La Strega dei Rondini- The Witch of The Swallows
By: Liz Flynn
There are many tales about the medieval witches of Italy and one of the most famous is that of Elena di Travala, the most notorious witch of the time. According to the legends, no man or woman was safe from persecution from this evil witch for the slightest of causes.
In Italy during the late middle ages, people lived in times of uncertainty. At this time, people were also extremely superstitious. Everyday occurrences that are now easily explained by science caused people to feel unrest and fear. Some of the things people were superstitious about included stillbirths, storms and illnesses.
Witch hunts began across Europe and these spread to Italy. People also turned against those who practiced white magic, alchemy, and astrology believing that such activities were the work of the devil.
Maremma was the location where many witch hunts and persecutions took place during this period of history and the focus of this legend is the village of Travala. In this area, there were reported gatherings of local witches at night.
Elena di Travel had no known parentage and no known date of birth. She was considered an unimportant illiterate commoner. However, there were rumors she was the wife of cavaliere called Nanni di Travale of Stefano who kept swallows as a means of air mail.
Elena used the beaks of swallows in a potion that was intended to make her lover fall in love with her. It is likely that such potions were the cause of her persecution. However, the desire for a witch hunt may simply have led the locals to search for someone they could accuse of the crime of witchcraft.
She was examined in 1423 by three men and her trial took place in the same year. It was widely acknowledged that she was guilty of making potions, although her intentions were only to help the people she knew. There was no malice in her actions. Despite this, she was charged with being possessed, the devil’s advisor, a devil worshipper, and an enchantress. Furthermore, she was accused of practices that were harmful to crops and livestock.
The witnesses were her fellow villagers and it is likely they were forced to testify against Elena or face the same fate themselves. The Bishop and the Notary stood side-by-side to begin a chant of ‘possessed’ that spread across the courtroom. She was forced to admit that she was in collaboration with the devil. It is said that she uttered a spell under her breath as she was dragged from the courtroom.
Although many women were sentenced to burning at the stake for these crimes, Elena’s punishment was relatively lenient. She was banished for life from the Diocesi of Volterra, fined 50 gold florins, flogged in the Piazza 50 times and publicly pilloried.