- The Salazar Documents: Inquisitor Alonso de Salazar Frías and Others on the Basque Witch Persecution
In 1980 the Danish folklorist Gustav Henningsen published The Witches’ Advocate, a lengthy study of the famous 1610 trial and execution by the Spanish Inquisition of a handful of witches from the mountain village of Zugarramurdi in northern Navarre. This book had a major impact and soon became the best-known work on witchcraft in early modern Iberia. In it Henningsen not only brought to wider attention a highly unusual case previously known through the writings of the American historian Henry Charles Lea and the Spanish anthropologist Julio Caro Baroja, but he also highlighted—even more than his predecessors—the figure of the inquisitor Alonso de Salazar, who after the trial successfully campaigned to convince the tribunal to reject future persecution of witches. Henningsen’s Salazar emerged as a hero for the times, an early spokesman for enlightened values in a country long dismissed as a bastion of obscurantism and fanaticism.
Two and a half decades later Henningsen has returned to the fray with another hefty tome on the Navarrese trial. While this second book covers the same ground, it does so in a different way, and with the appreciable benefit of hindsight. Detailed study of this case had long been bedevilled, so to speak, by considerable problems regarding sources. The most significant among these was the destruction in the early nineteenth century of the original trial records, which included more than five thousand (!) folios of testimony. Energetic toil in archival vineyards allowed Henningsen to reconstruct much of the missing documentation in The Witches’ Advocate. He now offers the scholarly reading public the chance directly to examine the same material. He has edited eighteen major documents in the original Spanish, and has accompanied them with an English translation and commentary in addition to a substantial introduction. The scrupulous presentation of the sources, including underlinings and margin notes, renders The Salazar Documents an invaluable companion to his earlier book.
Among the many distinctive features of this trial was its size. Salazar’s papers [End Page 209] recorded the names of over eight thousand individuals who either confessed to being or were denounced as practitioners of witchcraft. Equally anomalous was the fact that children made up a substantial proportion of the accused. Almost 1,400 minors, ranging from infants to teenagers, were alleged or admitted to having attended diabolical sabbaths after falling asleep. Henningsen attributes this “epidemic of stereotyped dreams” to a combination of example—Pierre de Lancre’s recent campaign against witches north of the border was much talked about locally—and indoctrination, largely through preaching by Franciscans who were outsiders to the area. Widespread coercion, both physical and emotional, helped turn these dreams into evidence of witchcraft. Individuals who were rumored to have participated in sabbaths were subjected to torture by fellow villagers as well as to pressure from close relatives to accept the Inquisition’s offers of amnesty. The latter proved as effective as the former, as confessions of guilt allowed suspects to protect their families from the confiscation of property and, to some extent, from public shame. Denying guilt, however, had the opposite effect, and led to disavowal by kinsmen and neighbors and in some cases even to murder.
While the Navarrese trials raise many questions of interest, Henningsen focuses closely on the exceptional opportunity they provide to study the emergence and expression of opposition to witch hunting. The most important material presented here includes the five reports Salazar wrote to the Supreme Council of the Inquisition from 1612 to 1614. In these he gradually unfolded the case for putting an end to the investigation and punishment of local magical practices. Yet Salazar was not the only official to disagree with the Inquisition’s handling of the case. Even before it spun out of control as hundreds or even thousands of individuals began to admit to attending sabbaths, other clerics began to express skepticism regarding both the contents of these confessions and the often...