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Starting an Inquisition Database Project

Mdina, Malta. Why wouldn’t you want to do research here…?

I’m at the beginning of a new project on ‘Popular Healing: Christian and Islamic Practices and the Roman Inquisition in Early Modern Malta’ (not medieval, but you can’t have everything), funded by a British Academy Small Grant.  It’s a joint project, conducted by me and Dionisius Agius, in the Institute of Arab and Islamic Studies at Exeter, as co-investigators. It also builds on Dionisius’s earlier ‘Magic in Malta, 1605’ project, on which I was co-investigator. I’ve written about ‘Magic in Malta’ on the blog before here and here but to sum up that earlier project examined in depth one unusual, and interesting, trial held by the Roman Inquisition in Malta. In this trial a Muslim slave, Sellem bin al-Sheikh Mansur, was tried for several counts of doing magic and divination for Christians.  The project book should be out next year.

This time round, we’re hoping to answer some of the questions which the ‘Magic in Malta’ project raised for us by looking at a wider range of inquisitorial cases.  In particular, it became clear that Sellem’s case was part of a much wider world of interactions taking place on Malta between the Christian majority and the substantial minority of Muslim slaves living on the islands.  Many of these interactions seemed to be related to illness and healing. In particular, some Muslim slaves, like Sellem, were being accused of offering what the inquisitors deemed ‘superstitious’ or ‘magical’ ‘remedies’ to Christians – practices designed to cure illnesses, diagnose and counter witchcraft, and create or strengthen sexual relationships through love magic. Often this was a way for the slaves to earn some extra income.  It was not only Muslim slaves who offered these services, however. Christian healers, both men and women, were also being accused of using magical or superstitious practices.

Our plan for the project is to compile a simple database of cases, in order to investigate this world of popular remedies in more detail. How many cases do we see, and what are the patterns of change over time?  Are there differences in the services that were said to have been offered by these different healers – Christian or Muslim, male or female? How were these different healers perceived by clients, and how did the Inquisition treat them?  Did clients seek out ‘magical’ remedies for particular types of illness or problem?  Why did they seek out particular healers?  Inquisition records are not unproblematic windows onto these questions, of course. Witnesses rarely came forward spontaneously (often they were sent by their parish priests after mentioning superstitious practices in confession), and they were often keen to present their actions in the least incriminating light. Moreover, as many scholars have shown, witness testimonies in inquisitorial records were shaped in numerous ways by what witnesses believed the inquisitors were expecting to hear, as well as by the (sometimes leading) questions asked of them.   Nonetheless, the wealth of circumstantial detail in the records allows us to explore perceptions of superstitious remedies and the interactions between healers and their clients.

It’s early days yet. Our first research trip to the Cathedral Archives in Mdina is a couple of weeks away. We’re currently setting up our database, with the advice of Exeter’s Digital Humanities team, which is a bit of a learning curve for two academics without much prior experience of Microsoft Access.  It’s a smallish project, with a more restricted focus than, say, the Dissident Networks Project recently begun at the Masaryk University in the Czech Republic, which also makes use of databases for Inquisition records, among other things – but we think the results will be interesting.

More at a later date on how it goes.

Catherine Rider, Associate Professor in Medieval History


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