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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
Appropriately – given that it was Halloween – I spent part of reading week in the archives researching the history of magic. Dr Alex Mallett (formerly of Exeter, now based in Leiden) and I were doing some of the final research for an AHRC-funded project led by Professor Dionisius Agius, Institute of Arab and Islamic Studies on ‘Magic in Malta, 1605: Sellem bin al-Sheikh Mansur and the Roman Inquisition’ (see here for more details). I’ve written about this project on the blog before, when we were at a much earlier stage. To recap, it studies the case of Sellem, a Muslim slave who was accused of offering a variety of magical services to Christians. The case gives us a fascinating insight into many magical beliefs, Christian-Muslim relations, and many other aspects of life in early modern Malta and, with the help of a team of other British, Maltese and French scholars, we’ll be exploring these in the book we’re producing as the main outcome of the project.
Alex and I were researching in the Cathedral Archive in Mdina, which holds the inquisition records and, once again, gave us a friendly welcome.
Now we’re in the finishing stages of the project the kind of research we were undertaking was rather different from what I described back in 2014 when the project team first visited Malta together. Then we were searching for other references to Sellem in the archives, as well as exploring some of the other magic cases in the records for comparative material and planning the project’s Malta-based public engagement activities. This time, it was more a case of satisfying ourselves that we hadn’t missed anything crucial: making sure we really had checked all the files for the early years of the seventeenth century; tracking down some last supporting documents; finalising the last tricky bits of translation from Latin and Italian; and checking references.
It was also a good chance to catch up with some of the Maltese scholars who had contributed their expertise to the project. Just in case you might be tempted to think it was all work, there were also project meetings involving excellent Maltese cakes.
The visit to the archive – my first in 2 ½ years – also reminded me how much interesting material it contains for a scholar who, like me, is interested in magic and particularly in popular magical beliefs and how the Church tried to categorize and discourage them. Even though the seventeenth century is rather later than my usual area of expertise, I will definitely try to go back!
Catherine Rider, Senior Lecturer in History
Recently three academics associated with the Centre for Medieval Studies visited the Cathedral Archives in Mdina, Malta, as part of a research project on ‘Magic in Malta, 1605: the Moorish Slave Sellem Bin Al-Sheikh Mansur and the Roman Inquisition.’ The project is funded by the AHRC, and the project team are Prof. Dionisius Agius from the Institute for Arabic and Islamic Studies (principal investigator) as well as Dr Catherine Rider from History (co-investigator) and Dr Alex Mallett, project researcher. See here for more details.
St Paul’s Cathedral, Mdina
The project is based on the records of the Inquisition in Malta, and it focuses on the trial of Sellem Bin Al-Sheikh Mansur, an Egyptian slave living in Valletta who was tried for practising magic in 1605. Several witnesses denounced Sellem to the Inquisition, claiming that he had done various kinds of magic for them, including healing, curing illnesses caused by witchcraft, and love magic. More unusually Sellem was also accused of more learned kinds of magic and divination. He admitted to having learned astrology in Cairo, and the inquisition also confiscated from him several divinatory texts, which he denied ever owning. After a lengthy trial involving many witnesses (some of whom were disgruntled clients), Sellem was imprisoned in the prisons of the inquisition, and this is the last we hear of him.
Inquisitor’s Palace, Birgu
The trial document is a very rich source full of anecdotal details and it tells us much about everyday life in seventeenth-century Malta, including magical practices, attitudes to illness and healing, and relations between the Christian Maltese and Malta’s sizeable population of Muslim slaves. Over the next eighteen months the project team will work with the Cathedral archives publish and translate this unusual and very interesting trial record., We will also be holding a workshop in Malta with a group of British, Maltese and French academics to study various aspects of the document. As part of the project we also hope to explore the inquisition records more fully: there is a huge volume of cases and several unexpected items, including a magic hat now on display in the Inquisitor’s Palace in Birgu. It was inscribed with Arabic writing, and was apparently worn to cure headaches, and the inquisitors confiscated it from a penitent in the early eighteenth century. It is not every day that you get to see a magic hat, even when you work on the history of magic – definitely a highlight of the trip.
Dr Catherine Rider