The Worst Witch Hunt in History

Most people have heard about the Salem witch trials that took place in Massachusetts in the 17th century. As well, many are probably aware of the Spanish Inquisition that was taking place on the other side of the world at the same time. What many don’t know is that the zeal of the Inquisition was combined with the cruelty of a witch hunt to become one of the worst instances of “witch” persecution in history.

In 1609, the infamous Spanish Inquisition briefly turned its attentions upon the Basque country, an area in the north of Spain that borders France. Local lords in the area began hearing tales of witches causing trouble in the Labourd area of France. Then, a woman caught the attention of the abbot of the monastery of Urdax by telling him of a dream she had about coven meetings in a nearby cave. The abbot promptly requested the aid of the Inquisition in rooting out the witches.

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A tribunal was quickly established in the area and, shortly after its establishment, over 300 people were accused of witchcraft.  Women made up the majority of accused, but men and even young children also found themselves under accusation of witchcraft. Even some priests were accused.

Of these original 300, only 29 were declared guilty at a trial that was held in June 1610. Eighteen of these were forgiven after confessing and throwing themselves on the mercy of the court. They were eventually forced to do penance. Five of the remaining prisoners died while undergoing torture. But the final six refused to confess and were burned at the stake in an “auto da fe” (act of faith) that was held in the town of Logrono in November of 1610. The Inquisitors even had effigies burned of the five suspected witches who had died in prison.

The inquisitors felt they had stumbled upon a region full of witches and devil worshippers, and they aimed to rid the country of this evil for good. After the trial they proclaimed an Edict of Grace, which promised a pardon to anyone who confessed to witchcraft and denounced their fellow witches. This act resulted in the confessions of almost 2000 people, of whom more than half were children under 14. These people accused over 5000 others. Many of these people were questioned or tortured.

This time, the Inquisition had reached too far. Many of the accusers recanted their statements, saying they were extracted under torture. The judges started becoming skeptical about the whole ordeal, as they had trouble finding any real evidence of paganism or witchcraft in the area. By 1614, the Inquisitor-General in Madrid dismissed all pending witchcraft cases in the Basque region, and issued more stringent rules of evidence for accusations of witchcraft. These rules helped to bring the era of witch hunting to an end in Catholic Spain, though it continued for some time in Protestant countries.

No one is sure why this instance of witch trials blew up as it did. It could have just been a case of the circumstances being just right for such a thing to occur. The Reformation was in full-swing, and the neighboring country of France was dealing with outbreaks of violence due to it. Catholics were afraid of losing their hold on religion, and the Catholic Church established the Inquisition to root out heresy in the areas they controlled. Many groups, especially Jews who had converted to Christianity, were tortured and killed during this period. The disturbing dream that was told to the abbot was just happened the be the spark that lit this looming conflagration. The confessions and accusations that resulted were likely just desperate attempts at self-preservation by people who were terrified of getting caught up the Inquisition’s power.

Today, the area where the trials occurred is a sparsely populated region, full of rolling green hills. It is still Basque country. You can still visit the cave that was at the center of the original accusation. It is known by its Basque name of Sorginen Leizea, which means “the cave of the witches.” A festival is held there every summer solstice to commemorate its association with the 17th century witch trials.

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