The Makings of History / Death of a Jewish Witch

Although witch hunts may no longer exist, many similar trends can be seen in the racism of today.

On the evening of Saturday, July 8, 1617, Parisians got ready for a big celebration. One of the most powerful women in the city was about to be burned at the stake: Leonora Galigai, the closest friend of the queen regent, Maria de' Medici. Paris hated them both. Galigai was hated not only because she had unlimited influence at court but also, perhaps mainly, because she was a woman and an Italian, maybe also because she was sickly and ugly. She was sentenced to death for treason, though everyone knew what her real crime was: Leonora Galigai was a Jewish witch.

History has stories that nobody knows until suddenly they pop up out of nowhere, and leave those who hear them uttering a great big "wow." Such is the story of Leonora Galigai, the heroine of a new Hebrew-language book, in the field of social history and cultural studies, by Ya'ara Bar-On: "'A Jewish Witch' in the Court of Louis XIII, King of France: The Trial of Leonora Galigai, 1617" (Carmel Publishing ).

Galigai’s execution
National Library, Paris

She was probably raised in the home of Francesco de' Medici, who would become Grand Duke of Tuscany, together with the duke's niece, Maria. Likable and pleasant of temper, Leonora served as a sort of older sister to Maria, and Maria loved her very much. When Maria was sent to Paris to marry King Henri IV, she took her friend and companion with her. There, Leonora married Concino Concini, another Florence man who rose to greatness at the French king's court.

Those were fateful days in France. The king was murdered, his son and successor, Louis, was still a child, and his widow Maria, whom the French called Marie, took control of the palace. Her friend Leonora's position was likewise strengthened. Nevertheless Leonora was miserable. She came down with a mysterious illness that produced crying fits and bouts of asphyxiation, until she nearly went mad. She shut herself up in her room at the Louvre Palace, rarely ventured out in public, and filled her room with healing stones, velvet balls, phylacteries and wax figurines. The queen summoned the best doctors, and at a certain point also exorcists, to examine her friend, all in vain. One of the doctors was a Jew from Italy named Philotheus Eliahu de Luna Montalto. Books about Judaism and magic would later be discovered in Leonora's room.

In the meantime, the palace community, made up of thousands of people, sank into the mire of intrigue and plots and hair-raising scandals, passions and fantasies, hatreds, loves and mainly betrayals. It seems that Louis XIII fell in love with a strapping and handsome Italian nobleman, and the latter arranged for the assassination of Concino Concini, the estranged husband of the sorceress Leonora. Immediately afterward Leonora herself was arrested. Marie could no longer help: The blow that felled Concini had also wiped out her influence at court.

All of this happened in a dark and brutal society, violent to the point of insanity. Ya'ara Bar-On depicts a routine of mass executions, including by fire, lynchings accompanied by bodily mutilation, more than once to the point of cannibalism. She relies for her account on a rather surprising source: pamphlets that were distributed in Paris and provided information and commentary on occurrences in the city, including the palace, and which were influential in molding public opinion. Among other things, Parisians were encouraged to witness executions; Leonora Galigai's promised to be especially spectacular. At the last minute she obtained a stay by claiming to be pregnant, but a quick check revealed she was lying. When she was finally beheaded, it was very close to the shoulders, and her head rolled across the scaffold. The corpse was stripped down to a chemise and tossed onto the fire, followed by the head.

Bar-On proposes that we can learn a few things from this affair about racism and hatred of the Other in general. "Do not dismiss the questions raised in this book as irrelevant to your lives," she writes. "It is easy for us to attribute irrationality, prejudice and 'darkness' to the people of the past; in our day, in our parts, witches are not burned after all, we are different naturally, enlightened and educated."

The truth, Bar-On maintains, is that in 17th-century Paris were laid many of the foundations of the society and politics, culture and media as we witness them today, in the 21st century, and the raw materials that comprise the story of Leonora Galigai are, she says, no less clearly present today, among us and around us.