Victims of Witch Trials

The town and castle of Ribnica (detail). Engraving from The Glory of the Duchy of Carniola (1689) by J. W. von Valvasor. Museum of Ribnica

In the Slovenian lands, witch trials spanned a period of 200 years (1546–1746) and resulted in the death of between 500 and 1,000 victims. Most of them were women.

“Witch hunt” is a synonym for the persecution of all those who are different or dissident, as suspected culprits for all that is wrong in the world; a “witch” usually denotes an “ugly”, “evil” or old woman. Both expressions date back to witch trials, popularly believed to have been the staple of the “dark Middle Ages”, even though the majority of witch trials took place in the Early Modern Period. In Europe alone, they claimed the lives of between 60,000 to 100,000 people; in the Slovenian lands, more than 80% of victims were women.

The Inquisition’s drive to eradicate witches was the result of the Catholic Church’s centuries-old ambivalence, if not outright hatred towards women. The invention of the printing press in the middle of the 15th century meant that demonological writings outlining how to identify and destroy witches became widely available to the ruling classes throughout Europe. Consequently, their persecution was advocated by both secular and religious authorities, who suddenly found a common language. A woman’s ill repute was proof enough of sorcery. A woman who talked back and swore also was considered a witch. It was thus possible to punish any woman by accusing her of witchcraft; the historically unparalleled levels of sexual sadism that the accused were subjected to during torture reveal a misogyny impossible to account for by the nature of any specific crime.

After the publication of the demonological treatise The Hammer of Witches (1486), the focus of persecution shifted to the so-called wise-women: folk healers and midwives who knew how to regulate the number of births in a world governed by the moral imperative that one can only bear as many children as one can take care of. But fewer children meant fewer labourers, which is why the subjugation of women’s bodies to childbirth was of vital significance in the rise of capitalist exploitation.

Empress Maria Theresa put an end to witch hunting in the Slovenian lands in 1746.

As its title suggests, the exhibition in Ribnica gives voice to witch-hunters rather than their victims. Nonetheless, it is precious in that it highlights the support of various authorities for the eradication of witches as they identified witchcraft as a devil-worshipping conspiracy. Superstitious farmers, on the other hand, mainly accused witches of conjuring hail and storms, which damaged their harvest. The period of witch-trials coincided with the Little Ice Age, which affected crops and fuelled a rise in prices; the crisis was further exacerbated by epidemics and wars.

In the Slovenian lands, witch trials began after 1546, with at least six women condemned to burn at the stake at a process in Maribor. They culminated in the second half of the 17th century with mass trials in Styria, Carinthia, and Carniola. The mass trial in Ribnica (1700–1701), which resulted in at least seven deaths, is one of the better documented cases. We know most about Marina Češarek, a 40-year-old wife of a shoemaker and a mother of six. In an attempt to save herself, she feigned pregnancy, but the midwives refuted her claims. She was tortured on the instructions of Dr Janez Jurij Hočevar, renowned as one of the cruellest criminal judges, who immediately resorted to the worst form of torture, the iron chair. After a week of indescribable pain, Marina Češarek admitted to being a witch and, under duress, denounced a number of other women. She, Ana Zbačnik, Neža Rus, Jera Šober and Končarica were burned alive at the stake; Marina Košir and Lucija Kerznič died during torture. In the Slovenian lands, witch trials came to an end in 1746 on the order of Maria Theresa.

Witch hunting eradicated practices, relations and systems of knowledge that supported the strength and resilience of women in feudal, pre-capitalist Europe. It thus helped enforce the constructs of femininity and family life. At the very outset of persecution, women were seen as wild and weak-minded creatures dominated by insatiable lust; only three centuries later, they were portrayed as passive, asexual, docile, and virtuous. We still feel the consequences of this shift today.

Museum of Ribnica

The Ribnica Castle tower, part of the Museum of Ribnica, houses the only permanent exhibition on witch trials in Slovenia, Bloody Fight with the Witch Menace. The exhibition is not accessible to people with limited mobility or sensory disability; however, there is a virtual tour available. Gravel paths lead to the Castle Park, including the Ribnica Cultural Memorial Park, which features 66 names, among them only three women artists, Zofka Kveder, Ana Skube and Majda Šilc.