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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
When Isabel of Castile and Fernando of Aragon took Granada from the Moors in 1492, their propaganda claimed it as a heroic victory marking the culmination of an 800 year struggle against Muslim invaders. Arabic and Jewish accounts, of course, reported it differently, but one Christian account is exceptional in presenting an alternative take on events. This was written – in Spanish – by Hernando de Baeza, a man who had been the Granadan emir’s interpreter and had lived with him in the Alhambra palace for the final four years of the Granada War.
Instead of presenting the Moors as enemies of the faith illegitimately occupying Christian lands, Baeza drew attention to the similarities and parallels between Christian and Moorish culture. For example, he explains sharia law as being like Christian canon and civil law. Baeza presents himself as a devout Christian but, in his narrative, Christians are not necessarily morally superior and Christian virtues are also displayed by Muslims. He also deals sensitively with the question of religious conversion and is strongly sympathetic towards Christians who, having been taken prisoner in Muslim territory, had converted to Islam and were regarded as apostates after Granada came under Christian rule.
Baeza’s work was rediscovered in the 19th century and acclaimed as a fascinating narrative – it is full of beheadings, betrayals and daring escapades. In the 20th it was exploited as a useful source on events within the Muslim court in the period leading up to the Christian conquest. As Spain has rediscovered its multicultural past, the temptation has been to see Baeza as an early spokesman for liberal values representing the spirit of ‘convivencia’ in the ‘Spain of the Three Cultures’. But Baeza was writing at a crucial moment for the development of Spanish religious identity – around 1510 – and I read the text as a subtly subversive account confronting the most controversial issues of his day: tyranny versus social justice, the reform of the church, and the role of the Inquisition. Certainly, his readers understood these meanings, since a version of Baeza’s manuscript found its way into a mid-16th century codex compiled by Bishop Vasco de Quiroga on the conversion of Mexican Indians. Baeza’s account therefore deserves a more in-depth analysis, informed by an understanding of his background and positioning in the social and political context in which he wrote.
As part of my ongoing doctoral research I have so far explored two crucial aspects of his biography. Firstly, I have confirmed that he was of Jewish descent; his own parents and grandparents had been condemned to death by the Inquisition and he himself had been penanced for heresy. His case for a light touch approach towards apostates living in Granada therefore needs to be seen also as a personal, and at the same time more universal, plea for understanding in relation to the complexities of religious conversion.
Secondly, Baeza’s role in international affairs did not end with the handover of Granada. Between his time there and writing the piece, Baeza spent a number of years in Rome, in close association with Julius II, whom he helped to install as Pope, and other figures of the High Renaissance. I shall be arguing that it was here, in the light of the new currents of thought to which he was exposed, that he reflected on the more far-reaching aspects of the end of medieval multicultural Iberia and wrote, not just a simple memoire, but a more profound reflection on the future of Christianity in Spain’s emerging new global empire.
Teresa Tinsley, PhD Student
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