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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
Commenting on the inability of human societies to predict forthcoming calamities, the Los Angeles Times recently ran a comment piece headed ‘No-one expects the Spanish Inquisition – or Donald Trump’. There have been some dire predictions about the baleful impact that the new President might have not only in the US, but across the world. So, while we wait to see how his presidency might evolve, I thought I’d investigate the parallel suggested by the article and see what insights the early history of the Spanish Inquisition might offer to our current situation. The case of Diego Rodríguez Lucero, an infamous Spanish Inquisitor who ran away with his mission and took it to barbarous extremes, provides some food for thought for our own times.
Lucero took over as Inquisitor in Cordoba in 1499 but it was not until after Queen Isabel of Castile’s death in 1504 that he embarked on a McCarthy-style mission to eradicate not ‘Reds under beds’, but Jews under pews. Since Isabel and her husband Fernando of Aragón signed the Edict of Expulsion in 1492, there had officially been no Jews living in Spain, but the cities in Andalusia and in the north contained sizeable populations of people of Jewish origin – some recent converts to Christianity, some from families which had converted over a century previously. The descendants of many of these earlier converts had risen to occupy plum positions in the church and town hierarchies, or in the service of noble masters, and there was an underlying resentment towards them and a continuing sense of their ‘otherness’ which spilled over into violence. Fernando and Isabel’s Spanish Inquisition was created in 1478 to root out false converts, but Lucero’s attack on people of Jewish origin was more widespread and more vicious than anything that the institution had overseen before. On 22 December 1504, he had 107 people burnt at the stake as heretics in Cordoba. A learned cleric known as the Maestro de Toro witnessed this auto de fe and was horrified to hear several of the dying victims cry out to Jesus and the Virgin and call for notaries to record that they had died as Christians. In Granada, the famously pious and gentle Archbishop Hernando de Talavera was targeted as a renegade Jew, along with all his family. In 1506 there were more than 400 people detained by Lucero in Cordoba’s Alcázar, whose families loudly protested their innocence, and there were tales of torture, sexual violence, and accusations which were financially-motivated.
How did Lucero get away with such extreme behaviour, which transgressed the Inquisition’s own rules and regulations, and indeed, the legal and moral codes governing civilised behaviour in his society? How was he able to present his conduct as acceptable? These questions seem to have more than an echo of relevance today. Firstly, to justify his hard line, Lucero created a narrative. He claimed that the whole country was about to be swamped by Jews returning to their old religion. Marauding bands of ‘prophetesses’ were sweeping through the countryside ‘judaising’ and that the houses of many notable figures were being used as ‘synagogues’. This created a climate of fear and King Fernando eagerly gave him the go-ahead for a crackdown. Lucero was no respecter of truth. Where there was no evidence, he had no problem in inventing it. Prisoners who were later released told tales of child detainees being taught Jewish prayers in order to incriminate their elders, and confessions extorted through torture, rape, and humiliating treatment such as being interrogated naked. Lucero had to resort to gagging and beating victims dying at the stake in order to prevent them crying out about the treatment they had suffered. It was thought that one of the reasons he ordered such large-scale burnings was to conceal evidence of the extremes he had gone to. But large-scale autos de fe energised the populace, stoked the climate of fear and fed the demand for more. If there were so many heretics, so the line went, then very harsh measures were needed to stamp out the menace. Like many institutions today which harbour unsavoury characters, the Inquisition closed ranks and protected him, fearing for its reputation if it admitted that its own rules of conduct had been broken. Lucero’s actions were also popular among certain sections of the community. People enjoyed seeing ‘evil’ punished. One local cleric commented that ‘people want there to be a lot of heretics, to see them arrested and burnt’. In addition, Lucero made sure that there were plenty of beneficiaries from his actions: key figures were bribed or rewarded with property and positions confiscated from his victims. The king’s secretary was one of these beneficiaries and prevented appeals on behalf of those accused from reaching the monarch, who rejected their approaches as ‘bribery’. Lucero exploited a political power vacuum in the aftermath of Isabel I’s death (Fernando was technically only King of Aragón), and a local crisis over poor harvests and outbreaks of plague. He was applauded by hard-liners for appearing to provide strong political solutions in the face of a breakdown of law and order. For Fernando, he provided a symbol of his continuing power and control in Castile.
But Lucero did not enjoy his impunity for long. A broad coalition of nobility, townspeople and clergy gathered evidence of his misdeeds and made their case to the Queen, the Pope, to foreign governments and archbishops. They succeeded in forcing the resignation of the Chief Inquisitor. His replacement, Archbishop Cisneros, had Lucero removed as Inquisitor and set up a board of enquiry to examine the evidence against him. The trial documents form the basis of what we know about him today. In this first concerted action against the Inquisition, the campaigners against Lucero edged towards a concept of human rights which would soon find an echo in Bartolomé de las Casas’ defence of indigenous people in the New World, and be articulated further in Spain’s comunero rebellion of 1520. But although they were successful in removing one of its most notorious figures, the Inquisition continued to hold Spanish society in its grip for another 300 years. It seems that by that time people had, indeed, come to expect it.
Teresa Tinsley, PhD Student