Witches and Prostitutes in Medieval Tuscany

At the church of San Cerbone in Piombino, Italy, archaeologists have discovered over 200 burials that date back to the late 13th to early 14th centuries.  The majority of the individuals seem to have been farmers or fisherman, as the site was located near the Sea of Baratti.  Some of them were buried in stone sarcophagi or stone-lined pits, others perhaps in wooden caskets or buried directly in the ground.

Excavation at the cemetery of San Cerbone
(credit: Paolo Barlettani in Il Tirreno)

Two of the burials, though, were distinct and quite anomalous, so they're making news this week.  One was the burial of a female, with which archaeologists found a bag of 17 dice.  It was prohibited for women to play dice in the Medieval era, so Fabio Redi and Andrea Camilli have suggested she may have been a prostitute, buried with a symbol of immorality.

The other burial, they suggest, may have been that of a witch.  Her skeleton revealed that she was about 25-30 years old at the time of her death.  She was likely buried directly in the ground without any casket, but additional details reveal a rather aggressive burial treatment for this woman.  Seven curved nails, each about 4cm long, were found in her mouth.  In addition, 13 more nails were found in an outline around her body, which the archaeologists suggest reflect her being nailed to the ground by her clothing.  Alfonso Forgione, an archaeologist on the project, uses the term "revenant" to describe what the community may have been trying to prevent in their burial of this woman.

The "witch" of San Cerbone
(credit: uncredited photo in Il Tirreno)

Whether these two women were indeed considered witches or prostitutes is unclear.  Interestingly, both women appear to have been buried in the consecrated ground of the cathedral of San Cerbone.  It's possible, Forgione proposes, that they were from wealthy or influential families and thus merited burials within the Christian cemetery.

This site is quite interesting, especially in light of the recent coverage of other deviant burials from the Medieval era.  Finds like these give us a window into the mindset of past peoples and the way that they conceived of the supernatural.

Further Reading (in Italian):
Thanks to Roberto Labanti for tipping me off to the story with the three links above!

UPDATE (9/26/11) - The Daily Mail is the first English-language news source to cover this discovery.  It's not a wholly bad article, surprisingly, although there's no evidence that the nails were found "driven through the jawbone" of the woman - they were simply found inside her mouth.  The attempt to relate the find to the skeleton of the "Maya Queen" is totally odd, though - different time periods, different cultures.

UPDATE (9/29/11) - Roberto sent me a link to a new piece in Corriere della Sera in which professor Paola Villani suggests that nails in the mouth (clavis oris in Latin) were an ancient practice for adultery.  This explanation seems to make more sense than the assumption that the woman was a witch, since she was buried in consecrated ground.  For you linguists, the Latin quotation that Villani refers to in the article is the 13th century Summa de virtutibus et vitiis, which can be found in a 1668 version online here.


Maria P. said…
Unfortunately, I have grown sceptic regarding certain Italian interpretations, their pompous claims and the way some "scientists" treat the work of others.

Have you read the Erratum on "Forensic Approach to an Archaeological Casework of “Vampire” Skeletal Remains in Venice" here: http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/j.1556-4029.2011.01697.x/abstract (.pdf freely downloadable). It looks like plagiarism to me...
Wow, no, I missed the erratum. I'm glad that it was printed, though. I have definitely seen several bioarchaeological articles recently that are either missing citations or have not properly paraphrased original quotations. It makes me that much more vigilant in my own publications!
Anonymous said…
actually if you read the comments left by many readers of the Corriere (I'm Italian) you will find out that the transalation given by this "professor" is almost completely wrong and built only to support her interpretation. let's just say that "clavis oris" can hardly mean "nails in the mouth" but it is the key (or bolt) of the mouth.
for me it is disappointing to find out that they wrote a whole article without putting any warning and that so many readers could so easily disprove it.
RL said…
Leaving aside the correctness of the traslation suggested by architect Villani and the relevance in this context (see article comments), I think Prof. Villani interpretation should still taken _cum grano salis_: from the Corriere account, the ritual with this meaning seems well attested, but I don't known any other example (or, actually, any textual reference that supports her interpretation).

BTW: we must bear in mind that we are in a period that precedes the first witch-hunts, so the prohibition to be buried in consecrated ground might be inactual, because she will not labeled as a witch by the clergy. I think we should wait for the scientific publication for additional details about cause of death, time of the burial and if they can determine when the nails were placed in the mounth (at the time of burial? after some times, as in the Venice case of two/three centuries later?)

Roberto Labanti
Thanks for weighing in on Villani's suggestion, Anonymous and Roberto. I didn't read the Corriere comments, but I was intrigued by the new suggestion for the purpose of nails in the mouth. It's been a month of "revenants" in the news, to the point that I question the interpretation of any "anomalous" burial. Maybe "witch" is the best interpretation, but I like it when there's a "differential diagnosis" - does "witch" or "adulteress" make more sense to the experts?

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