Basque Region - Witchcraze! Persecution of Witches

The Element Encyclopedia of Witchcraft: The Complete A-Z for the Entire Magical World - Judika Illes 2005

Basque Region
Witchcraze! Persecution of Witches

The Basque region spreads over the western edge of the Pyrenees Mountains that divide France from Spain overlooking the Bay of Biscay. There are seven Basque provinces, four in Spain and three in France. The Basque people have lived there since that old proverbial time immemorial; they are believed to have occupied a geographical territory longer than any other European ethnic group.

Their origins are mysterious and continue to confound anthropologists. They are apparently unrelated to any other ethnic group. The Basque language (known in Basque as Euskara) is apparently unrelated to any known language. Some suggest it is the original indigenous, Paleolithic European language. The Basques were comparatively late converts to Christianity, and ancestral traditions including ritual dances and offerings to the dead survived conversion.

There were no Basque witch-hunts per se; instead French witch-hunters and the Spanish Inquisition took turns entering Basque territory to hunt down and execute witches, and the Basque territory was the scene of extensive witch-hunting in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries: the Spanish Inquisition targeted Basque witches in the sixteenth century; French witch-hunters targeted Basque witches in the seventeenth.

The ethnic aspect of these witch-trials cannot be forgotten. Basque women were interrogated by French and Spanish men, most of whom could not speak their language and who thus relied on local translators and paid witchfinders.

Traditional Basque society was very different from that the witch-hunters left behind in Spain and France: Basque women were exceptionally independent for their time. Although men wintered at home, a high percentage of Basque men were fishermen who spent the entire summer fishing in Newfoundland. Adult women were, thus, left “unsupervised.”

Spanish and French witch-hunters simultaneously disapproved and were titillated by these women. Witch-hunter Pierre de Lancre, in particular, reveals more about his own sexual fantasies in his memoirs than he does of any witchcraft practices (see BOOKS: Witch-hunters’ Manuals: Pierre de Lancre).

Spain conducted an intensive witch-hunt in Basque territory beginning in 1507. In 1507, over 30 women were burned as witches in Calahorra.

In 1527, a craze began when two little girls, aged 9 and 11, claimed to belong to a coven. They told officials that if they were granted immunity, they would identify other witches for the witch-hunters. They claimed they could recognize witches by gazing into their left eyes: in witches, the sign of a frog’s foot appeared above the pupil.

Officials took the girls, guarded by 50 horsemen, to various towns so that they could identify witches. Upon arriving in a village, the guards arrested all the women. Each child was placed in a separate house and women were sent in one by one to have their eyes inspected. If the girls pronounced a woman a witch, she was arrested. Over 150 were imprisoned and charged with witchcraft based on the testimony of these two children.

Rumors of thousands of Basque witches engaged in Satanic activity spread through France and Pierre de Lancre, an especially aggressive witch-hunter, was sent in his capacity as the French king’s councilor to lead a ferocious witch-hunt through French Basque territory. De Lancre confirmed these rumors: according to him, La Hendaye Beach in French Basque territory had sabbats attended by no less than 12,000 witches.

De Lancre indicted so many witches that the jails literally couldn’t hold them all. He reported executing 600 Basque witches, burned alive at the stake, during four months in 1609.

De Lancre despised and hated Basque people, and especially independent Basque women who were used to acting as heads of their households.

De Lancre was particularly aggravated that women acted as sacristans in church.

He suggested that the Basque witches were part of an international conspiracy with other European witches in order to eradicate Roman Catholicism and Christianity. De Lancre went too far when he began executing priests accused of being or supporting witches: for instance Basque priest Pierre Bocal, accused of wearing a goat mask and presiding over both Christian and Pagan rites and subsequently burned alive. The French public lost its taste for the witchhunts at that point, and de Lancre fell from public favor.

Official records of the French Basque witch trials were destroyed in a fire in 1710. The best surviving source is de Lancre’s own rambling memoirs. To this day, de Lancre’s text provides major source material for most discussions of Basque witchcraft. De Lancre did not understand the Basque language; all interrogations were done via interpreters. The witches’ confessions, offered in Basque, were recorded by de Lancre in French.