Malesco, land of witches

Extraordinarily beautiful or extraordinarily ugly, red-haired or with other infernal features, the witches in the alpine tales curdled the milk, brought the cattle down the ravine, made newborns disappear from their cribs. But they also knew how to cure diseases of body and soul and how to turn into vipers themselves to flee dangers. The herb-pickers, women in possession of a very ancient knowledge, a strictly oral tradition passed down through generations, were the first to be suspected of witchcraft. The Pope's Inquisitors came from the city and pounced on any remaining of paganism, who was grossly identified with the connection to nature. Saint Martin, bishop of Tour, cut down thousands of sacred trees in the French villages, to eradicate, literally, every trace of the ancient cults of trees. The familiarity with herbs and plants was a sign of paganism still in the 16th and 17th century. The valleys of Ossola were particularly exposed to the heresy because in nearby Switzerland the Reformation had spread. In the climate of oppression of the Counter-Reformation, the term “Genevan”, used as a synonym for Calvinist, was not only an insult but a dangerous charge of heresy and therefore of witchcraft. In the very poor economies of mountain areas, then, the right to use mountain pastures could mean the survival of a whole community. An extreme case was the centuries-long fight between Malesco in Val Vigezzo and Cossogno in Val Grande, that culminated, according to the folk tales, in a real massacre. And so the charge of witchcraft ended up intertwining with the feuds between families or villages, becoming a fierce instrument of vengeance. Ambition, fanaticism, and greed of prelates and inquisitors completed the work. In fact, the inquisitors appropriated large sums and wealth for their convents by confiscation of the property of the condemned to death. That’s why Bascapé (1593-1615), the bishop of Novara, called emblematically the Ossola mountains “the Indies of these Dominicans”. In this context, Val Vigezzo got a reputation as a land of witches. More specifically, Malesco in Val Vigezzo was the seat of the tribunal of the Holy Inquisition, that terrified the Ossola valleys by means of torture, trials, and fires and claimed victims especially among lonely women, widows or nubiles. The witch-hunt in these areas began at least in the middle of the 15th century and in the early 16th century the accused were already several tens, and several tens were also the stakes. The hunt culminated, obviously, with the coming of the Counter-Reformation, starting in the late 16th century. The case of the nearby valley Antigorio was exemplary. In this valley, between 1575 and 1620, dozens of women from the villages of Baceno, Croveo e Crodo were accused and processed; two of them went to the stake, one was sentenced to the perpetual imprisonment and about ten died during the processes, as a result of the tortures. The Counter-Reformation zeal hit some male victims as well: two men were processed, the first for not hearing mass while he was working abroad, the second for giving work to a Lutheran. These events had such an impact on the region that the memory still lives in the folk tales. Find out more: Le streghe di Baceno Storia di Malesco Streghe in Val Vigezzo Streghe e stregoni sulle alte cime alpine dell’Ossola Benito Mazzi, Il Piano delle Streghe. Fisica, diavoli, visioni, segnali, Priuli e Verlucca, 2005 Nino Chiovini, Cronache di terra lepontina, Tararà, 2007 Credits: Herbarium de Neuchâtel Emily Dickinson’s Herbarium goRillA-iNK Worldlabel Francesco Maria Guazzo, Compendium Maleficarum, Martino Fine Books, 2011 Archivio del tribunale della Diocesi di Aosta, in Fiorenza Cout, Secret. Formule di guarigione in uso in Valle d’Aosta, Priuli & Verlucca, 2005