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Le streghe, il boia e il diavolo
A historical novel
448 pages, € 20.00
The witches, the hangman and the devil
A book meant to do justice
“Scorched earth” is based on four trials that took place between 1613 and 1615.
As the author declared, “I wished to restore the honour of those who were accused to be witches”.
“Scorched earth” is a historical novel with a twist. Its tone shifting from exhilarating to intimate to deeply moving, the book straddles the fine line between fiction and reality.
Rivista di Lugano
Mottis’ novel revolves around Kasper Abadeus, an executioner, who finds himself at the core of a noir of great scope and ambition. Several frighteningly fitting excerpts from the Malleus Maleficarum (the infamous treatise on witchcraft, widely consulted by the Inquisitors in the years of the Counter-Reformation) makes us quiver with fear whenever we delve into a new chapter.
A novel that sheds a light upon our turbulent past.
1613, Roveredo, Canton of the Grisons, Switzerland. The local hangman executes a thief in Valle Calanca. Three days later, the executioner is found dead. It’s a mystery. Without its minister of High Justice, the municipality of Mesolcina falls prey to brigands, usurers, witches and wizards that wreak havoc in the valleys. Anxious to restore order, the judicial authorities hire a new hangman from the land that border the Three Leagues.
The newly appointed minister of High Justice is a mysterious, macabre and yet bewitching character, standing at the edge of a world that is reluctant to let him in. A prostitute in Roveredo – a woman with a troubled past, but proficient in the healing arts – will present the executioner with sensations he has never felt before. Little by little, his very soul and conscience break down: is his craft even useful for human society? Are the sentences issued by the Court of the valley fair and just?
Scorched Earth is a historical novel with a twist. Its tone shifting from exhilarating to intimate to deeply moving, the book straddles the fine line between fiction and reality. The plot revolves around four actual trials that took place between 1613 and 1615; their records, deposited at the municipal archives, have been translated by the author into contemporary Italian. Real names, historical figures, age-old traditions, strange jinxes, heinous crimes, brutal tortures, nonsensical superstitions and gross injustices: a real cultural treasure trove, hidden in the Archives, that sheds light upon the European (and, specifically, Swiss) folklore and customs of the 17th century.
In 2016, while Mottis was still in the process of writing it, Scorched Earth earned him the recognition of Professional Artist, bestowed by the Cultural Promotion Organisation of the Canton of the Grisons.
Born in 1975, he studied Italian literature and Byzantine archaeology at the University of Freiburg, receiving his Licentiate of Arts in 2001. He currently teaches History and Italian in several middle schools in Roveredo and professional schools in Giubiasco.
Since 2000 he has published six books, including Sentieri umani (“Human paths”, 2000); Un destino, una nostalgia (“A fate, a longing”, 2003); Il boia e l’arcobaleno (“The executioner and the rainbow”, 2006); Oltre il confine e altri racconti (“Beyond the line and other tales”, 2010); Altri mondi, (“Other worlds”, 2011); and his first historical novel, Fratelli neri. Storia dei primi internati africani nella Svizzera italiana (“Our black brothers. A chronicle of the early African internees in Italian Switzerland”, 2015).
Since 2005 he has also been the director of the drama company “Siparios”. Mottis also lends his linguistic expertise to the Swiss radio broadcast “La consulenza” (“Expert advice”) on Rete Uno.
“I am sorry, but we are powerless. Trust me – time is not ripe yet, and there are too many interests at stake. The most powerful clans use Justice as their tool to scorch the earth around their enemies; to weaken them; to let disgrace loose in their halls. They use Justice to expropriate lands and pastures and fields and herds, just to get richer and richer. The populace has always made a living by serving these mighty families, not just here in Mesolcina but everywhere else. It was like this in the days of the Trivulzios, too. We can’t revolt now – they would treat us like common criminals, no, they would have us hanged!”.
The time Dorenza put the rats on trial
It was the flood of March 1612 that filled Dorenza with hordes of ravenous rats. At first, they sprawled across the fields, devouring all that crossed their way – then they turned towards the city, and brought terror with them.
It had been raining for weeks. The Tobler, as black as pitch, had quickly burst its banks, and its muddy waves had invaded the town’s streets and cellars; every dusty basement, half-touched by the mould; every tavern, drenched in the sour stench of wine and sweat. The districts stank horribly, packed as they were with excrements and carcasses of stray animals, and when the marshy tide came and swept them at long last, it didn’t bring much good to the villagers. True, the filth had been removed from the streets, but that only created more room for the rats. Vigorous swimmers, they were quick to repopulate the alleys, squirming their way into every hole with a devilish frenzy. After the flood, only desolation came – and the rats became the rulers of the city.
They immediately started to scratch, searching for food and waste; gnawing on and on with their voracious fangs, eating everything: corn, chestnuts, loaves, beans, herbs, ham and sausages, scrolls, corpses, as far as the woollen filling of the chairs and the varnished surface of the table legs. And, after they feasted on the fields where the poor, wretched farmers had been breaking their backs for a whole week, and after they emptied the storerooms and the cellars of everything good, the invaders changed their devious scheme. They began to bite people.
Lurking in the tiniest, darkest corners, the rats attacked the passersby on their way to the baker’s, to the grocer’s, to the blacksmith’s, or to the secret paths leading to the expensive embrace of the local Aphrodites. The rats bit arms and legs, pouncing upon the drunkards whose brain was hazy; hopelessly drunk, they would rest defenceless against the wet stone walls of their houses. A disciplined army would surround the target and start its offensive from all sides, until the poor boozer would jump up and start screaming wildly, foreseeing his death, and tried to chase off the pest. Some other times the victims would let the rats eat them through, in complete surrender. Hell must have been better than their pointless existence, after all.
Thirsty for blood, as if they were possessed by some thing of Evil, the rats would pack in quiet troops, their red little eyes blazing in anticipation. There must have been some primal force moving them, some maleficent, cold-blooded mind; for a sudden squeak, a tiny vibration of the whisker, a curt nod of the snout, and the whole starving battalion would leap at the unwary victim, soon to be ravaged by a thousand avid, sharp teeth.
One gory meal at a time, the rats grew in number. They became fatter, greedier, and more fertile than ever. Just like the beast in Dante’s Comedy, the more they ate, the hungrier they were. They lined up in strong, well-organized colonies, always ready to strike. Even the alley cats, so skinny and so inherently diffident, could not overpower the demonic beings. For every two rats they managed to eat, four would come back, then eight, then twelve – a grotesque retaliation where the monsters would munch on arms and paws with identical ravenousness.
The first episode of contagion alarmed everyone in Dorenza. An old man suffering from gout, who had somehow outlived a night-time ambush of the rats, became gangrenous in a matter of days: his breath went rancid, his teeth fell down, his skin turned bluish, and his flesh started to rot. Was it fever? Was it the plague? No one knew, not even the local physician – who was, in fact, a poor drunkard who spent much more time in the company of gamblers and prostitutes than he did with his patients. When the old man was found stiff and dead against a granary’s wall, the face black, the armpits swollen, the news of infection broke through. All across the city, bell tower to emptied barn, alley to alley, balcony to terrace, the dreaded omen was heard in every placea: the infection is spreading! The rats are infecting Dorenza!
The people tried a desperate defence. They shut themselves indoors and barred shops and taverns, while the Podesta and the senior officials planned out a targeted attack. Animal trainers from distant provinces were sent for. Three days later, the trainers showed up – clad in tabards and with their collars up, they led a convoy of carriages and purebred horses, beautiful with their muscular withers and spotlessly fine teeth. The men got off the horses and unveiled the precious treasure they were carrying to the eyes of the Podesta. Nods were given, a deal was quickly made, and money was paid – in hard cash, and accompanied by a royal-sealed parchment. The expert hands of the trainers grabbed a multitude of meowing cages from the carriages and placed them in the middle of the square, watched by a few, curious peasants. The chief trainer gave a signal, the caged were opened, and hundreds of large cats were unleashed – black and brown, grey and reddish, the eyes injected with blood, the fangs gleaming; yowling like hellish creatures, ready to kill. The few bystanders fled in terror, while the cats, following their instincts, immediately disappeared into every hole there was, smelling their prey. A brutal carnage had started.
The city streets became the battlefield of an animal war. Countless, savage fangs would grip at the rats and tear them apart: the deed of the wonderful cats seemed to please the Podesta. The feeling of victory, however, didn’t last long: after such a grand feast, and exhausted for their effort, the cats retired into the haylofts and went to loaf on the city roofs and in the dark, silent basements, to digest their sumptuous meal in peace. Soon the streets were teeming with rats again, and the villagers went back to wail in fear of the oncoming epidemic. As for the cats, whose rent had been ruinously expensive for the town’s treasury, they turned towards the distant provinces they had come from, nice and full. Some said the cats marched away lined up in threes; some said they were ultimately devoured by their own prey, better reorganized.
Things were at a standoff: the human race feared for its survival. Life was threatened by the shortage of food and by the unstoppable proliferation of the rats (an attempt to poison them with arsenic had come to naught). In an extreme fit of frustration, someone suggested that an official solution was to be pursued: a proper, legal action was required to put an end, at last, to that nightmare.
It was then that a man called Guglielmo Bohr, a landowner and major barley trader in Dorenza, whose granaries had been ravaged, claimed that he was willing to sue the rats. Perhaps seeing his fellow citizens marching against the beasts with their hoes and pitchforks wielded in the fashion of swords and spears inspired him to action. He was a sturdy man, always in for a fight; like many of his peers, he lacked education but had cleverness to spare. One night he came knocking at the door of the parsonage. He was accompanied by his brother, Domenico – a bulky farmer with a brown face and an unquiet glance – and by a young, cheerful page known by the name of Il Bragone, “The Breeches Boy”, for he would wear the same cloth knee-breeches all year long, even in winter. The breeches, somehow, were always perfectly clean. When the parson opened the door, Bohr explained briefly the situation: a man of letters had to take write down an official complaint to give voice to the desperate peasants.
“I am afraid I am not the best choice for the task you talk about”, the parson – an old man in his eighties – replied, after listlessly showing his guests to a large, although cold and bleak, sitting room. “Twelve years ago I wrote a certificate of good behaviour in favour of the bishop’s jennet. The poor beast had been accused of seducing a number of high priests, but was then acquitted of all charges and was spared the capital punishment. Everybody knows this, and since then everybody in Dorenza calls me “the comforter of beasts”. I have lost count of how many times I have been asked to defend in court animals accused of breaking the law of obedience, or of disrespecting their owner or their duty. I arranged the most powerful defence arguments, and yet many unfortunate beasts had to face the cruel retaliation that we inflict upon the vilest and the unholiest among the criminals. I have seen animals being whipped, sent on fire, hanged, even axed. Two weeks ago a sow was sent to the stake like a witch, but first they axed away her snout and one of her paws on the public square. The sow had bitten a man on the face and on the arm, and the Law of Talion demanded its toll. Eye for an eye… Such verdicts are just beyond me, and to think that such things happen after culture and religion had changed so much over the last century… Do you gentlemen have any idea what I am talking about?”.
The three men were staring at the parson’s lips: they would open and close, and produce words that were absolutely obscure. They just dumbly nodded in approval.
The old parson screwed up his eyes. It looked like he was falling asleep. The men looked at each other and were just about to leave, quite disappointed. All of a sudden, the parson seemed to come back to life.
“In Switzerland, not far by”, he said, trying to evoke a distant memory, “they put a rooster on trial for laying an egg, and thus breaking the sacred laws of Nature. It was condemned to the death penalty and sent to the stake. People thought it was the Evil One in disguise.”
The three men now looked both puzzled and scared.
“Who on Earth cares if an imp decides to lay an egg!”, snapped the parson, his blood rushing to his cheeks. He paused for a while. There was a long, strained silence, then he spoke again.
“I have seen dogs and horses being hanged, pigs and goats being sent to the stake. A bull was beheaded because it had gone wild and rammed its owner in its fury. I thought I heard it all, but no – now you come and ask me to sue a bunch of rodents!”.
“In Stelvio, they delivered a judgement in default against a group of moles that had ravaged the crops, making at least one hundred people die of starvation”, replied the landowner.
The parson raised his eyebrow.
The new Minister of High Justice
As soon as Maria Ghirlanda, the housekeeper, had left, the newly appointed Minister of High Justice called on the men who were unloading his equipment from the wagons and told them to clean out the table, all piled with old pieces of irons and frayed ropes.
“Give the iron to the blacksmith”, he said in a commanding tone. “He shall fuse it and forge sturdy tools for me to use. As for my axes, my sword, my chains, and my ropes, hang them up here. Move the witch cage to the backyard, under the canopy. I am in for a lot of work…”.
The men attending to his orders were just minor officials of the Comungrande. Though exhausted after a whole night spent on horseback, they made a final effort and duly arranged the tools of the new executioner. His stately figure was intimidating. A vigorous man with a branding on his skin, he was articulate and lucid. Everything about him spoke volumes about his outstanding confidence and boldness. His self-pride was unshakable, and he was somehow imbued with some strange, eerie calm. The heavy robes of the executioner most probably hid a demon. To touch him, even by mistake, would mean to be infected by his evil blight, to be forever tormented by all sorts of grief and tragedy: he had to be carefully avoided. Whenever the Minister of High Justice spoke to the officials, they would cast their eyes to not meet his own – to not face the piercing glance that had caused so much pain. As soon as the men had finished their job, they bolted away, as swift as a hare that has been released from its cage. The executioner was left alone in his new abode where, not far from the town, he started to get ready for his first day of work in the Valley of Mesolcina.
I need to impress the villagers at once. They must fear me and respect me, like a cruel bringer of freedom coming from far away to free them from the evil and the corrupt, the troublemaker and the sinners, the shrieking witch and the measly crook. My noble duty shall redeem the Comungrande to its former glory, back to the days when the Lords of the Valley ruled. And the Almighty shall oversee it all and impart us His peace.
Finally alone, he undressed and folded his clothes with care, putting them on an old oak chest. He laid down, revelling in the refreshing feeling of the crisp linen, and gave a deep sigh. He was laying on the mattress that belonged to the previous executioner. An odd, uneasy feeling swept over him at once – a memory of frustration, the secret thoughts of an old man who was losing his mind and his discipline.
Poor old fellow! You knew you were unfit for office and you took your own life. Ah, you rascal!
Kasper had always been exceptionally insightful. He was able to read people, unfailingly noticing the tiniest quiver that gave away secrets and hidden truths. A cheek trembling, an eyebrow jittering, a little finger shaking, a sudden, cold drop of sweat on the brow of the defendant, and he knew at once that the accused was lying, in a final attempt to save his own life. Nothing could escape his watchful eye. His father had instructed him strictly. He would always say: “Never trust a man who swears upon his children, his mother or God. That’s what a doomed soul inevitably does in order to mislead the judges and appear guiltless”.
He fell asleep with these words on his mind.
That day the sky was frescoed with a deep cobalt dye, interspersed with a few ivory brushstrokes. A soft breeze blew from the south, heading towards the old Roman Mons Avium with a caressing sweetness. The fields were alive with the songs of the grasshoppers and the shrill chirping of the blackbird. Self-controlled as usual, the hangman went to his backyard, breathing in the scent of the wet earth and fresh-mown grass, and the strong odour of the manure laid by the grazing herds – a few goats, sheep, donkeys, a couple horses and a small group of cows. That was the scent of his new home; the peculiar draught that would be his companion for more than three years.
The obedient officials from Roveredo had placed the witch cage against the wall facing East, under the thatched roof. The hangman tested its sturdiness and checked the strength of its wrought-iron bars, its screws, the blackish coating of the whole device, worrying that the long, bumpy voyage had ruined the device.
The cage was in pristine condition, ready to use: it only needed some dusting. The hangman searched his pocket for a cloth and started wiping it with what could be taken for fatherly love, as if he was patting dry a little daughter after she had taken a bath in a pond. As he polished off the metal bars of the cage, he thought back of all the witches that had met their final hour in there, locked away like beasts and left to drown in the muddy waters of a marsh, or lowered to the bottom of an ice-cold pit. There was dignity in such a death, after all. Most of the times the young women wouldn’t shriek in terror, and would just pray in silence as they embraced their impending death. They drowned quietly, even meekly, holding their breath for a minute before the murky water made its way through their nostrils and down the lungs. A pulley was fixed upon a tree branch above the pit, the cage was hanged to the machine, and then it was lowered down, slowly, until the culprit was completely underwater. It was usually a quite smooth procedure – it didn’t take long, and it was painless. Whenever he went to pick them up from their cells, down in the dungeons of the courthouse, the hangman would give the girls a precious piece of advice: don’t hold your breath. Swallow big mouthfuls of water – that way you will pass out quickly and will die with ease. Most importantly, that trick would spare the witnesses the dreadful sight of the witches frantically struggling: a horror that would unsettle the delicate soul of the bystanders, especially the reluctant children of those who came to enjoy those cruel shows.
He thought back of a particular execution he had witnessed to many years prior, not far from Dorenza. His father had taken him to watch a woman in a witch cage being drowned. He was barely above eight. People were shouting at the poor, terrified girl; they would curse, and spit, and shame her, and he thought it was strange – it was not rational, to say the least. Most of those people lived an ordinary life: their existence was attuned to the dull, unchanging rhythm of farming and housekeeping. And yet, when they came to watch an execution, those same farmers and housekeepers would morph into something else. Men and women became mean, callous, foul-mouthed, shamelessly rude; they foamed with rage, pouring out their hate and bile against a person who was already doomed to death – thus killing her twice. When justice was done, silence would fall again. The bystanders would walk away on heavy steps, their mind focusing again on their everyday worries, and again they would slip into the miserable normality of their life.
Hangmen, after all, had no interest in extorting the truth by means of brutal torture: they were mere servants of Justice, carrying out an office for municipalities and vicariates, obeying the local Court. Fussy judges, scornful officials, corrupt inquisitors needed their service, for they couldn’t bear the sight of blood, the screams, the last, exhausted sighs of the children of God they had sent to death. It was up to the hangman to carry out the verdict delivered by the most enlightened amidst the men, to preserve the order and pursue a greater good for all. It had always been so, and so would be for a long, long time. When the executioner of Roveredo died in mysterious circumstances, the Court of the Thirty designated Kasper Abadeus to spread again the terror in the area of the Tre Pilastri. It was an admonition to the ordinary man: live righteously, or you shall face terrible consequences.
The Fair of San Gallo
The execution of Maria Pisolo and Battista Stanga had calmed the waters in town for a little while. Kasper went to the Town Hall to collect his payment.
“Justice is done, and flawlessly, too”, said the Chancellor with praise. “The criminals will start to keep their head down now. Rumour has it that several brigands that usually raid Roveredo and its whereabouts are on the run, retreating towards the counties of Bellinzona and Locarno. Our fellow citizens are quite happy about it. We were sick and tired of living in the fear of being assaulted, robbed, or even murdered for petty money”.
Kasper listened respectfully, the Chancellor’s praising words filling his chest with pride. He had, indeed, carried out two fine executions. The locals had even applauded him with vigour.
“The service you delivered concerning torture and execution will be paid accordingly to the fee I will now proceed to list”, said the Chancellor.
“One cut with red-hot pincers: 20 lire.
Hanging, execution by sword, death by garrotte, death by burning, dismemberment: 17 lire and ½.
Burying a convict under the gallows, under the foundation of the Mint, or in an unholy spot outside the town’s perimeter: 12 lire.
Preparing the stake to burn a witch or a felon: 10 lire.
Cutting one hand: 10 lire.
Searching a felon: 10 lire.
Cutting the tongue, the nose or one ear: 7 lire.
One strike to a Wheeled felon: 5 lire.
Inflicting the torture of the Strappado: 1 lire and ¼.
Putting a felon in the stocks: 1 lire and ¼.
Caning a felon: 12 lire.
The Minister of High Justice, having impeccably executed one murderer and one infanticide by means of beheading and drowning respectively, and having buried their corpses in deconsecrated ground, is given the reward of 59 lire.”
The hangman signed the document and deferentially started to walk away.
“I think you are going to have very little to work in the area”, said cheerfully the Chancellor. “You have performed a terrific, and much appreciated, job. The town is much safer now.”
“If you ever need me, you know where to find me”, said the executioner.
“It will be our pleasure to keep you posted about the ongoing trials, signor Abadeus. Meanwhile, you could take some time off to visit our fine valley”, replied the Chancellor, then he parted from the other man.
The words of the Chancellor turned out to be almost a prophecy. The fear of incurring into trials, torture and execution made every outlaw, brigand and felon in town beat a hasty retreat. Hell knew what new sort of horrible, strange devices of torture that demonic hangman had in store for them; he who came from the distant German lands to carry out his deadly duty! It was far better for the criminals to flee from there, to scatter, so that they could keep on raid and steal somewhere safer and more tolerant.
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