About the project

Magic in Malta 1605: The Moorish Slave Sellem Bin Al-Sheikh Mansur and the Roman Inquisition

  • Awarded to: Professor Dionisius Agius
    In collaboration with:Co-Invesigator: Dr Catherine Rider (History, University of Exeter)Funding Awarded to Exeter: £233,831
  • Dates: 1 July 2014 - 30 June 2016
  • Sponsor(s): AHRC

Ideas of magic have existed in human society for millennia and are worldwide phenomena, continuing to this day through the use of amulets, crucifixes, and the evil eye, among others, in places such as the Islands of Malta, as well as more widely in Europe and the Islamic World.

Over the decades much energy has been expended identifying the causes behind, attitudes towards, and consequences of the perceived practice of magic in Medieval and Early Modern Europe, and, to a lesser extent, the contemporaneous Islamic world. Yet in a few comparatively neglected places, such as Malta, these differing cultures overlapped, with the result that ideas of magic could cross cultural boundaries and so start to influence other cultures.

In response to the use of magic on Malta, which was often accompanied by an Islamic influence, the Roman Inquisition on Malta, under the auspices of the Pope, attempted to prevent its practice through legal proceedings against suspected practitioners. The (Cathedral) Archives in Mdina, Malta, contain manuscripts of court proceedings of the Inquisition, dating from 1561 to 1798, which cover a number of charges ranging from apostasy through possession of prohibited religious literature to witchcraft and magic.

The proposed project examines the proceedings (written in Latin, Italian and Arabic) of the Roman Inquisition on Malta’s 1605 trial of the ‘Moorish’ slave Sellem Bin al-Sheikh Mansur, who was accused and found guilty of practising magic and sentenced to solitary confinement. It will assess what these proceedings reflect about religion, society, and politics both on Malta and more widely across the Mediterranean in the early 17th century, as well as aspects of magic in both European and Islamic contexts.

Unlike earlier works on magic on Malta, a field dominated by the work of Carmel Cassar (1996), who has examined a large number of trials of Christians using a broad perspective, this project will study one trial of a Muslim in depth following D. A. Agius’ previous British Academy sponsored study of Georgio Scala and the Moorish Slaves, an inquisitional document also found at the Mdina archives. The study of the present project entails a transcription, translation and commentary of the trial proceedings, highlighting as broadly as possible its main points and thereby attempting to open the whole field of Maltese Inquisition trials to a wider audience than has previously been the case.