French "Witches" (14th–16th centuries)

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French "Witches" (14th–16th centuries)

On August 9, 1390, two women, Margot de la Barre and Marion la Droiturière , were sentenced by the judges of the Châtelet in Paris to the pillory and then to be burned at the stake. Their case, carefully recorded in the Registre du Châtelet de Paris by the notary Aleaume Cachemarée, offers a telling example of the shift in attitudes toward sorcery that occurred as the Middle Ages drew to a close. Sorcerers—both men and women—who had long been a traditional part of the social fabric of their communities were increasingly finding themselves targets of the judicial system. Clever women skilled in divination, magic love philters and the uses of herbs, were now carried off to the torture chamber, where they were tormented into confessing their allegiances to the Devil and participation in a celebration of evil known as the witches' Sabbath. Under the condemnation of ecclesiastical and lay prosecutors, the formerly accepted figure of the sorcerer was now transformed into a demonic puppet of Satan.

In the case of Margot de la Barre and Marion la Droiturière, the two women were first interrogated at the end of July 1390. The accusation against them was the casting of a spell on Ainselin, the former lover of Marion, and his wife Agnesot . To regain her lover, Marion had been advised by a friend to share a drink with Ainselin, made of a few drops of her menstrual blood mixed with red wine; from Margot de la Barre she had obtained two recipes, the first based on herbs gathered during the magical night of Saint John, which was to provoke impotence in Ainselin with his wife. The second, intended to arouse his desire for Marion, involved roasting the testicles of a white rooster, grinding them into powder, and putting it into Ainselin's pillow for nine days before mixing it in his food and wine.

By themselves, these misdeeds, which were confessed by the accused at their first questioning, did not merit the death penalty. But after sessions in the torture chamber, both admitted to their abjuration of Christ and invocations of the Devil, crimes subject to redemption if confessed, but which still called for capital punishment.

A few months later, at the end of October 1390, two other women, known as skilled in divination and magic arts, similarly fell victims of the judiciary. Jehenne de Brigue , described in the Registre as a soothsayer, specialized in the recovery of lost objects, a respectable enough vocation in the Middle Ages. Some six years earlier, she had been approached by the priest of a neighboring village for aid in recovering a sum of money and a silver cross stolen from his church. It was not uncommon for a parish priest of the time to share his parishioners' beliefs in such a woman's gifts, as well as a deeper understanding of her social function. The priests themselves were mediators of the supernatural, endowed with powers of healing and exorcising evil spirits, and subject themselves to accusations of exercising magic.

Barre, Margot de la (d. 1390)

French woman. Name variations: Du Coignet. Lover of Ainselin, tried and burned in 1390.

Droiturière, Marion la (d. 1390)

French woman. Name variations: Droituriere or L'Estalee. Tried and burned in 1390.

Brigue, Jehenne de (d. 1391)

French soothsayer. Name variations: Jehenna; La Cordière. Tried in 1390; died in 1391; married Hennequin Le Cordier.

Ruilly, Macette de (d. 1391)

French woman. Tried in 1390; died in 1391; married Hennequin de Ruilly.

What brought Jehenne de Brigue to trial at the Châtelet was an exchange of recipes of love and disenchantment with Macette de Ruilly , who was accused as her accomplice. Jehenne had shown Macette how to cast a spell on her husband, using three toads, fed with the milk of a woman and then tormented with pins, as well as a puppet made of wax and of the husband's hair melted in a copper pan. Macette, in return, was accused of helping Jehenne, who wanted to marry the father of her children; in this case, the melted wax was to be rubbed between the man's shoulders for nine nights, while he slept. Under torture, Jehenne admitted to having been introduced to the Devil, under the name of Haussibut, by her godmother, while Macette's account of invoking her personal demon, Lucifer, involved a curious mix of the magic recipes described above, along with the liturgically orthodox Pater and Ave and the sign of the cross.

Cachemarée's precise and detailed transcriptions of the trials of the four women are exemplary. Their intention was to produce test cases and judicial models for the "inquisitorial" procedure that had been gradually put in place by the ecclesiastical courts since the year 1230. Implemented at first as an exceptional method for use against heretics, the procedure had replaced the older "accusatory" method, which depended on accusation by a private citizen rather than an inquiry initiated by authority. With its main objective being to obtain the suspect's confession, the inquisitorial process was conducted in private, without defense counsel, and judicial torture played a central role. Appearing at the very end of the 14th century, the trials of the Châtelet are therefore historically revealing for demonstrating a new attitude toward witchcraft, in which the traditional magic arts tended to become demonized, and the clever woman who practiced them ostracized as an outcast. The process was to take decades, and the first actual witch hunts did not take place before the end of the 15th century. When they did, they became a symptom of a profound cultural mutation and the widening gap between popular traditions and the doctrines developed by a universitytrained class.

As far back as the records go, people had always been apt to imagine troublesome or eccentric old women as being linked in a mysterious and dangerous way with the earth and with the forces of nature, and as themselves uncanny, full of destructive power. But from the twelfth century onwards a new element appears—at first amongst monks, then amongst other literate elements in the population: the need to create a scapegoat for an unacknowledged hostility to Christianity.

—Norman Cohn

In 1431, the trial of Joan of Arc at Rouen represented just such a gap, when her judges wanted to discredit her crusade on behalf of the French king Charles VII, and against the English, by condemning her as heretic and sorcerer. In the indictment against her, Joan's participation in spring rituals with the youngsters of her village of Domrémy was construed as diabolical idolatry. On the second Sunday of Lent, it was the young Joan's habit to dance with them around a big oak called the "fairy tree" and to picnic at a healing fountain. In their efforts to cast suspicion on customs of pagan origin that were outside the control of the church, her prosecutors systematically distorted her answers, until the collective rite took on the appearance of a solitary act of conjuration. According to their version, she danced by herself at night, offering herb garlands hung off the branches of the oak to attract evil spirits.

Apart from the gap between traditional popular culture and learned official culture, the cases of Joan of Arc and the witches condemned at the Châtelet indicate the type of woman who now became susceptible to being targeted. While the virgin Joan might seem at first to have little in common with the sexually promiscuous Margot, Jehenne, and their friends, all are bound by their situations of being outside the bonds of marriage; all also behave as independent women, without the protection of a husband or, more precisely, of a family structure in the context of a well-defined community. Joan, leading an army dressed as a man, and in virtually every other aspect of her conduct, transgressed what was expected of her sex; Margot de La Barre went from towns to villages as a prostitute; neither Marion la Droiturière nor Jehenne de Brigue were officially married, and Macette was unfaithful to her husband with the parish priest. Following patterns of behavior that excluded them from the class of respectable women who complied to the sacred rules of marriage or else devoted themselves to monastic life, all became similarly vulnerable to slandering, marginality, and collective rape, and easy scapegoats for inquiries of heresy or witchcraft.

In 1439, less than a decade after the death of Joan, the case of Catherine David offers an example of another trend making its appearance at the end of the Middle Ages, when private conflicts brought into the hands of the inquisitor became transformed into an accusation of witchcraft. Following her father's disinheritance of her three sisters in her favor, Catherine was brought to trial on the word of the sisters, who claimed that their parent's decision had been made under the influence of a magical potion Catherine had prepared. According to the inquisitor's indictment, Catherine was under the influence of the demon Barrabas, thus transforming a domestic quarrel into a major crime of the Church.

In another case involving sexual promiscuity, Martiale Espaze was brought before the inquisitor in 1491, for conduct believed to have caused a series of deaths among children and domestic animals. By this time, at the end of the 15th century, attitudes toward witchcraft had evolved so that the stereotype was fully in place, of the witch murderer of children, who was a member of an underground diabolic sect conducting nightly meetings where the host was desecrated and the Devil worshiped.

Again, torture disclosed the accused's contacts with the Devil. Martiale admitted to encounters under different demonic shapes: a tall man named Robin with whom she had intercourse, or a goat when she met him at the Sabbath. The list of her confessed crimes also established her responsibility for the community's disasters. She had abjured Jesus and Mary the Virgin , provoked the death of her neighbor's pigs, and exerted her malevolence against infants and children (the usual designated targets of witches). She was held responsible for the poisoning of an 18-month-old girl, lameness in another girl, casting a lethal spell on two baby boys in their cradle, and, finally, the bewitching of a neighboring woman to death. All these crimes, supposedly committed under the instructions of Satan's minion, were characteristic of recognized witches' work at the end of the 15th and throughout the 16th centuries. Martiale's account of the unholy Sabbath also conforms to the typical depiction of those hellish assignations, still widespread in modern-day representations. Her demon transports her nightly through the air to a place where women are gathered with their personal demons, dancing around a big fire. They pay homage to the Devil in the shape of a goat, with their flying broomsticks burning like candles.

Viewed in another way, Martiale's case defines those activities that transgress the fundamental values of society and traditional faith. Usually, there is a suggestion of ritual sex performed by the demons and other witches, without consideration of gender or family ties, and thereby violating the main societal taboos; rites of infanticide and cannibalism are further transgressions of what is most sacred for humanity, culminating in devil worship and abjuration in one's faith in God.

The prevalence of such conventions at the end of the Middle Ages—the ritualistic gatherings, witches' sects and worshipers of the Devil—bring certain questions to mind: If there were no such sects, what is the origin of the belief in them? Were they a consequence of popular fears, or the result of a growing obsession among clerics with the Devil and his demons?

One part of the answer can be found in a treatise published by two Dominicans, Henry Institoris and James Sprenger, with papal approval, in 1486. The title, The Witches' Hammer (Malleus Maleficarum), clearly expresses the intention of its authors, who prepared it as a kind of textbook for inquisitors. After naming the evil deeds of witches under the influence of the Devil, they describe exorcisms and other means of protection; beyond that, their main objective is to provide inquisitors with the means for a correct trial that will unmask the culprit. The Malleus Maleficarum had an enormous influence, appearing in at least 34 editions before the 17th century. It was referred to and quoted in trials of both Protestants and Catholics and served as a model for many subsequent treatises.

One of the effects of the Malleus was to reinforce the view of women as dangerous forces of great power, able to reduce men to impotency. Institoris and Sprenger attribute much importance to sex-related crimes, the relationship of witches to incubi and succubi, and the procreation of children through the collection and injection of semen; women are viewed as more likely to be witches than men, and men are considered to be more often bewitched than women.

David, Catherine

Name variations: Malavesse. Tried in 1439; married Jacques Blanc.

Espaze, Martiale

Married Jean Dumas; tried in 1475.

With the invention of the printing press, the treatises elaborating the principles of the diabolic witch theory became widespread. Some of the ideas thus disseminated could be traced back to pagan beliefs in ceremonial magic, evil women, and nocturnal flights, which were useful to the inquisitors for the prosecution of heretics when combined with fears of Devil influence. During the great period of the European witch hunts, lasting from the late 15th to the end of the 17th centuries, the practices that came under suspicion were of both popular and learned origin. To give two examples, both the rituals of the Sabbath and the accusations of infanticide and cannibalism can be seen as revivals of ancient stereotypes, formerly used against early Christians, medieval heretics, and Jews, all of whom were held responsible at one time or other for secret nightly meetings, sexual orgies, infanticide and ritual anthropophagy of babies. Treatises perpetuating these stereotypes, and linked to Satanic sects, date from the beginning of the Christian era. In 1575, pagan rituals were at the root of a trial held in the northern Italian province of Friuli, where the accused described their ancestral beliefs. They maintained that certain men and women could travel to the world of the dead during an ecstatic trance, often induced by narcotic drugs, where they could do battle against evil spirits to ensure the fertility of crops.

In 1682, witch hunts in France finally ended with a royal ordinance issued by Louis XIV forbidding prosecution for witchcraft. By that time, those who had been suspected or condemned are said to have numbered in the hundreds of thousands, a figure impossible to assess accurately and probably greatly exaggerated. Without question, however, the inquisitors' methods had helped to multiply the accusations; torture could make it difficult to resist denouncing even one's relatives and neighbors.

Viewing the trends identifiable in such records, the first question to arise concerns the predominance of women among the prosecuted. One explanation could be a new criminalization of women, previously considered the responsibility of their fathers or husbands in the case of standard crimes like violent aggression or theft. Significantly, however, most of the women labeled as witches also correspond to a specific stereotype, which identifies witchcraft as a rural phenomenon as well as a sex-related crime. A great percentage of the accused were old women, often widows, and living in the countryside. Freed from both patriarchal control and protection, they were easy targets, while their role in the transmission of traditional wisdom and culture tended to be seen by both lay and clerical authorities as associated with superstition. Both aspects contributed to an image of old women as potentially dangerous and threatening, and as such they became perfect scapegoats in a profoundly changing world.

In the difficult transition from the medieval to the modern period, as a predominantly rural culture became subjected to urban values, witch hunts can thus be considered a symptom of the times. Politically and socially, as the bonds of community and family were challenged by new power structures, and societies grew increasingly centralized and bureaucratic, those in charge attempted to impose strict controls on beliefs and behaviors. Churches tried to eradicate superstitions and strands of animist belief, and the absolutist monarchy in France was increasingly disseminating its authority through civil servants. Finally, for those feeling the threat of witchcraft, the judicial system provided both its doctrine of diabolism and a procedure of accusation, supported by the infallible techniques offered by the treatises on demonology for detecting Satan at work. Since, for instance, the Devil made certain parts of the witch's body insensitive to pain, such a Satanic spot could be systematically searched for with the help of long needles; another method of proof was to throw bound suspects into water: one who was guilty of a pact with the devil would float, while the innocent sank.

In such a context of transformation, the old woman labeled a witch lived at the margins of society, designated a deviant by a community in the process of redefining its values and norms. She symbolized the local, traditional way of life then yielding to a more centralized law and order. During the 16th century and the first half of the 17th, the social emphasis was on the necessity for women to find their place within patriarchal families, which were the model for the society as a whole. Authority was seen as coming from God, the rulers of the Church and the king, from which it passed to male heads of families; and the role of female healers was being overtaken by university-trained male professionals.

Swept up and crushed by the waves of such transformation, hundreds of victims were deprived of protection by their lower-class status. In contrast to these mostly rural cases, however, there were also a few instances of women of aristocratic or high bourgeoisie stature who became celebrated for their relations with the Devil. In 1611, there was the case of Madeleine Demandols de la Palud , a young nun in Aix-en-Provence, who claimed she had been bewitched by her confessor, Louis Gaufridy. Madeleine was subjected to several public sessions of exorcism, and the priest was tried and executed. Afterward, Madeleine lived a saintly life on her estate as a recluse, until February 1653, when she in turn found herself accused of bewitchment. Held responsible for the strange illness of a neighbor's daughter, who was struck with convulsions and vomited pins and straw, Madeleine was indicted by a tribunal for sacrilege and casting an evil spell and condemned to life imprisonment.

In the city of Nancy, another famous episode of diabolic possession occurred from 1618 to 1625, when Élizabeth of Ranfaing , a young widow, endured sessions of public exorcism leading to the denouncement, among others, of her doctor, who was burned at the stake in 1622. In 1631, Élizabeth founded a congregation for repentant prostitutes, which was condemned by the pope as a sect shortly before her death in 1649.

In 1632, in the small town of Loudun, near Poitiers, the convent of the Ursulines became famous when it was struck by an epidemic of diabolic possession among its nuns, beginning with the prioress, Jeanne des Anges . The prioress then named a priest of the area, Urbain Grandier, who was renowned for his profligacy, and the possessed women appeared for months before fascinated crowds, in their convulsions and numerous attempts at exorcism. After the torture of Grandier, sentenced to death on August 18, 1634, the public displays of possession continued for another three years while Jeanne's ordeal developed into a successful struggle with the Demon, demonstrated in a series of mystical trials. In 1635, she displayed her palms, marked with red stigmata, to the populace; in 1638, she began performing cures with a holy ointment of her own composition.

Beginning in March 1643, the convent of the town of Louviers, in Normandy, became the site of an outburst of possession cases similar to those at Loudun. After revelations made by several nuns in the course of exorcism, one of them, Madeleine Bavent , was sentenced to life imprisonment by the bishop of Evreux. Again, the person named responsible for the possessions was a priest, Mathurin Picard, who had been Madeleine's spiritual director, and had since died, but was exhumed for investigation. Picard's vicar, Thomas Boullé, was also later incriminated. A legal action taken by Picard's family led to years of controversy between those under the direction of the bishop, who accepted the possession theory, and a group of skeptics who were mainly doctors. On August 21, 1647, the saga ended when a tribunal sentenced the surviving priest to the stake; the nuns were dispersed to other convents, and Madeleine Bavent remained in jail.

The notoriety of these incidents helped to induce other episodes sharing similar characteristics, of struggle with the demon, exhibitions of its manifestations, competition among the exorcists and—most interestingly—debates between believers in the devil and skeptics. As members of the medical profession became involved, their presence indicated a new tendency toward a search for rational explanations. Medical interpretations, of melancholia or hysteria, now came into use to explain the nuns' behavior, and by the end of the 17th century, such "natural" or "profane" explanations brought the criminalization of witchcraft to an end. But the determining factor in the passage of the royal decree of 1682, abolishing witchcraft as a crime, was also the most sensational criminal case of the century. Known as the Affair of the Poisons, it culminated in the arrests of hundreds in 1679, when 34 persons were sentenced to death and executed.

The affair was the last and most famous of several cases involving the higher circles of the aristocracy, reaching right up to the monarchy itself. They began as early as 1617, under the young king Louis XIII, when Leonora Galigaï , the close friend and maid of the queen mother, Marie de Medici , fell victim to the political rivalries between her mistress, the king, and certain lords. One issue at stake involved the Italian origin of Marie de Medici, who raised Leonora and her husband, Concini, to high positions in the kingdom. Concini had become marshal of Ancre, but once he fell victim to a plot led by Louis XIII himself, nothing could protect his wife, who was accused of witchcraft and executed on the grounds of cures she took against her constant bad health.

Demandols de la Palud, Madeleine

Main victim in an episode of possession lasting 1609–1611.

Ranfaing, Élizabeth of (d. 1649).

Name variations: Elizabeth de Ranfaing. Victim of possession in case lasting 1618–1625.

des Anges, Jeanne

Mother of the Ursulines of Loudun, possessed, along with others in her order, in 1634.

Bavent, Madeleine

Accused of witchcraft at Louviers in 1642.

Galigaï, Leonora (c. 1570–1617)

Close friend of Marie de Médici. Name variations: Leonora Galigai. Born around 1570; tried and executed in 1617; married Concino Concini, marshal of Ancre.

In the case of Leonora Galigaï, witchcraft was clearly put forward as justification for a political trial; it was probably an important component in the indictments in two scandalous episodes during the reign of Louis XIV, both known as "affairs of the poisons." The first occurred in 1676, when Marie de Brinvilliers was found guilty of having poisoned her father and two brothers with the help of her lover. Her trial brought to light the existence in Paris of a ring of poison dealers, the magnitude of which was revealed during the second "Affair of the Poisons," beginning in 1679 with the incrimination of Catherine Deshayes , Madame Monvoisin, also known as La Voisin. Three years of inquiry and 210 sessions of a special tribunal brought to light the numerous members of the higher nobility, as well as ordinary folk, who applied to La Voisin for fortunetelling, drugs, poisons and black masses. La Voisin was burned to death on February 22, 1680, in the Place de Grèves. It was the alleged participation of the Marquise de Montespan , however, the favorite mistress of the king, which brought the prosecutions to an end. When word circulated that the marquise had used love charms to win the king's love, had taken part in black masses, and had tried to poison her rival and Louis himself, it took the king's personal intervention to protect her.

Deshayes, Catherine (d. 1680)

French poisoner. Name variations: Madame Monvoisin; Catherine Monvoisin; La Voisin. Burned at the stake on February 22, 1680; main figure accused in the Affair of the Poisons, lasting 1679–1682.

Cadière, Catherine (b. 1709)

French woman. Born in 1709; went to trial in 1731.

Rational explanations were meanwhile gaining ground over the supernatural, but belief in sorcery, possession and diabolism was not at an end. The last trial to actually involve accusations of witchery took place in 1731, in Aix-en-Provence. Catherine Cadière had been seduced by her spiritual director, Jean-Baptiste Girard, a Jesuit, and underwent an abortion in 1729. Her confession to her brothers led to a series of judicial battles between the Jesuits and Catherine, involving mutual accusations of bewitchment and possession, which some of the judges were still inclined to consider on criminal grounds. A divided tribunal resulted in a double acquittal, arousing the indignation of the great 19th-century historian Jules Michelet for the leniency it showed toward the debaucher.


Aubenas, Roger. La sorcière et l'Inquisiteur: Épisode de l'Inquisition en Provence (1439). Aix-en-Provence: La pensée universitaire, 1959.

Barrett, Wilfred Phillip. The Trial of Jeanne d'Arc. NY: Gotham House, 1932.

Bligny-Bondurand, M. "Procédure contre une sorcière de Boucoiran (Gard), 1491," in Bulletin historique et philologique. 1907, pp. 380–407.

Mandrou, Robert. Magistrats et sorciers en France au XVIIe siècle. Paris: Seuil, 1980.

Registre criminel du Châtelet de Paris du 6 septembre 1389 au 18 mai 1392. Edited by H. Duplès-Agier. 2 vols. Paris: Lehure, 1861 and 1864.

Sprenger, Jacob, and Heinrich Institoris, Malleus Maleficarum. Trans. by Montague Summers. London: Reider, 1928 (reprinted NY: Dover, 1970).

suggested reading:

Cohn, Norman. Europe's Inner Demons: An inquiry inspired by the Great Witch-hunt. London: Chatto-Heinemann, 1975.

Hester, Marianne. Lewd Women and Wicked Witches: A Study of the Dynamics of Male Domination. London: Routledge, 1992.

Kieckhefer, Richard. European Witch Trials: Their Foundations in Popular and Learned Culture, 1300–1500. Berkeley, CA: 1974.

Larner, Christina. Witchcraft and Religion. Oxford: Blackwell, 1984.

Quaife, G.F. Godly Zeal and Furious Rage: The Witch in Early Modern Europe. London and Sydney: Croom Helm, 1987.

Madeleine Jeay , Professor of Medieval Literature, McMaster University, Hamilton, Canada

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French "Witches" (14th–16th centuries)

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