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Magic, Malta and a Muslim during the Inquisition in 1605

Making a living by practising magic can have dramatic consequences, especially if you are a Muslim slave with mainly Christian clients at the time of the Inquisition in early 17th century Malta. The Moorish slave, Sellem Bin Al-Sheikh Mansur, an astrologer, was put on trial, tortured and imprisoned by the Roman Inquisition in 1605.  

The record of Sellem’s trial forms part of a new research project to explore early modern Maltese society and its beliefs. The project will also provide a window into Sellem’s life, his magical activities and the lives of his clients through the detailed accounts of his trial. The research is being led by the University of Exeter, UK in collaboration with the Universities of London, Malta, Oxford, the British Museum, the Cathedral Archives Mdina, Malta and L’Ecole Pratique des Hautes Etudes, Paris.

Preserved in the Cathedral Archives in Mdina, the documents relating to Sellem’s trial include magical and mathematical studies found in his prison cell.  In addition to the progression of the trial and Sellem’s personal evidence, there are also testimonies from his clients who came to him seeking help, wanting a diagnosis or a cure for their illnesses, or to help them with love affairs and disagreements with neighbours.

Professor Dionisius A. Agius of University of Exeter, who is leading the project, explained the sensitive time in which the trial was being conducted and the precarious relationship between Muslims and Christians in Malta, which sat at the crossroads of all the religious upheaval at the time. He said:“Sellem was a Muslim from Cairo captured by the Knights of St John and like many during this period worked as a galley slave.  In 1605 he was living in the slave prison in Valletta, Malta where it was common for slaves to freely walk around the city and earn money to buy their own ransom.  There was a fear and uneasiness about the influence of the Muslim faith on the locals in addition to the practice of magic.

“We know from the records that Sellem was an educated man, who studied the art of astrology possibly from his father. Christians asked him to teach them skills which they believed came from the Muslim world, that of the Arabic language, magic and astrology. His role as a teacher gives us a different insight into beliefs about magic, and into the interaction between Christians and Muslims.”

As part of the initial research, a panel of experts will explore different aspects of the trial, such as magic in daily life, Christian-Muslim relations, and the workings of the Inquisition at a special event in Malta. The research will be discussed in a Panel Debate open to members of the public on 15 April at 6.30pm, in conjunction with Palazzo Falson Historic House Museum at Palazzo Santa Sofia, Mdina.

Dr Catherine Rider, a historian at the University of Exeter and expert on medieval magic is keen to explore what was considered as magic in this period, how this was used and what religious implications this had for people living in Malta. She said:”Sellem’s trial tells us much about what ordinary people used magic for.  One man went to Sellem to get his fiancée back after she left him.  Another went to Sellem because he was ill and thought he had been bewitched.  It also tells us much about the relationship between religion and magic. Many of the witnesses in the trial claimed they never thought about whether love magic or healing with amulets was wrong. We may want to take this with a pinch of salt but it was only when they went to confession and their local priests refused to absolve them that they went to the inquisition.” 

The challenging task of transcribing and translating the trial document together with searching into the Christian and Muslim relations of the time will be carried out by Dr Alex Mallett, a Research Fellow at University of Exeter.

The project team will be publishing the trial in its entirety with a commentary along with a book of essays which explore what it tells us about magic and everyday life in seventeenth-century Malta. By conducting this in-depth study of a single, unusual trial record they hope to raise the profile of the Maltese inquisition archives among English-speaking scholars, and shed light on Maltese society in the period and the history of magic more broadly.

The public Panel Debate to discuss Magic and daily life in early 17th century Malta will consist of Professor Agius, Dr Mallett, Dr Rider, Professor Carmel Cassar (University of Malta), Dr Joan Abela (University of Malta), Dr Liana Saif (University of Oxford), and Professor Jonathan Barry (University of Exeter).

The evening will begin with a drink based on an early 17th century recipe and there will be time for questions and discussion after the debate. The public is invited to attend and attendance is free of charge. Seating is on a first-come first-served basis. 



Date: 9 April 2015

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