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The truth about the hunt for meigas: more persecuted by ordinary justice than by the Inquisition

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María Rodríguez, a 35-year-old Portuguese native of Ponte de Limia, was the protagonist of an auto-da-fe held in the Plaza del Campo in Santiago de Compostela on November 30, 1579. The court of the Holy Office ruled that the woman, a girl accused of having a pact with the devil and having practiced carnal relations with him, she had to be “relaxed”, that is, burned at the stake. It was the most terrible sentence of all possible.

However, this case constitutes an anomaly: throughout its three centuries of life, the Inquisition In Galicia he only sentenced to death one of the famous and legendary meigas, the aforementioned María Rodríguez. This is what the researcher reveals Diego Valor Bravo in The profession of the meigas (Cydonia), a work that, supported by the documents preserved about the processes, sheds light on who these women really were and the level of persecution to which they were subjected.

“The inquisitors were people with a very great humanistic training and that made them reach the conclusion that the meigas were a product of poverty and ignorance“explains the author, associate professor of History of Law and Institutions at the Rey Juan Carlos University. “They adopted a policy of covering up; From time to time they arrested a meiga to justify that they were pursuing witchcraft, but there was never an attempt to suppress them.”

But before continuing to analyze their criminalization, who really were the meigas? Valor Bravo, according to the documentation analyzed, differentiates three types of women who lived in the northwest of the Iberian Peninsula and who can be framed under this category: that of the healers/healers, who practiced a kind of homeopathic medicine; the one of the sorceresses, who could cast their spells to wish someone good or evil in matters related, for example, to livestock or crops; and that of those women who “they made a pact” with the devil: sex in exchange for certain supernatural powers.

Beyond the difficulty of locating the limit between reality and fantasy, the researcher unravels one of the great myths that survive about these witches: “They were basically village women, of very low social status, if not poor or beggars. We have an idea modern, an archetype, that the meiga was a strange being that lived outside the world in lost huts or inaccessible places. No, they lived in towns in Galicia and They did their work publicly, which was accepted. “Everyone knew they were friends and went to see them.”

The real scourge

Valor Bravo highlights that the sentences agreed upon by the Holy Office regarding the meigas were “benign.” Except for the case of María Rodríguez, burned alive, and that of Francisca do Rio, a resident of Santa Martín do Morrazo and the only one sentenced to life imprisonment in 1692 for having “a pact and familiarity with the devil”, were subjected to an auto-da-fe and their subsequent walk of shame through the streets of Santiago with the iconic coroza over the head. Furthermore, they were put a rope around the neck with as many knots as hundreds of lashes They had to receive—normally 200, on a pulpit, in public view—and they were pushed into exile for between two and four years about 4-8 leagues from their place of residence.

Perhaps an explanation for the apparent disinterest that the Inquisition showed in the meigas lies in the fact that they were very poor. One of the main sources of income for the religious court was “kidnappings”, the seizure of prisoners’ property —As far as witchcraft is concerned, not only lower-class women were prosecuted, but also people from the elite such as priests, nuns and curious characters such as a niece of the Duke of Alba or a professor of Rhetoric at the University of Santiago— . But the witches not only did not bring benefits, but their stay and maintenance in prison was costly to their coffers.

Cover of ‘The profession of the meigas’.


The meigas had to face much more radical hostiles. First of all, criminal justice, also equipped with chilling torture instruments. “The ordinary jurisdiction persecuted and killed many witches. They were accused of having poisoned someone and they said it was murder,” explains Diego Valor Bravo, who collects a couple of examples in this sense. Several of these women who They ended up hanging despite having been declared innocent by the Inquisition. On other occasions, the Holy Office did not even have material time to intervene.

The meigas were also harassed by their neighbors. A graphic example: in the mid-18th century, the cleric and beneficiary of Santa María de Magazo, in the diocese of Mondoñedo (Lugo), and his accomplices They posed as inquisitors and killed another alleged witch called María Fernández. “Galicia was full of people who, under the pretext of working for the Holy Office, went through the towns and villages assaulting poor unfortunate women who ended up being executed,” notes the author.

The work also analyzes the healing potions made by the meigas or the rituals they practiced. The most famous of witchcraft, the covenis also documented in Galician territory, thanks mainly to the statement of a woman called Beatriz Fernandez of 1610. “It is very difficult to know what was happening there, but it is true that there were meetings in certain places in Galicia where the meigas went,” concludes Valor Bravo, who launches a reflection to understand the phenomenon: “The meiga was not a product strange, he was someone who made sense in the society of the time.

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