When the Museum is Wrong

A view of the village of Zugarramurdi from the mirador (look-out point) above the caves.

I will now relate my experience of being more knowledgeable than a museum… which will probably be my last. I have mentioned before that the Zugarramurdi Witch-Hunt, the object of my thesis, was one of the largest and most notable in Europe. For this reason, the tiny village of Zugarramurdi has taken advantage of the tourist opportunity. The Caves where the witches supposedly held their sabbats, or aquelarres as they are known in the Basque country, are the main attraction. But a museum also exists to make money off of the famous event.

El Museo de las Brujas, aptly named, requires the visitor to sit through an opening film. After the film, three floors filled with information, photos, reconfigurations of locations, and mini films (though now actual historical objects) can be explored.

This museum was extremely flawed. Although chronological facts and the general event of the Witch-Hunt were preserved, an overall tone condemning the Inquisitors for persecuting a harmless bunch of pagan religious adherents was the message.

This is completely false, especially from a historical perspective. None of the witches ever confessed to worshiping any earth deity. They confessed to worshiping the Devil. None of the witches ever confessed to participating in fertility rites. They confessed to reneging on their Christian faith and practicing a Black Mass. None of the witches were “harmless.” They confessed to killing children, destroying crops, and threatening villager’s earthly livelihoods and spiritual salvation.

I know that it is most likely that a message encouraging tolerance is a way for the museum to continue receiving funding. However equating the Inquisitor’s persecution of the witches to the Nazi’s persecution of Jews in the Holocaust (which the opening film did) is not only a major flaw, but a dangerous intellectual exercise. Yes, the Inquisitors did use torture and commit their own crimes on humanity. But with the evidence we have, it is irresponsible scholarship to equate their actions with the atrocities of the Holocaust. Furthermore, holding people in the past to a modern-day standard of ethics is ludicrous. It may even be possible that the witches really were practicing fertility rites and worshiping an earth mother; but that’s not what the existing evidence says. And all we have to construct the past with is the existing evidence, and the museum ignores it.

Furthermore, the Inquisition was created for the sole purpose of routing out heresy. To be a heretic, you must first be an adherent to Christianity, or at least considered one in the case of the converted Jews and Muslims (conversos and moriscos, respectively). Technically, the Inquisition could not prosecute a group of pagan worshipers, unless they were already Christian to begin with. And the witches admitted to heresy within Christianity as it was the Devil they were worshipping and the Mass and Baptism they were inverting and recreating.

This museum was extremely upsetting to me as an academic committed to reproducing as much of the truth as possible. For an unknowing public to be deceived in such a way and to continue the negative stereotypes of the Spanish Inquisition really bothers me. And they even had an electronic user-explorable copy of el Quaderno, the very document I’m studying, for visitors to explore and read the truth themselves!

In the end, being more knowledgeable than the museum was a rare experience. And although I did learn a little factually from the museum, the bigger lesson I took away was the way in which historical events can be manipulated and re-told to further modern-day concerns or biases. Of course this is nothing new: we are seeing this in our own country with debates over the history taught to VA students about African-American involvement in the Civil War or the erasure of relevant information on the founding fathers in Texan children’s American History books.

I’ve realized that the work of a historian must involve a commitment to the facts and an intolerance for biased or skewed scholarship. And although biased writing is clearly discouraged in the classroom, it seems to be prevalent and a real concern for working historians in the field and for the way in which society as a whole deals with history.


PS- An interesting footnote here, to learn more about the ways in which history is reconstructed for modern-day purposes read Margaret MacMillan’s Dangerous Games. Great book and an easy and fascinating read!