The Sorceress, by Jules Michelet, , at sacred-texts.com
THE Fronde was essentially Voltairean. The Voltairean spirit, as old as France really, though long kept in abeyance, breaks out in Politics, and very soon afterwards in Religion. The King, with all his greatness, tries in vain to impose a solemn and serious attitude on his subjects. The undercurrent of mocking laughter is always audible.
Does it all mean nothing more then but laughter and derision? Far from that; it is the beginning of the reign of Reason. Kepler, Galileo, Descartes, and Newton triumphantly established the dogma of reason, of faith in the unchangeableness of the Laws of Nature. The Miraculous dares no more show its face on the stage, or if it does, it is promptly hissed off.
To put it better still, the fantastic miracles of casual caprice have had their day, and the great, universal, the standing Miracle of Nature appears instead, the more divine from the very fact of its definite subjection to law and order.
It marks the final victory of a general Revolt. So much may be seen in the bold forms assumed by these earliest protests, in the irony of Galileo, in the absolute scepticism from which Descartes starts to build up his system. The Middle Ages would have said, "It is the Spirit of the Wily One, the Foul Fiend."
No mere negative victory, however, but positive and firmly based.
The Spirit of Nature and the Sciences of Nature, those proscribed outlaws of an earlier day,there is no resisting their
restoration to power. It is Reality and hard fact chasing away the empty shadows of mediæval darkness.
Foolishly men had said, "Great Pan is dead." Then presently, seeing he was alive still, they had made him into a god of evil; and in the gloom and chaos of those days the mistake was possible enough. But lo! he is alive now, and with a life in harmony and sweet accord with the sublime and immutable laws that guide the stars of heaven, and no less surely govern the deep mystery of human life.
Two things may be predicated of this epoch, apparently, yet not really, contradictory: the spirit of Satan has prevailed, but Witchcraft is doomed.
Magic of every kind, whether diabolic or divine, is sick unto death. Sorcerers and Theologians, both are equally impotent. They are reduced to the condition of empirics, vainly imploring of some supernatural accident or the caprice of a Gracious Providence, those marvels that Science asks only from Nature, from Reason.
The Jansenists, with all their ardent zeal, obtain in a whole century but one insignificant, rather ludicrous, miracle. More unfortunate still, the Jesuits, rich and powerful as they are, cannot, at any price, get even one, but must rest content with the visions of a hysterical girl, Sister Marie Alacoque, a being of a quite abnormally sanguine idiosyncrasy. In face of such a show of impotence, Magic and Sorcery may well take heart of grace for their own failures.
Observe how in this decay of faith in the Supernatural, infidelity of one kind ensues upon infidelity of the other. The two were bound together in the thoughts and fears of the Middle Ages. They continued closely bound together in ridicule and contempt. When Molière made fun of the Devil and his "boiling cauldrons," the Clergy were sorely disturbed: they felt instinctively that faith in Paradise was being depreciated to a corresponding degree.
A purely lay Government, that of the great Colbert (who for a long period was king in all but name) takes no pains to conceal its contempt for these outworn questions. It purges the gaols of the Sorcerers the Parlement of Rouen still went on accumulating within their walls; eventually forbids the Courts to take cognisance of charges of Witchcraft at all (1672) . The said Parlement protests, and protests with great plainness of speaking, that a repudiation of Sorcery implies risk to a great many other things as well. Who throws doubt on the nether mysteries, shakes belief in many a soul in the mysteries of heaven.
The Witches Sabbath disappears; and why? The reason is, it is everywhere henceforth; it is a part of men's ordinary habits; its practices are those of everyday life.
It was said of the "Sabbath," "No woman ever returned from it in child." The Devil and the Witch-wife were reproached with being sworn foes of generation, of hating life and loving death and annihilation. And lo! it is precisely in the sanctimonious seventeenth century, when Witchcraft is a-dying, 1 that love of barrenness and fear of giving birth form the most general of diseases.
If Satan is a reading man, he has good cause to laugh when he peruses the Casuists, his successors and continuators. Yet a difference there is between them. Satan in dread days of old was careful for the hungry, and pitiful for the poor. But these others have pity only for the rich man. Croesus with his vices and luxury and life at Kings Courts, is needy, grievously poor, a beggar. He comes in Confession, humble, yet menacing, to
extract from the learned Father a licence to sin, within the bounds of conscience. Some day will be written (if anyone has the courage to write it) the surprising history of the cowardly expedients of the Casuist eager not to lose his penitent and the disgraceful subterfuges he is ready to resort to. From Navarro to Eseobar, a strange bargaining goes on at the expense of the wife, and some points are still left open to dispute. But this is not enough; the Casuist is fairly beaten, and gives up everything. From Zoccoli to Liguori (1670-1770), the defence of Nature is abandoned altogether.
The Devil had, as everyone knows, when attending the Witches Sabbath, two faces, one above, gloomy and terrible, the other behind, ludicrous and grotesque. Nowadays, having no more use for it, he will of his generosity give the latter to the Casuist.
What must vastly divert Satan is the fact that his most faithful followers are to be found in those days among respectable folks, in serious households, ruled and governed by the Church. 2 The woman of the world, who raises the fortunes of her house by means of the great resource of the period, profitable adultery, laughs at prudence and boldly follows the promptings of nature. The pious family follows merely its Jesuit Confessor. To preserve and concentrate the family fortune, to leave a rich heir, the crooked ways of the new spirituality are entered upon. In shadow and secret, the proudest wife, at her prie-Dieu, ignores her self-respect, forgets her true nature, and
follows the precept of Molinos: "We are set here below to suffer! One thing only, a pious indifference, at long last, softens and lulls our pain,and wins us respite. What is this respite? It is not Death. We feel to some extent what goes on beside us; without joining in it, or responding to its stimulus, we yet hear an echo of its movement, vague and gentle. Tis a sort of happy accident of Grace, which soothes and thrills us, never more so than in those abasements where free will is all eclipsed."
What refinement, what depth is here. . . . Poor Satan! how are you outdone! Bow down, and admire, and own the sons of your own engendering.
The doctors, who are in an even more true sense his lawful sons, who sprung from the popular empiricism known as Witchcraft, these his chosen heirs, to whom he left his noblest patrimony, are far too ready to forget the fact. They are basely ungrateful to the Witches who paved their way for them.
They do more. On this fallen monarch, their father and the author of their being, they inflict some sore lashes. . . . Tu quoque, file mi! (You too, my son!) . . . They supply the mockers with some cruel weapons to use against him.
Already the physicians of the sixteenth century derided the Spirit, which in all ages, from Sibyls to Witches, tormented women and harassed them with windy troubles. They maintained this is neither Devil nor God, but even as the Middle Ages said, "the Prince of the Air." Satan, it would seem from them, is simply a form of disease!
Satanic possession, they declared, was simply a result of the close, sedentary life, dull and yet harassing and exasperating, of the cloister. The 6,500 devils that dwelt in Gauffridi's Madeleine, the legions of demons that fought and struggled in the bodies of the tormented nuns of Loudun and of Louviers,these doctors call them physical disturbances and nothing more. "If Æolus makes the earth shake," Yvelin asks, "why not a
girl's body?" The surgeon who attended La Cadière (the subject of our next chapter) says drily, "Nothing else in the world but a choking of the womb."
What a strange come-down! The terror of the Middle Ages put to rout by the simplest of remedies, exorcisms à la Molière, in fact, flying helter-skelter, to be seen no more!
Nay! this is assuming too much. The question is not so simple as all that. Satan has other aspects besides, of which the doctors see neither the highest nor the lowest,neither his grand revolt in Science, or those extraordinary combinations of pious intrigue and stark impurity he contrives towards 1700, uniting in one conglomerate Priapus and Tartuffe.
Historians suppose themselves to know the eighteenth century, and yet they have never observed one of its most essential characteristics.
The more its surface, its higher levels, were civilised, illuminated, saturated with light, the more hermetically sealed and closed was the vast underlying region of the ecclesiastical world, of the convent, of credulous womanfolk, morbidly ready to believe anything and everything. In anticipation of Cagliostro, Mesmer and the magnetisers who will come with the later years of the century, not a few priests make a profit out of the Sorcery of a departed age. All their talk is of bewitchments, the dread of which they spread broadcast, and undertake to drive out devils by means of various indecent exorcisms. Many play the wizard, well assured the risk is small and burnings henceforth an impossibility. They know themselves sufficiently safeguarded by the civilisation of the times, the toleration preached by their enemies the Philosophers, and the light indifferentism of the scoffers, who think the last word has been said, when they have raised a laugh. But it is just this laughing attitude which enables such-like dark schemers to go on their way unafraid. The new spirit is that of the Regent, sceptical and good-naturedly tolerant. It is conspicuous in the Lettres Persanes,
and saturates through and through that all-powerful journalist who fills the century, Voltaire. Once let human blood flow, and his whole heart revolts; at all else he laughs. Little by little the guiding principle of the world at large apparently comes to be, "Punish nothing, and make fun of everything."
The spirit of toleration is such as to suffer Cardinal Tencin to live openly as his own sister's husband; such as to ensure the ruling spirits of the convents in peaceful, undisturbed possession of the nuns in their charge, so completely so indeed that cases of pregnancy amongst the latter were regularly announced, and births formally and legally declared. 3 The same spirit of tolerance excuses Father Apollinaire, caught in a vile and shameful act of exorcism, 4 while Cauvrigny, the gallant Jesuit, idol of the provincial nunneries, expiates his intrigues merely by a recall to Paris, in other words by a summons to higher preferment.
Similar was the punishment accorded the notorious Jesuit, Father Girard; he deserved hanging, but was loaded with honours instead, and died in the odour of sanctity. Indeed this is one of the most curious occurrences of the century, marking exactly the characteristic methods of the period, the rough-and-ready combination of the most contradictory modes of procedure. The perilous suavities of the Song of Songs formed, as usual, the preface, followed up by Marie Alacoque and her ecstasies, by the wedlock of Bleeding Hearts, seasoned with
the morbid, unctuous phrases of Molinos. Girard supplemented all this with the diabolic element and the terrors of bewitchment. He was the Devil, and the Exorcist to boot. The dreadful conclusion of the whole affair was that the unhappy woman he so barbarously immolated, far from obtaining justice, was harried to her death. Eventually she disappeared, probably imprisoned under a lettre de cachet, and cast for the rest of her days into a living tomb.
223:1 I do not regard La Voisin as a Sorceress, nor as a true Witches Sabbath the travesty she performed to amuse blasé noblemen of high rank, Luxembourg and Vendôme, her pupil, and the like. Reprobate priests, allies of La Voisin's, would say the Black Mass secretly for their benefit, undoubtedly with even more obscene details than it had ever included in old days when celebrated before a multitude. In some wretched female victim, a living altar, Nature was pilloried. A woman given up to vile mockery! what an abomination! . . . a sport far less of men than of her sister women's cruelty,of a Bouillon, brazen, abandoned creature, or of the dark Olympe, deep-dyed in crime and learned in poisons (1681).
224:2 Voluntary sterility is continually on the increase in the seventeenth century, especially among the more carefully regulated families, subjected to the strictest discipline of the Confessional. Take even the Jansenists. Follow the history of the Arnaulds, and see the steady ratio of decrease among them,to begin with, twenty children, fifteen children; then five! and eventually not one. Can it be this energetic race (their blood mingled moreover with the gallant Colberts) finishes in enervation? Not so. The fact is it has little by little limited its output, so to speak, in order to make a rich eldest son, a great Lord and King's Minister. The end is gained, and the race dies of its ambitious carefulness, undoubtedly duly planned and purposed.
227:3 For instance, the most noble Chapter of the Canons of Pignan, who had the honour to be represented in the "Estates" of Provence, were equally proud of their recognised right to possess the nuns of that country. There were sixteen canons; and the Provost's offices received in a single year from the nuns sixteen declarations of pregnancy (Histoire manuscrite de Besse, by M. Renoux). This publicity had at any rate this advantage, that the especial crime of Religious Houses, to wit infanticide, was bound to be less common. The nuns, quietly submitting to what they held to be a necessary accident of their profession, at the cost of a trifle of shame, were humane and good mothers. At any rate they did not kill their children. The nuns of Pignan put theirs out to nurse with the peasants, who were ready to adopt them, make what use they could of them and bring them up with their own family. Thus it comes that not a few farmer folk thereabouts are known down to the present day as descendants of the ecclesiastical nobility of Provence.
227:4 Garinet, p. 344.