The Rise of Satanism in the Middle Ages

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The Rise of Satanism in the Middle Ages

For the common folk of Europe, the Middle Ages (c. 500c. 1500) were a time of fear, oppression, and despair, thus providing fertile soil for the seeds of the old pagan practices to take root and flourish anew. The ancient rituals and nature rites that were practiced with joy and abandon by the peasants came to be feared by the Medieval Church as demonic witchcraft that worshipped Satan and sought to destroy Christendom, which was at that time the official religion of all European countries. According to a number of scholars, the Church itself may have been greatly responsible for the revival of the Old Religion by its having increasingly exercised extremely repressive regulations upon the private lives of the common people. Then, once excessive doctrines and dogmas had provoked a rebirth of paganism, the Church saw the nature-worshipping rituals of the common people as a threat to its authority and condemned these men and women as being practitioners of an organized satanic religion that never really existed.

An analysis of the Medieval Church's sexual code reveals that its basic law was that the act of sexual intercourse was to be performed as seldom as possible. Stern-faced Church authorities encouraged their flocks to avoid cohabitation completely, even if married. In the eyes of the Church there was no love, only desire. To have feelings toward a member of the opposite sex, even though no actual physical intimacy took place, was inherently sinful. And the holy state of matrimony provided no sanctuary for love. To love, or desire, one's lawful marriage partner was considered sinful. One of the Church's defenders stated that if a man loved his wife too passionately, he had committed a sin worse than adultery.

In his Sex in History (1954), G. Rattray Taylor summarized the strict system of Church morality as it was set forward in a series of penitential books. Every imaginable misdeed and every conceivable misdemeanor is discussed and analyzed at great length and appropriate penalties are set forth for each sexual misstep. Taylor explains that the basic code of the Church was composed of three main propositions:

  1. All who could were urged to accept the ideal of complete celibacy;
  2. An absolute ban was placed on all forms of sexual expression other than intercourse between married persons, and prohibitions were drawn up to thwart an exhaustive list of sexual activity, the violation of which resulted in terrible penitential acts;
  3. The days per year upon which even married couples might consummate the sex act were decreased in number.

The frustrated populace were left with the equivalent of about two months of the year during which they might, for the purpose of procreation alone and without invoking any sensations of pleasure, engage in sexual connection. If a child had been born to them and had been delivered at a particular time of the year which would fit in a certain manner in the Church calendar, the anxious parents might be prevented by their faith from having intercourse for a year or more.

The penitential books developed the mystical concept that all virgins were the brides of Jesus Christ (c. 6 b.c.e.c. 30 c.e.). Therefore, any man who seduced a virgin was not only committing fornication, but, at the same time, the more serious sexual crime of adultery. Christ was cast into the role of the indignant and outraged husband, and Mother Church, as his earthly representative, was thereby empowered to exact the terrible penance which the angered deity demanded. The maiden, unless she had been forcibly raped, was also held to be in mortal sin, for she had committed adultery against her husband, Christ.

Chastity was honored as the Church's sexual ideal and the virtuous wife was the one who would deny herself to her husband. It was not only the sexual act for which the penitentials prescribed prohibitions and penance. Kissing and fondling also brought down severe penalties.

It was, according to Taylor, in a spirit of desperation to save the souls of weaker brethren that the Church passed such ruthless codes of personal behavior and repeatedly distorted and falsified the pronouncement of biblical texts in order to obtain justification for its laws. Such an extreme asceticism was certainly not preached by Christ, and such a sexual code is supported by neither the Old nor New Testaments.

The Middle Ages had become a time of intolerable sexual frustration and sexual obsession. In its attempt to eradicate sin by means of enforced sexual repression, the Church inadvertently created fertile ground for the rebirth of the dormant Old Religion. With the sanctioned state of Holy Matrimony open to only a few, the stories of the old ways, the old customs, and the old mysteries with their emphasis on fertility and communal sex rites became appealing to the common folk.

In the early days of Christianity, the Church Fathers permitted women to preach, cure, exorcise, and baptize. By the Middle Ages, women had lost all vestiges of any legal rights whatsoever, and the Church regarded them as responsible for all sexual guilt. It was woman who had precipitated the Fall by tempting man, who would otherwise have surely remained pure. Women were considered a necessary evil. In the Old Religion, she would once again be elevated to the status of priestess, healer, and a respected symbol of fertility.

The loss of civil rights, the tyranny of the feudal lords, and the imposition of sexual repression by the Church provided the fresh fuel for the smoldering sparks of the Old Religion among the common people. But the Church and the feudal establishment would soon move to combat the "evil" influence of the resurrected Pan, god of fertility, nature, and freedom. Church scholars would soon consult the ancient manuscripts to determine how best to deal with the formidable adversary who had returned from the past. The feudal lords would soon lose all patience with the rebellious serfs and set about to slay them as methodically as a farmer sets out to remove noxious weeds from his fields of grain, and the Church would ignite a flame which would eventually destroy thousands of innocents in the Inquisition. Pan, the horned and goat-hoofed god of the ancient mystery rites, had been transformed into Satan, the enemy of the Church, Christ, and all good.

In The History of Magic, (1948), Kurt Seligmann offered what seems to be an astute analysis of the situation: "the ancient survivals, the amusements of serfs, the most innocent stories, were henceforth Satanic, and the women who knew about the old legends and magic traditions were transformed into witches.the traditional gatherings, the Druid's Festival on the eve of May Day, the Bacchanals, the Diana feasts, became the witches' sabbaththe broom, symbol of the sacred hearthbecame an evil tool. The sexual rites of old, destined to stimulate the fertility of nature, were now the manifestations of a forbidden carnal lust. Mating at random, a survival of communal customsnow [were] an infringement of the most sacred laws."

To the Church, the devils solidified into oneSatan, enemy of Christ's work here on Earth. To the people, who could not really care about the philosophical dualism of an evil adversary for the Christ of the Feudal Lords and the Church, the Old Religion offered release from oppression and unrelenting drudgery.

According to Seligmann, the peasants of the Middle Ages did not view their Old Religion as a perversion, but as "primitive and innocent customs. At the sabbat [the peasant] was free to do as he pleased. He was feared also; and in his lifelong oppression, this gave him some dignity, some sense of freedom."

It was in his enjoyment of the excitement and vigor of the Old Religion that the peasant could allow himself the luxury of experiencing pleasure without the interference of Mother Church, which sought to control and repress even human emotions. But it was in rebellion against church and state that provoked the feudal and church establishments to denounce the Old Religion as satanic and to declare its practitioners witches, Satan's willing servants. And it was in that same time of unrest, despair, and fear of demons that "woman" and "witch" became largely synonymous. St. Augustine (d. 604) had declared that humankind had been sent to destruction through one woman (Eve) and had had salvation restored to it through another woman (Mary). But, as many writers have since commented, woman had, to the medieval and Renaissance man, become almost completely dualistic.

Delving Deeper

Hunt, Morton. The Natural History of Love. New York: Anchor, 1994.

Russell, Jeffrey Burton. Witchcraft in the Middle Ages. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1972.

Seligmann, Kurt. The History of Magic. New York: Pantheon Books, 1948.

Taylor, G. Rattray. Sex in History. New York: Van guard Press, 1952.

Trevor-Roper, H. R. The European Witch-Craze. New York: Harper & Row, 1967.

Black Mass

In 1966, when Anton Szandor LaVey (19301997), high priest of the Satanic Church of America, joined socialite Judith Case and freelance writer John Raymond in the bonds of matrimony, he performed the rites over the naked body of Lois Murgenstrumm, who served as the living altar. Later, when LaVey explained the ritual significance of the living altar to reporters, he remarked that an altar shouldn't be a cold, unyielding slab of sterile stone or wood. It should be a symbol of unrestrained lust and indulgence.

All in all, it was quite a wedding for the first public marriage ceremony ever held in the United States by a devil-worshipping cult. The bride shunned the traditional white gown to appear in a bright red dress. The groom wore a black turtleneck sweater and coat. The satanic high priest stole the show, however, in a black cape lined with scarlet silk and a close-fitting blood-red hood from which two white horns protruded.

The cynical might point out that LaVey's San Francisco-based church headquarters was once a brothel; the purists among the Satanists might grumble about how LaVey's showbiz approach has demeaned the esoteric allure of their secret rituals; but it is difficult to be dogmatic about the precise rites and liturgies of the Black Mass.

Most authorities agree that the early Sabbats were held well away from the cities and villages on large areas of flat ground. Many covens preferred hilly ground, even mountain-sides; but wherever the rituals were held, it was essential that one end of the worship area be wooded. This grove, according to tradition, served as the choir and sanctuary. The open area served as the equivalent of the nave in an orthodox church. At the far end of the wooded grove, the worshippers erected an altar of stones. Upon the altar was placed a large, wooden image of Satan, which many contemporary scholars agree was quite likely intended to be a representation of the nature god Pan, rather than the Prince of Darkness.

Even in its most polished form, this effigy did not resemble the sleek, mustachioed popular conception of a long-tailed devil in red tights. The idol's torso was human, but its bottom half was that of a goat. Its head, too, was more often goat-like than that of a clearly discernible human physiognomy. The entire image was stained black, and in some locales, bore a small torch between its horns. The central feature of all such idols was said to be a prominent penis of exaggerated proportions, emphasizing the rites of fertility in which the ancient rituals originated.

The tortures of the Inquisition brought forth all manner of obscene versions of the Black Sabbat, and perhaps the great majority of such testimony is suspect. It must be pointed out that descriptions of the Black Mass were derived from confessions achieved by torture, as well as from accounts of medieval Christians who observed pagan celebrations of the solstices, midsummer, and so forth and who collectively designated the participants as "satan-worshippers." However, numerous scholars of witchcraft, sorcery, and Satanism generally agree on the following order of service for the observance.

The Sabbat began with the ceremonial entrance of the participants, led by the high priest or high priestess of the coven. (A coven is traditionally comprised of no more than 12 members.) Christian observers of the Sabbat were quick to compare this ceremonial entrance to the orthodox introit, but there is no evidence that the witches referred to the procession by this name or even intended a comparison to the Christian order of service. According to contemporary reports of Sabbat gatherings in the Middle Ages (c. 500c. 1500), several hundred, and in some cases, several thousand, people attended the ritual observances.

The chief officiant was called "The Ancient One," a purely symbolic title, as in many Sabbats, the priestess might be an adolescent girl. At the priestess' signal, the celebrants touched their torches to the flame burning between the dark image's horns and received the transference of Lucifer's light. The office was opened with the priestess chanting: "I will come to the altar. Save me my Holy Lord Satan from the treacherous and the violent." The ceremonial procession and opening prayer completed, the priestess next delivered the ceremonial kiss to the hindquarters of the image.

The only real steadfast rule of the Sabbat was that there must be an equal number of both sexes. Each participant must have a mate. Under torture, many witches told their confessors that Satan would conjure up demons to take the place of either sex if human company should run short.

Each initiate and each member in attendance was required to bring food and drink for the banquet. In the state of poverty and deprivation in which so many peasants lived, it is easy to see why they looked forward to these smorgasbords during the Sabbats. Wine, beer, and cider were all known by the twelfth century, and attendees were encouraged to drink as well as eat their fill.

It seems, in the opinion of many scholars, that the celebrants may have sprinkled liberal dosages of trance-inducing herbs into the communal brew. Undoubtedly, such an action was designed to break down the last vestiges of inhibitions that some newcomers might maintain. It was most important that everyone be congenial by the hour when it was time for the Sabbat Dance, or, as it is commonly known, the Witches' Round.

The round was performed with the dancers in a back-to-back position with their hands clasped and their heads turned so that they might see each other. A lively dance such as this, which was essentially circular in movement, would need little help from drugged drinks to bring about a condition of vertigo in the most hearty of dancers. In his The Satanic Mass (1965), H. T. F. Rhodes writes: "The result of the dance was an ecstatic condition wherein, as the movement progressed, officiants and congregation were united as if in one body."

In the sixteenth century, Florin de Raemond described the rites of the Sabbat then extant (translation from Rhodes, The Satanic Mass ): "The presiding deity is a black goat with two horns. A man dressed as a priest is attended by two women servers. A young initiate is presented to the goat who makes the sign of the cross with the left hand and commands those present to salute him withthe kiss upon the hind-quarters. Between his horns the creature carries a black lighted candle from which the worshippers' tapers are lighted. As each one adores the goat, money is dropped into a silver dish." De Raemond goes on to state that the new witch is initiated by giving Satan a lock of her hair, and by "going apart with him into a wood." Then, according to de Raemond, "The Sabbat dance follows in the familiar back-to-back positions and the Mass proper then begins. A plain black cape is worn by the celebrant. A segment of turnip, dyed black, is used in place of the Host for the elevation. On seeing it above the priest's head, the congregation cry, 'Master, save us!' Water replaces wine in the chalice. Offensive material is used as a substitute for holy water."

The simplest ring dance practiced by witches is that of a plain circle with men and women alternating with joined hands. Sometimes the men face in and the women face out. In certain cases, upright poles may be placed on the perimeter of the dance circle so that the dancers might weave their way through the staves. As the witches become more accomplished, the dance patterns may become more sophisticated, but most authorities feel that nearly all of the dances may be traced from ancient designs, such as the swastika, which represents the horns of four beasts turning a mill or a wheel.

Perhaps the climax of the traditional Witches Round came with the priestess becoming the living altar and lying there, naked, to receive the material offerings of the group. Token gifts of wheat, fruit, and in some cases, small animals, may have been offered on the human altar. This part of the Sabbat seems to have been a most important facet of the fertility rites, which, in primitive times, was probably the primary motivation for the observance.

By the time of the Middle Ages with its grim repression of pleasure and sex, it appears to be a point of general agreement that a mass sexual communion was followed by wild and ecstatic dancing. Such accounts must always be evaluated by considering the source: women and men under torture and death at the stake. It seems certain from the perspective in the twenty-first century, that the old mystery religions took on a completely different interpretation when observed by Christian witnesses.

It was during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries that the mold became set for the ritual patterns which many today commonly think of as Satanism. It was then that the practitioners of the Old Religion went completely underground with their worship ceremonies while the decadent aristocracy seized upon the Black Mass as a kind of hedonistic parlor game in which one might express his sexual fantasies on living altars and cavort about in the nude. Unrestrained immorality was the order of the day as Parisians followed the example of their Sun King, Louis XIV (16381715). Satanism was perhaps developed to its highest estate, as the jaded aristocrats began to adapt the witchcraft rituals to suit their own sexual fantasies. The enlightened sophisticate's mockery of the primitive customs had been converted to a serious interest by the tension and insecurity of the times. Although the Inquisition still consumed its quota of witches, the France of King Louis XIV was a high-living, low-principled era, and lords and ladies began to pray in earnest to Satan to grant them high office and wealth. Whether or not their wishes for elevation in the society of their day was granted, it would seem that the majority of these high-born Satanists paid cursory homage to the Horned God only as a means of indulging their baser passions.

Delving Deeper

O'Keefe, Daniel Lawrence. Stolen Lightning: The Social Theory of Magic. New York: Vintage Books, 1983.

Rhodes, H. T. F. The Satanic Mass. London: Arrow Books, 1965.

Taylor, G. Rattray. Sex in History. New York: Van guard Press, 1952.

Trevor-Roper, H. R. The European Witch-Craze. New York: Harper & Row, 1967.

Williams, Charles. Witchcraft . New York: Meridian Books, 1960.

Catherine Montvoisin

At her trial in Paris in 1680, Catherine Deshayes, "La Voisin" (c. 16401680), boastfully stated that she had sacrificed more than 2,500 children who had their throats slit at her Black Sabbats. She also claimed that her poisonous potions brought about the deaths of many more jealous husbands, unfaithful wives, and unwanted parents than all the other professional poisoners of Paris combined.

In 1647, the little girl who would become one of history's most infamous Satanists was just another barefooted beggar who had been sent out into the streets to tell fortunes for a few coins from the passersby. By coincidence, many of the waif's "predictions" came true, and she cultivated a clientele who swore by her "God-given powers." But the appealing little prophetess with the smudged nose soon discovered that Satan's wages were much higher than the ones offered by the angry wives who suspected their husbands of infidelity or the frustrated young women who wanted to know when they would get a husband.

When she was 20, Catherine married Antoine Montvoisin, who, as far as can be determined, never contributed any money toward her well-being. Innately resourceful, she had soon established herself as a midwife, a beautician, and an herbalist, and was supporting both Antoine and his daughter by a former marriage in handsome style.

It was when the enterprising La Voisin included palmistry, prophecy, and astrology among her stock-in-trade that she incurred the wrath of the established Church. Instead of being flayed alive by a grand inquisitor, the young woman convinced a learned tribunal composed of the vicars general and several doctors of theology from the Sorbonne that her approach to astrology was completely acceptable to the Church.

The effect that her release had upon her already flourishing trade as an herbalist and her ever-increasing reputation as a seer was remarkable. People reasoned that La Voisin had secured the Church's blessing on her magic. She was soon surrounded by many wealthy clients.

La Voisin received her supplicants in a darkened chamber wherein she appeared in an ermine-lined robe emblazoned with two hundred eagles embroidered in gold thread on purple velvet. For the right price, the high priestess would officiate at a special Black Mass for a troubled seeker of satanic solace. If the supplicant were female, then the client herself, regardless of how high-born she might be, would serve as the Black Mass's living altar.

The high priestess kept a secret list of more than 50 Roman Catholic priests who would celebrate the Black Mass at her bidding. Her great favorite was Abbe Guilborg (d. 1680), who, in spite of the fact that he held a number of public and private ecclesiastical offices, was always in need of extra money to maintain his mistresses he kept closeted about Paris. His skill as a chemist was also put to good use by La Voisin for her clients who wished effective poisons, and Guilborg managed to cut down on housekeeping expenses with his mistresses by selling his many illegitimate children to La Voisin for use as satanic sacrifices during her Black Masses.

Babies for sacrifice cost the high priestess a good deal of money, but she had learned to economize in the Paris streets. She established a home for unwed mothers, which saw the girls through their pregnancies and relieved them of the responsibility of caring for an unwanted child. Girls without financial means were provided for at no charge. The bills presented to the women of the aristocracy were large enough to cover the operating expenses for the entire home. The young pampered aristocrats, who inconveniently found themselves in a family way, were, however, offered the bonus of having a punitive potion secretly administered to the rogue who had been so careless in his seduction. With moral laxity the order of the day in Louis XIV's (16381715) France, the shrewd La Voisin's home for unwed mothers always managed to provide her with a stockpile of sacrificial infants.

The Black Mass was held deep in the bowels of La Voisin's high-walled house in the region lying south of St. Denis, which, in seventeenth-century Paris, was called Villeneuve. The supplicant approached the altar in complete nudity and lay upon its black surface. A black-robed acolyte stepped forward to place a flickering black candle in each of her upturned palms. At this point, Abbe Guilborg (d. 1680) appeared and positioned himself at the living altar. He wore vestments of an orthodox shape made of white linen. The chasuble (outer vestment worn by celebrant at Mass) and the alb were embroidered with black pine cones, the ancient Greek symbol of fertility. The priest placed the chalice upon the supplicant's stomach, kissed her body, and officiated the ceremony. The prayer book was bound in human skin; the holy water was urine; and the host was usually a toad, a turnip, or on occasion, true host stolen from a church and desecrated with filth.

The rituals completed, it was time for the offering. Abbe Guilborg stretched out his arms to receive the infant delivered there by the black-robed acolyte, intoning the dark entities Astaroth and Asmodeus to accept the sacrifice of the child so the supplicants at the Black Mass might receive the things that they asked.

The child was raised aloft and the priest deftly slashed its throat.

Marguerite, La Voisin's stepdaughter, often assisted at the Black Mass in the capacity of clerk to the celebrating priest. When Marguerite happened to find herself with child as the result of a flirtation with a married neighbor, she became alarmed when she found her stepmother casting appraising eyes at the bulge of her pregnancy. When the child was born, Marguerite, in spite of herself, found that a maternal instinct existed within her. Since she was quite aware that La Voisin had no interest in becoming a grandmother, Marguerite had sent her child away to be brought up in the country.

While she was becoming wealthy from her performance of the satanic rites, La Voisin was unaware that a police official named Desgrez, a detective who had arrested Madame de Brinvilliers (16301676), an aristocratic Satanist who specialized in poisons, was closing in on her Black Sabbats. When his men reported the number of the high-ranking and the high-born who were frequenting the Satanist's subterranean chambers, Desgrez found himself faced with quite a decision. It would not benefit him to anger so many important people by suggesting that the activities in which they were engaging were wrong. If he arrested La Voisin, he would, at least indirectly, be criticizing the members of the aristocracy who regularly attended her Sabbats and who relied upon her talents as a seeress and a priestess.

As Desgrez struggled with this dilemma, one of his officers came to him trembling with fear. He had recognized the crest on one of the coaches waiting before La Voisin's walls as belonging to none other than Madame de Montespan (16411707), the mistress of King Louis XIV. The officer told him that the royal mistress had served as the naked, living altar at one of La Voisin's Sabbats.

Desgrez brought his evidence and the list of names to his superior, La Reynie, head of the Chambre Ardente. King Louis had pledged himself to support the Chambre, but the rank of the names on the list, including that of his own mistress, placed him in a politically explosive situation. His advisors cautioned him that a hasty exposure of the decadence of court life would lead to a revolution or encourage England to launch an invasion against a morally corrupt and internally torn France.

After the arrest of La Voisin, several planted rumors caused some of the court favorites involved to flee the country on extended trips abroad. After they were safely out of the country, the king saw to it that evidence against highborn court figures, including his indiscreet mistress, was suppressed. La Voisin herself was treated to a rather pleasant stay in jail, until King Louis had seen to it that all those of high position had been protected. Then La Voisin was delivered to the grand inquisitor.

Catherine Montvoisin endured four six-hour ordeals in the torture chamber before she was brought to the stake on February 23, 1680. By the king's order, only testimony concerning those Satanists who had already been condemned was allowed to be recorded. The former fortuneteller from the streets of Paris went to her death singing offensive songs and cursing the priests who sought her final confession.

Delving Deeper

Cavendish, Richard. The Black Arts. New York: Capricorn Books, 1968.

Rhodes, H. T. F. The Satanic Mass. London: Arrow Books, 1965.

Seligmann, Kurt. The History of Magic. New York: Pantheon Books, 1948.

Williams, Charles. Witchcraft. New York: Meridian Books, 1960.

Gilles de Rais (14041440)

In 1415, as a boy of 11, Gilles de Rais became heir to the greatest fortune in France. At 16, he increased his net worth by marrying the extremely wealthy Catherine de Thouars. Although he was known as a devout Christian with a mystical turn of mind, and is described by his contemporaries as a man of rare elegance and almost angelic beauty, he was far from an ascetic. He was highly skilled in the arts of warfare, and when he had barely turned 20 he rode by the side of Joan of Arc (c. 14121441) and served as her chief lieutenant, fighting with such fierce merit that King Charles VII (14031431) later awarded de Rais the title of Marshal of France.

Gilles de Rais was a man so noted for his devotion to duty and his personal piety that he came to be regarded as a latter-day Lancelot. But, like Lancelot, de Rais entered into an illfated love affair that destroyed him. Although it was undoubtedly an affair that was conducted entirely on a spiritual plane, de Rais became the platonic lover of Joan of Arc, the strange young mystic whose "voices" dictated that she save France. He became her guardian and protector, but when Joan was captured and burned at the stake, de Rais felt as though his years of serving God and the good had been for naught. After the maid of Orleans was betrayed by the Church, he became transformed into a satanic fiend of such hellish and unholy proportions that his like may be unequaled in the annals of perverse crimes against society. Many scholars who have examined the life of this pietist turned monster in depth have agreed that de Rais's crimes and acts of sacrilege were quite likely inspired by what he considered God's betrayal of God's good and faithful servant, Joan of Arc.

Although she had given him a child, Gilles de Rais left his wife, vowed never to have sexual intercourse with another woman, and secreted himself in his castle at Tiffauges. The young man who had once surrounded himself with priests and supported dozens of chapels throughout France, now welcomed profligates, broken-down courtiers, sycophants, and wastrels to his castle, and his family gold supported several rounds of lavish orgies. At last, even the vast wealth of the de Rais was depleted, and Gilles decided to try his hand at alchemy, the dream of transmuting base metals into gold, as a means of replenishing his fortune.

Within a short time, he had converted an entire wing of his castle into a series of extensive alchemical laboratories. Alchemists and sorcerers from all over Europe flocked to Tiffauges. Some came to freeload on the feasts and to fleece the young nobleman out of a few bags of gold. Others came to seek final answers and resolution to the persistent, haunting quest of the alchemist. Although de Rais himself joined the alchemists and magicians in work sessions that went nearly around the clock, all of their experiments counted for naught.

It was the Italian alchemist/sorcerer Antonio Francisco Prelati, a former priest, who told him that a mortal cannot hope to achieve the transmutation of base metals into gold without the help of Satan. And the only way that an alchemist or a sorcerer could hope to arouse Satan's interest in his work was by dedicating the most abominable crimes to his name.

Under Prelati's direction, de Rais set about to commit his first abominable crime. He lured a young peasant boy into the castle and into the chambers that he provided for Prelati. Under the alchemist's instruction, de Rais brutally killed the boy and used his blood for writing of evocations and formulas. Satan did not appear and no base metals were transmuted into gold, but Gilles de Rais no longer cared. He had discovered an enterprise far more satisfying than the alchemist's quest. He had discovered sadistic satisfaction and pleasure in the torture and murder of children.

On September 13, 1440, Jean the Bishop of Nantes signed the legal citation which would bring the Baron Gilles de Rais to trial. Among the charges levied on him were the killing, strangling, and massacring of innocent children. In addition to such horrors, he was also charged with evoking demons, making pacts with them, and sacrificing children to them.

Etienne Corillaut, one of de Raises's personal servants, later testified at his master's trial when the Marshal of France was accused of having slain as many as 800 children.

Rather than be put to the question by the court, de Rais chose to confess every sordid and gory deed. Such a confession would spare him the ordeals by torture awaiting those who protested their innocence. Because of his high position in the court of France, Gilles de Rais was granted the mercy of being strangled before being burned. The tribunal conveniently looked the other way after his execution, however, and the de Rais family was permitted to remove his corpse after it had been given only a cursory singeing. The mass murderer of hundreds of innocent children was interred in a Catholic ceremony in a Carmelite churchyard. Antonio Francisco Prelati and the other professing Satanists were given, at most, a few months in prison for their part in the murders.

"It is thought likely by some historians that this was their reward for testifying against their master," Masters and Lea reflect, "and that both ecclesiastical and civil authorities were far more interested in obtaining Gilles' money and properties, which were still considerable, than in punishing him for his crimes."

Delving Deeper

Lyons, Arthur. The Second Coming: Satanism in Ameri ca. New York: Award Books, 1970.

Masters, R. E. L. and Eduard Lea. Perverse Crimes in History. New York: Julian Press, 1963.

Trevor-Roper, H. R. The European Witch-Craze. New York: Harper & Row, 1967.

Williams, Charles. Witchcraft. New York: Meridian Books, 1960.

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The Rise of Satanism in the Middle Ages

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The Rise of Satanism in the Middle Ages