A graphic showing a woman being burned at the stake

The witch hunts that swept through Europe during the 16th and 17th centuries resulted in the execution of tens of thousands of people accused of witchcraft, mostly women who were burned at the stake. But why weren’t witches burned alive in Malta?

There have been regular occurrences of witchcraft throughout the centuries in Malta, many of which passed through the court at the Inquisitor’s Palace. Mostly to do with love magic and foretelling the future, magic was practised by men, often Muslim slaves, but mainly by women.

However, despite it being established within certain sections of the Maltese population, there’s no clear evidence to suggest that anyone was executed for witchcraft in Malta during the early modern period. This is in stark contrast to other European countries, where the witch hunts resulted in the deaths of thousands of people.

One reason may be the unique political and religious situation in Malta at the time. During the early modern period, Malta was under the rule of the Order of Saint John, a Catholic military order. The knights of the Order, descended from long lines of nobility within Europe, were responsible for the politics and administration of the island, while the Catholic Church maintained strict control over religious and moral matters – not least through the function of the Roman Inquisition.

The Roman Inquisition

The Catholic Church played a central role in the witch hunts that swept through Europe during this period, and its various forms of Inquisition were responsible for investigating and punishing cases of heresy and witchcraft.

However, the type of Inquisition found in Malta – the Roman Inquisition – was relatively lenient compared to its counterparts in other parts of Europe. While the Roman Inquisitors in Malta did investigate cases of heresy and witchcraft, they were more focused on maintaining Catholic orthodoxy than punishing supposed witches.

Therefore, the sentences handed down by the Roman Inquisition in Malta for witchcraft were aimed at correcting superstitious behaviours and bringing practitioners of witchcraft back into the fold of being good Catholics, rather than employing harsh or even fatal methods of punishment.

Typically, witches (who were female) and sorcerers (who were male) in Malta were given punishments such as having to recite the rosary several times a week or month, sometimes for a period of years. They would also have to be seen in their local church, wearing white and holding a candle while kneeling at the front, on various feast and holy days.

This was to ensure that people in their community would witness their act of penance and that it would not be hidden by the convicted magic user carrying out their sentence in some quiet chapel, far away from where they lived, away from the judging gaze of their neighbours.

Types of magic in Malta

Malta has a long and complex history of witchcraft, superstition, and folk magic, with a rich tradition of spellcasting, divination, and healing that has been influenced by a variety of cultural and religious traditions.

Some of the most prominent types of witchcraft to have been practised in Malta include:

Folk magic: Believed to have originated during the period of Arab occupation from the 9th to 11th centuries, this involves the use of talismans, charms, and spells to protect against evil spirits and to bring good luck and prosperity.

Cartomancy: This is the practice of divination using playing cards. It was a popular form of fortune-telling on the island, with readers interpreting the cards to provide insight into the future.

Healers: There is a long tradition of healing magic in Malta, with practitioners using a variety of techniques, including herbal remedies, charms, and prayers, to cure physical and spiritual ailments.

Muslim diaspora magic: Brought to the island by slaves and their descendants, this form of magic involved the use of herbs, candles, and other materials to create spells and potions for protection, love, and success.

While it’s clear that various kinds of witchcraft were popular to a certain degree in Malta in the medieval and early modern periods, it’s also worth noting that witchcraft on the island was not seen as a deeply ingrained, widespread problem that needed to be eradicated, which may have contributed to the lack of witch burnings.

It’s also clear that the island was not as affected by the witch hunts as other European countries. This may have been due to a combination of factors, including the specific situation regarding the Order of St John’s rule and the presence of the more forgiving Roman Inquisition in Malta.

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