The witch girl of Albenga

And maybe it is for revenge, maybe out of fear
Or just plain madness, but all along
You are the one who suffers the most
If you want to fly, they drag you down
And if a witch hunt begins,
Then you are the witch.

(Edoardo Bennato, La fata, 1977)

Saint Calocero, Albenga. XIV Century.
A 13-year-old girl was being buried near the church. But the men who were lowering her down decided to arrange her face down, so that her features were sealed by dirt. They did so to prevent her from getting up, and raising back to life. So that her soul could not sneak off her mouth and haunt those places. They did so, ultimately, because that little girl scared them to death.
Not far from there, another woman’s body was lying in a deep pit. Her skeleton was completely burned, and over her grave, the men placed a huge quantity of heavy stones, so she could not climb out of her tomb. Because women like her, everybody knew, were bound to wake up from the dead.

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The “witch girl of Albenga”, and a second female skeleton showing deep signs of burning, are two exceptional findings brought to light last year by a team from the Pontifical Institute of Christian Archeology, directed by Professor Philippe Pergola and coordinated by archeologist Stefano Roascio and Elena Dellù. Scholars were particularly puzzled by the proximity of these two anomalous burials to the ancient church which hosted the relics of martyr Saint Calocero: if these two women were considered “dangerous” or “damned”, why were they inhumed in a privileged burial ground, surely coveted by many?

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One explanation could be that burying them there was a “sign of submission to the Church”. But there is still extensive analysis to be conducted on the remains, and already skeletons are revealing some clues which could shine a light on this completely forgotten story. Why would a child, not even 60 inches tall, instill such a deep fear in her fellow citizens?
Researchers found out small holes in her skull, which could show she suffered from severe anemia and scurvy. These pathologies could involve fainting, sudden bleeding and epileptic fits; all symptoms that, at the time, could have been easily interpreted as demonic possession.
A possible kinship between the two women has still to be confirmed, but both skeletons seem to show signs of metopism, a genetic condition affecting the suture of the frontal bones.
According to radiocarbon dating, the burials date back to a period between 1440 and 1530 AD – when the infamous witch hunts had already begun.

english-witches-making-a-spell-1489-engraving-b-w-photoIn 1326, the papal bull Super illius specula by Pope John XXII set the basis for witch hunts: as incredible as it may sound, until then intellctuals and theologists had dismissed the idea of a “commerce with the Devil” as a mere superstition, that had to be eradicated.

Therefore in those churches they are given custody of priests have to constantly predicate to God’s people that these things are completely false. […] Who has never experienced going out of one’s body during his sleep, or to have night visions and to see, while sleeping, things he had never seen while wide awake? Who could be so dull or foolish as to believe that all these things which happen in the spirit, could also happen in the body?

(Canon episcopi, X Century)

Instead, starting from the XIV Century, even the intelligentsia was convinced that witches were real, and thus began the fight not just against heresy, but also against witchcraft, a persecution the Church entrusted to mendicant orders (Dominicans and Franciscans) and which would last over four centuries. Following the publishing of Malleus Maleficarum (1487), an actual handbook about witchcraft repression, the trials increased, ironically in conjunction with the Renaissance, up until the Age of Enlightenment. The destiny of the “witch girl” of Albenga has to be framed in this complex historical period: it is not a real mystery, as some newspapers have claimed, but rather another tragic human story, its details vanishing in time. Hopefully at least a small part of it will be reconstructed, little by little, by the international team of researchers who are now working on the San Calocero excavations.

(Thanks, Silvano!)

4 comments to The witch girl of Albenga

  1. michelebast says:

    Leggendo questo interessante post mi è subito saltato in mente “La Chimera” di Vassalli, a mio dire il ritratto (romanzato quanto basta per risultare piacevole ma non oltre lo stretto necessario) paradigmatico di ogni “caccia alla strega”. Come per lui, il taglio umano ed empatico che dai alla vicenda, senza sensazionalismi e compiacimento nei dettagli “gore”, è encomiabile.

  2. Livio says:

    Maledetta chiesa…

  3. Galinsoga says:

    Le due sepolture non sono affatto contemporanee: quella della ragazzina sepolta in posizione prona è più antica (prima metà del XV secolo), mentre lo scheletro della giovane donna (16-17 anni) con profonde tracce di bruciatura, è quanto resta di un corpo sepolto, con tutta probabilità, nel primo quarto del XVII secolo. Da un punto di vista storico c’è una bella differenza: il monastero femminile di S. Calocero fu trasferito nel centro di Albenga nel 1593 e da quell’anno cadde in un progressivo stato di abbandono, quindi quando la ragazzina fu sepolta a faccia in giù la chiesa di San Calocero era ancora parte di un complesso conventuale funzionante e la sepoltura, per quanto “strana” nelle modalità, avvenne in terra consacrata. Invece, quando la ragazza bruciata venne sepolta all’interno del complesso, la chiesa versava già da qualche tempo in stato di abbandono e forse era già stata sconsacrata. Che cosa se ne potrebbe dedurre? Che, chi ha sepolto la ragazza più grande, molto probabilmente voleva occultarne il corpo? E’ vero che sui resti non sono stati rinvenuti segni evidenti di violenza fisica, ma ci possono essere molti modi per uccidere una persona senza fratturare o lesionare le sue ossa… Tra Medioevo e Seicento la prassi, con i giustiziati per eresia e stregoneria (soprattutto se condannati al fuoco) era quella di lasciar bruciare per molte ore il rogo (continuando ad alimentarlo con legna e fascine) fino alla completa distruzione del corpo Tuttalpiù i resti del corpo e le ceneri venivano gettati nei fiumi o in mare, per farli definitivamente scomparire, talvolta dopo aver ulteriormente disgregato i frammenti ossei più grandi a colpi di mazza o piccone (leggere la raccapricciante cronaca dell’esecuzione di Jan Huss)… d’altro canto il reato di lesa maestà (Crimen maiestatis), di cui stregoneria ed eresia erano fattispecie, prevedeva la privazione della sepoltura e, a seconda dei periodi, la distruzione del corpo del reo dopo il supplizio, quindi perché seppellire queste due presunte streghe?

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