The Basque people live in the Pyrenees Mountains which divide France and Spain. Around 1608, the French government heard complaints that Witchcraft was rife in the Basque communities of Pays de Labord. They sent Witch hunter Pierre de Lancre to investigate these charges. Over the course of the next two years, de Lancre precipitated one of France's major Witch persecutions, killing approximately 100 people (or 600, depending on how you read de Lancre's records).
With great concern, the Spanish Basque watched the trials just across their border. At first, there were no reports of Witchcraft in Spain. But as French refugees flooded in, seeking to avoid the panic, fear of Witchcraft increased. Children began to have nightmares, dreams in which evil Witches dragged them off to the Devil's sabbat. These dreams eventually triggered the largest Witch craze of the Burning Times, called "the Basque Dream Epidemic of 1610." The Inquisition investigated several thousand Witches during this craze; fortunately, only eleven died.
One of the other triggers of this great panic was a young woman named Maria de Ximildegui. Maria's family came from Zugarramurdi, a small Basque village in Spain. When she was sixteen, her family moved to the French town of Ciboure, approximately ten miles away. Four years later, just as Pierre de Lancre's Witch craze was beginning, Maria returned to her home town and found work as a servant.
Maria told some wild tales about her time in France. In Ciboure, she said, she'd renounced Christianity and become a Witch. For three years she attended the Witches' sabbats until a religious experience during Lent convinced her to return to Christianity. Her fellow Witches were infuriated and made her deathly ill, so in desperation, Maria turned to a learned priest. She confessed that she was a Witch and repented of her "sin." The priest in turn absolved her and gave her Christian talismans to protect her from the Witches' spells. These helped, but Maria left Ciboure as quickly as she could.
Maria made no effort to conceal the fact that she'd been a Witch. In fact, she boasted about it endlessly, to a titillated and astounded audience. No one leveled any charges against her. She'd repented, and a French priest pardoned her. She was no longer a Witch, merely a young women with some juicy tales to tell.
Perhaps nothing would have come of these stories. But Maria eventually claimed that she had attended sabbats in Zugarramurdi, as well as Ciboure. She knew many Witches in this town, she said, and she was happy to tell people who they were.
As you might expect, this enraged the "Witches" and their families. People challenged Maria's stories; the villagers began calling her a liar. One day, farmer Esteve de Navarcorena appeared on Maria's doorstep with a mob of his relatives, demanding that she stop slandering his young wife, Maria de Jureteguia. Maria stuck to her story. In fact, she said that she could prove it, if she could speak to Maria.
Esteve took her back to his farm and called his wife outside. Standing before the young woman, Maria de Ximildegui recounted lengthy tales of the sabbats she and Maria de Jureteguia had attended. The young wife denied this, over and over again. But as time passed, the extraordinary detail and length of the servant's story began to impress the crowd, and people urged Maria to confess her Witchcraft and repent. Terrified by the growing hostility of her in-laws, Maria de Jureteguia fainted. When she recovered, she admitted she was a Witch. Everything Maria said was true.
Because of this incident, Maria's reputation in Zugarramurdi soared. She became an infallible expert -- when she called someone a Witch, no one questioned her. The local priest made a bad situation ten times worse. He offered to pardon any accused Witch who confessed and repented. If, however, one of the accused refused to confess, the priest swore he'd torture them mercilessly. As a result, confessions poured in. Once Maria accused you, your reputation in town was ruined. Insisting you were innocent merely invited torture, harassment, and mob violence.
And as more and more Witches confessed, panic simmered in the town. People began to believe that they were being attacked by Witches. Children dreamed about them at night. Angered by the priest's "leniency", mobs of vigilantes began attacking accused Witches. About this time, we lose sight of Maria. The events she set in motion took on a life of their own; dreams, fears, and accusations spread like wildfire. The Spanish Inquisition stepped in and took charge of the Witchcraft investigations. Maria was one of the first people they questioned. She cooperated with them fully, repeating all of her old stories, and no charges were ever brought against her.
Was Maria telling the truth? Was she really a Witch, or simply a young woman hungry for any type of fame, even notoriety? We'll never know for sure. The Spanish Inquisition eventually decided she was a liar. Inquisitor Salazar studied of the confessions of Maria and the other Zugarramurdi Witches in detail. He found numerous, gross inconsistencies in their stories -- and learned that another inquisitor had doctored the evidence, to cover up these inconsistencies. Armed with this information, Salazar convinced the ruling council of the Spanish Inquisition to put an end to the Basque Witch trials.
We don't know what became of Maria. We do know that she passed unscathed through the great craze she helped create. Thousands of accused Witches were questioned by the Inquisition. Eleven died -- five killed by disease, in jail; six burned alive because they refused to confess. As at Salem, the only people who died were those who insisted they were Christians. All of the people who confessed to Witchcraft were pardoned and lived. Maria was one of them, and as far as we know, she lived out her days in Zugarramurdi.