Undiscovered letters and the day-to-day of a tribunal facing witchcraft

I’m writing this third entry** on the Renfe train leaving the lovely Atocha train station for Pamplon, Spain. So I guess I’ll write about what I found in the Archivo Historico Nacional in Madrid (which I will call the AHN from now on)…

First, for all of you interested in what it’s like to get into a national european archive, work with the requesting system, and sit at a table with paper over 400 years old, I’ll describe the experience. Fortunately enough, my research companion (a grad student in history at the College) and I were able to meet with an academic acquaintance  of our adviser in order to more smoothly gain access to the AHN located in the CSIC compound on Calle Serrano, Madrid.

We had to fill out an identification form and hand over our passports to be scanned once getting through security. Then we were assigned an “investigator number,” I guess you could call it. After stowing our jackets and bags in the locker room (where they supplied cute little AHN-stamped 1 euro sized coins for the locks), we headed into the sala de consultas…

Upon entering we were promptly kicked out. We knew we could only bring paper and pencils, but the paper requirement was new…it had to be half-sized so that you could not try to smuggle out documents wrapped in 8 1/2 by 11 inch page looseleaf. Also…computers seemed to not only be allowed but encouraged. After that day, we brought our little netbooks (A MUST FOR THE TRAVELING HISTORIAN!!) for the next two days we spent in the archive.

We were introduced to the requesting system…which was much easier than expected. But this was probably because we already knew the information for the legajos and libros we needed.

Once I received my request, Libro 794 from the Seccion de la Inquisicion, it started. Everyday I would have to remove the giant book from its cardboard box and string trappings. Basically, I was flipping through a book created from complied letters received by the Suprema from the Logrono tribunal. The letters covered the years 1609/1610 and contained basic summaries of what the tribunal was dealing with. Occasionally, they asked the Suprema for guidance.

I flipped through the folios as the sala filled up through the day. One surprising thing was the number of women and younger adults like me in the room. We have this notion that “serious” historians are all old men…but I’m almost positive that one girl who came every day we were there was a high-schooler. Also, lunch in Spain is the main meal, and as such, at about 2 every day the sala emptied. Even the staff left…for about 2 hours! You can’t even request anything after about 3pm, I’m sure. So my research partner and I timed it so that we left an hour before 2pm to get lunch (we could just leave our open books on our assigned tables), and we would come back while everyone was still out! The sala was much quieter during those hours!

Anyway, I flipped through letters complaining of a certain red-bearded French soldier causing marital havok (he was always described as “a French soldier with the red beard”–hilarious!), a number of misbehaving comisarios (kind of like hired-hands for the Inquisition out and about in the towns), and the general fear over the growing issue of witches. Finally, I came across a crucial missing link in my study: the “missing” (though really just neglected) visitation letters from Inquisitor Valle. Visitations were assignments where inquisitors traveled throughout their jurisdiction issuing edicts of grace, checking up on relapsed heretics, and uncovering new heresies among their flock.

Valle’s visitation which resulted in a huge number of witch testimonies and provided the first moments of worry for the Logrono tribunal over witchcraft have been utterly neglected by the foremost Zugarramurdi Witch Hunt historian. This visitation and the corresponding tribunal letters is only briefly mentioned by G. Henningsen since it points to a tribunal that was in agreement for some time over the dangerous nature of the witches in Navarre;  this agreement was something he did not want to expose as his thesis revolved around Inquisitor Salazar’s omnipresent skepticism…which I’m finding really didn’t exist.

Valle blames France for the witches. It’s so easy to do…everyone likes to blame France, don’t they? But actuallly, the first witches who instigated the hunts were escaping across the border to avoid the famous Pierre de Lancre and his witch hunt. So actually…France is somewhat to blame. As I will get to see the Basque country up-close on a day-trip in Navarre, I’m wondering how feasible it is to just cross the border of the Pyrenees like that.

On my last day, with only 10-20 more folios left in Libro 794, I really hit paydirt. And with such a lovely hand to read, the work was going great…BUT!! The AHN closes at 2:30pm on Fridays. So I was frantically typing down crucial evidence about the mounting fears of the tribunal as they sensed a terrifying, REAL heresy spinning out of their control. But I could not finish by the time the sala de consultas monitor came around asking me to pack up. So, I must return to the AHN. It’s crucial actually…I have a new trip to seek funding for and plan.

In sum, it was an excellent first experience at the AHN. Successful maneuvering in a foreign archive. Great new evidence to run with. And new questions burning to be answered. All great things to walk away with…especially with a number of folios still waiting to be read!

But now, I have a day-trip to the village and caves of my witches ahead of me tomorrow. Zugarramurdi awaits to be experienced!

Look forward to the next entry, dear reader!


**Note: These are blogs I wrote while in Spain. I’ve been back for almost a week now, and am trying to upload what I’ve got! Your patience is much appreciated! 😉


  1. clestancona says:

    Hey Meredith!
    I read your comment on mine- it’s interesting the number of related topics we have this summer, what with someone else researching Picasso’s Guernica, as well! This is fascinating to me that your research is so specifically concentrated- not just witch hunts, not just witch hunts in Spain, but even down to a specific red-bearded frenchman. How was Navarre? As far as the relation to France, I think even today a number of the footpaths through the Pyrenees still exist and are still used- at least from Guipuzcoa.
    Hope things are proceeding well now that you’re back in the States!