Fearless

‘The Heroine of Peralada‘, a painting by Antoni Caba (1864), represents the legend of Na Mercadera of Peralada during the Aragonese Crusade (1285). Is it really a legend or is the story true?

What happened

It is 1285 and the region of the Empordà with its cornfields and the Pyrenees as a background, is everything but idyllic. The life of a farmer’s family is hard, and because of its strategic position near France the area often is the scenery of tension and battles.

The mercenary and chronicler Ramon Muntaner, born at Peralada in the Alt Empordà, recorded his life and adventures as a commander of the Catalan Company. In one of the best known episodes he tells the story of a townswoman whom he personally knows: people call her Na Mercadera (the Merchant). He describes her as a strong, tall and resolute woman who does not let herself be bullied, not even by noblemen. She is determined to lead a normal life, what is more: she aims to make the most of the situation. This results in what Muntaner in his Chronicle calles a ‘marvellous fact’.

Ramon Muntaner (anonymous painter)

War and siege
In those days Catalonia was involved in a crusade against the Crown of Aragon instigated by the new Pope Martí IV after the House of Anjou had been thrown out of Sicily by its inhabitants with the help of Pere III of Aragon, the ‘Great’, against the Pope’s wishes. One of the many incidents during this conflict took place in Peralada, where king Pere had taken up his general quarters while the French enemy forces had besieged the town.

Of course this blockade makes daily life of the inhabitants nearly impossible. For example, they cannot safely work their plots that are situated in the outskirts of the town. But Na Mercadera is determined to give it a try. She dresses up like a man, and armed with a spear, a sword and a shield, she leaves the village to harvest the cabbages she needs.

Witches!

Early witches were people who practiced witchcraft, using magic spells and calling upon spirits for help or to bring about change. Most witches were thought to be pagans doing the Devil’s work. Many, however, were simply natural healers or so-called “wise women” whose choice of profession was misunderstood.

Witch-hunts in Catalonia
In Europe during the mid-1400s many accused witches confessed, often under torture, to a variety of wicked behaviors. Within a century, witch-hunts were common and most of the accused were executed by burning at the stake or hanging. Single women, widows and other women on the margins of society were especially targeted.

witchcraft.jpg

In Medieval Catalonia the witch-hunt mainly consisted of measures taken by the Inquisition against women who were suspected of witchcraft. From the 17th century onwards, when people began to consider witchcraft a serious danger that threatened society, a collective hysteria got a grip on society.

The first records of trials against witches in Catalonia date from the 14th century. In that period the sentences turned out to be quite light: reprimands, fasting and pilgrimages to Montserrat. The trials continued throughout the following centuries. In the 15th century the first important trial took place in Amer which convinced the population that witches did really exist; their persecution was at its height two centuries later, when tortures and executions frequently ocurred. In this period an estimated 400 women were executed, the last was probably in the latter half of the 18th century.

Stories and traditions
The general fear of witches gave rise to a whole series of stories related specifically to All Saints Day (November 1). On this day witches were said to break the crosses from any graves they pass, destroying all proof of the existence of the buried dead.

Another tradition has it that one could destroy a witch by going to her house on November 1, and marking a star on the gate. One would then go to a mass dedicated to Saint Martin. When the witch got home, the star would have burned, and the witch would be slowly consumed, her own witchcraft turning against her.

Throughout Catalonia you can find events on this day referring to witches, witchcraft and their persecution. Here are two examples.

Ball de Bruixes (Witches’ Dance)

On 2 November 1617 Viladrau (Osona), the Catalan town where the highest number of witches was tried, was the scene of a huge meeting of witches who had arrived at Sant Segimon (Saint Sigismund) from the farthest corners of the region. According to the inhabitants at that time, this aquelarre originated violent storms and blizzards that punished the area with big floods.

Every year on the night of 31 October, just at the beginning of All Saints Day, the Witches’ Dance is celebrated, a dramatization based on one of the most tragic episods in Viladrau’s history. The performance that includes music, dance, a light show and fire, is staged in the streets and represents the gathering of the 14 women who come together for the last time before being sentenced to death and executed.cap_base_home_witchIf you are not able to be in Valadrau at this specific moment, go and visit the Espai Montseny where you can delve into the story of these witches. The upper floor features several simultaneous and spectacular projected images and re-enacts the witches’ sabbath and where you can experience the violent storm unchained by them, just like people said.

XX Fira de les Bruixes (Witch Fair)
During the 16th and 17th century the village of Sant Feliu Sasserra (Bages) witnessed a series of curious events that people related with witchcraft. Many women were accused unfairly and died on the gallows. A total of 23 women were tried and at least 6 of them were executed.

The town wants to commemorate these facts and denounce the injusticies. So the fair of All Saints Day has been converted into a Fira de les Bruixes (Witch Fair), dedicated to the women accused of withcraft. Among other activities, various pageants march through the streets, the trial is staged and you can be a witch apprentice and learn to become a witch yourself. The next video gives an impression of this day.

For the program go to this website dedicated to this Fair.

Sources, among other websites and books: History and Wikipedia in Catalan and English.

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