- Invoking the Akelarre: Voices of the Accused in the Basque Witch-Craze, 1609–1614 by Emma Wilby
Early Modern France and Spain, the Basques, witchcraft, witch hunts, akelarre, sabbat, folklore, heresy, cannibalism, Spanish Inquisition
In Invoking the Akelarre, historian of English and Scottish witchcraft Emma Wilby turns to the infamous Basque witch hunts that tore through rural mountain communities on the border of France and Spain in the early seventeenth century. Wilby's guiding questions are simple: did suspected witches actually believe any of the content to which they confessed? From where did they draw the "raw material" that populated their descriptions of the witches' crimes and sabbat (akelarre in Basque)? Wilby is also concerned with why certain elements were unique to Basque witchcraft and why these elements played little or no role elsewhere. As she herself acknowledges, she relied upon research assistants for all translations of non-English sources (xi); thus, her sources are well-known printed collections of the most famous depositions and Inquisitorial summaries. As a result, this book does not present new material per se on the Basque witch hunts, but instead focuses on situating the content from these documents into a broader European context of folklore, medical practice, and religious culture.
Arranged in twenty-two mini-chapters plus an introduction and an epilogue, Wilby's book argues that Basque witchcraft suspects not only believed [End Page 133] much of what they confessed, but that some of the activity confessed to actually occurred. Combined with "false memories" developed during imprisonment, suspects drew upon real experiences to craft their confessions (38). Somewhat imprecisely labeling her evidence "confessional material," Wilby draws liberally from Pierre de Lancre's Tableau de l'inconstance des mauvais anges et démons, as well as sentences, dispatches, and autos de fé from the Inquisitorial investigations of Juan de Valle Alvarado, Alonso Becerra, and Alonso de Salazar.
Each chapter examines one element of the alleged witches' collected confessions, such as infant mortality, poisons, cannibalism, festivities, and the inverted liturgy. Toads recur throughout, and Wilby argues that it is not impossible that suspects were actually raising toads. To reach this conclusion, she refers to modern manuals on keeping amphibians as pets, as well as to early modern medical recipes calling for toad parts or excretions. As for cannibalism, she suggests that since "corpse medicine" was commonly practiced, it was also possible that a portion of the suspects were actually exhuming and processing corpses (111). These are controversial propositions that place Wilby outside of mainstream studies of European witchcraft.
Though primarily interested in the voices of the accused, Wilby acknowledges what the inquisitors might have contributed to the confessions as well. She considers how other heresies, such as alumbradismo and the heresy of the free spirit (though there is no evidence directly connecting these to the Logroño tribunal), might have primed inquisitors to be especially interested in certain elements of the akelarre and how these might have influenced their line of questioning (177–178). She also makes highly speculative connections to Moorish and Jewish magical practice in Valencia and Zaragoza (141–142). She is on surer footing in emphasizing the intellectual and familial connections between de Lancre and other jurists, as well as how his "fascination with youth and beauty" drew him emotionally into the world of his subjects, set him up to ask the right questions, and encouraged his subjects to provide detailed answers (388).
Wilby relies heavily upon classic Basque ethnographers, such as William Douglass and Julio Caro Baroja, to understand Basque mortuary rituals and social organization. However, without complementary archival records, this means that some of her conclusions blur twentieth-century rituals with seventeenth-century practices. Certain connections seem to make sense to Wilby, although they require more historization: she argues that the intense popularity of confraternities in the Basque Country provides a template for understanding how suspects described their corporate membership in the [End Page 134] akelarre, which helps to explain elements ranging from gifting rituals to death rites to fines...