1781: Beata Dolores, the last victim of the Spanish Inquisition

1 comment August 24th, 2018 Henry Charles Lea

(Thanks to Henry Charles Lea for the guest post on the last person done to death by the Spanish Inquisition, “Beata Dolores”, who on August 24 of 1781* became in Seville the last person ever sent to the stake by the Spanish Inquisition. Lea’s summary first appeared in his Chapters from the Religious History of Spain Connected with the Inquisition. -ed.)

More remarkable in every respect was the case of Maria de los Dolores Lopez, known as the Beata Dolores, who suffered as a Molinist, in 1781, at Seville.

She was, or pretended to be, blind and ascribed her ability to read and write and embroider to miraculous interposition. At the age of twelve she left her father’s house to live as a concubine with her confessor. Four years later he died, when she went to Marchena and assumed the habit of a beata [a nun -ed.] which she continued to wear.

Her quick intelligence gained for her a high reputation among the people, who imagined that only supernatural gifts could enable a blind person to divine things so readily. The fame of her sanctity and of the special graces enjoyed by her spread far and wide; she held long conversations with her guardian angel, after the fashion of Josepha de San Luis Beltran, but her career at Marchena was brought to an end by her corrupting her confessor. He was relegated to a convent of rigid observance and she went to Seville, where she followed the same hypocritical life for twelve years till, in July, 1779, one of her confessors, pricked by conscience, denounced both herself and himself to the Inquisition, and abundant evidence as to her scandals was easily obtained.

The trial lasted for two years, for she resolutely maintained the truth of her pretensions; since the age of four she had been the object of special grace, she had continual and familiar intercourse with the Virgin, she had been married in heaven to the child Jesus with St. Joseph and St. Augustin as witnesses, she had liberated millions of souls from purgatory, and much more of the same sort.

Had she been content to confess herself an impostor she would have escaped with the customary moderate punishment of reclusion, but she rendered herself guilty of formal and obstinate heresy by maintaining the so-called Molinist doctrine that evil actions cease to be sinful when God so wills it.

Every effort was made to convert her. The most eminent theologians were summoned and vainly exhausted their learning and eloquence; Fray Diego de Cadiz preached to her constantly for two months. She was equally unmoved by the threat of burning; God, she said, had revealed to her that she would die a martyr, after which he would in three days prove her innocence.

Burning was going out of fashion, and the Inquisition honestly endeavored to escape its necessity, but her obstinacy admitted of no alternative, and on August 22, 1781, she was finally condemned and abandoned to the secular arm. She listened unmoved to the sentence, after which, in place of being as usual hurried at once to the stake, she was, as a supreme effort, kept for three days [sic] in the chapel with holy men exhorting her to no purpose.

Then at the auto de fe every one was melted to pity on seeing her with the mitre of flames and demons, while she alone remained impassible during the sermon and ceremony — in fact she had to be gagged to suppress her blasphemy. Finally however on her way to the stake she weakened, she burst into tears and asked for a confessor. The execution was postponed for some hours and her punishment was mitigated, according to rule, with preliminary strangulation.

* Three hundred years after Seville had the first Inquisition auto-de-fe, both events the discerning traveler can explore at the city’s Museo Del Castillo De San Jorge. For reasons that I’m unable to determine there are a number of citations abroad placing this execution on November 7, 1781. I’m affirming the 24th of August based on primary documentation such as this archival document cited by Lea, or the August 25 correspondence reporting the events of the preceding day addressed to Gaspar Melchor de Jovellanos. This detailed account is quoted in full in Jovellanos: vida y pensamiento; alternately, this Spanish-language page summarizes the day hour by hour based on that same source. -ed.

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1749: Maria Renata Singer, theological football

5 comments June 21st, 2009 Headsman

On this date in 1749, an aged subprioress of the Unterzell nunnery was beheaded and burnt in Wurzburg for witchcraft … and for the principle of witchcraft.

Maria Renata Singer (or Singerin — here’s her German Wikipedia page) had been a reclusive denizen of the convent for half a century.

A dying nun accused her of working black magic, and everything snowballed in the usual way: other nuns got into the act, often in the throes of exorcism. Confinement and interrogation (torture is not recorded) eventually induced her to confess to having been a witch for more than 60 years. (Details of the unfolding procedure here, in German.)

On this morning 260 years ago, her sentence — moderated from burning alive — was carried out: Singer’s head was struck off and mounted on a pole, and her body burned to ashes.


Witnesses reported seeing a vulture appear when the body was burned.

Nothing so remarkable, really, in the annals of witchcraft. Nothing except the date. Witch-burnings in 1749! Voltaire was in his fifties. Thomas Jefferson was alive. Wurzburg itself hadn’t seen witchcraft executions since the madness of the Thirty Years’ War.

But even in the Age of Enlightenment, the benighted world got its licks in. And in this instance, the case of the witch-nun of Bavaria was bulletin-board material in an unfolding public debate over witchcraft.

Scholars and theologians were burdening the mid-18th century printing presses with treatises on the legitimacy of witchcraft persecutions. Singer herself, when first confronted with the accusation, had not simply denied it: she had denied there was any such thing as a witch.

That same year of 1749, Girolamo Tartarotti‘s influential Congresso notturno delle lammie skewered witchcraft jurisprudence.

Tartarotti’s work fit into a growing critique naturally animated by the rationalist spirit of the times.

Partly through Singer’s execution, the witchsniffers’ intellectual defenders mounted their last defense.

Jesuit Georg Gaar, who had been Singer’s confessor before death, preached a sermon at her cremation “praising the wise severity of laws against these crimes, and speculating that this might be God’s warning against the men of our time who do not believe in witches, or magic, or the devil, or God. Father Gaar plainly thought himself, and told the people, that they only needed to read the evidence from Unterzell to be persuaded of the justice of the sentence and the truth about witchcraft.”

Tartarotti reprinted this sermon with a critical commentary. But some theologians (and not only Bavarians*) were ready to go to bat for the traditional superstitions.**

According to Brian Copenhaver, writing in the Journal of the History of Philosophy (January, 1979):

The rigorist Dominican Daniele Concina [Italian link -ed] argued that God permits witchcraft “for the greater confirmation of faith,” and he disposed of the skeptical sections of the Canon episcopi as a forger’s work. In a variation on Pangloss’s reasoning about noses and spectacles, Benedetto Bonelli deduced the reality of witchcraft from the existence of laws against witches.

As another critic of Tartarotti fretted, “Does not the denial of the existence of demons open the way and lead directly to the denial of the existence of God?”

Interestingly, Tartarotti accepted the reality of “magic” while denying the existence of witches, ascribing the latter’s survival as folklore to incomplete Christianization. While (see Copenhaver once again) this tack could be read as a tactical choice of moderation on Tartarotti’s part to achieve the pragmatic end of eliminating witchcraft trials, it put him in the crossfire between more rigorously rationalist intellectuals and the likes of Georg Gaar.

This angle of Tartarotti’s, especially given his simultaneous interest in the occult, has led to his work’s subsequent adoption as an antecedent to the still-popular if academically disreputable theory that underground sects of pagan practitioners really did persist in Europe, and were the true targets of witch-hunts like the one that killed Maria Renata Singer.

A lengthy 19th-century treatment of the case is available in German in a public domain Google books entry here.

* 18th century English theologian John Wesley, feeling himself pinned by the Old Testament verses about not-suffering-a-witch-to-live and all that, insisted that “giving up witchcraft is, in effect, giving up the Bible” and “the credit of all history, sacred and profane.”

** Conversely, a German scholar sneered at the backward prejudices of “the common rabble, especially in our beloved Bavaria.”

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