One must look for evidence, according to law, of an offense having been committed.


Thanks to the efficient way in which it looked after the paperwork of judicial testimony, the Inquisition preserved for posterity an amazing variety of information about the private, family and religious life of a sector of the population that normally features little in state records: women. The broad lines of inquisitorial activity did not discriminate between men and women, and there is no basis for attempting to look at its proceedings in terms of gender prejudice. Of the two thousand cases that came before the tribunal of Valencia in its first half century, for example, exactly half were women and half men.1 Similar figures, from which no significant conclusions can be drawn,2 exist for other tribunals. The tribunal of Barcelona during its lifetime dealt with some six thousand cases, of which two-thirds were men.3 There were, however, some areas of concern where the officials of the all-male Holy Office had to deal directly with women as women, and where it is fair to ask whether the gender difference was relevant or not.

In pre-industrial Europe, structures of power outside the noble class were normally in the hands of men, but in traditional society male dominance was not as universal as we might think.4 It is common practice to quote literary sources as proof of masculine disdain for women, and if we limited ourselves to them we would indeed encounter overwhelming evidence for it.5 Among the Spanish clergy (and, inevitably, many inquisitors) there were notoriously misogynistic attitudes. But there were also other clergy during the age of the Counter-Reformation who inquired impartially into domestic roles. Cristóbal Acosta affirmed (1585) that the duty of a man was to “honor woman and never speak ill of her; employ the eyes in looking on her, the hands in serving her, the property in giving her gifts, the heart in making her happy.” Marco Antonio de Camos (1592) maintained that the wife is “neither superior nor inferior but equal in love and companionship.”6

Beyond the printed page of tracts that called their value in question, real life often gave women a role that opened doors. In complex urban societies they tended to be more disadvantaged, but in the simpler societies of village and countryside, they had a greater share in tasks and their status was less restricted.7 The superior position of men was based on two decisive roles: the private one of family head, normally allotted to the patriarchal figure; and the public one of warrior and provider, protecting the ideals and beliefs on which society rested. Women (with an occasional exception among the upper nobility) were never able successfully to challenge the male monopoly in these two areas. Their formal roles, accepted in the literature of the time, were three: as unmarried women (including widows), as wives, or as religious persons. But at various stages of their life cycle, and in select communities of Europe, they were able to exercise choices that gave them considerable freedom of movement within the apparently firm restrictions imposed by tradition. As recent studies have indicated,8 the space available to some women in early modern Europe was more extensive and liberating than often supposed. In the Spanish countryside, they baked the bread, worked the fields, gathered in the harvest, tended sheep and ran lodging houses and taverns.9 In regions such as rural northwest Spain, the Galician women had to fulfill tasks made necessary by the absence of their husbands as fishermen or as seasonal emigrant workers in Castile.10Moreover, as parents, lovers or property owners, women everywhere were often in a position of authority that contradicted the formal gender role allotted to them.11 They might attempt, as the Aragonese writer María de Zayas noted, “to make themselves more secure.”12

Though authority in Church and state was firmly in the hands of men, they did not consistently wield it against women. Court prosecutions for crime in Europe do not show a direct bias against women.13 The Inquisition, likewise, acted overwhelmingly against men and had no particular predisposition against women. Even in the Mediterranean, the man-wife relationship was not necessarily based on conflict, nor even on an absolute authority exercised by one over the other, but on a fulfillment of complementary roles.14Many tracts of the time reveal that cooperation and love between the married couple was both desired and practiced.15 In parts of France and Spain it was common for the wife to control the household money, which the husband was by custom obliged to hand over out of his wages. These attitudes referred primarily to the domestic sphere; when it came to public roles, women not of the upper classes continued to have a restricted role.

The role of a woman as wife, in charge of children and household, made her also the transmitter of family traditions and culture. She passed on the language of her forebears, their beliefs and attitudes, their preferences in food.16 In the case of the forbidden cultures of Christian Spain, whether Muslim or Jewish,17 this could bring women to the attention of the Inquisition. No one knew this better than the exiled philosopher Juan Luis Vives (see chapter 6), who commented after the dishonor suffered by his mother at the hands of the Inquisition: “my memory of her is the most sacred of memories, and whenever I think of her I embrace and kiss her in spirit.” Perhaps because it is commonly accepted that women had this special role of transmission, no systematic studies have been done of the evidence mounted against them in Inquisition trials.

However, though the Inquisition had no special misogynistic agenda, the high profile of women both in popular religion (as beatas) and as visionaries brought them unerringly to the attention of the Church authorities and the Holy Office. In the early sixteenth century, a period when messianic movements could be identified in many parts of Europe, Castilian women were notably active as spiritual influences.18 Their ideas were part of a stream of medieval (and predominantly male) spirituality that, in Europe, went back to the Franciscans, the Lollards and the Hussites, and that surfaced, in the sixteenth century, through the Anabaptists. Educated Spanish clergy who knew something of the drive against heresy in pre-Reformation Europe would have been aware of the richness of the spirituality, whether male or female, that still circulated in religious circles.19

Women, of whatever social level, traditionally entered religious foundations when young (as virgins dedicated to Christ) or when mature and widowed. The best-known case in Spain’s great age is Teresa of Avila, whose life and writings have been exhaustively studied, and who incidentally also had a brush with the Inquisition (see chapter 6). Women with an inclination for religion outside a foundation often chose to be what Spaniards termed a beata; they lived apart, taking some vows (normally of chastity and poverty), and maintaining some contact with a male religious order.20 Very often a rural beata might develop a relation (and a reputation) with a nearby village, which might lead to one or both parties exaggerating her significance. They might venerate her as a saint, or she might claim to work miracles and see visions.

It was the sort of context that could call for the intervention of an outside disciplinary authority, such as the bishop or the Inquisition. Bishops preferred religious women to work within the structure of the parish or the diocese, and by the same token they attempted to impose the rules of the cloister on nuns.21 The Inquisition had other motives. Some prominent religious women got involved in political issues, and their cases took on a very high profile indeed, with the Inquisition and with other relevant bodies.22Religious men in a political context also suffered the same complications.23 By contrast, most rural “religious” men and women whose cases the Inquisition investigated never emerged from obscurity nor—despite claims by some writers24—can the Inquisition be seen as attempting to pick specifically on feminine spirituality. The image of spiritual women being cowed by the Inquisition, scholars remind us, is no longer valid. “Even at the height of the Catholic Reformation in Spain, laywomen were integral in defining their own religious experience. The wide range of outlets for devotion meant that women’s religious activity was much more independent than traditionally recognized.”25 Some visionaries were disciplined, others were not. In a typical case in the diocese of Toledo in 1697, village passions were stirred up because of allegations that a local girl was not only working miracles but also having an affair with a local priest. The parish priest took the matter to the Inquisition, which after an investigation decided that nothing was wrong, the girl was both virtuous and pious, and there was no evidence of a liaison.26

Whether they dealt with men or women, the inquisitors always acted as mediators rather than as initiators of discipline. They declared and might try to impose the rules, but when it came to receiving denunciations, they relied entirely on the collaboration of the public. If there were denunciations, the nature of conflict in small societies made it inevitable that women would form a good proportion of those summoned before the Holy Office. The context within which the Inquisition moved, however, made the issue of gender irrelevant. Men no less than women were examined for religious or sexual attitudes, and the real forum within which both were disciplined was either the family or the community (an entity in which women participated on comparable terms with men), or even the local religious community. Men too were disciplined: countryside religion operated by men, in the form of itinerant clergy and pious hermits,27 was frowned upon and sometimes prosecuted because it spurned the control exercised by religious orders and the diocese.

Beatas and visionaries were not consistently the victims of repression. The mere fact that they could be found in such quantity shows that they enjoyed both success and fame. The proven sanctity of St. Teresa acted as a spur to towns and religious orders anxious to achieve a Teresa of their own, and throughout Spain holy women were encouraged and tolerated. At the end of the sixteenth century a prominent Jesuit lamented “the great number of deluded women to be seen in our time in many of the principal cities of Spain.”28 The inquisitors collected information when necessary, but in the end got tired of having so much paper on their hands about holy women who neither achieved heights of sanctity nor did anything very wrong, and they burned much of what they had.29There was no doubt of the abundance of paperwork. Fortunately for historians, much of it has survived, and thanks to it we have the benefit of insight into visionaries such as Lucrecia de León.

Aged twenty-two when arrested by the Inquisition in Madrid in 1590, Lucrecia was a seer whose prophecies and dreams stimulated a small aristocratic circle at court.30 Her dreams, coming in the wake of the disaster of the Spanish Armada (1588), took on a verisimilitude not to be found in those of other visionaries such as the soldier-prophet Miguel de Piedrola. She saw a Spain ravaged and invaded, a Philip too feeble to cope. Some dreams were uncanny prognostications. In December 1587, eight months before the event, she saw the defeat of the Spanish fleet by the English. Subsequent dreams, as narrated to her confidants, presented an image of the kingdom which undoubtedly reflected concerns felt and expressed by very many people. In a dream in the spring of 1590 she was told by one of her dream figures: “Philip does not know, and if he knows he does not want to believe, that his enemies will soon be in his lands. He wants to spend his summers in the Escorial, but he should beware, it is not the time to retire there without fear.” “Beware,” warned one of the figures, “for this is the time of thunder.” Another dream a week later presented Philip as a tyrant who “has destroyed the poor,” and who would be punished by God through the agency of Elizabeth of England. Philip lived in his palace, “his eyes bound and his ears shut,” surrounded by a Spain in ruins: “the hour has come to endure purgatory in Spain.”31

Lucrecia’s dreams, which seem to have stopped shortly after her arrest, were limited in their impact to a small group of people and were not therefore accorded too much significance by the government. But the inquisitors took a more serious view. They saw that Lucrecia was repeating calumnies which echoed those spread about by William of Orange’s Apology.32 She spoke of “sins committed by the king in killing his son and queen Elizabeth [Valois].” The king had “taken the land from the peasants.” God would punish. “God wished to remove him and his son, and there would remain no one of his seed, and the Moriscos and heretics would destroy Spain.” People had been repeating these things for several months, if not years. The king himself seemed to accept the criticisms and calumnies as normal.

Both laity and clergy were affected by another major sphere into which the inquisitors intruded: their sexual life. It was an area that attracted the attention of authorities in both Protestant and Catholic Europe. Some writers suggest that women featured as deliberate victims of rules set by men.33 It would, as we have already indicated above, be difficult to demonstrate that the inquisitors had a specific agenda in matters related to sexuality. Their attitude was derived exclusively from their own cultural background and the general practice of Church and society; different inquisitors came to different conclusions, whether in matters of sodomy, bigamy or witchcraft. In matters of clerical sin, they were unusually lenient with those who shared the cloth, but even this partiality was simply an extension of the deeply ingrained social belief that Eve was the temptress, not Adam. When the lovely young Paula Ponsa began, in 1589, her long career of love among the clergy of her parish in Premià (Barcelona), the inquisitors found that the community unanimously blamed her rather than the priests, who were accordingly not disciplined.34

Concern over public behavior was no monopoly of Spaniards. Attempts to control sexual morality affected both men and women, looming large, for example, in the program of the Reformed churches in Scotland.35 In Sweden the prosecution of sexual offenses increased in early modern times as a consequence of the Reformation.36 At the same period the Counter-Reformation also put sexual discipline at the top of its program. Bishops after Trent made extensive efforts in Spain to impose the official view on the sanctity of matrimony. In Barcelona after 1570, for example, licenses to marry could not be issued without both parties being formally instructed in religion, and the bishops issued decrees against the common practice of young people living together after betrothal.37 The Inquisition, for its part, enforced post-Tridentine morality by attempting in some areas to stamp out the widespread and seemingly traditional conviction that sexual intercourse was by itself no sin.

In pre-industrial Europe, a low level of religious awareness and the persistence of traditional moral practices combined to produce far greater sexual freedom among all age groups than is commonly imagined.38 This was reflected in the remarkably widespread view that sex between two independent adults (“simple fornication” was the phrase identified by the inquisitors) was not wrong if it did not go against other commitments.39 By extension, concubinage was not wrong, nor was it wrong for an unmarried adult to have sex with a prostitute, since payment created a licit contract.

Both laity and clergy, both men and women, seem to have accepted this type of sexual freedom. The inquisitors of Toledo were already occupied with the problem when from 1573 the Suprema encouraged other colleagues to pursue the offense. In practice, Toledo remained the only tribunal to dedicate itself consistently to the matter. Prosecutions of people maintaining that simple fornication was no offense constituted a fifth of all its cases in 1566–70, and a quarter in 1601–5.40 An indication that the imposition of the new morality was, in some measure, an imposition of urban rigor on rural laxity comes from Galicia, where statements about fornication (such as that of Alonso de Meixide, who maintained “that in his village it had never been a sin to have carnal intercourse between unmarried men and women”) were more commonly found among the peasantry. This was so much the case that the inquisitors there explained in 1585 that “the reason why we are less strict with fornicators is because we know from experience that most of those we arrest in these lands, where there is a great lack of doctrine especially in the rural areas, speak from stupidity and ignorance and not from a wish to commit heresy.”41

In Barcelona in 1599 a client warned a prostitute that what she did was a sin, to which she replied that “it is no sin since we are both unmarried.” He then inexplicably denounced her to the inquisitors, who dismissed the matter but warned her “to learn the catechism and come to the Inquisition every two weeks until she has learnt it.” The problem, evidently, arose from the existence of brothels, which operated with public license in most parts of Spain.42 Isabella the Catholic accepted the practice of prostitution, and even turned brothels into a state monopoly so that she could tax them. It is interesting to see a respected theologian, Francisco Farfán, who in 1585 published a massive volume of one thousand pages attacking the idea of “simple fornication,”43 arguing that the prohibition of prostitution was a greater evil than prostitution itself, because a society without brothels encouraged homosexuality, incest, the propositioning of innocent women, and an increased number of people living together in sin. Since the city authorities continued to permit brothels, which did their best business during religious festivals, all that the clergy could do was to try to convince both prostitutes and their customers of the sinfulness of their actions. It did not help when priests with ulterior motives told attractive women in the parish that “fornication is no sin.”44 In short, the Holy Office never sought out or punished female prostitution, limiting its intervention only to related offenses. The state seems to have attempted to close municipal brothels in 1623, but inevitably without success.

The problem was evidently part of the human condition. A report in Castile in 1620 ruefully observed that “many here believe that simple fornication is permitted.”45 In Barcelona in 1627 the Inquisition was inquiring into the cases of two nuns who managed to convince their confessor that sex with them was not wrong, and of a priest who formed a small group dedicated to the practice of free love.46 The Counter-Reformation Church had many and varied ways of dealing with the troubling problem of carnal desire, but at the heart of it the core concern seems to have been that of clerical celibacy. A long Christian tradition, expressed in the confessor’s manuals of late medieval Europe,47 treated as shameful and sinful all functions of the sexual organs, castigated all sensual pleasure as diabolic, and looked with horror on all bodily fluids. Many Spanish clergy published in the same tradition. The Jesuit Francisco Arias in his Spiritual Progress (Madrid, 1603) warned clergy that “they must guard their eyes not only from too much looking at women, but should also take care not to look with liberty at the beauty of boys of a tender age.”48 Inevitably the Inquisition had to concern itself with clergy who strayed.

There was therefore a rich field for the inquisitors once they began inquiring into any heresy that might be detected in moral offenses. Other authorities—the community, the parish priest—might be concerned about the sexual content of offenses, but the Holy Office limited its concern to the presumed heresy. This was the case in the matter of bigamy. Because the offense was normally punishable in civil and Church courts, there were constant protests against the Inquisition’s interference. The Catalan accord of 1512, for example, stipulated that bishops alone should try bigamy cases unless heresy was involved. The Inquisition, however, argued that bigamy implied a measure of heresy, since it questioned the sacredness of matrimony; it therefore continued its activity despite repeated protests from the Cortes of Aragon. Nor was the Holy Office wasting its time on an offense of negligible importance. In a society that did not permit divorce, bigamy was surprisingly frequent as one alternative to an unsatisfactory marriage, and in most tribunals it represented about 5 percent of cases tried.

Women no less than men resorted to bigamy. First marriages in pre-industrial Spain were usually within the local community, but when men and women left in search of employment, or when men disappeared in far-off wars, the option of remarriage presented itself. In a sample of eleven women in Galicia accused of bigamy by the Inquisition, the first husband had on average been absent over fifteen years,49 and the women remarried on the presumption—incorrect, as it turned out—that their first spouse was dead. From the mid-sixteenth century a public lashing and three to five years in the galleys became the standard punishment decreed by the Inquisition for men, a much lighter penalty than that meted out by secular courts. Women were normally banished from the locality. Many of the accused did not feel they were committing wrong. When Francisco Cossio was arrested by the tribunal of Toledo in 1694, the evidence against him included a fascinating private letter to his parish priest in which he said that “it is true that marriage, in the opinion of those with whom I have discussed it, is valid; but in my case it was necessary to revalidate it in order to continue it.”50 The revalidation was, of course, with another woman, and in another area.

There were contexts in which the Inquisition could be seen as indirectly defending the civil status of women. The moral behavior of clergy had preoccupied Church reformers through the centuries, and bishops were happy to obtain the cooperation of the Inquisition. Trent had placed clerical reform at the forefront of its program, and bishops attempted to define the duties of priests more strictly by cutting back their public role (they could no longer, for example, go to taverns or wedding feasts). It was inevitably easier to pass decrees than to enforce them, and clergy continued to use their privileged social position to disport themselves, break the laws and seduce parishioners.51 They also continued the long-standing custom of keeping women, who fulfilled a role as housekeepers but were also bed partners. Celibacy of the clergy was a rule that had been very laxly enforced in Europe. The problem, attended to by both Church courts and Inquisition, was insoluble (see chapter 13). In the two years 1561–62 the vicar general of Barcelona had to issue fifty-seven warnings to clergy of the diocese over their concubines. In what appear to be the figures for a single year, 1613, the Inquisition of Catalonia disciplined seventy-seven of its familiars and comisarios for various offenses. All the thirty-eight comisarios (who were parish clergy) had one offense in common, “matters to do with women.”52

Among the many cases of marginal sexuality in which the Inquisition intervened the most significant was sodomy. The tribunal occasionally brushed with cases of lesbians and transsexuals, conditions that have attracted the attention of modern researchers but that the inquisitors found it difficult to deal with.53 Homosexuality in the Middle Ages was treated as the ultimate crime against morality: the standard definitions of it refer to the “abominable” or the “unspeakable” crime. The usual punishment was burning alive or, in Spain, castration and stoning to death. Under Ferdinand and Isabella the punishment was changed to burning alive and confiscation of property. Since the old Inquisition had exercised jurisdiction over sodomy, the Spanish tribunal seems to have begun to do so, but in 1509 the Suprema ordered that no action was to be taken against homosexuals except when heresy was involved. Here a curious split in policy seems to have occurred, because although the tribunals of Castile never again exercised jurisdiction over sodomy, the Inquisition in Aragon now officially adopted powers over the offense. On 24 February 1524 the pope, Clement VII, issued a brief granting the Inquisition of the realms of Aragon jurisdiction over sodomy, irrespective of the presence of heresy. From this time onwards the Aragonese inquisitors kept their new authority,54 which they never gave up, despite the typical complaints raised by the Cortes of Monzón in 1533. Aragon was unique in this matter, for not even the Roman Inquisition exercised jurisdiction over the offense. The inquisitors of Catalonia accepted jurisdiction in principle, but normally put cases in the hands of the royal Audiencia for judgment.55 The punishment laid down by the law, and rigorously enforced by the state, was death by burning.

The Inquisition was harsh to sodomizers (both men and women participants), but tended to restrict death by burning only to those aged over twenty-five. Minors, inevitably a high proportion of those arrested, were normally whipped and sent to the galleys. A certain liberality on the part of the Suprema can be seen in the fact that some death sentences were commuted, and mildness was also shown to clergy, who were always a high proportion of offenders. The treatment of bestiality, usually placed in the same category as homosexuality, altered this picture somewhat, for it was almost invariably punished ruthlessly. The accused were normally marginalized people of poor intelligence, but this appears not to have helped them. By contrast, some highly placed homosexual offenders were more favorably treated. The most famous case was that of the Valencian grandee Pedro Galcerán de Borja, grand master of the chivalric Order of Montesa.56 In 1572 he was arrested by the Inquisition of Valencia on charges of sodomy. The case dragged on for some three years; he was heavily fined, but subsequently returned to active political life.

In general, the crown of Aragon had a record of great severity in the matter. The tribunal of Saragossa in the late sixteenth century stands out as exceptional. Between 1571 and 1579 over 100 men were tried by it on bestiality or homosexuality charges, and at least 36 of them were executed. In total, between 1570 and 1630 the inquisitors here handled 543 cases, and executed 102 persons.57 The tribunals of Barcelona and Valencia were considerably less rigorous. In overall perspective, punishment of sodomy may be seen as a preoccupation of both secular and ecclesiastical courts. In Seville and Madrid, where the Inquisition had no jurisdiction over the offense, secular courts were equally merciless with those it decided to castigate.58

Modern researchers who use the papers of the Holy Office in order to peep into the lives and problems of the persons in its archives have stumbled across several cases concerning sexual abnormality.59 The cases, however, do not fit into any pattern of alleged sexual repression by the tribunal. Community norms and individual initiative, rather than religious belief, had always governed sexual conduct, and this continued to be the rule everywhere in Europe. The Inquisition did not intrude into the private lives of citizens or spy on them, and it is consequently important to understand how private sexual practices came to its attention. Almost without exception, cases of sodomy were revealed in the way that all other offenses were: through private denunciations (seechapter 9).60 With few exceptions, familiars did not report them. The inquisitors were doing no more than enforcing community standards, but their activity in this as in other sexual matters had no identifiable impact on transgressors.61 It is doubtful if the intrusion of religious authorities into the sphere of public morality had much effect in any European country,62 except where the community gave full support. A recent scholar concludes: “Spaniards did not cower before the Church or the Inquisition. Even at the height of the Catholic Reformation in Spain, non-marital sex flourished. Prostitutes walked the streets, aristocrats had mistresses, adulterers had secret rendezvous, and men had sex with men. As in all times and places, some people got into trouble with ecclesiastical and secular authorities, while others flaunted their relationships to the chagrin of those same powers.”63

One of the areas in which the Inquisition had a part to play was in the effort to reform the religion of the people (chapter 13), concerning aspects of it that were looked upon as superstition. Popular culture, especially in the rural areas, had always sought unorthodox cures to daily afflictions. Villages had their wise men or women (curanderos) who could offer medicinal ointments, find lost objects, heal wounded animals, or help a girl to win the affections of her loved one. Cures might take the form of potions, charms, spells or simply advice. It was a subculture that coexisted with and did not try to subvert official Catholicism, though in certain New Christian regions the Christian content of the spells was doubtful.64 In rural areas the world of magic even entered the Church, with many clergy incorporating folk practices—rites, prayers, offerings, dances—into the normal liturgy. All this, as we shall see, was stamped on firmly by reforming bishops, post-Tridentine clergy and the Inquisition. In the process of contrasting the dark world of primitive superstition with the illuminated world of the gospel, unfortunately, preachers and learned men unduly simplified the forces at work and helped to create fears of “witchcraft.”

The identification and persecution of sorcery and witchcraft was a continent-wide phenomenon with an incidence stretching from the Atlantic to the Urals, and has been extensively studied.65 In numerical terms, women made up the greater number of accused, more than three-fourths in most regions of Europe and over 90 percent in certain areas such as Essex in England.66 However, the fact that they made up the overwhelming majority of those prosecuted was due less to the prejudice of the law than to the nature of the local societies within which the accusations originated. Witchcraft and other related forms of magical practice had a broad social basis67 and were by no means gender specific, so that there is no basis for presenting witchcraft accusations primarily in terms of misogyny.68 As several scholars have emphasized, witches were persecuted not because they were women but because they were witches. The writings of those who attacked witchcraft at the time show no identifiable prejudice against women as women.69 There were, certainly, cultural and sexual considerations that put women more at risk. A woman’s role as creator, as midwife, as healer (the “wise woman” of the village), as visionary, provided points at which an anguished male-dominated society might choose to victimize her for sudden disasters caused by crop failures or epidemics. In practice, women as healers came rather low in the list of the categories of women who appeared before the Holy Office.70 Any analysis of the phenomenon of women in witchcraft persecution must look equally at the problems of the accusing society and the vulnerable position of the female accused. The Inquisition intruded into this complex world because it had no option other than to respond to complaints from people in the villages.71

Men were also commonly accused of sorcery. In northern France and in Aragon, during the sixteenth century more men than women were prosecuted for the offense. Normally, however, females predominated, and though males might feature as accused, all the treatises of the time have no hesitation in picking out women as the principal players. Witchcraft “was a sex-related but not a sex-specific crime.”72 One of the most adamant opponents of the witch persecution in seventeenth-century Catalonia, the Jesuit Pere Gil, identified the accused in 1619 as “simple-minded women of little intelligence, feeble and timid, most of them poor, untaught in Christian doctrine and easily deceived.” “There is little opposition,” he wrote, “when the villages and people say of the witches that they do infinite ills and deserve a thousand deaths. For since they are poor, exposed, simple-minded and ignorant in the Christian religion, no one takes their side.”73 Gil’s analysis, it should be noted, refers to such women because they were a disadvantaged population in the villages, not because they were women. The majority of female accused were old, often marginalized by their communities. But a few were young, victims of village or family tensions. We may cite by way of comparison some witchcraft cases in Augsburg, Germany, where accusations reflected deep antagonisms among women themselves, and often the operating motive was simply envy.74 In Catalonia, Gil reports that members of the same family were frequently those who pointed the finger.

A variety of courts had jurisdiction over the offense. In 1370 and 1387 the laws of Castile declared that sorcery was a crime involving heresy, for which laymen would be punished by the state and clergy by the Church. Well after the foundation of the Inquisition, jurisdiction over sorcery and witchcraft remained in secular hands: this is demonstrated by a royal decree of 1500 which ordered an investigation into sorcery but put the matter into the hands of the civil courts.75 The medieval Inquisition had likewise left such questions largely in secular hands, so that no change of policy was involved. By the early sixteenth century, when the Holy Office began inquiries into the offense, verdicts were still normally in the hands of the state courts. The Inquisition’s reluctance to interfere was motivated by doubts whether any heresy was involved. Certain types of popular superstition, “sorcery,” and the whole range of astrology were ill-defined areas in which many learned men and clergy themselves dabbled. Astrology, for example, was on the university syllabus at Salamanca, but not until the late sixteenth century did the Inquisition, encouraged by the papacy, attempt to suppress it as a science. Quiroga’s Index of 1583 followed Rome in banning occult arts and divination. Shortly after, in 1585, Pope Sixtus V issued a bull denouncing magic.

There were precedents for these moves. In 1484 Pope Innocent VIII issued the bull Summis desiderantes which first recognized witchcraft as a problem. Two German Dominicans, Kramer and Sprenger, were sent to deal with the superstition in north and central Germany. Two years later they issued their handbook, the Malleus maleficarum (Hammer of Witches). In this impressive compilation of case histories the Dominicans argued that, far from witchcraft being a delusion, it was a practice based on actual commerce with Satan and the powers of darkness, and that witches did in fact eat and devour human children, copulate with devils, fly through the air to their meetings, or “sabbats,” injure cattle, raise up storms and conjure down lightning. The view of the Malleus was supported by subsequent decrees of popes and bishops. The witch craze gained momentum in Europe, but there was always an important number of clergy who considered that talk of flying through the air and copulation with the devil was a delusion to be pitied rather than punished.

Medieval practice in secular courts had been that witches should be burnt, and the Inquisition at first followed suit. The Saragossa tribunal burnt one in 1498,76 another in 1499 and three in 1500. From this time on, cases of witches were regularly identified, the first at Toledo being in 1513 and at Cuenca in 1515. In Cuenca the popular fear was fed by stories of children being found bruised and murdered, “wherefore it is suspected they were wounded or killed by xorguinos and xorguinas (wizards and witches).”77 From 1520 edicts of faith in both Castile and Aragon began to add magic, sorcery and witchcraft to the list of offenses implying heresy. However, the belief in the sabbat was still far from being accepted by learned opinion. At Saragossa in 1521 a theologian declared that the sabbat “was a delusion and could not have occurred, so no heresy is involved.”

Meanwhile, learned opinion was taking stock of the phenomenon. In 1529 two friars, Martín de Castañega, with his Treatise of Superstitions (Logroño), and Pedro de Ciruelo, with his Treatise Reproving Superstitions (Alcalá), separately published commentaries on what Ciruelo termed “the vain superstitions and witchcraft which in these times are widespread in our Spain.” Both authors agreed that popular beliefs in magic were rooted in the ignorance of the rural population, and should be remedied through education rather than disciplinary measures. However, some secular courts continued with their harsh line. In Navarre for most of the sixteenth century, witchcraft was examined not by the Inquisition but by the state. In 1525 possibly thirty witches were burnt on the orders of the state prosecutor, Balanza, an official of the royal council of Navarre.78

The Holy Office desisted from interfering in such cases, not because inquisitors were liberal on the matter but because they tended to be skeptical of the powers attributed to the devil, and the tribunal in any case had no exclusive jurisdiction over the offense. Subsequent policy in the matter arose out of a historic meeting held at Granada in 1526.79 As a result of the persecution of witches by secular authorities in Navarre that year, Inquisitor General Manrique delegated a committee of ten, which included the lawyer Hernando de Guevara and the future inquisitor general Valdés, to decide whether witches really did go to the sabbat. The discussion paper offered to the meeting stated that “the majority of jurists in this realm agree that witches do not exist,” because of the impossibility of the acts they claimed to do. A vote was taken and a majority—six—of those present decided “that they really go” to the sabbat; a minority of four, including Valdés and Guevara, voted “that they go in their imagination.” The meeting also decided that since the homicides to which witches frequently confessed might well be illusory, they should be tried by the Inquisition and not handed over to the civil authorities. If, however, the authorities had proof of homicide, they should be free to act on their own account.

Many of those on the committee were during those same weeks in Granada discussing the conversion of the Moriscos. In general the committee was concerned more to educate the so-called witches than to chastise them. The bishop of Mondoñedo, for example, suggested the following remedies: “send preachers to those parts, to tell the people of the errors of the witches and how they have been deceived by the devil; the inquisitors and secular judges should proceed with caution; the monasteries of that region should be reformed.” One of the resolutions of the whole committee was that “great care be taken to preach to them in their language,” namely, in Basque. The urgent need for re-Christianization was noted subsequently by the theologian Alfonso de Castro in his Adversus haereses (1534), referring to “Navarre, Vizcaya, Asturias, Galicia and other parts, where the word of God has seldom been preached. Among these people there are many pagan superstitions and rites, solely because of the lack of preachers.”

The persecution and execution of witches continued but the Holy Office, guided by the 1526 resolutions, played very little part in it. The 1526 decisions were communicated in detail to local tribunals. In Navarre, for example, the inquisitors were given strict instructions not to proceed in such cases without consulting the Suprema and the local judges.80 Witch persecution is reported to have occurred in Navarre in 1527–28,81 with the participation of the local inquisitor Avellaneda, and the execution of at least fifty witches on the authority of the royal council of Navarre. Since no convincing documents for this appear to have surfaced, however, it has been suggested that the whole affair was spurious and based on a forgery.82 When further troubles occurred in Navarre in 1538 the then inquisitor, Valdeolivas, was instructed by the Suprema not to accept the confessions of witches literally, and to “speak to the principal people and explain to them that the loss of harvests and other ills are either sent by God for our sins or are a result of bad weather, and that witches should not be suspected.”

In other Inquisitions of the peninsula a similar skepticism was the rule. The tribunal of Saragossa executed a witch in 1535,83 but after protests by the Suprema it executed no further witches throughout its history. In 1550 the inquisitor of Barcelona, Diego Sarmiento, was dismissed for having executed witches without referring the cases to the Suprema. The case began in 1548, when a Valencian called Juan Mallet was called in by various towns to identify witches in the Tarragona area. “They took him through the villages,” says a report of the Inquisition, “and made the people come out of their houses so he could look at them and say which were witches, and those he pointed out were arrested without any other proof or information whatever.” The prosecutions were conducted by local justices. On this occasion inquisitor Sarmiento obtained custody of some of the arrested women, on the excuse that the Inquisition had jurisdiction. He was then faced with the problem of what to do with them. In June 1548 he organized a special conference in the palace of the Inquisition in Barcelona. Those attending were the bishop, the seven judges of the royal Audiencia, and nine leading prelates including the abbot of Montserrat. Sarmiento put to them exactly the question that had been debated in Granada in 1526. He asked whether “the witches were able to go to the sabbat bodily and assume the form of animals, as some of them claim and confess.” The unanimous conclusion of the learned men was: “they were of the opinion that these witches can travel bodily because the devil takes them, and can do the ills and murders they confess and they should be firmly punished.” It was as a result of this decision that Sarmiento allowed seven of the women to be burnt early in 1549.

The Suprema in Valladolid was appalled. In May 1549 it sent inquisitor Francisco Vaca to make a report. Vaca ordered the immediate release of two witches still in the cells. He then sent to Valladolid one of the most damning denunciations of witchcraft persecution ever recorded. In a report that identifies him as the first person in Spanish history to apply the rules of evidence to the phenomenon, Vaca condemned the witch craze on the basis that no credible proofs had been produced. He sent one of the documents in the case to the Suprema with the comment: “I believe that most of the other cases are as laughable as this one indicates.” He recommended freeing all those detained in the villages, and the return of all goods confiscated. Inquisitor Sarmiento was dismissed in 1550 for his part in the events. For the rest of its career the Inquisition in Catalonia punished no witches.84 The pioneering work of Francisco Vaca was of historic and enduring importance.

For the rest of the sixteenth century the Inquisition continued to maintain its hostility to persecution. As late as 1568 the Suprema ordered the tribunal of Barcelona to hand back to the episcopal court a case of “incantations”; and in Navarre in 1596 (the case of the witches of Araiz) the local inquisitor ordered that “it is agreed not to deal with these matters in the Holy Office,” and the prosecution reverted to the royal council of Navarre. Juana Izquierda, tried before the Toledo tribunal in 1591, confessed to taking part in the ritual murder of a number of children. Sixteen witnesses testified that the children had in fact died suddenly, and that Izquierda was reputed to be a witch. What would in any other European country have earned Izquierda the death sentence, in Spain earned her nothing more than abjuration de levi and two hundred lashes.85

The only significant relapse from this good record occurred a few years later in Navarre, where the tribunal had for many years resisted pressure by the royal council to use the death penalty against witches.86 The explanation for the relapse must be sought not in Spain but in France. Just across the frontier, in the Pays de Labourd, the Bordeaux judge Pierre de Lancre had conducted a horrendous witch hunt in the autumn of 1609, during which he executed eighty witches. The campaign supplied most of the material for his famous book on witchcraft, Tableau de l’inconstance (1612). The Labourd executions sent a shiver of terror through the Navarrese valleys and created a witch scare in Spanish territory that swept along with it the inquisitors of Logroño, one of whom was Alonso de Salazar Frias.87 A great auto de fe was held in the city on Sunday, 7 November 1610. So lengthy were the proceedings that the ceremony had to be continued the following day. Of the fifty-three prisoners who took part in the auto, twenty-nine were accused of witchcraft and, of these, five were burnt in effigy and six in person.88 This extreme measure produced a reaction in the Suprema, which in March the next year ordered the same Alonso de Salazar Frias to visit the relevant districts of Navarre, carrying with him an edict of grace to invite the inhabitants to repudiate their errors.

Salazar had ample precedents to guide him, and the pioneering report by Francisco Vaca, drawn up over half a century before in Barcelona, would in all probability have been available to him. His own conclusions were therefore almost foreseeable. He began work in May 1611 and ended his labors in January 1612, but only on 24 March did he eventually present his report to the Suprema. During the time of his mission, Salazar declared, he reconciled 1,802 persons. Of these, 1,384 were children between the ages of nine and twelve in the case of girls, and between nine and fourteen in the case of boys. Of the others, “several were old and even senile, over the age of seventy and eighty.” After close examination of all the confessions and evidence about murders, witch sabbats and sexual intercourse with devils, Salazar came to his conclusion:

I have not found the slightest evidence from which to infer that a single act of witchcraft has really occurred. Indeed, my previous suspicions have been strengthened by new evidence from the visitation: that the evidence of the accused alone, without external proof, is insufficient to justify arrest; and that three-quarters and more have accused themselves and their accomplices falsely.

I also feel certain that under present conditions there is no need of fresh edicts or the prolongation of those existing, but rather that in the diseased state of the public mind every agitation of the matter is harmful and increases the evil. I deduce the importance of silence and reserve from the experience that there were neither witches nor bewitched until they were talked and written about.

His long memorial89 was, as we have seen, by no means the first with such recommendations, and there is no reason to pick him out either as a pioneer or as a rationalist before the age of rationalism. Like Vaca before him, he laid great store by the laws of evidence. As a trained lawyer, he was interested less in the theological debate over the reality of witchcraft than in the material problem of having to arrest people on the basis of unsupported hearsay. “There is no use in saying that the evidence for witchcraft is certain. Nobody doubts this. . . . The real question is: are we to believe that witchcraft has occurred in a case simply because the witches say so?”

Salazar’s report was contested by his colleagues but finally accepted by the Suprema. He was helped powerfully by the fact that, as he himself pointed out, the Inquisition since 1526 had turned its face against the traditional death sentence for witches; that more and more lawyers, rather than theologians, were becoming inquisitors; and that the best-informed opinion in Spain was in favor of skepticism over the reality of witchcraft.

Even before the mission to Navarre, the inquisitor general had commissioned a report from the prominent scholar Pedro de Valencia. In his report, dated April 1611,90 Valencia was careful not to deny the reality of witchcraft, but his conclusions suggested that there was a strong element of mental sickness in the Navarre events, and that exceptional care must be taken to prove offenses. “The accused must be examined first to see if they are in their right mind or possessed or melancholic.” Their conduct “is more that of madmen than of heretics, and should be cured with whips and sticks rather than with sanbenitos.” Finally Valencia advised that “one must look for evidence, according to law, of an offense having been committed.”

On 29 August 1614 the Suprema issued authoritative instructions that reaffirmed the policy of 1526 and the conclusions of Vaca and Salazar. They were to remain the principal guide to the future policy of the Inquisition. Drawn up in thirty-two articles, the instructions adopted skepticism towards the claims of witches, and advised caution and leniency in all investigations. Belated justice was done to the victims of the Logroño auto of 1610: their sanbenitos were not to be exposed, and no stigma was to attach to them or to their descendants. Although the Inquisition was still obliged to follow European opinion and regard witchcraft as a crime, in practice all testimony to such a crime was rejected as delusion, so that Spain was saved from the ravages of popular witch hysteria and witch burnings at a time when it was prevalent all over Europe.

The decision of 1614 benefited those accused but placed the Inquisition in an ambiguous position in theory and in practice: in theory, because it admitted that diabolism was possible but denied any single instance of it; in practice, because it became reluctant to intervene in witchcraft cases and often conceded jurisdiction to the civil authorities. The Inquisition reverted to its practice of not burning, but continued to prosecute all types of superstition with vigor. In many tribunals in the seventeenth century “superstition” was the largest category of cases after “statements.”

Two cases from Barcelona show how the new attitude worked.91 In 1665 the tribunal uncovered a group of middle-class diabolists who recited black masses, conjured up devils and beheaded a goat at one of their ceremonies. A priest in the group was suspended from holy orders for five years, and a surgeon was flogged and banished for the same length of time. In the same year Isabel Amada, a widow of Mataró, was denounced by shepherds who had refused to give her alms. Within three days, they said, “two of their mules and thirty sheep died, and the accused claimed that she had done it with the help of the devil.” She was set free by the inquisitors. Such lenient verdicts would have been unthinkable in most European countries.

The approach adopted by the Inquisition by no means signified that witches escaped, nor was Spain any more enlightened in this matter than other countries. Jurisdiction over witchcraft in Spain was also exercised by the civil authorities, which meant that—contrary to what is frequently affirmed—witches continued to be executed regularly. In the kingdom of Aragon, for example, the civil authorities continued in full possession of their jurisdiction over witchcraft and the Inquisition seems to have made no more than token efforts to assert its claims. At least as many witches were tried before noninquisitorial courts in Upper Aragon in the early seventeenth century as before the Inquisition.92 Witches in Aragon were hanged, not burnt, by the civil courts, but the number of those executed is not known. In Catalonia, likewise, executions continued. In the jurisdiction of Vic, forty-five witches were sentenced by the civil authorities in 1618–22. Dozens of witches were hanged in several towns throughout Catalonia, including some in the Pyrenees. The royal courts tried in vain to intervene: their efforts were blocked by the local and baronial jurisdictions in which the executions took place. In 1621, a bishop reported, “the barons and lords of the villages, on seeing the loss of crops and the clamoring of the people, have supplied a cure for the ills by punishing these women.”93 The rector of the Jesuits in Barcelona, Pere Gil, penned a powerful plea to the viceroy to intervene, but with little result. The incidents declined in number after 1627.94

In classical narratives of witch persecution the blame for savage verdicts used to be laid firmly by historians on the judges, and several personages in France, Germany and England were duly cast in the role of monsters attempting to impose their beliefs on ignorant rural populations. The immense extent of the phenomenon, however, has obliged scholars to revise their verdicts and look more deeply for explanations. In particular, the evidence points constantly to pressure from villagers rather than from official tribunals.95 In small communities, denunciations for witchcraft often arose simply out of family and communal tensions.96 The inquisitors in Spain were quite aware of the part played by a persecuting community in cases of alleged witchcraft, and of the vulnerability of women in the community. When Pascuala Gil, aged twenty-eight and wife of a shepherd, came before the inquisitors of Saragossa in 1679 on a charge of witchcraft brought by her neighbors, they “recognized her great truth and innocence.” When María Pérez, aged forty-five, came before them on the same charge, they agreed unanimously that all twenty-one of her accusers (including the parish priest) were motivated by malice, and “recognized her innocence.”97

Popular enthusiasm today for the theme of witchcraft has inevitably dragged the Spanish Holy Office into the arena of errors, exaggerations and attempts to produce impressive statistics. As it happens, the tribunal fits into none of the patterns to be found in other countries in Europe: there were no mass arrests or executions, no bloodthirsty judges, and no fading out of superstition before the inexorable advance of reason. Even the pioneering achievement of Francisco Vaca, the first inquisitor to really bring about an end to persecution in a peninsular community, was based not on enlightened rationalism but simply on a lawyer’s application of the rules of evidence. Set against a European background, Spain’s role in the prosecution of witchcraft was relatively small; and though its secular and episcopal tribunals were occasionally active the Inquisition played almost no part in the process. “The apex of prosecutions from 1560 to 1630”98 in northern and central Europe had no parallel in Spain, and the tens of thousands who died in other countries in that period were a grim contrast to the tranquility of life in the Mediterranean.

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