Spain’s Centuries-Long Witch Hunt Killed 700 Women

In recent years, local officials have broken the spell and apologized for what happened generations ago

dancers join hands in a circle formation
Dancers perform in the plaza of Sant Feliu Sasserra during the town’s annual Witches Fair, or Fira de les Bruixes, on October 31, 2017. © Sant Feliu Sasserra City Council

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This article is a selection from the November/December 2022 issue of Smithsonian magazine

The Village of Sant Feliu Sasserra perches on a hilltop in a pine-forested region of Catalonia. Fifty-three miles north of Barcelona, the place retains a medieval atmosphere, with a tenth-century church  in the plaza and cobblestone alleys lined by old sandstone-block houses. A plain, three-story edifice with a pair of Spanish flags draped from the top-floor windows serves as the ajuntament, or town hall. I’ve come to this quiet village of 600 people because of a major reckoning with history that has made headlines across Europe—a vote by the Catalan Parliament to apologize for the more than 700 “witches” condemned in the region over three centuries beginning in 1424, when Catalonia enacted Europe’s first law prohibiting witchcraft.

a small building sits on a hilltop overlooking a village
A view from Serrat de les Forques, the steep hill where Sant Feliu’s townspeople long ago hanged those convicted of witchcraft. Alamy

Catalonia was a center of witchcraft trials in Europe for more than 300 years; widespread illiteracy, and the region’s history of relative autonomy from central authority in far-off Madrid, made it subject to the whims of feudal lords and their minions. But with rare exceptions the records moldered in obscurity, and hundreds of stories remained untold until a University of Barcelona graduate student named Pau Castell made a discovery in the archives of a mountain village near the French border.

While researching women’s roles in medieval Catalonia, Castell was perusing an archive in a castle in Sort when he came across an account from 1548 about a male servant blamed by neighbors for a rash of unexplained infant deaths and crop failures. Under torture, the man implicated his master, another man and two women. The two other men were hanged, possibly along with one of the women.

Castell was horrified by the episode—and intrigued by the absence of academic research on the larger subject. He refocused his dissertation on witches and spent the next decade traveling to town halls and archives across Catalonia. Castell amassed stories and compiled a digital database—recently made available to the public—about witchcraft trials, including the names of the accused, the dates of their trials and the verdicts. Though his first, memorable witchcraft case involved men, he would learn that far more women were convicted of witchcraft.

From his home in Barcelona, Castell tells me that calamitous events—“newborn babies dying, death of cattle, episodes of hailstorms”—often catalyzed vicious persecutions of acquaintances and neighbors. “In these moments of social unease, fingers are pointed at individuals within the community who have already been stigmatized,” Castell says.

Another impetus for Catalonia’s reconciliation movement came from Clàudia Pujol, the editor of Sapiens, a Barcelona-based magazine about Catalan history and culture. She was inspired by efforts in Scotland between 2020 and 2021 to issue pardons for 4,000 women tortured and killed after the nation’s 1563 Witchcraft Act. Teaming up with Castell, now a University of Barcelona history professor, Pujol worked to publicize every known witchcraft trial in Catalonia since 1424. Sapiens published an interactive map online, initiated a social-media campaign, produced videos and organized lectures and workshops in town halls and schools, all under the rubric: No eren bruixes. Eren dones. (“They weren’t witches. They were women.”)

Pujol’s campaign culminated in a vote in the Catalan Parliament this past January to issue posthumous pardons to witches who were executed—some 700 people, mostly women. “We are the heiresses of the witches, the poisoners and the healers,” Jenn Díaz, a member of Parliament who voted in favor of the pardons, said at the time. The gesture, though symbolic, signified a breakthrough moment of accountability for centuries of injustice. Local officials have renamed several streets in memory of the murdered women, and Catalonia reportedly may soon add the study of the witchcraft persecutions to the high school curriculum, to show students how easily ignorance and rumor can spiral into violence.

A notable exception to the historic tendency to ignore the subject is Sant Feliu Sasserra, where 23 women were prosecuted for witchcraft between 1618 and 1648. Six were executed by hanging on a hill just outside the village. Not far from the town hall, and across the plaza from the church, is the Interpretation Center of Witchcraft, on the top floor of a two-story house. It opened in 1998, making use of a rare wealth of documentation in this isolated region of Lluçanès, where persecutions reached a peak in the early 17th century. A guide named Queralt Alberch leads me past plaques tracing the history of the early 17th-century trials and executions, and an exhibit hall filled with jars of dried roots, plants and other natural remedies. “The victims were always single women, and they came from the margins of society,” she tells me. Traditional healers were often accused of being in league with the devil. Alberch plays a harrowing short film on a movie screen that recreates the trial of one Caterina Trenca, using real courtroom transcripts. “If you tell me the truth, the trial will be cancelled and you’ll die faster,” the prosecutor tells the accused. “I’ve done nothing wrong, neither against people nor God,” she responds. Trenca is then tied face-down on a rack in a dungeon and the torturer turns a wheel and the rack tears her tendons and muscles. One notorious witch hunter of the period, Joan Malet, roamed from village to village, identifying witches on the basis of supposed invisible markings on their backs and shoulders that he claimed he alone could see. Thirty-three women were hanged based on Malet’s testimony; the Spanish Inquisition eventually charged him with making false accusations and burned him at the stake in Barcelona in July 1549.
a 16th century illustration of an arrest
A 16th-century print depicts the witch-hunter Joan Malet’s 1549 arrest in Valencia for false accusations—and his subsequent execution at the hands of the Inquisition in Barcelona. Courtesy © Abacus / Sàpiens

For all its viciousness, the system was highly regulated, according to Castell’s research. Courts issued memos stipulating approved torture methods—the most common was suspending an accused witch from the ceiling by her thumbs, known by the Italian word strappata—and demanded extensive record keeping. “Notaries were proper about the torture sessions,” Castell tells me. “They took notes of everything—the screams, the silences, the murmurs. I remember transcribing the court records for the first time, and when I arrived at the torture, having to stop and get a cigarette and then come back.” Legal manuals forbade the authorities to torture a person for more than three lengthy sessions for three days and considered anyone who held out that long without confessing to be innocent. Such laws, however, were often honored in the breach. “If they wanted a confession,” Castell says, “they would keep torturing.” After three centuries of this rural terror, the Spanish Inquisition and the King of Spain extended their power to the hinterlands and largely put an end to the persecutions in Catalonia in 1622, though witchcraft trials continued sporadically, in remote areas, until as late as 1777.

children perform outside in front of a church
A children’s group dramatizes history in front of the Church of Sant Feliu Sasserra during the annual Witches Fair in 2018. © Sant Feliu Sasserra City Council

Not everybody has supported the campaign to memorialize these forgotten victims of community panic. Fourteen members of Parliament from two right-wing parties in Catalonia voted against issuing the pardons. Another six abstained. And some observers have questioned the value of the overture so long after the fact. “Pardoning long-dead witches will not help them,” Jan Machielsen, a senior lecturer in history at Cardiff University in Wales, wrote this year in response to Scotland’s apology to “all those [in Scotland] who were accused, convicted, vilified or executed under the Witchcraft Act.” Machielsen noted the contrast with the Salem Witch Trials, where survivors had their names cleared in the immediate aftermath and in 1711 received financial compensation from the Province of Massachusetts Bay. Nonetheless, the scholar said, “if we decide that it will help us as a society we should officially acknowledge the injustice.”

The pardons have a deep resonance in contemporary life. As Scottish First Minister Nicola Sturgeon pointed out in her apology, they can serve to remind people of the “deep misogyny”—in the form of “everyday harassment, online rape threats and sexual violence”—that hasn’t yet been consigned to history’s scrapheap. Pujol believes acknowledging institutionalized cruelty can make people consider how unexamined prejudices can harm others, especially the weak and those on the margins of society. “At the end of the day,” says Pujol, “the witchcraft persecutions were done by people exactly like us.”

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