in fact the last woman to be executed in Aragon and in Spain for a witch, after being judged, of whom we have news”, Garcés explains. Vizcarreta was a midwife and what led her “to her second trial for witchcraft and to die on the gallows was, it seems, the spell of a maid of Gregorio Molina, who was the county administrator,” Garcés explains in the book.

To this day, not only has the name of María Vizcarreta or Ana Marco survived, twelve names of women executed for witches are known: “Isabel Alcaide in 1629; the nine victims of the hunt of 1631 (Luisa Nuella, Isabel Sariñena, Luisa Lastanosa, Isabel Alonso, Gracia Gascón, María Benedid, Paula Ros, Isabel Felipe and Ana Marco); the other Ana Marco, in 1634; and María Vizcarreta, in 1651. To them should be added a Moorish woman from Épila, married to a certain “Ablitas”, who was blamed for infanticide; and María Jaime, a native of Épila, from where she surely fled during the persecution of 1631, that she was prosecuted by the Inquisition nine years later”, is reported in the book.

The two executed after suffering particularly cruel torture, Isabel Alcaide in 1629 and Ana Marco in 1634, and the woman hanged in Épila in 1651, María Vizcarreta, “were those who posed a more or less direct danger to the counts and what they represented ”.

Devil’s mark and callousness

As Garcés explains, what was “determining” when persecuting a woman was the “fame” of being a witch that she could have among her neighbors. In addition, crisis situations boosted the hunts: “a good example, in relation to the persecution unleashed in 1631 in Épila, could be the two-year period 1630-1631, in which one of the most important mortality crises of the world occurred in Spain. XVII century, caused by a long drought, with the consequent bad harvests, famines and diseases”.

Once arrested, a series of tests were carried out to detect the alleged witches. It was believed that witches were unable to cry and that the devil marked them somewhere on their body, and that place became insensitive. During the trials, the accused were “recognized in search of said mark of the devil, and on one occasion, the Count of Aranda himself participated in said inspections. It was believed that such marks were found mainly on the left back of the prisoners, which for this reason was washed with holy water before examinations. All the searches concluded with the discovery of some diabolical sign –on the back, as we say, but also on an arm in one of the trials–; and even more interesting, said marks were drawn in the processes. Once the mark was located, a surgeon was asked to stick a long needle into it, to verify that it was indeed insensitive”. In these trials, torture “was common.”

These processes took place simultaneously in two different places separated by 30 kilometers that also have two important monuments. “Épila, to whose county palace several of the women were taken to be recognized in search of the devil’s sign, and Almonacid de la Sierra, whose castle was the scene of the interrogations, torture and, in some cases, executions of said women” .

Carlos Garcés Manau also reviews in the book the lineage of the Ximénez de Urrea and the figure of Luisa de Padilla, fifth countess of Aranda, who in one of her books described a coven and referred to the witches of Zugarramurdi and the demoniacs of the valley from Tena. This countess was one of the “most important Spanish writers of the 17th century” and she published six books.

It also dedicates a few pages to the well-known Trasmoz witches, who were immortalized by Gustavo Adolfo Bécquer in the 19th century. He explains that Trasmoz’s witchcraft trials were complementary to those of Épila and Almonacid. “What happened in Trasmoz is in turn representative of what happened from the 18th century, when the European authorities stopped persecuting witches while a good part of the population continued to believe in their existence.”

The process of documenting the book has been long, “several years” and the germ of it was born in its previous publication ‘The bad seed. New Cases of Witches’. In none of them is there room for fiction: “Everything that is told, as incredible as it may sometimes seem, is present in the historical documents on which it is based.”