Marina Melhiorca

Detail from the etching Six Men and Women Beggars, 1630. Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York

The first peddler and smuggler known by name from the Idrija-Cerkno Hills. Born in the village of Šebrelje at the end of the 17th century; place and date of death unknown.

Marina (Marija) Melhiorca was a subject of the Tolmin manor from the village of Šebrelje. Court records from her trial, held in Idrija from 1729 to 1731, describe her as “an old beggar with no possessions”, mother of several children and a peddler. Historians tell us that Melhiorca was most likely a middle-aged widow. She would bring food to Idrija and sell it or trade it for lace with the local lacemakers. She would then return to Šebrelje with the money and news. In 1730, the mine administration accused her of smuggling mercury, together with six Idrija miners and three local farmers. The mine administrator, Franc Anton Steinberg, Esq., first asked the Tolmin Count Coronini to bring in Melhiorca to the mine manor at the end of 1729. Her prosecution was based on a single piece of gossip claiming that she was involved in illicit mercury trade.

Because the mine held a monopoly over its sale, mercury was beyond the reach of most people. At the same time, it was very much sought after since it was used in traditional healing and folk medicine. However, the stealing and selling of stolen mercury were exceptionally risky. The inquisitorial court tried the “thieving rabble” in keeping with an antiquated mining law dating back to 1580, which punished the theft and smuggling of ore (irrespective of its amount) by forfeiture and death.

The story of Melhiorca reminds us that even in the worst of circumstances one can find the courage to resist – and survive.

On Christmas Eve 1729, the Tolmin bailiffs trod the 30 km to Šebrelje through deep snow. Melhiorca was ferociously beaten in front of her son, Florjan, so much so that he was taken ill. Melhiorca was banished to Idrija, where she was thrown into castle gaol, together with the miners and farmers. There she vomited blood. Convinced that she would die, she was administered last rites twice. Steinberg was outraged with the bailiffs, but only because their brutality prevented him from torturing Melhiorca himself during the interrogation. He also regretted that the inquisitor Janez Jurij Hočevar, who was widely regarded as the harshest judge and witch hunter in Carniola, could not participate in the trial. Despite his hostility, Steinberg eased Melhiorca’s captivity by having her transferred to the court officer’s quarters. Was he suddenly moved by Christian charity? Or was he more concerned with the fact that she might die before her sentencing and punishment? Melhiorca not only survived, but followed other defendants and managed to escape from her quarters on 4 October 1730. She was driven home by concern for her son, who suffered from hernia and lay at home, powerless. Twenty days later, she returned to Idrija, pressured into doing so by the Šebrelje mayor; she also came back because she was afraid of the bailiffs and the court officer’s revenge.

The unusually long criminal process involved authorities from Idrija, Tolmin, and Loka manors; the mine administrator was under the direct orders of the Graz Court Chamber. Melhiorca kept changing her testimony throughout the process, which occasioned a desperate inquisitor’s note to Graz saying that he would no longer send in the transcripts. Because Melhiorca sold the greatest amount of mercury, they wanted to brand her face with the sign “helper of thieves”, as a warning to the entire community; she would then be banished from Idrija. However, the provincial governor of Gorizia recommended that the smuggler – “who had been treated so inhumanly that her injuries make her worthy of compassion” – only be given a mild punishment. We know neither how Marina Melhiorca was punished nor how she lived out the rest of her days. It is well known, however, that throughout history and the world over subjugated people have resisted in myriad obvious and hidden ways. In Idrija, poor miners stole mercury. Ore, lace, and other goods were smuggled by local feudal subjects: vagabonds, seasonal workers, destitute artisans, peasants, and beggars. Melhiorca was one of them; her story reminds us that even in the worst of circumstances one can find the courage to resist – and survive.

Idrija Municipal Museum

The museum is located at the Gewerkenegg Castle, where Melhiorca was kept in the dungeon. Her smuggling was the inspiration behind several museum programmes for children and adults – “Melhiorca” herself will take you on a tour of exhibits on mine heritage, history of the town, and Idrija lace. The collections are accessible to people who are deaf or hard of hearing, people with learning disabilities, and people with limited mobility.