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The witch-hunt in Catalonia: one of the earliest and deadliest in Europe

Over a thousand people were sentenced for witchcraft, and calls to revisit their stories are growing louder

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10 April 2021 10:20 AM

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Alan Ruiz Terol | Barcelona

On February 19, 1620, Elisabet Cerdà was escorted out of jail and presented before local authorities in Castellterçol, a tiny village in central Catalonia, about a two-day journey from Barcelona by foot. As the cross-examination began, she was asked if she knew why she was there.

"I was arrested because some people say I’m a witch, which is a lie," she responded.

According to the trial’s minutes, Cerdà, who was fifty years old and a widow, went on to recall how she had run away from her family farmhouse after being warned that a crowd was coming after her. When they found her, hiding by a stream in the forest, she was stoned and taken into custody by the mayor of a nearby village.

Cerdà was accused of renouncing God and the Virgin Mary, adoring the devil and having sexual dealings with him, gathering with fellow witches in remote places to cause storms and bring hail to damage the harvest, and of poisoning cattle and children with malefic substances. 

She denied all accusations. A few days later, under the threat of torture, she admitted all the charges against her. She was convicted and sentenced to death at the gallows.

Over a thousand victims

Cerdà’s story is hardly unique - it is estimated that over one thousand people, mostly women, were prosecuted and sentenced for witchcraft in Catalonia between the 15th and the 18th century, more than any other territory in the Iberian peninsula.

The historian Pau Castell has thoroughly researched the witch hunts in Catalonia, which he describes as distinct both for their intensity, and for how early they started.

The first legal statute against the crime of witchcraft ever passed in Europe was found in the Catalan Pyrenees, in the valley of Áneu, in 1424, and shortly after it was used to prosecute people.

  • "We're talking about hundreds and even thousands of women accused by their own neighbours of being witches and then arrested, tried, and finally executed by the local authorities" 

    Pau Castell · Historian

According to Castell, Catalonia (including the Pyrenees region bordering Aragon and territories currently located in France) should be considered as one of the "cradles" of the witch hunt in Europe, together with Northern Italy and Switzerland.

As for the underlying circumstances which made Catalonia a fertile ground for the atrocities of the witch hunt, research points at the distinctly de-centralized administrative structure, which gave local authorities more autonomy to prosecute fellow villagers and convict them with scarce evidence.

Contrary to the common belief, the Spanish Inquisition played a minor role in the witch trials, which was far less belligerent than that of local courts. According to Castell, the Inquisition’s Holly Office was responsible for only two death sentences for witch-craft in Catalonia — and those responsible were reprimanded by their colleagues.

As historical data suggests, says Castell, the witch trials shouldn’t be dismissed as barbaric acts committed by a minority of fanatic inquisitors. The reality emerging from historical evidence, he says, is darker and reveals that the whole society was to blame for the witch hunt, which took its toll on overly poor women, widows and migrants.

‘They were not witches’ campaign by Sàpiens

In an attempt to revisit the often misunderstood history of the witch hunt, Catalonia’s Sàpiens magazine published a special issue offering a comprehensive recollection of the historic evidence on the witch trials, and launched the campaign ‘No eren bruixes, eren dones’ (They were not witches, they were women).

Together with the print magazine, Sàpiens has also launched a series of online features including an interactive map of Catalonia with the location of hundreds of witch trials, a chronology with the deadliest years, and dozens of personal stories from those who suffered the witch hunt, and also those responsible for them.

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  • A section of the painting 'Witches' Sabbath' by Francisco Goya (1798)

  • A section of the painting 'Witches' Sabbath' by Francisco Goya (1798)

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