Women On Trial: the Witches

9 9 2017

Women On Trial: the Witches

Historic cases revisited and reassessed

A thrilling feature of this year's Festival are the Processi, the reopening of historic cases using archived documents. Historians, archivists and storytellers will take on the roles of prosecutors and defence lawyers in controversial cases from the past.


What do witch trials from the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries have in common with contemporary society? More than what we might think, based on the trials reconstructed by the archivists Danilo Craveia and Michele di Sivo. Witch trials were brought against women who did not comply with the norms of the times, who did not want to be subjugated and had no fear of expressing their own opinions.

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In 1470, Giovanna Monduro was burnt alive after being sentenced to death for being a witch. In Piedmont, near the end of the 15th century, witch hunts were in full swing. It was very dangerous being an independent woman who was unafraid to speak for herself, especially when one’s life path crossed those of religious men and their misogynist attitudes.

Giovanna was being accused of betraying both God and her community, the only basis of this being a rumour about an encounter she had with the Devil that was circulating around the town. After being tortured, Giovanna admitted to the encounter and meticulously describes her interaction with the Devil. She was forced describe her supposed sexual interaction with this transcendent figure in every tiny detail, verging on the absurd.

In 1528, Bellezza Orsini lived in Rome, she was 48 and she had three children when she was accused of witchcraft and put on trial. She know how to read and write, and as a servant to the Orsini family, she was well travelled. Knowing what her fate would be, she faced the judge with her head held high and rather than being sentenced, she took her own life while being held in prison.

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Of course, witch hunting has not existed for centuries now, but the legacy of that period has not disappeared completely. It is just more subtle: it is found in language, in the lack of equal opportunities in the workplace, in the difference between gender roles that are assigned to boys and girls at birth, in the difficulties women face when asserting their own opinion.

“If we want to talk about the situation of women nowadays, we can’t ignore these signs from the past” the author pointed out, supported by his studies of the history of trials. “For centuries, women have been killed because they defended their right to be in control of their own bodies. Women’s sexuality has long been an obsession for men, and that remains the case today. I don’t think this problem has been solved, not at all.”