"The Sinner from Toledo" (1881) - a denunciation of religious extremism by Anton Chekhov

(actualisé le ) by Anton Chekhov

A moral fable with a sharp edge to it recounting the fate of Maria Spalanzo, who had the misfortune to cross the path of a monk in Barcelona in bygone days looking particularly lovely in the evening moonlight and thereby arousing the deadly wrath of the fanatically misogynous priest and the fatal accusation of witchcraft.

A forceful denunciation of the crimes committed during the Spanish Inquisition, written by the 21-year-old Chekhov in an exceptionally severe, anti-clerical and even ideological perspective contrasting greatly with the light and humorous nature of all his other works during the period of his studies [1]. (2,100 words)

This interesting and very sobering work [2] has been translated specially for this site [3].

An e-book is available for downloading below.



“Whoever identifies the hiding-place of the witch who calls herself Maria Spalanzo, or brings her before the judges, alive or dead, will receive absolution.”

This announcement was signed by the Bishop of Barcelona and four judges on one of those days long gone by that will forever remain an indelible stain on the history of Spain and, perhaps, of humanity. It was read by the whole of Barcelona. The search began. Sixty women who looked like the witch in question were detained, their relatives were tortured ... There was a ridiculous but profoundly-held belief that witches had the ability to turn into cats, dogs or other animals, in any case black ones. It was said that often a hunter, having cut off a paw from an animal that had attacked him and carried it off as a trophy, would find only a bloody hand on opening his bag – a hand that he would recognize as his wife’s. The inhabitants of Barcelona killed all the black cats and dogs, but never found Maria Spalanzo in these fruitless sacrifices.

Maria Spalanzo was the daughter of an important merchant from Barcelona. Her father was French and her mother was Spanish. From her father she had inherited Gallic nonchalance and that boundless gaiety that’s so attractive in French women; from her mother a distinctly Spanish body. She was beautiful and intelligent, always cheerful, and devoted herself to carefree Spanish idleness and to the arts; she hadn’t shed a single tear before she was twenty ... She was as happy as a child ... Precisely on the day that she turned twenty she had married the sailor Spalanzo, who was well-known throughout Barcelona, handsome, and was said to be a most learned Spaniard. She had married for love. Her husband swore to her that he would kill himself if she weren’t happy with him. He loved her instinctively.

On the day after the wedding her fate was decided. In the evening she had left her husband’s house to go to her mother’s, but lost her way. Barcelona is a big city, and not every Spanish woman will be able to show you the shortest way from one end of it to the other. She encountered a young monk and asked him how to get to Sant Marc. The monk stopped and, lost in thought, began to look at her ... The sun had already gone down. The moon had risen, and cast its cold rays on the beautiful face of Maria. No wonder poets singing about women evoke the moon – in the moonlight a woman is a hundred times more beautiful. Because of the quick way she’d been walking, Maria’s splendid black hair was flowing over her shoulders and onto her deeply breathing, billowing chest ... Holding the scarf around her neck, her arms were bared to the elbows … The young monk suddenly declared for no apparent reason: "I swear by the blood of Saint Januaria that you’re a witch!”
“If you weren’t a monk I would have thought that you were drunk!” She replied.
"You are a witch !!" the monk muttered between his teeth. Where’s the dog that was running ahead of me just now? That dog has turned into you! I saw it! ... I know ... I haven’t lived twenty-five years yet but I’ve already caught fifty witches! You’re the fifty-first! I am Augustine!" Having said this, the monk crossed himself, turned back and disappeared.

Maria knew Augustine ... She had heard a lot about him from her parents ... She knew him as a zealous exterminator of witches and as the author of a scholarly book on the subject. In the book he cursed women, hated men for being born of woman and boasted of his love for Christ. But, Maria had thought more than once, how can someone love Christ who doesn’t love anyone?
Half a mile further on Maria came upon Augustine again. Four black figures had emerged from the gates of a large house with a long Latin inscription. The four figures let her pass them and followed her – in one of them she recognized Augustine. They followed her all the way home. Three days later a man dressed in black with a round, shaven face, with all signs of a judge, came to see Spalanzo. The man ordered Spalanzo to go to see the bishop immediately.
The bishop declared to Spalanzo: "Your wife is a witch!" Spalanzo turned pale. "Thank God," continued the bishop, "that a man who has a precious gift from God, the precious gift of detecting an unclean spirit in people, has opened our eyes and yours. He saw how she turned into a black dog and how the black dog turned into your wife ... "
"She’s not a witch, but ... my wife!" muttered the stunned Spalanzo.
"She can’t be the wife of a Catholic! She’s Satan’s wife! Haven’t you noticed, unfortunate man, that she’s already cheated on you on more than one occasion with an unclean spirit? Go home right away and bring her here!”
The bishop was a very learned man. From "femina" he derived two words: "fe" and "minus", on the supposedly accepted basis that a woman has less faith ... Spalanzo became paler than a dead man. He left the episcopal chambers and clutched his head. Where could he go and to whom could he now say that Maria wasn’t a witch? Who wouldn’t believe what the monks believe? Now all of Barcelona would be convinced that his wife was a witch! All of them! There’s nothing easier than convincing a stupid person of something unthinkable, and the Spaniards are all stupid! “There’s no people more stupid than the Spanish! Despise the Spanish, and don’t believe what they believe!” he had once been told by his dying father, a doctor. Spalanzo believed what the Spanish believe, but he didn’t believe the bishop’s declarations. He knew his wife well and was convinced that women only became witches in their old age.

"The monks want to burn you, Maria!" he said to his wife on coming home. "They say you’re a witch and ordered me to bring you there ... Listen, wife! If you really are a witch, then God be with you! Turn into a black cat and run away somewhere; if there’s no unclean spirit in you then I won’t give you up to the monks ... They’ll put a collar on you and won’t let you sleep until you betray yourself. Run away, if you’re a witch!”
Maria didn’t turn into a black cat and didn’t run away. She just burst into tears and began to pray to God.
“Listen to me!” Spalanzo said to his wife in tears. “My late father told me that the time will come soon when people will laugh at those who believe in witches. My father was godless, he was an atheist but he always spoke the truth. It’s necessary therefore, to hide somewhere and wait for that time to come ... Very simple! My brother Christopher’s ship is being repaired in the harbour. I’ll hide you in his ship, and you won’t leave it until the time that my father spoke of comes. That time, he said, will come soon ... “
That evening Maria was already sitting in the hold of the ship, shivering with cold and fear, listening to the sound of the waves and looking forward to that impossible time about which the Spalanzo’s father had spoken of.

The bishop asked Spalanzo "Where’s your wife?"
"She turned into a black cat and ran away from me," Spalanzo lied.
"I expected it, I foresaw it! But never mind, we’ll find her ... Augustine has a great gift, a wonderful gift! Go in peace and don’t marry witches again! There have been examples of unclean spirits migrating from wives to husbands ... Last year I burned a pious Catholic who by touching an unclean woman involuntarily had given his soul to Satan ... Go!"

Maria remained in the ship for a long time. Spalanzo visited her every night and brought her everything she needed. She sat there for a month, then another, and for a third, but the longed-for time did not come. Spalanzo’s father was right, but months are not enough to overcome prejudices. They are tenacious like fish and need whole centuries ... Maria got used to her new life and had already begun to laugh at the monks whom she called crows ... She would have lived for a long time and, perhaps, as Christopher said, would have sailed away in the repaired ship to distant lands far from stupid Spain, if one terrible, irreparable misfortune hadn’t happened. The bishop’s announcement, which passed all through Barcelona and was pasted on the walls of all the squares and market-places, came into the hands of Spalanzo. He read it and pondered. He was preoccupied by the absolution promised at the end of the announcement.

“It would be nice to get that absolution!” sighed Spalanzo. He considered himself a terrible sinner. A mass of sins for which many Catholics went to the stake and died under torture were on his conscience. In his youth he had lived in Toledo, that at the time was a gathering point for magicians and wizards ... In the XIIth and XIIIth centuries mathematics flourished there more than anywhere else in Europe. There’s only one step from mathematics to magic in Spanish cities ... Spalanzo, under the guidance of his father, also practiced magic. He opened the insides of animals and collected extraordinary herbs ... Once he pounded something in an iron mortar, and an unclean spirit had emerged from the mortar in the form of a bluish flame, with a terrible crack of thunder. Life in Toledo was full of such sinful acts. Having left Toledo after the death of his father, Spalanzo soon felt terrible remorse. One old, very learned monk-doctor told him that his sins wouldn’t be forgiven him if he didn’t receive absolution for some remarkable feat. For absolution Spalanzo was ready to renounce everything just to free his soul from the memories of his shameful life in Toledo and to avoid going to Hell.

He would have given half of his fortune if indulgences had been sold in Spain then ... He would have gone on foot to the holy places if he hadn’t been held back by his business commitments. "If I hadn’t been her husband I would have denounced her," he thought on reading the bishop’s announcement. The thought that he only had to say one word to get absolution stuck in his mind and didn’t give him any rest day or night ... He loved his wife, he loved her dearly ... Without this love, this weakness, that monks and even Toledo doctors despise so much, perhaps it might be possible ... He showed the announcement to his brother Christopher.
"I would have betrayed her," the brother said, "if she’d been a witch and wasn’t so beautiful ... Absolution is a good thing ... However, we won’t lose if we wait for Maria’s death and then hand her over to those dead crows ... Let the dead be burned ... The dead don’t suffer. She’ll die when we’re old, and in old age we need absolution ...” Saying this, Christopher burst out laughing and tapped his brother on the shoulder.
“I might die before her,” Spalanzo remarked. “But I swear to God, I would have betrayed her if I hadn’t been her husband!”

A week after this conversation Spalanzo was walking on the deck of the ship muttering to himself: “Oh, if only she were dead! I won’t give her up while she’s alive, no! But I would have if she were dead! I would have deceived those damned old ravens and received absolution from them!”
And so the stupid Spalanzo poisoned his poor wife ... The corpse of Maria was taken by him to the judges and was burned. Spalanzo received absolution for the sins of Toledo ... He was forgiven for the fact that he had learned to heal people and was engaged in science, which later became known as chemistry. The bishop praised him and gave him a book of his own composition ... In this book, the learned bishop wrote that demons most often enter women with black hair, because black hair is the colour of demons.

The Sinner from Toledo


[1Anton Chekhov (1860-1904) studied medicine at Moscow University from 1879 to 1884. He practiced medicine until 1892.

[2first published under the pseudonym "Antosha Ch." in the double issue of the artistic and humorous magazine "Spectator" dated December 1881. The permission of the censorship committee had been obtained on December 23 of that year.

[3by Ray and Mat.