Burn, Uicchi, Burn !


In addition to religious heretics, the Spanish Inquisition also became interested in witch-hunting, although it usually applied relatively moderate procedures. The process evolved slowly. The Spanish Inquisition burned its first witch, Gracia la Valle, in 1498 at Zaragoza. A few more hunts brought sentences of death to a handful of witches in the next two decades. A turning point came with a larger hunt in Navarre that raged between 1526 and 1528. Two young girls led the hunt as witch-finders, perhaps the first of their kind in Spain. The girls claimed to be able to see the Devil’s Mark in the left eye of their fellow witches. One hundred fifty people were investigated during this hunt. The sentence for the guilty was to have property confiscated to pay for Masses. The hunt drew the attention of the Suprema, which had about thirty prisoners transferred to its juridiction. The Suprema then had to determine the reality of the charges.

A meeting of inquisitors in December 1526 in Granada debated whether witches “really and truly commit the crimes they have confessed, or whether they are in fact fooled”. The delegates were split in their decisions. A bare majority decided that witches actually attented the sabbat rather than imagined it, as in the traditional teaching. The remedies they proposed, though, emphasized preaching according to the Canon Episcopi; close attention to Catholic worship and sacramentals; and building churches on sites of alleged Devil worship, rather than torture and death.

Thus, although the Suprema came to accept witchcraft as both real and under its authority, it considered the crime to be much less serious than the heresy of Jews and Muslims. In cases of witchcraft, inquisitors often restricted the confiscations of property from the condemned, thus reducing the motive of greed; reviewed cases more carefully for second convictions; and demanded more than the testimony of another accused witch for arresting, much less convicting, a person. Of the perhaps 100,000 people caught by the Inquisition, only around 3,500 were found guily of witchcraft, and of those, only a few dozen were executed.

The divided opinion on the traditional position of witchcraft as self-delusion led the Spanish Inquisition to promulgate more policies emphasizing education rather than punishment. New regulations required a sound basis for evidence. They banned persecution of witches based only on the testimony of other witches. Eventually, the Spanish Inquisition stopped witch-hunting altogether in the aeras under its control. Only a handful of burnings took place in the sixteenth century. The regional inquisition in Barcelona had already permanently banned hunting witches by 1530. The Suprema turned down requests from Navarre for trials around 1550 and only allowed whipping and banishment of some male witches tried in 1577.

The skeptical Martin de Castañega, who published his Tratado…de las superstitiones y hechicerías (“Tract…on Superstition and Witchcrat”) in 1529, added to the resistance. After witnessing some trials of witches in Pamplona, he claimed that the wild tales about witches were based on deception. There was no pact with the Devil, he wrote, and people were only allowing themselves to be fooled. De Castañega did believe it was possible that God allowed flight through the air or that the Devil could appear in various form to people, but in his opinion, the more fantastic allegations of magic and conspiracy just did not happen. To stop any problems, he recommended regular confession and attendance at Mass, praying the Lord’s Prayer, and obeying the Commandments.

In sum, the Spanish Inquisition concluded that witches were much less dangerous than the usual targets of suspicion, namely converted Jews and Muslims. Limited resources meant the Spanish Inquisition could investigate few cases. If society needed a group of people to serve as an outlet for fears and tensions, the Morriscos and Marranos were already at hand. Outside of northern Spain, the Inquisition hunted hardly any witches at all. Neighboring Portugal, which had imitated Spain in setting up its own inquisition, executed hundreds of “Judaisers”, but not a single witch.

Witch Hunts in the Western World : Persecution and Punishment from the Inquisition through the Salem Trials, Brian Pavlac, 2009, p. 153

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