The story of Elena di Travale, Maremma's most infamous medieval witch. If there is a subject to curdle the blood it has to be the witch hunts of the middle ages. No woman or man was safe from persecution and for the slightest of cause, ignorance and just envy.
The "biancane" landscape with sulphurous vapours around Elena di Travale's home.
The story of Elena Travale takes place amidst this heretic persecution in the year 1423.
Imagine if you will the late middle ages in Italy. A time of uncertainty, of constantly changing Kings, rule, wars and feuds. A time in which many everyday occurrences, and things that science has since explained, are believed by many to be influenced or directed by supernatural powers or magic. A still born child or foal, a storm, illnesses and much more.
The witch hunts that have started in Europe have reached Italy. And acts of "white magic" that were once accepted practices to bring good fortune, love and health, together with alchemy and astrology are now considered to be the work of the devil.
But it is always the local environment that dominates the fate of individuals...
Imagine then Maremma in the early fifteenth century at the beginning of the Italian Renaissance. The bordering city of Florence (Firenze) is the centre of this new ideological and cultural movement and is one of the wealthiest cities in northern Italy. The Renaissance ideals and ideas are spreading across Tuscany to the cities of Siena, Pisa and Lucca that also border Maremma and which are similarly rich and prosperous with international trade.
But Maremma was not then nor is now a Florence or Siena. But a place of densely wooded dark hills home to castled and fortified villages, towns and cities owned by more often as not impoverished landed noble families, and coastal lowlands and river valleys rife with malaria.
A land whose hills are rich in minerals: some gold, but mostly silver, copper, iron, and mercury. The ownership and control of whose mines are a highly prized possession, for which bloody wars and murders continue between the cities of Siena, Firenze and Pisa and the Pope in the struggle to own them. A land in which the Black Death has taken its toll and the beginning of the Little Ice Age has decimated agricultural production.
For all intents and purposes life in Maremma continues much as it had throughout the late middle ages.
The view south from Travale, little changed since Elena di Travale's time
And then imagine the very local environment of the fortified medieval village of Travale, enclosed in its circular castle walls and set deep within the wooded hills high above the valley of Cecina. Imagine still that these hills also emitted "strange" odorous hot vapours (sulphurous thermal vapour from Maremma's volcanic past).
And then the year 1423. Travale has suffered, as has much of Maremma, from more than twenty years of repeated pestilence and famine. And this year is another of poor harvest due to bad weather.
The castle of Travale, the village and surrounding lands and mines are in the ownership of the Pannocchieschi family and the under the control of the City of Siena and the jurisdiction of one Bishop of Volterra. A Bishop who until eight years before had been a very influential man indeed, holding as he did the post of principal financial advisor to Pope John XXII until the Pope's change of fortune in 1415. And who in this year must have been more troubled than most as his allegiance with members of influential Florentine families and their repeated attempts to resurrect him to this important position and thus aid their own political fortunes, reached an embarrassing end with a final protestation and embarrassing "begging" by Palla Strozzi, the richest man in Florence.
There are tales of nighttime gatherings of witches at the Cornate di Gerfalco, the highest point in the woodlands to the immediate south of Travale...
The photograph above and at the top of this page are of the biancane near Monterotondo Marittima, near Travale in Maremma and are by kind permission of Brumo.
Elena is described as a young woman of Travale of both unknown parentage and date of birth who had spent her life grown up in the community and was unaccustomed to traveling. (Ceccanti.) For all intents and purposes then, an illiterate commoner of no importance.
But was Elena di Travale actually a woman of means? Was she in fact, Elena di Sarteano, wife of Nanni di Travale of Sarteano, a "cavaliere" (knight or gentleman) living in Travale at the time? Who was mentioned in connection with the keeping of swallows, most unusually for that period, for air mail. (Franco Porretti.)
Elena is recorded as having called upon a lady Agnese as a witness to her innocence in using powdered dead swallows whose beaks "rivolto verso il cielo" - pointed skyward - as a base for a drink to make her lover fall in love with her. (Ceccanti.) Was she then Elena di Sarteano? Notwithstanding whether Elena was a commoner or of noble connections, the use of swallows in a potion at the time is not out with belief as the birds are widely considered as symbolic of spring and rejuvenation and are cited as accelerating healing rates.
Travale was and still is a very small community, and at the time of Elena's story virtually everyone would have lived within its walls. Now I have walked those walls and if you visit you will know that you can walk from one side of the castle to the other - albeit up and down a few steep alleyways - in just a couple of minutes. So everyone would have known everyone and everything about them. It would have been impossible not to have known Elena from her childhood to womanhood.
The motives for charging a woman with the sin of being a witch in the middle ages will have ranged from the accused simply being unmarried over a certain age, to her use of herbs and, in some cases, no doubt, as a mean of revenge or spite.
But why Elena? If she was Elena di Nanni, perhaps it was it because of she had simply done something no one else had in keeping swallows.
Or was it that tales of the witches of Gerfalco were gathering attention and a prosecution was called for. And, if she was just simple Elena di Travale with no family, she was the preferred scapegoat as opposed to another whom had family in Travale. But who in Travale decided?
In June of 1423 Elena di Travale was "examined" by three men of rich cloth, namely Stefano di Geri del Buono, Vescovo di Volterra" (Stefano son of Geri of Prato, the Bishop of Volterra), Antonio Michelotti of Perugia, "Vicario del Vescovo e Dottore in Diritto Canonico" (Vicar of the Bishop and Doctor of Canon Law), and the "Notaio" (Notary) Ottaviano di Jacopo Taviano Vermicelli of Volterra. You only have to visit the Museum of medieval torture at Volterra to understand the type of "examination" that Elena would have undergone.
Elena was brought to public trial at an Ecclesiastical Court in front of those same men on Thursday 12 June 1423. Although it was acknowledged that Elena had practiced magic to help others and cure diseases, her actions were now considered to be the fruit of her knowing and conferring with the devil himself and she was charged with "indemoniata, incantatrice, divinatrice, e consulente del demonio", of being possessed, an enchantress, of devil worshiper, and of being an advisor to the devil. In particular she was accused of practicing magic capable of harming livestock and crops.
The witnesses brought by the prosecution were Elena's fellow "travatini" villagers: her neighbours and those she had grown up with in Travale. Paraded in front of her, the claims in support of her guilt that they made and the evidence that they gave, if not in spite or for another personal motive, were in all probability made out of fear and under threats of a similar fate to Elena if they did not do so.
With a sadistic grin the the Notary stood at the side of the Bishop started a chant of "possessed" that spread throughout the court room. Elena called upon Madonna Agnese and a Bartolo di Giovanni who had sought her help in changing the weather to dry the crops in his field to support her, but to no avail. As her trial reached its conclusion, the Bishop theatrically demanded of her that she confess her relationship with the devil and she "spontaneously" did so. Subsequently, apparently, Elena uttered a spell against her judges before being forcibly removed from the court room. (Ceccanti.)
Elena di Travale was sentenced to be publicly pilloried and flogged fifty times in the main piazza of Volterra, to pay a fine of fifty gold florins and banished for her lifetime from the Diocesi of Volterra.
I hesitate to write the word "lenient" in describing Elena's punishment, but for the time in Volterra it was. Other women tried for witchcraft in Volterra at the same period were sentenced to be burnt alive at the stake. So why not Elena?
From the scant information that exists about Elena, my conclusion so far is that Elena di Travale was, indeed, a lady and the wife of Nanni di Sarteano. For three reasons:
The first is that Elena's sentence was "mild" for the time. And that rather than believing that Volterra was a more lenient city in its punishments of witches, it is more conceivable that Elena received corporal punishment because her husband was of noble origin, from the castled Sienese town of Sarteano.
That her punishment included a fine of fifty gold florins - who would set such a fine of a commoner in a poverished land where food was hard to come by if they had no expectation of its payment? - supports a case that Elena was of a lady of considerable means in Travale.
Thirdly, and albeit more tenuously perhaps, that during her trial she called upon another lady, that of lady Agnese to speak in her defense. Yes, a common woman under such duress would perhaps call upon many to her aid, but isn't it more likely that you would call upon one of your own kind? Lady Agnese was probably Agnese Mante-gezza, a gentlewoman from Milan.
If Elena di Travale was, however, a commoner. It leaves the mystery of how she paid her fine, or who paid it for her?
I have found nothing yet to tell whether she survived the lashings and, if she did, where she went afterwards. Nor any record thereafter of her husband. But in 1427 the popular Bernardino di Siena, a Franciscan monk born in the nearby city of Massa Marittima and later Saint, mentions her and her trial in his sermons.
But what is certain is that Elena di Travale would not have been the only woman - noble or not - to have been accused and tried of witchcraft in Maremma. And it was the women of the middle ages who suffered the most: eighty per cent of those accused of withcraft were women. Estimates of those killed during the medieval witch hunts range from 40,000 to 80,000, which mean that between 32,000 to 64,000 women were tortured, "tried", mutilated and killed.
Donne delle mia parti. di Anna Ceccanti. Una ricerca nella storia attraverso vicende di donne che rivelano gli avvenimenti accaduti dal tempo degli etruschi al dopoguerra. Casa editrice . Bandecchi e Vivaldi, Pontedera (PI).
Volterra Magica e Misteriosa; un viaggio affascinante nella suggestione dei secoli al confine fra storia e leggenda nel cuore segreto della città etrusca e dei suoi dintorni. Franco Porretti. Pacini, 1992.
Encyclopedia Treccani.it L'Enciclopedia Italiana BUONO, Stefano del (Stefano da Prato, Stefano di Geri) Dizionario Biografico degli Italiani - Volume 15 (1972)
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