The Witch’s Skin

Guestpost by Costanza De Cillia

If the body of the enemy, whether captured or killed, has always been the object of universal interest on the part of the human consortium, there was an era in which it was literally valid as a body of evidence: the period of witch hunts, in Europe, between the fifteenth and eighteenth centuries. Then, as we will see, the suspect’s belonging to the abominable convent of the Devil was ascertained with a thorough personal search, during which the body of the alleged witch, chained and shaved, was searched in detail for tangible evidence of her nefarious sin.

This investigative methodology derives from the dictates of demonology, which arose in the wake of the papal bull of Innocent VIII Summis Desiderantes affectibus (1484): an anatomy of witchcraft elaborated by cultured literature, which – in numerous manuals, among which the Malleus Maleficarum (1486) is probably the most famous – taught how to conduct investigations to verify the guilt of the prisoner.

As early as the 12th century, with the spread of medical treatises, the diagnosis of the divine or evil nature of invading spirits became a distinction between holy bodies and deviant bodies, which demons, spiritual creatures endowed with semi-corporeality, could enter through the various openings. The human mouth, in particular, granted access to two distinct physiological systems: the spiritual one, having as its center the heart, which was usually possessed by the Holy Spirit, and the digestive system, the bowels, in which all contaminating impurities reside, thus the preferred residence of evil spirits.

Since demons loved to settle in the “cavities” of the human body, it was natural for them to prefer the female body – the ideal habitat whose anatomy, considered weak and full of openings, seemed to facilitate the entry of impure entities.

This only aggravated the already fragile theological and existential condition of the woman, seen as a deceiving and treacherous being who originated from Adam’s bent rib, and was therefore imperfect (designated as fe-mina, “she who has less faith”, a deficiency that she was thought to compensate with her insatiable lust).

This negative vision of women might be the reason for the imbalance between the number of witches and sorcerers, which is intercultural and present in all historical periods: psychology and ethnopsychiatry explain this asymmetry by indicating how the witch was perceived as the inverted image of the fertile woman; a phallic and devouring mother/stepmother, who arouses envy and libido to the point of making her a scapegoat. In a society that worshiped fertility, the female body, especially the elderly body, arose strong fears, due to an ambiguity that made it similar to that of an animal, a polluting and disturbing presence. Thus the witch was associated with threatening, harmful magical powers, which made her the opposite of a good housewife and mother, and affected the spheres related to childbirth, death and love; on the other hand, male sorcerers were usually accused of spells aimed at controlling the climate and the crops, therefore closer to daily working life.

But, as we said, it was in the 15th century that the conceptual transition from sorcery to witchcraft took place, that is, from the definition of witchcraft as an exercise of maleficia (malignant magic against others, in particular against the foundations of peasant community life: the harvest, health of young people, human and animal sexuality for reproductive purposes) to its qualification as a heresy based on the veneration of Satan.

The witch was no longer seen as a “bad neighbor” devoted to antisocial behavior, who resorted to supernatural means in order to satisfy her evil desires; she became guilty of crimina excepta, exceptional crimes by virtue of their gravity, aimed at the destruction of Christian society and committed because of her own voluntary enslavement, both spiritual and physical, to the Infernal Spouse.

These crimes were deemed so atrocious as to make devil worshipers worthy of the death penalty, as traitors to God and to the human assembly: incest, infanticide, anthropophagy, desecration of the holy bread and- of sacred vestments, mainly committed on the occasion of the Sabbath. In this periodic collective gathering – which the initiates reached by means of the nocturnal “journey through the air” attracting great attention during interrogations – the witches perpetuated their perdition with banquets, acts of blasphemy, dances and ritual orgies (dominated by the carnal relationship with the devil and inaugurated by the osculum oscenum, the kiss “under the tail” of the Goat, president of the assembly).

Of course these deeds were unforgivable, as they were based on the perversion of the Creed and the inversion of the sacraments of the Christian religion.

Given these premises, witchcraft became to be seen as an impious cult, a false religion – of which spells and charms are but a by-product, meant to harm the good members of the community – the profession of which was considered a crime, an act of treason and political sedition.

Against this diabolical plot, comparable to an infection with which some sick sheep try to spread heresy within the flock of the faithful, a police operation was launched, whose severity reminds us of more modern concepts like zero-tolerance policies.

Despite the lack of proof of an actual, ritual form of devil worship (supporting the hypothesis that the Sabbath has always been just a myth), in this hunt two categories of tangible evidence were identified and considered conclusive, as they were directly observable: a public confession, which usually followed the denunciation by other witches, and the empirical verification of supernatural attributes.

The latter were carefully searched on the body of the accused, in a judicial torture session that anticipated the suffering of public execution: a degenerate medical examination, in which professional “witch-prickers” stuck special needles into the flesh of the alleged witch, looking for a bloodless and numb area of skin. This was the sign of the “devil’s paw”,shaped like a footprint, a spot, a red or blue dot: the witch’s mark, also known as signum diabolii or punctum/stygma diabolicum, present since birth on the skin of those who were “born witches” and doomed to be evil already in the womb of their mother. More frequently, it was a sign imprinted in the flesh by the Devil himself, at the end of the affiliation ceremony.

Parody of the stigmata of the saints, seal of servitude that sanctions the possession of the witch by Lucifer – simia Dei, the “monkey” who mocks and imitates God – the mark is imprinted with a bite or a scratch, on the forehead or in a hidden point of the body: on the shoulder or on the left side, inside the eyelid, on the abdomen or in locis secretissimis non nominandis (in the intimate parts or in the rectum).

Besides being reminiscent of the sign affixed by the Antichrist in Rev 13.16 (“the name of the beast or the number of his name”), this was considered, in line with the satanic ceremonial, the “reverse” of the circumcision in the Old Testament and of the sign of the cross in the New Testament; it attested to the witch’s perfidy, being its physical, visible and above all tangible manifestation. The mark was therefore an incriminating sign, which proved the woman took part in the Sabbath and belonged to the societas diabolii.

Subsequently, the commandments in Exod 22.18 (“Thou shalt not suffer a witch to live“) and Lev 20.27 (“A man also or woman that hath a familiar spirit, or that is a wizard, shall surely be put to death” ) became imperative for earthly justice.

The search for the mark, however, appears to be an invention of cultured demonology, not very widespread in folklore and never applied with the same frequency as other demonstrations of witchcraft – with the exceptions of Civil War England, Scotland and, on the continent, Sweden, France and Switzerland.

The pricking of every part of the suspect’s body, therefore, seems to have found less diffusion than, for example, the swimming test (descendant of the “trial by water” present in European popular mythology since the Middle Ages), in which the bound witch was thrown into a pond or a well: her drowning was proof of innocence, while survival demonstrated the refusal by the pure element associated with baptism to touch her body, thus ascertaining her guilt.

Other known stratagems for detecting witches were drawing the suspects’ blood, boiling their urine and hair in a bottle, inserting a hot poker in their feces, burning straw from their home, pricking their portrait, and weighing them in comparison with a Bible; finally, there were more risky methods, vaguely superstitious, such as scratching the witch’s body (to neutralize the effects of her evil practices), or relying on the divinatory abilities of cunning men, healers practicing forms of “white”, beneficial magic.

Witchfinder general Matthew Hopkins (a well-known witch hunter, active in South East England between 1645 and 1647, with the assistance of the witch-pricker John Stearne) also suggested, in the treatise On the Discovery of Witches, to isolate the witch, subject her to a prolonged vigil for days and force her to walk incessantly, waiting for her imps or familiars to come to her rescue in front of the witnesses.

These vampire servant sprites, with the appearance of small pets, are purchased by the witch, inherited from her colleagues or donated to her by the Devil; in exchange for their help, she feeds them through a teat (supernumerary breast which honest women do not have) from which they suck yellowish milk, water and finally blood: if the sucking is suspended for more than twenty-four hours, this diabolical breast swells up to the point of bursting – a probatory indication, sufficient to impose the death sentence of the defendant. However, since the surplus breast was not often found, it was believed that many witches cut it off before being searched.

There were those who distinguished between the witch’s mark and the supernumerary nipple, and those who instead gathered both under the same category of probative evidence; but there was nonetheless absolute consensus on the value of these dermatological anomalies, as they brought a certainty that other forms of torture could not provide. In fact Satan, showing that his power was superior to any natural law and every counter-magic, conferred on his proteges the “gift of silence”, or the ability to resist pain, thus preventing any confession.

Although the presence of a mark was considered a definitive proof, this did not dispel the suspicion that most of the witch-pricking business was actually a scam, conducted by itinerant impostors (even women disguised as men, such as James Paterson and John Dickson) who were attracted by good pay and the possibility to freely torture their “patients” – so much so that some of them were legally prosecuted, for the cruelty shown and the rapes they committed.

As we have seen, witches were condemned because of a symptom that in the following centuries will be seen as a simple scar, a tattoo drawn in contempt at the command of Lev 19.28 (“Ye shall not make any cuttings in your flesh for the dead, nor print any marks upon you”) or, in the case of supernumerary nipples, as congenital hyperthelia/hypermastia.

Regarding the “supernatural” resistance to pain shown by witches, these peculiar phenomena of local analgesia are explained by the raising of the pain threshold due to fear or exhaustion; skin numbness could also be the consequence of diseases and malnutrition suffered by the humblest fringes of the early modern European population. Doctors and alienists have also speculated about the possible role of hysteria and epilepsy (“suffocation of the uterus”: an umbrella term used for various gynecological problems), as well as nervous or ecstatic syndromes, in diabolical possessions.

Regardless of subsequent medical explanations, at the time of the witchcraft trials the discovering of a mark left no hope for the defendant: found guilty of the worst of crimes, these women would be burned at the stake on the Continent, so the cathartic and disinfectant fire could purify their body and soul and scatter their earthly remains like ashes in the wind; they would instead end up hanged in England and North America (where, it must be remembered, witchcraft was never perceived as a heresy, but remained an illegal act against society): suspended between heaven and earth, unworthy of both, they would suffer a shameful death on the “one-armed cross”, the gallows. Their execution, accompanied by an infamous burial, usually at the foot of the gallows itself, was halfway between a moralistic theatrical show and a sporting competition where human bodies were subjected to fatal labors.

A mise-en-scène that, with its pedagogical-terrorist connotations, was meant to arouse a healthy fear in the spectators, agitated by a visceral sense of moral and emotional ambivalence. A spectacle in which the victims were hated, and at the same time pitied in their misfortune.

Costanza De Cillia is a Doctor of Philosophy and Sciences of Religions. Her main fields of research are the aesthetics of violence and the anthropology of execution.

The witch girl of Albenga

And maybe it is for revenge, maybe out of fear
Or just plain madness, but all along
You are the one who suffers the most
If you want to fly, they drag you down
And if a witch hunt begins,
Then you are the witch.

(Edoardo Bennato, La fata, 1977)

Saint Calocero, Albenga. 15th Century.
A 13-year-old girl was being buried near the church. But the men who were lowering her down decided to arrange her face down, so that her features were sealed by dirt. They did so to prevent her from getting up, and raising back to life. So that her soul could not sneak off her mouth and haunt those places. They did so, ultimately, because that little girl scared them to death.
Not far from there, another woman’s body was lying in a deep pit. Her skeleton was completely burned, and over her grave, the men placed a huge quantity of heavy stones, so she could not climb out of her tomb. Because women like her, everybody knew, were bound to wake up from the dead.

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The “witch girl of Albenga”, and a second female skeleton showing deep signs of burning, are two exceptional findings brought to light last year by a team from the Pontifical Institute of Christian Archeology, directed by Professor Philippe Pergola and coordinated by archeologist Stefano Roascio and Elena Dellù. Scholars were particularly puzzled by the proximity of these two anomalous burials to the ancient church which hosted the relics of martyr Saint Calocero: if these two women were considered “dangerous” or “damned”, why were they inhumed in a privileged burial ground, surely coveted by many?

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One explanation could be that burying them there was a “sign of submission to the Church”. But there is still extensive analysis to be conducted on the remains, and already skeletons are revealing some clues which could shine a light on this completely forgotten story. Why would a child, not even 60 inches tall, instill such a deep fear in her fellow citizens?
Researchers found out small holes in her skull, which could show she suffered from severe anemia and scurvy. These pathologies could involve fainting, sudden bleeding and epileptic fits; all symptoms that, at the time, could have been easily interpreted as demonic possession.
A possible kinship between the two women has still to be confirmed, but both skeletons seem to show signs of metopism, a genetic condition affecting the suture of the frontal bones.
According to radiocarbon dating, the burials date back to a period between 1440 and 1530 AD – when the infamous witch hunts had already begun.

english-witches-making-a-spell-1489-engraving-b-w-photoIn 1326, the papal bull Super illius specula by Pope John XXII set the basis for witch hunts: as incredible as it may sound, until then intellctuals and theologists had dismissed the idea of a “commerce with the Devil” as a mere superstition, that had to be eradicated.

Therefore in those churches they are given custody of priests have to constantly predicate to God’s people that these things are completely false. […] Who has never experienced going out of one’s body during his sleep, or to have night visions and to see, while sleeping, things he had never seen while wide awake? Who could be so dull or foolish as to believe that all these things which happen in the spirit, could also happen in the body?

(Canon episcopi, X Century)

Instead, starting from the XIV Century, even the intelligentsia was convinced that witches were real, and thus began the fight not just against heresy, but also against witchcraft, a persecution the Church entrusted to mendicant orders (Dominicans and Franciscans) and which would last over four centuries. Following the publishing of Malleus Maleficarum (1487), an actual handbook about witchcraft repression, the trials increased, ironically in conjunction with the Renaissance, up until the Age of Enlightenment. The destiny of the “witch girl” of Albenga has to be framed in this complex historical period: it is not a real mystery, as some newspapers have claimed, but rather another tragic human story, its details vanishing in time. Hopefully at least a small part of it will be reconstructed, little by little, by the international team of researchers who are now working on the San Calocero excavations.

(Thanks, Silvano!)

Il Cacciatore di Streghe

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Di tutti i secoli passati, il Seicento è sicuramente fra i più bizzarri, rispetto alla sensibilità moderna.
Epidemie di vampirismo, masticatori di sudari, santi prodigiosi le cui spoglie operavano miracoli, ed infine loro, le streghe, quelle donne malvagie che stringevano alleanze con il Diavolo. Il soprannaturale era parte integrante della quotidianità, e dubitare delle sue influenze sulla vita di tutti i giorni era, secondo alcuni pensatori come ad esempio Joseph Glanvill, una vera e propria eresia: tanto abbietta quanto la negazione dell’esistenza degli angeli. Il demonio, in quegli anni, si aggirava davvero per le campagne alla ricerca di anime da catturare e dannare per l’eternità, era cioè una figura concreta, che la gente credeva di riconoscere dietro ad ogni evento peculiare.

Le streghe avevano un posto centrale nell’immaginario popolare, e chiunque poteva essere sospettato di stregoneria: una lite con una vicina di casa, seguita dalla comparsa di vaghi dolori o di una malattia del bestiame, era chiaro segnale che la donna aveva immensi poteri di provenienza diabolica. In un’epoca in cui i processi per stregoneria erano diffusi, è facile comprendere come accusare un proprio nemico d’aver stretto un patto con Satana fosse un metodo facile ed economico per toglierselo dai piedi.

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In questo contesto emerse la figura di Matthew Hopkins, il cacciatore di streghe più famoso della Storia.
Nato intorno al 1620 a Wenham Magna, minuscolo villaggio inglese nella contea di Suffolk, era il quarto dei sei figli di un pastore puritano piuttosto amato dai suoi compaesani. Della vita di Matthew prima del 1644 si conosce molto poco: sembra che avesse un’infarinatura di giurisprudenza, e che avesse acquistato una locanda a Mistley con i soldi ricevuti in eredità, ma questi aneddoti sono poco verificabili.

Quello che è certo è che all’inizio degli anni 40 del Seicento Hopkins si trasferì a Manningtree, Essex, e lì nel 1644 si autoproclamò Witchfinder General. Si trattava di un titolo che voleva sembrare ufficiale (general significa “rappresentante del Governo”), ma ovviamente il Parlamento non aveva mai istituito la carica di Cacciatore di Streghe; Hopkins era comunque ben deciso a guadagnarsi fama e fortuna, e quell’altisonante appellativo non era che l’inizio. La sua carriera vera e propria cominciò quello stesso anno, quando Hopkins dichiarò di aver sentito alcune donne parlare dei loro incontri con il demonio. Da quel momento in poi, assieme al fido compare John Stearne, cominciò a viaggiare per l’Inghilterra orientale, principalmente tra Suffolk, Essex e Norfolk, disinfestando borghi, villaggi e città dalle temute streghe.

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Hopkins e Stearne arrivavano in una nuova cittadina, annunciavano di essere stati incaricati dal Parlamento di scoprire le streghe della zona, raccoglievano denunce e “indizi”, quindi passavano ai fatti: accusavano e processavano anche venti o venticinque persone, trovavano immancabilmente le prove dell’avvenuto Patto con il diavolo, e mandavano tutti al patibolo.
Bisogna sottolineare che i processi per stregoneria erano diversi da tutti gli altri procedimenti giudiziari, perché la gravità del crimine era tale da permettere ai giudici di abbandonare le normali procedure legali ed ogni scrupolo etico (crimen exceptum): la confessione andava estorta con qualsiasi mezzo e ad ogni costo. Ma la tortura era pur sempre illegale in Inghilterra.

Così i metodi di Hopkins per scoprire se l’imputata fosse realmente una strega, pur essendo fra i più crudeli, rimanevano sempre sul limite di ciò che si poteva considerare tortura: la prassi più utilizzata prevedeva ad esempio la deprivazione del sonno. Si teneva l’imputata sveglia e immobile per giorni, seduta con le gambe incrociate e impedendole di dormire, finché la poveretta non finiva per ammettere qualsiasi cosa.

Si cercava poi sul suo corpo il Segno della Bestia – che non era difficile da trovare, visto che praticamente tutto (da un terzo capezzolo, a una zona di pelle un po’ secca, a un neo particolarmente grosso) poteva essere interpretato in tal senso. Se non vi era alcun Segno del Diavolo sul corpo, significava una sola cosa: che non era visibile ad occhio nudo. Ecco quindi entrare le assistenti di Hopkins, donne che viaggiavano con lui e che svolgevano la funzione di witch prickers, “pungolatrici di streghe”. Il Segno del Diavolo era infatti immune al dolore e non sanguinava, a quanto si diceva, e per trovarlo le witch prickers utilizzavano degli spilloni appositi tormentando il corpo della presunta strega in ogni sua parte.

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In queste lunghe ore di osservazione, spesso Hopkins e altri testimoni vedevano comparire uno o più “famigli“, cioè i demoni minori al servizio della strega, che si presentavano sotto forma di cane, gatto, capra o altri animali, e che bevevano il sangue che scorreva dal corpo della strega come fosse latte. L’apparizione di un famiglio era, com’è ovvio, uno degli indizi di colpevolezza più schiaccianti.

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C’erano pochissime probabilità che tutte queste indagini fallissero nel trovare prove inconfutabili della natura diabolica della strega. Ma se proprio non si era ancora certi, Hopkins poteva sempre ricorrere alla sua trovata più clamorosa, l’infame ordalia dell’acqua. Secondo una teoria dell’epoca, l’acqua (simbolo del battesimo, elemento purissimo) avrebbe rifiutato di accogliere una strega: bastava quindi legare l’imputata a una sedia e gettarla in un fiume o un lago. Se fosse rimasta a galla, si sarebbe trattato per forza di una strega; se fosse annegata, la sua anima innocente sarebbe volata all’altro mondo nella grazia di Dio.
Quest’ultimo metodo era davvero troppo estremo, e le autorità intimarono a Hopkins di utilizzarlo esclusivamente con il consenso della vittima; così già alla fine del 1645 la pratica venne abbandonata.

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Fin dall’inizio della loro “battuta di caccia”, in virtù degli spietati processi, i nomi di Hopkins e Stearne sparsero il terrore in tutta l’Inghilterra dell’est. Una terribile fama li precedeva, e appena circolava voce che i due, con le loro assistenti femminili, si stessero dirigendo verso un determinato villaggio, la gente del posto non dormiva certo sonni tranquilli. Anche con tutta la superstizione e le convinzioni sull’esistenza delle streghe, il popolo poteva vedere benissimo che i processi di Hopkins erano solo delle farse, il cui esito era deciso in anticipo.
Ma cosa alimentava la foga di quest’uomo nella sua missione? Ci credeva veramente, o aveva qualche interesse nascosto?

Lasciando alle spalle un’impressionante scia di cadaveri, la caccia in verità stava fruttando al Witchfinder General un lauto bottino. Nonostante lui più tardi dichiarasse che la sua paga, necessaria a sostenere la sua compagnia e tre cavalli, fosse di soli venti scellini a città, i registri contabili raccontano una realtà differente: l’onorario di Hopkins era di 23 sterline a città, più le spese di viaggio – una somma altissima per l’epoca. Le spese a carico dei vari municipi erano talmente elevate, che nella cittadina di Ipswich fu necessario istituire una tassa speciale per coprirle. Improvvisarsi cacciatore di streghe freelance era senza dubbio un colpo geniale, se non ci si faceva scrupoli a mandare a morte decine e decine di persone.

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L’eco delle gesta del Witchfinder General arrivò anche al Parlamento, e diversi membri espressero preoccupazione per il degenerare della cosa. Anche altre voci, come quella del predicatore puritano John Gaule, si levarono contro l’operato di Hopkins. Fu così che si arrivò a un peculiare ribaltamento della situazione: nella contea di Norfolk, nel 1646, i due cacciatori di streghe vennero fatti sedere sul banco degli imputati. I giudici volevano assicurarsi che non fossero stati usati mezzi di tortura per estorcere confessioni; intendevano indagare sulle parcelle richieste da Hopkins e Stearle alle comunità che avevano visitato; e infine insinuarono, in un sorprendente e ironico twist, che se Hopkins era davvero tanto esperto nella stregoneria e nella demonologia, forse nascondeva anch’egli un segreto…

Dopo questo primo interrogatorio, Hopkins comprese che sarebbe stato più saggio per lui chiudere l’attività. Quando la corte si riaggiornò nel 1647, egli era già tornato a vivere a Manningtree. La carriera del Witchfinder General durò quindi poco più di un anno, 14 mesi per la precisione. Nonostante il breve periodo, i numeri sono impressionanti: tra il 1644 e il 1646 egli fu responsabile della morte di circa trecento donne, impiccate, bruciate, annegate, o morte in prigione. Se si pensa che in totale, dall’inizio della caccia alle streghe nel primo ‘400 fino alla sua fine nel tardo ‘700, in Inghilterra furono condannate per stregoneria meno di cinquecento persone, significa che il 60% del totale delle uccisioni è da attribuirsi al Witchfinder General.

Ma la sua inquietante ombra non si limita ai processi da lui personalmente celebrati: nel 1647, già “in pensione”, Hopkins scrisse The Discovery of Witches, un vero e proprio manuale per individuare le streghe. Questo libro ebbe fortuna nel Nuovo Mondo, e fu utilizzato come testo di riferimento in vari processi, fra cui quelli, tristemente noti, di Salem nel Massachussetts.

Con il tempo la figura di Hopkins divenne quasi mitologica, una sorta di orco o di uomo nero dalla malvagità senza confini. Si racconta che venne processato per stregoneria, sottoposto al suo stesso metodo inumano di “ordalia dell’acqua”, e che morì annegato in un fiume. Ma questa è soltanto una leggenda, con un confortevole e troppo preciso contrappasso. Nella realtà Matthew Hopkins, il Witchfinder General, morì di tubercolosi il 12 agosto 1647, nel suo letto.

Nel 1968 la sua storia venne portata sul grande schermo, romanzata, da Michael Reeves nel cult Il grande inquisitore che fece scandalo per le sue insistite sequenze di tortura e nel quale il Witchfinder General è interpretato da un grande Vincent Price.

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Il libro di Hopkins, The Discovery of Witches, è disponibile gratuitamente online sul sito del Progetto Gutenberg.