France - Witchcraze! Persecution of Witches

The Element Encyclopedia of Witchcraft: The Complete A-Z for the Entire Magical World - Judika Illes 2005

Witchcraze! Persecution of Witches

The earliest French penalties against witchcraft consisted mainly of heavy fines: the fifth-century Salic Law established various levels. A fine of 72 sous and a half golden coin, for instance, was levied upon those who fashioned a witch’s knot and launched mortal curses, but also upon those who defamed a man as a wizard. In other words, one couldn’t make false accusations without penalty, a situation that would change during the Burning Times.

In 589, the Council of Narbonne decrees that diviners be whipped and sold as slaves. Those who consult with them are excommunicated and fined six ounces of gold. The Church designates secular rulers as the recipients of these fines, thus encouraging their cooperation.

Charlemagne (c.742—January 28, 814), ruler of the Frankish lands, was crowned Holy Roman Emperor by the Pope during a mass on Christmas Day, 800. Charlemagne was no longer merely the leader of a nation; he was the leader of Western Christendom and eligible to lead crusades, his army was now an arm of the Roman Catholic Church. In essence, any war conducted by Charlemagne was potentially a “Holy War,” especially if his opponents were Pagan, even if it was conducted for increased territory.

Charlemagne’s territories eventually spanned Europe from the Pyrenees to the Danube. At the Church’s bidding, he attempted to stamp out all traces of Paganism within his territory: not just “idolatry” but anything remotely occult or magical. Magical practitioners were aggressively persecuted during Charlemagne’s reign. Laws demanded that fortune-tellers, diviners, sorcerers, and witches be handed over to the Church for punishment or, alternatively, used as slaves. First offenders were to have their heads shaved and be paraded through town on a donkey (see ANIMALS: Donkeys). Those convicted of a second offense were liable to have noses and tongues lopped off, while three-time offenders were liable to be executed.

In 873, Charles the Bald decreed, “It is the duty of Kings to slay the wicked, not to suffer witches and poisoners to live…” He also condemned those who consulted or consorted with witches.

The earliest French witch-hunts were heresy-trials conducted by fourteenth-century Inquisitors. The first French secular witch trial occurred in 1390. As secular courts became more involved in witch-prosecution, the French government strengthened its anti-witchcraft laws to increase likelihood of conviction and execution.

France now saw the rise of the celebrity witch-hunter. Nicholas Remy (c.1530—1612), for instance, judge, attorney, and author of the 1595 witch-hunters’ guide Demonolatry (see BOOKS: Witch-hunters’ Manuals: Remy), demanded execution of all witches as well as automatic punishment for their children, an unusual point but one subsequently adopted by many witch-trial judges. As a witch-hunter, Remy was responsible for the execution of over 900 accused witches, personally supervising the torture of over twice that number.

Remy believed his eldest son had been magically murdered in 1582 by a beggar-woman witch after the son had refused to give her alms. From that day forth, Remy was merciless towards witches, conducting a personal vendetta.

In Demonolatry, Nicholas Remy boasted, “so good is my justice that last year there were no less than sixteen killed themselves rather than pass through my hands.” He described children of condemned witches being “stripped and beaten with rods round the place where their parents were being burned alive.” Remy found this insufficient, however: “out of consideration for the public safety, such children ought in addition to be banished or exiled…for experience has shown that they who have fallen into the power of the Demon can rarely be rescued except by death.”

In 1275, the Toulouse Inquisition executes Angèle de Labarthe (or Labara) after she is convicted of eating babies and having sex with the Devil. According to trial testimony, Angèle claimed to have conceived a son by the devil; eyewitnesses testified that the boy had a wolf ’s head and a snake’s tail. He was fed on a diet of dead babies and lived until age 15, but died before her trial and so could not be presented to the court. Angèle is frequently cited as the first woman burned at the stake for having sex with Satan.

The Paris Witch Trial is France’s first secular witch trial, held in 1390. Jehan de Ruilly’s wife Macette fell in love with a handsome young curate; Macette hired Jehenne de Brigue la Cordière (“the rope maker”) a 34-year-old for-tune-teller, to cast a spell to cool her husband’s ardor. The incantations made Jehan ill. La Cordière felt sorry for him and removed the spell. The two women were arrested and charged with witchcraft.

At first la Cordière denied everything, but she was tortured and confessed to casting spells invoking the Holy Trinity and neglecting her prayers. This wasn’t sufficient for the court; tortured again, she recalled that her aunt taught her to summon a demon named Haussibut. She confessed to casting spells via wax dolls and a frog familiar.

Her trial continued throughout the winter and spring, with periodic recesses. She was sentenced to burn but was granted a reprieve because she thought she might be pregnant. Macette initially denied the charges but was tortured on the rack and confessed.

La Cordière’s sentence was reinstated but she appealed to the Parliament of Paris, the highest tribunal in the land. A new set of judges reviewed her case. Both verdicts were confirmed; on August 19, 1391 the two women were taken to the Pig Market and burned alive at the stake.

Between 1428 and 1447 a witchcraze in the Dauphiné region resulted in 110 women and 57 men being burned alive at the stake. In another witchcraze in Lorraine, between 1580 and 1595 over 900 people are burned alive during this period in this one region alone.

La Cordière’s civil trial in a secular court lasted almost a year; Inquisitional trials were typically fast and more discreet.

In 1579, the death penalty was mandated for divination: the Church Council at Melun declared, “Every charlatan and diviner and others who practice necromancy, pyromancy, chiromancy, hydromancy, will be punished by death.”

In 1602, 600 people, including young children, were burned at the stake by esteemed witch judge Henri Boguet (1550—1619).

Father Louis Gaufridi, a 34-year-old priest, was accused of bewitching several nuns at the Ursuline convent in Aix-en-Provence in 1610, and of forcing them to consort with the devil.

In December 1610, Father Gaufridi was interrogated by the Inquisition and tortured for approximately three weeks until he confessed to signing a pact in his own blood with Satan and bewitching the nuns. He confessed that a late uncle left him a collection of books including a magical text rendered in French verse. When, from curiosity, he repeated a conjuration, a demon appeared and made a pact with Gaufridi: his body and soul in exchange for honor, worldly success, and luck with women. He confessed to engaging in orgies at sabbats and presiding over services mocking those of the Church.

Gaufridi retracted his confession but on April 18, 1611 was found guilty of sorcery and sentenced to death. Before his sentence was carried out, however, he was tortured yet again to extract the names of accomplices. On April 30, 1611, Father Gaufridi was tied to the stake, strangled, and then burned. The next day Madeleine was fine but Louise continued to have visions of demons and witches. Other nuns continued to exhibit signs of possession and so finally, they were imprisoned.

The Loudon Witch Trials

The Loudon Witch Trials of 1634 featured the demonic possession of nuns at the Ursuline Convent in Loudon where the defendant, Father Urbain Grandier, had served as priest since 1617. He was a ladies man who reputedly had many mistresses among prominent local women. In 1630, a secular court found Grandier responsible of fathering the local prosecutor’s daughter’s illegitimate child. Only the intervention of the Archbishop of Bordeaux kept Grandier from jail although the prosecutor subsequently held a grudge against the priest. He was not the most dangerous of Grandier’s enemy’s however: Grandier was an outspoken critic of Cardinal Richelieu, chief minister to Louis XIII. Historians believe this to have been his ultimate undoing.

In 1633, Sister Jeanne des Anges, the Mother Superior of the Ursuline Convent, and several of the nuns began demonstrating “classical symptoms” of demonic possession. Grandier was blamed for their condition. Two other priests, enemies of Grandier, were summoned to conduct exorcisms. Sister Jeanne blamed Father Grandier along with a host of impressive demons including Asmodeus and Ashtaroth for tormenting her with demons and sending her depraved dreams. The Archbishop of Bordeaux intervened, sending physicians to examine the nuns. The physicians found nothing amiss and the exorcisms were halted.

Richelieu then intervened, arranging for new public exorcisms and appointing a special investigator. During the public investigation, Grandier’s former mistresses came forward with racy tales of sexual escapades.

Grandier was arrested as a witch. A search was made for devil’s marks, which were found although his supporters present at the search claimed there were none. These supporters were then threatened with charges of witchcraft themselves unless they stopped protesting. Some of the nuns began recanting their previous accusations. Richelieu offered to pay the nuns a pension in exchange for their testimony.

At Grandier’s trial, a document purported to be a pact signed in blood by Grandier and countersigned by Lucifer, Satan, Beelzebub, and other “demons” including Leviathan (who knew this legendary sea creature could write?) was presented as evidence. This rare demonic document was perceived as highly damaging evidence.

Further reading: Aldous Huxley’s The Devils of Loudon (Carroll & Graf Publishers, 1952) is devoted to the trial of Urbain Grandier. The Devils (1971), a film loosely based on the case, was directed by Ken Russell, and starred Oliver Reed as Grandier.

In August 1634, Grandier was found guilty and sentenced to be burned alive. He was then tortured so that he’d confess and name accomplices. Despite the brutality of torture (his bones were crushed), Grandier neither confessed nor named names. At his execution, Grandier attempted to make a public statement but several priests doused him with Holy Water and made noise so that his voice could not be heard.

After Grandier’s death, some nuns continued to display signs of demonic possession. Richelieu cut off their pensions and the fits promptly stopped. Sister Jeanne became a healer and prophetess, displaying signs of the stigmata. She died in 1665.

Although some French monarchs brutally suppressed any trace of witchcraft; others displayed more tolerance. Some, like Catherine de Medici, were whispered to be witches themselves. In 1670, 525 people were convicted of witchcraft at Rouen, but their death penalties were commuted to banishment by order of Louis XIV. During Louis’ reign a thriving community of fortunetellers and spell-casters existed in Paris; some may also have provided illicit “pharmacological” services, including abortion and poisons. Many among the upper classes and nobility utilized these services.

In 1676, Marie-Madeleine D’Aubray, the Marquise de Brinvilliers, tried to poison her husband; he had been tipped off, however, and possessed an antidote. The authorities were summoned, and potions were found among the Marquise’s belongings. She was accused of causing the deaths of her father and two brothers. An attempt to kill a sister had allegedly failed. She was arrested, tortured confessed to witchcraft and was beheaded. Under interrogation, the Marquise claimed other high-society people dabbled in witchcraft too. Paris Chief of Police Nicholas de la Reynie began searching for them.

It was then very fashionable among high society to have fortunes told, especially via cards. In 1678, an attorney named Perrin went to a party at the salon of Madame Vigoreux where they were entertained by a card-reader, Marie Bosse, known as La Veuve, “the widow.” She jokingly said that she could retire after only three more poisonings. Perrin later explained that he saw “something” in her face as she joked and he determined to investigate. He contacted the officers who had arrested the Marquise de Brinvilliers. They sent a police officer’s wife to La Veuve to have her fortune told. In what might be perceived as a set-up, the wife complained bitterly of her husband. After her second visit, she went home with a vial of poison.

La Veuve and Madame Vigoreux were arrested, as were those of their acquaintances who shared their professions (charm-sellers, fortune-tellers). Tortured, the women confessed to selling poison and revealed their clients who were subsequently arrested and tortured too. They revealed further sources of poison and more fortune-tellers, who were now linked in the eyes of the law.

Eventually the alleged leader of the “poison ring” was discovered: Catherine Monvoisin, known as La Voisin, an astrologer who read palms and cards. The elite consulted her in her Paris home on Rue Beauregard. She also allegedly sold aphrodisiacs and performed abortions.

In 1664, La Voisin allegedly held her own when invited to the Sorbonne to engage in debate with its male scholars regarding the validity of astrology.

La Voisin was arrested on church steps while leaving Sunday Mass. She was tortured mercilessly for three days but continued to proclaim her innocence. Eventually she allegedly confessed to performing over 2,500 abortions. Her home allegedly contained an abortion clinic and a chapel in which corrupt priests conducted Black Masses. Under interrogation, she revealed names of her clients, some very close to the crown.

In response, in January 1679, Louis XIV created the Chambre Ardente to investigate charges of abortion, infanticide, and poisoning operating under cover of occult services. The Chambre Ardente (“Burning Chamber”) was a secret court that investigated “witchcraft crimes” of the rich and powerful closely connected to the throne. The name didn’t refer to burning people but to describe the room brilliantly lit with burning candles and flambeaux.

Some nobles fled, allegedly helped by the king, but others were implicated including the king’s mistress, Madame de Montespan, mother of six of his illegitimate children. The Chambre Ardente arrested 319 people. Their fates varied: 36 were killed, others were exiled, incarcerated or enslaved on galley ships, although those of noble blood (including the king’s mistress) were set free. (She quietly retired to the convent of St Joseph in Paris in 1691 where she died in 1707.)

La Voisin was burned at the stake on February 20, 1680. Louis banned fortune-tellers and limited the sales of poisons. In 1709, he terminated the Chambre Ardente and ordered that all evidence of its existence be destroyed. On July 13, 1709, the king allegedly burned certain documents personally.

Father Louis Debaraz is usually cited as the last person executed for witchcraft in France, in 1745. He was accused of performing Black Masses in hopes of locating hidden treasure. After a lengthy trial, he was burned alive.

Witchcraft was struck from the French law code in 1791.