Sacred Texts  Neopaganism  Index  Previous  Next 
Buy this Book at

The Sorceress, by Jules Michelet, [1939], at

p. 119




Now we have another type altogether,—a delicate Devil's plaything, the little Witch-wife, child of the Black Mass; she has quite superseded the grim Sorceress of an earlier day, blossoming into being, with all the wily ways and sportive grace of a kitten. The very opposite of her predecessor, she is soft and silky, stealthy of approach and shy, treading so softly, softly, and loving, above all things, to be caressed. Nothing Titanic about her, that is very clear; on the contrary, she is a low-minded, tricky creature, a wanton from her very cradle, bursting with every naughty, dainty caprice. Her whole life will be but the expression of a certain midnight hour, a dark and evil moment, when a vile reverie that would have excited a mere horror of disgust by daylight, took form in the licence of dreams.

Born with such a secret in her very blood, possessing an instinctive knowledge of evil, with looks that pierce so far and so low, she will respect neither thing nor person in this world, and barely so much as think of religion. Satan himself will not move her hugely, for after all he is a Spirit, and her tastes are pronounced, confined exclusively to material pleasures.

p. 120

As a child, she loved dirt. Grown a big girl and a pretty, she was a wonder of nastiness. In her Sorcery will become the strange laboratory of a strange, mysterious alchemy. From a very early period she handles, by predilection, repulsive matters, drugs and medicaments to-day, to-morrow nauseous intrigues. This is her element, love and disease; she will turn out an apt go-between, a clever, bold experimenter. She will be persecuted for alleged murders, for the concoction of poisonous brews; but unjustly. Her instinct by no means lies in that direction; she has no hankering after death. Malevolent as she is, she yet loves life, prefers to heal the sick, and prolong existence. She is dangerous in another way,—in two other ways. She will sell recipes to produce sterility, perhaps abortion. On the other hand, with her wild, reckless wantonness of fancy, she will be only too ready to help women to their ruin by her accursed potions, and find a cruel joy in crimes of the sort.

What a contrast to the other! She is a mere trafficker after all; while the other was Antichrist, the Demon, the Spirit of Revolt, the wife of Satan, and, in a sense, his mother. For did he not wax great from her and her inward might? But the latter Witch is, at most, the Devil's daughter, inheriting two attributes from him—her uncleanness and her love of handling life. Such is her lot; she is an artist in this line, and a successful one—and mankind is her raw material!


They say of her she will perpetuate her race by incest, whereof she sprang herself. But there is no need; without intervention of any male, she will bear an innumerable breed. In less than fifty years, by the beginning of the fifteenth century, under Charles VI., a prodigious contagion spreads far and wide. Whoever believes himself to possess secret remedies, mysterious recipes; whoever thinks he can divine the future, whoever has dreams and waking reveries, dubs himself the favourite of Satan. Every light-headed, silly woman adopts as her own the imposing name of Witch.

p. 121

A dangerous title, but a lucrative one, readily enough given by the hatred of the populace, which assails with alternate insults and prayers her unknown powers. It is no less readily accepted, often actually claimed. When children pursue her in the streets with gibes, and women shake their fists at her, and hurl the word at her as if it were a stone, she turns upon them and says proudly, "Yes! you say true; a Sorceress I am!"

The trade is improving, and men are taking it up,—a new comedown for the art and mystery. The humblest of Witch-wives still retains something of the Sibyl. But these self-styled Wizards, sordid charlatans, commonplace jugglers, mole and rat catchers, casting spells over cattle, selling secrets they do not possess, infect the age with a foul, black, smothering smoke of fear and foolish terror. Satan becomes common, his vogue enormously increased, but in what low, sordid conditions! A poor triumph indeed, for he only grows dull and tiresome. Yet the people flock to him, will scarce endure any God but him; but his old self, his old dignity, are gone for ever.


The fifteenth century, for all its two or three great discoveries, is yet, I take it, a tired, outworn, exhausted century, lacking in ideas.

It starts grandly enough with the Royal Sabbath of St. Denis, the mad, wild, gloomy festival Charles VI. gave in the Abbey of St. Denis to celebrate the reinterment of Duguesclin, who had been in his grave many a long year. For three days and three nights Sodom caroused over the tombs of the dead. The mad King, not yet the imbecile he afterwards became, forced all the kings, his ancestors, their dry bones dancing in their coffins, to share his revel. Grim Death, whether he would or no, was made a panderer and added a horrid spur to the wanton pleasures of the Court. There in all their effrontery flaunted the base fashions of the period, when great ladies, their height exaggerated by the "devil's coif," or double-horned headdress of the day, threw the belly into unnatural prominence, so that one and all seemed

p. 122

pregnant—an admirable device, by-the-by, for concealing the fact if it were really so. 1 The mode was dear to women, and lasted a good forty years. The young nobles on their side were just as shameless, and exposed their persons in an equally disgusting fashion. Whilst women wore Satan on their brows in the twin-peaked cap, knights and pages displayed his symbol on their feet in those pointed shoes that turned up like so many angry scorpions. Under the guise of animals, they disported themselves in brazen travesty of the basest lusts of beasts. It was there Gilles de Retz, the infamous kidnapper of children, himself a page at the time, first learned his monstrous vices. These great ladies and mistresses of broad fiefs were bold-faced Jezebels every one, more shameless even than the men; they would not so much as deign to wear a mask, but exposed their bold faces quite unveiled. Their sensual rage, their mad ostentation of debauch, their outrageous defiance of all decency, were for King, for all,—for reason, life, body, soul, the sheer abyss and bottomless pit of hell.

And what was the result? The whipped curs of Agincourt, that poor etiolated generation of nobles who in miniatures make us shiver to this day to see beneath their tight-laced doublets their wretched, thin, shrunken limbs. 2


I commiserate the Sorceress from the bottom of my heart, who on the Great Dame's return from the King's feast will have to be her confidante and the minister of her pleasures, for be sure she will demand mere impossibilities of her.

In her castle, it is very true, she is alone, the only, or almost

p. 123

the only woman there, in a whole houseful of unmarried men.

By what the romances tell us, the Lady Châtelaine would seem to have delighted in collecting round her a court of pretty girls; but history and our own common sense say just the contrary. Queen Eleanor was not so silly as to set the Fair Rosamond as a counterfoil to her own beauty. These queens and great ladies were as abominably jealous as they were licentious—instance the story related by Henri Martin of one who had a maid her husband admired overmuch, outraged to death by the common soldiery. The high-born dame's power over men, we repeat, depended on her being alone and without rivals. Let her be as old and ugly as you please, she is the dream of one and all. The Sorceress enjoys fine sport in rousing her to abuse this divinity of hers, to make mock of this herd of besotted and submissive males. She makes her dare every extreme, and treat them like brute beasts. Her will lays a spell on them; down they go on all fours, cringing apes, lumbering bears, nasty dogs, swine, ready to obey every caprice, to welcome every outrage of their mistress Circé.

All this only moves her to pity—and sick disgust! She spurns away the crawling animals with her foot; they are base and foul enough, but too innocent for her. Then she finds a grotesque remedy for her satiety; as they are all so impotent to please her, she chooses a lover more impotent still, a little lad to lavish her caresses upon. The idea is worthy of the Witch who suggested it,—to blow into precocious flame the spark of naughtiness lurking in the innocent child slumbering in the pure sleep of boyhood. This is the ugly story of Jehan de Saintré, type of the Cherubinos and other miserable dolls and playthings that women have corrupted in times of decadence.

Under so many pedantic ornaments and trappings of sentimental morality, the sordid cruelty that underlies the proceeding is evident enough. It is killing the fruit by nipping the flower in the bud. It is, in a sense, the very thing often cast up against the Sorceresses, that "they ate children." At any rate, it is drinking

p. 124

their life blood. With all her tender ways and motherly affectations, the fair lady whose caresses are so soft is a vampire to drain the blood of her weakling victim,—nothing more nor less! The result of the horrid process the romancer tells us himself. Saintré, the story says, grows up a very perfect knight, yes! perfectly frail and feeble, so that eventually he is braved and defied by the lout of a peasant abbé, in whom the fair lady, coming at length to a better mind, finds what suits her wishes best.


These vain caprices serve only to augment her ennui, to set an edge to the empty feeling of satiety. Circé, surrounded by her beasts, utterly bored, utterly jaded, would fain be a beast herself. She feels wild impulses working, and shuts herself up in a lonely tower of the castle keep. Thence she throws sinister, questioning looks over the gloomy forest. She is a prisoner, and knows all the savage fury of a she-wolf kept chained. "Hither instantly, the Witch-wife! I want her, I want her. Come, quick!" and before two minutes have gone by, "What! is she not here yet?"

Ah! here she is. "Now listen carefully. . . . I have a caprice (an irresistible hankering, you understand), a hankering to strangle you, to drown you, or deliver you up to the bishop, who has long been wanting you. . . . You have one way of escape, and one only—to satisfy another hankering of mine, to change me into a she-wolf. I am so tired of my life. I cannot sit still any longer; I long, at any rate o’ nights, to gallop free in the forest. I would be done with submissive fools that wait on me, and dogs that deafen me, and blundering horses that jib and refuse the woodland paths."

"But, dear lady, suppose they caught you?" . . . "Insolent woman! I tell you, you shall die the death." "But surely you know the history of the werewolf woman whose paw was cut off. 3 . . . I should be so grieved to see such an accident!"

p. 125

"’Tis my affair, I tell you; and I will listen to no excuses. . . . Come, time presses; I have begun to yelp and howl already. . . . Oh! the joy of it, to go hunting all alone, by the light of the moon, and all alone to pull down the hind with my strong jaws—yes! and men too, if they come across my path; to bite little tender children,—and women too, women best of all! to make my teeth meet in their flesh! . . . How I hate them all. . . . But none of them as bitterly as you. Never start back, I won't bite you; you move my disgust too sorely, and besides, you have no blood in your veins. . . . Blood, blood! I must have blood!"

No way of refusal is open, "Nothing easier, my lady. Tonight, at nine o'clock, you shall drink the brew. Then lock yourself up in your chamber. While they think you there, you will be another creature, flying through the woods."

So said, so done; and next day the lady finds herself worn out and utterly exhausted, at the very end of her powers. She must have covered, last night, a full thirty leagues. She has hunted and killed. She is all covered with blood; but perhaps this only comes from the brambles she has torn herself against.

A great source of pride, and no less of danger, to her who has done this miracle. Nevertheless her mistress, who demanded it, receives her very gloomily. "Sorceress! Sorceress! what an awful power you possess! I should never have thought as much!

p. 126

[paragraph continues] But now I am terrified and horror-struck. . . . Ah! they do well to hate you! 'Twill be a good day when you are burned. I will be your death, when so I please. My peasants this very evening would whet their scythes on you if I said one word of the night's doings. . . . Away with you, you vile, black, ugly wretch."


She is hurried by the great folks, her patrons, into strange adventures. Having only the castle to rely on to guard her from the priest, and be some surety against the stake, how can she refuse aught her formidable protectors ask? Suppose, for instance, the Baron, just back from the Crusades and from Nicopolis, and an amateur of Turkish ways, calls her to him, and entrusts her with the charge of kidnapping children for him, what is she to do? These razzias, carried out on such a large scale in Greek lands, where on occasion two thousand pages would enter the seraglio at one time, were by no means unknown to the Christians,—to the English barons from the twelfth century onwards, at a later date to the knights of Rhodes and of Malta. The infamous Gilles de Retz, the only one who was brought to trial, was punished not for having carried off his serfs' little boys to his castle (not an uncommon occurrence in those days), but for having sacrificed them to Satan. The Sorceress who acted as agent in these crimes, though she could hardly know the fate reserved for the victims, found herself between two dangers. On one side the peasants’ pitchfork and scythe, on the other the tortures of the Baron's tower, which a refusal would inevitably have brought down on her head. De Retz's myrmidon, that terrible Italian of his, 4 was as likely as not to have pounded her to death in his mortar.

p. 127

On all sides danger, and gain to compensate the danger. No situation could well be more full of temptations. The Sorceresses themselves often did not deny the ridiculous powers the populace credited them with. They admitted that by means of a doll or mannikin pierced with needles, they could bewitch anyone they pleased, making them get thinner and thinner till they pined away and died. They confessed that with the mandragora, torn up by the roots at the gibbet's foot (by the tooth of a dog, they declared, which invariably died of the effects), they could overthrow the reason, change men into beasts, turn women lightheaded and insane. Even more terrible was the frenzied delirium produced by the thorn-apple or Datura, which sets men dancing till they die, 5 makes them unhesitatingly submit to a thousand shameful horrors, of which they have no present consciousness, and no subsequent recollection.


Hence savage excesses of hate on the one hand, and no less violent extremities of terror on the other. The author of the Marteau des Sorcières (Hammer of the Sorceresses), Sprenger, records with horror how he saw, at a season of heavy snow, when the roads were all broken up, a whole population of wretched beings, frantic with fear and cursed with calamities only too real, crowding all the outskirts of a small German town. You never saw, he says, pilgrimages nearly so numerous to Our Lady of Grace, or Our Lady of Eremites. All these poor folks, foundered in the deep ruts, stumbling, blundering and falling, were on their way to the Witch's hut, to implore pity of the

p. 128

[paragraph continues] Devil. What feelings of pride and transport must have filled the Witch-wife's heart to behold all this multitude grovelling at her feet! 6


122:1 Even in a painting representing the most mystical of subjects, in a work of genius, the Holy Lamb of Van Eyck (known as John of Bruges), all the virgins look as if they were in child. Such was the grotesque mode of the fifteenth century.

122:2 This excessive thinness of persons worn out and enervated by excesses is enough to spoil, in my eyes, all the superb miniatures of the Court of Burgundy, the Duc de Berry, etc. The subjects are such deplorable creatures that no beauty of execution can make these pictures really pleasing and successful works of art.

124:3 This dreadful idea was not unfamiliar to the great ladies of those days, the high-born prisoners in mediæval castles. They were hungry and thirsty p. 125 after freedom, and the cruelties of absolute freedom. Boguet relates how, in the mountains of Auvergne, a hunter one night fired at a she-wolf, missing a vital spot, but cutting off one of the animal's paws. The beast made off, limping on three legs. Presently the hunter went to a neighbouring castle to ask hospitality of the nobleman who lived there. The latter, on seeing him, asked if he had enjoyed good sport. In answer to the question he was for drawing from his game-bag the wolf's pad he had just shot off; but what was his astonishment to find, instead of an animal's foot, a human hand, and on one of the fingers a ring, which the nobleman instantly recognised as his wife's! He went to her immediately, and found her wounded and concealing her forearm. It was handless; the one the hunter had brought in was fitted to it, and the lady was forced to confess it was indeed she who, under the form of a she-wolf, had attacked the hunter, and afterwards escaped, leaving a paw behind on the field of battle. The husband had the cruelty to give her up to justice, and she was burned at the stake.

126:4 See my History of France, and above all the learned and precise little book by our lamented Armand Guéraud, Notice sur Gilles de Rais, Nantes, 1855—reprinted in the Biographie Bretonne of M. Levot. From it we see that the purveyors of this horrid supply of children to the monster were more often than not men. There was a La Meffraye mixed up in the business as well,—was this a Sorceress? We are not told. M. Guéraud was to have published the p. 127 trial. Such a publication is much to be desired, but printed in extenso, in its genuine form and unmutilated. The MSS. are at Nantes and at Paris. My learned friend, M. Dugast-Matifeux, informs me a copy is in existence more complete than these originals in the archives of Thouars.

127:5 Pouchet, Solanées et Botanique Générale; Nysten, Dict. de Médecine (edit. Littré and Robin), article Datura. Thieves are only too ready to make use of these decoctions. One day they made the hangman of Aix and his wife, whom they wished to rob of their money, take a dose of this nature. The two victims fell into so extraordinary a state of delirium that they passed the whole of one night dancing absolutely naked in a graveyard.

128:6 This pride and exultation sometimes led her into the most reckless dissoluteness. Hence the German saying, "The Witch in her garret showed her comrade fifteen fine lads in green coats, and bade her 'Choose; they are all for you.'" Her triumph was to exchange the respective parts, and inflict as tests of love the most disgusting outrages on the nobles and grandees she thus degraded. It is well known that queens, as well as kings, and high-born ladies (in Italy as late as in the eighteenth century. Collection Maurepas, xxx. 111) used to receive in audience and hold court at the moment of performing the most repulsive of nature's functions, and made their favourites undertake the most unpleasant offices for them. In a spirit of fantastic worship, these latter adored everything that came from their idol, and fought for the vilest duty about her person. If only she were young and pretty, and disdainful, there was no mark of attachment so humiliating and abominable her domestic pets (her cicisbeo, her chaplain, a love-sick page) were not ready to submit to, under the absurd notion that a philter possessed the more virtue in proportion to its disgusting quality. This is humiliating enough for poor humanity, but what are we to say to the astounding fact that the Sorceress, without being either well-born or pretty or young, a pauper rather, and very likely a serf, dressed in mere filthy rags, by sheer downright cunning and some inexplicable charm of abandoned wantonness and unholy fascination, debauched and degraded so low the gravest personages of the time? Certain monks of a monastery on the Rhine, one of those proud German houses where none could enter without four hundred years of nobility behind him, make this dismal admission to Sprenger: "We have seen her bewitch three of our Abbots one after the other, and kill the fourth, avowing with brazen effrontery, 'I have done it, and I will do it again, and they shall never escape me, because they have eaten . . ." etc. (Comederunt meam—"they have eaten my . . ." Sprenger, Malleus Maleficarum, Hammer of the Sorceresses, quæstio vii. p. 84). The worst of it all for Sprenger and what most made him despair, is the fact of her being so well protected, no doubt by these infatuated devotees, that he could not burn her. "Fateor quia nobis non aderat ulciscendi aut inquirendi super eam facultas; ideo adhuc superest."—"I confess we had no means of insisting on her punishment, or a proper inquiry into her crimes, wherefore the woman is still alive."

Next: 14. Persecutions