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

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THE silent, sombre drama of the Bride of Corinth is repeated literally and exactly from the thirteenth to the fifteenth centuries. In the gloom of night which still broods over the world, the two lovers, Man and Nature, meet again and embrace with transports of joy; and lo! at the self-same instant, to their horror, see themselves smitten with appalling scourges! Still, as of old, we seem to hear the bride telling her lover, "All is over. . . . Your locks shall be white to-morrow. . . . I am a dead woman, and you shall die."

Three horrid afflictions in three successive centuries. In the first, the loathsome disfigurement of the outward form,—skin diseases, leprosy. In the second, an inward curse,—weird nervous excitations, epileptic dances. These die down, but the blood grows tainted, chronic ulcerations pave the way to syphilis, that scourge of the sixteenth century.


The diseases of the Middle Ages, so far as we can get vague and unsatisfactory glimpses of them, were predominantly hunger, languor, and poverty of blood, the emaciation men admire in mediæval sculpture. The blood was thin as water, and scrofulous complaints were bound to be all but universal. With the exception of Arab or Jewish physicians, hired at great cost by the rich, medical treatment was unknown,—the people could only crowd to the church doors for aspersion with holy water. On Sundays, after Mass, the sick came in scores, crying for help,—and words were all they got: "You have sinned, and God is afflicting you. Thank Him; you will suffer so much the less torment in the life

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to come. Endure, suffer, die. Has not the Church its prayers for the dead?" Feeble, fainting, neither hoping nor caring to live, they followed this advice to the letter, and dropped into the grave in sheer indifference to life.

A fatal despair, a wretched death in life, that could not but prolong indefinitely these times of lead, and constitute a fatal bar to all progress. What could be worse than this facile resignation, this docile acceptance of death, this impotence and total absence of energy and aspiration? Better far the new epoch, those last years of the Middle Ages, which at the price of atrocious sufferings, at last inaugurates for mankind the possibility of renewed activity,—the resurrection of desire.


The Arab philosopher Avicenna maintains that the prodigious outbreak of diseases of the skin which marks the thirteenth century resulted from the use of those excitants whereby men at that period sought to awake, or to revive, the flagging energies of love. No doubt the hot, inflammatory spices, imported from the East, were not without effect; while the newly discovered art of distillation and various fermented liquors then first coming into use may likewise have exerted an influence in the same direction.

But another and a mightier fermentation, and a much more general one, was taking place. From the bitter internal conflict of two worlds and two spirits a third survived which silenced them both. Waning Faith, nascent Reason were in the death grip; between the two combatants another intervened and mastered mankind,—the unclean, fierce spirit of their eager, passionate appetites, the cruel emanation of their furious ebullition.

Finding no outlet, whether in bodily gratifications or in a free play of mind, the sap of life is dammed back and putrefies. Without light or voice or speech, it yet spoke in pains of body, in foul eruptions of the skin. Then a new and terrible thing follows; baulked desire, unsatisfied and unappeased, sees itself checked

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by a cruel spell, a hideous metamorphosis. 1 Love that was drawing nigh, blindly, with arms thrown wide, steps back shuddering. Yes! love may fly; but the fury of the tainted blood persists, the flesh burns in agonising, itching torments, while more agonising still, the inward conflagration rages, fanned by the breath of despair.

What remedy does Christian Europe find for this double evil? Death, captivity; nothing else is better. When bitter celibacy, hopeless love, fierce thwarted passion, bring you to an unhealthy, morbid state; when your blood grows corrupt, down with you into an in pace, or build your lonely cabin in the desert. You shall live, warning-bell in hand, that all may flee your presence. "No human being must see you; no consolation can be yours. If you approach too near, death is the penalty!"


Leprosy is the last degree, the apogee, of the scourge; but a thousand other terrible and cruel ills only less hideous abound everywhere. The purest and the fairest of womankind were stricken with detestable eruptions that were looked upon as the visible sign of sin or a direct punishment from God. The men had recourse to means mere loss of life would never have led them to adopt; prohibitions were forgotten, and the old consecrated medicines forsaken, and the holy water that had proved so useless. They visited the Witch, the Sorceress. From force of habit, as

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well as from fear, they still frequented the churches; but the true church was henceforth her hut, her haunt in heath, in forest, and in desert. Thither it was they now carried their prayers.

Prayers for healing, prayers for some joy of life. At the first symptoms that showed the blood corrupted, they would away in great secrecy, at furtive hours, to consult the Sibyl: "What must I do? What is this I feel within me? . . . I am burning; oh! give me something to calm my blood. . . . I am burning; give me something to appease my intolerable longing."

A bold, guilty step they repent them of when evening comes. It must indeed be pressing, this new and fatal constraint; the fire must indeed be agonising, to make all the saints so utterly of no avail. But then the trial of the Knights Templars, the trial of Pope Boniface, have unmasked the Sodom that lurked under the altar stones. A Pope a Sorcerer, a friend of Satan, and finally carried off by the Foul Fiend: this turns all men's notions upside down. Not without the Devil's help surely could the Pope, who is no longer Pope in Rome, in his city of Avignon, Pope John XXII., a cobbler's son of Cahors, amass more gold than the Emperor himself and all the kings of the earth! Like Pope, like Bishop; did not Guichard, Bishop of Troyes, win a boon of the Devil, the death of the King of France's daughters? . . . It is not death we ask for, but pleasant things, life, health, beauty, pleasure,—things of God, that God refuses us. . . . Well, then, suppose we were to get them by the favour of the Prince of this World? 


That great and puissant doctor of the Renaissance, Paracelsus, when he burned the wise books of ancient medicine en masse, Greek, Jewish, and Arab, declared he had learned nothing at all but from popular medicine, from the good women2 from shepherds, and hangmen. The latter were often clever surgeons,—setters of broken or dislocated bones, and accomplished farriers.

I have little doubt but that his admirable book, so full of

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genius, upon the Diseases of Women, the first ever written on this important, profound, and touching subject, owed its special merits to the experience of women themselves, those women whose help their sisters were used to appeal to,—I mean the Sorceresses who in every country fulfilled the office of midwives. No woman in those days would ever have consulted a male physician, trusted to him, or told him her secrets. Sorceresses were the only observers in this field, and, for women in particular, were the sole and only practitioners.


The most certain fact we know as to their methods is that they made great use, for the most various purposes, as calmants and as stimulants, of a wide family of herbs, of doubtful repute and perilous properties, which proved of the most decided advantage to their patients. These are appropriately known as the Solanaceæ (herbs of consolation). 3

A profuse and familiar family of plants, the majority of whose species are to be found in extreme abundance, under our feet, in the hedgerows, in every field. So numerous a family, that a single one of its genera embraces eight hundred species. 4 Nothing in the world easier to detect, nothing commoner. Yet these herbs are for the most part very risky to employ. Audacity was required to determine the doses, it may well be the audacity of genius.

To begin at the bottom of the ascending scale of their

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potency. 5 The first to be named are simply pot-herbs, good to eat, and nothing more,—aubergines, tomatoes, inappropriately called love-apples. Others of these harmless varieties are the quintessence of all that is calming and soothing,—the mulleins (shepherd's club), for instance, so useful for fomentations.

Next in the scale you will find a plant already open to suspicion—one that many believed a poison; a herb honey-sweet at first, afterwards bitter, that seems to say in the words of Jonathan, "I have tasted a little honey, and behold! for this I die." Yet this death is useful—it is the deadening of pain. The bittersweet, that is its name, was bound to be the first essay of a bold homœopathy, which by slow degrees aspired to the most dangerous poisons. The slight irritation, the pricking sensations it produces, sufficed to point it out as a remedy for the predominant maladies of the period, viz. diseases of the skin.

The fair girl, in despair at seeing herself marked with hateful blotches, carbuncles, spreading eruptions, came weeping for succour in her affliction. With married women the scourge was still more cruel. The bosom, the most delicate thing in all nature, and its vessels, which form an interlaced flower of incomparable perfection below the skin, 6 is, by virtue of its liability to congestion and blocking of the veins and arteries, the most exquisite instrument of pain,—pain keen, pitiless, and never ceasing. How willingly would she have welcomed any and every poison to gain relief! No stopping to bargain with the Witch who promised a

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cure, and between whose hands she was ready at once to place the poor painful, swollen organ.

After the bitter-sweet, too feeble a medicament for such a case, came the black mulleins, possessing a somewhat greater activity. This would afford relief for a day or two. But at the end of that time the poor woman would be back again with tears and supplications. "Well, well! you must return once more this evening. . . . I will find you something. You decide to have it; but ’tis a deadly poison."


The Sorceress was running a terrible risk. Nobody at that time had a suspicion that, applied externally or taken in very small doses, poisons are remedies. All the plants which were confounded together under the name of Witches’ herbs were supposed ministers of death. Found in a woman's hands, they would have led to her being adjudged a poisoner or fabricator of accursed spells. A blind mob, as cruel as it was timid, might any morning stone her to death, or force her to undergo the ordeal by water or noyade. Or, worst and most dreadful fate of all, they might drag her with ropes to the church square, where the clergy would make a pious festival of it, and edify the people by burning her at the stake.

She makes the venture for all that, and starts in search of the fearsome herb, slipping out late at night or early in the morning, when she is less afraid of being observed. But a little shepherd lad was there, who tells the village, "If you had seen her as I did, gliding among the fallen stones of the old ruin, glancing from side to side, muttering some unintelligible gibberish to herself the while! . . . Oh, I was rarely frightened, I tell you. . . . If she had caught me, I should have been done for. . . . She might have turned me into a lizard, or a toad, or a bat. . . . She gathered a villainous-looking herb, the ugliest I ever saw,—a pale, sickly yellow, with stripes of black and red, like flames of hell-fire. The dreadful thing was that all the stem was hairy, like a man's hair,—long, black, snaky hair. She tore it up roughly,

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with a groan,—and in an instant I lost sight of her. She could not have run so fast, she must have flown away! . . . What an awful woman! What a danger for all the countryside!"

Doubtless the plant looks terrifying. It is the henbane (hyoscyamus), a cruel and deadly poison, but at the same time an excellent emollient, a soothing, sedative plaster, that relaxes and softens the tissues, relieves the pain, and often cures the patient.

Another of these poisons, the belladonna, doubtless so named out of gratitude, was sovran for calming the convulsions that sometimes occur in childbirth, superadding peril to peril and terror to terror at this supreme crisis. But there! a motherly hand would slip in this soothing poison, 7 lull the mother to sleep, and lay a spell on the door of life; the infant, just as at the present day when chloroform is administered, worked out its own freedom by its own efforts, and forced its way to the world of living men.


This belladonna cures the convulsive dancing of the limbs by setting up another dance,—a venturesome homœopathy that could not but be terrifying at the first blush. In fact it was Medicine spelt backwards, as a rule the exact opposite of that which the Christians knew and thought the only efficacious kind, the medicine of the Jews and Arabs.

How came the great discovery? No doubt by simple application of the great satanic principle that everything should be done backwards, precisely in the reverse way to that employed by the world of religion. The Church had a holy horror of all poisons; Satan utilises them as curative agents. The Priest thinks by spiritual means (Sacraments, prayers) to act even upon the body. Satan, acting by contraries, employs material means for acting even on the soul; he gives potions to secure forgetfulness, love, reverie, any and every state of mind. To priestly benedictions he

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opposes magnetic passes by dainty female hands that lull pain and anguish to sleep.


Through change of treatment, and still more of clothing (no doubt by the substitution of linen for wool), skin diseases lost much of their virulence. Leprosy diminished, but at the same time seemed to strike inwards and produce more deep-seated mischief. The fourteenth century oscillated between three scourges, epileptic convulsions, the plague, and those ulcerations which, if we are to believe Paracelsus, paved the way for syphilis.

The first named was by no means the least formidable danger. It broke out about the year 1350, under the appalling form of St. Guy's dance (St. Vitus's dance, chorea), having this strange peculiarity, that the complaint was not, so to speak, individual; those suffering from it, as if carried away by one and the same galvanic current, would grasp each other by the hand, group themselves in huge, endless chains, and whirl, and whirl, like Dervishes, till they died of exhaustion. The spectators would roar with laughter at first, then presently caught by the contagion, would give in and join the mighty stream, and swell the awful band of dancing maniacs.

What would have happened if the malady had persisted in the same way as leprosy did for a long period, even in its decline?

The answer is, it was a first step, an approximation, towards epilepsy; and if this first generation of sufferers had not been cured, it would have produced a second definitely and distinctly epileptic. The imagination shudders at the thought! all Europe packed with madmen, maniacs, idiots! We are not told how the complaint was treated, and finally arrested. The particular remedy recommended at the time, the expedient of falling on the dancers with kicks and fisticuffs, was infinitely well adapted to aggravate the cerebral disturbance and lead to actual epilepsy.

We cannot doubt there was another treatment practised that was never voluntarily mentioned. At the period when Sorcery and Witchcraft were at their point of highest activity and repute,

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the very extensive employment of the Solanaceæ, and especially of belladonna, was the most marked general characteristic of the remedial measures taken to combat this class of disease. At the great popular gatherings, the Witches’ Sabbaths, we shall describe later, the Witches’ herb, infused in hydromel, beer, as well as in cider 8 and perry, the strong drinks of the West, set the crowd dancing,—but in wanton, luxurious measures, showing no trace of epileptic violence.


But the greatest revolution the Sorceress brought about, the chief movement of all in contradiction, in direct contradiction to the spirit of the Middle Ages, is what we might well call a rehabilitation of the belly and its digestive functions. They boldly proclaimed the doctrine that "nothing is impure and nothing unclean." From that moment the study of physical science was enfranchised, its shackles loosed, and true medicine became a possibility.

That they carried the principle to mischievous lengths no one can deny; indeed, the fact is self-evident. Nothing is impure but moral evil. Everything physical is pure; nothing physical can properly be excepted from examination and study, prohibited in deference to an empty idealism, or worse still a silly feeling of repulsion.

Here above all had the Middle Ages displayed their most essential characteristic, what we may call anti-Nature, splitting up the unity of created things, and drawing distinctions, constituting castes, classes, hierarchies. Not only according to this is the spirit noble, the body not noble,—but there are actually particular parts of the body which are noble, and others not,—plebeian it would appear. Similarly, Heaven is noble, the Abyss not. Why? "Because heaven is high." But heaven is neither high nor low; it is above us and beneath us at once. And the Abyss, what is it? Nothing; a figment of the imagination. The same

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foolish conceptions as to the macrocosm of the universe and the microcosm of the individual human being.

All is of a piece; solidarity rules throughout. The belly is the servant of the brain, and feeds it; but it is no less true that the brain, working ceaselessly to make the sugar required in the processes of digestion, 9 is no less active to assist the belly.


Abuse was lavished upon them; filthy, indecent, shameless, immoral, were only some of the epithets levelled at the Sorceress. For all that it can confidently be affirmed her first steps in the direction indicated were a happy revolution in all that is most moral, in kindness and human charity. By a monstrous perversion of ideas, the Middle Ages regarded the flesh, in its representative, woman (accursed since Eve), as radically impure. The Virgin, exalted as virgin, and not as Our Lady, far from raising actual womanhood to a higher level, had degraded it, starting men on the path of a barren, scholastic ideal of purity that only led to ever greater and greater absurdities of verbal subtlety and false logic.

Woman herself even came eventually to share the odious prejudice and to believe herself unclean. So she lurked in hiding at the hour of childbirth, blushed to love and give happiness to men. Woman, so sober as a rule in comparison with the opposite sex, who in almost every land is a vegetarian and an eater of fruits, who sacrifices so sparingly to the natural appetites, and by her milk and vegetable diet wins the purity of the innocent substances that are her food, she of all others was fain to ask pardon almost for existing at all, for living and fulfilling the conditions of life. A submissive martyr to false modesty, she was for ever torturing herself, actually endeavouring to conceal, abolish, and annul the adorable sign of her womanhood, that thrice holy thing, the belly of her pregnancy, whence man is born in the image of God everlastingly from generation to generation.

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Mediæval medicine concerns itself exclusively with the superior, the pure being (to wit, man), who alone can be ordained priest, and incarnate the living God upon the altar.

Animals, too, occupy some of its attention; indeed, it begins with them. But does it ever think of children? Very seldom. Does it pay any heed to women? Never!

The Romances of those days, with their subtle refinements, represent the exact opposite of the everyday world. Apart from the courts of kings, and high-born adultery, the main subject-matter of these tales, woman is always the poor, patient Griselda, born to exhaust every sort of pain and humiliation, often beaten, never properly cared for.

The Devil only, woman's ally of old and her confidant in the Garden, and the Witch, the perverse creature who does everything backwards and upside down, in direct contradiction to the world of religion, ever thought of unhappy womanhood, ever dared to tread custom underfoot and care for her health in spite of her own prejudices. The poor creature held herself in such lowly estimation! She could only draw back blushing shyly, and refuse to speak. But the Sorceress, adroit and cunning, guessed her secrets and penetrated her inmost being. She found means to make her speak out at last, drew her little secret from her and overcame all her refusals and timid, shamefaced hesitations. Submit to treatment! She would sooner die, she said. But the barbarous Witch knew better, and saved her life.


79:1 Leprosy was supposed due to the Crusades, to be an importation from Asia; but as a matter of fact Europe had only herself to thank for the scourge. The war persistently waged by the Middle Ages against the flesh and against cleanliness was bound to bear fruit. More than one female saint is commended for having never washed even the hands;—how much less the rest of the body! An instant's nakedness would have been a mortal sin. The worldling faithfully follows these precepts of the cloister. The society of those days, so subtle and refined, which makes sacrifice of marriage and appears animated only by the poetry of adultery, retains singular scruples on this simple point of personal ablutions, dreading every form of purification as a defilement. Never a bath known for a thousand years! We may be quite certain not one of those knights, those fair and ethereal ladies, the Percivals, Tristrams, Iseults, ever washed. Hence a cruel accident, highly unpoetical in such romantic surroundings,—the furious itches that tortured our thirteenth-century ancestors.

80:2 The polite, flattering name fear conferred upon the Sorceresses.

81:3 It is cruel to note the ingratitude of mankind. A thousand other plants have usurped their place, a hundred exotic herbs have been preferred by fashion, while these poor, humble Solanaceæ that saved so many lives in former days have been clean forgotten with all the benefits they conferred. Who indeed has any memory for such things? Who recognises the time-honoured obligations men owe to innocent nature? The Asclepias acida, or Sarcostemma (flesh-plant), which for five thousand years was the consecrated host of Asia, the palpable god-made flesh of all that continent, which gave five hundred millions of the human race the blessedness of eating their god, the same plant that the Middle Ages knew as the Poison-killer (Vincevenenum), has never a word of recognition in our books of botany. Who knows but two thousand years hence mankind will have forgotten the virtues of wheat? See Langlois, on the soma of India, and the hom of Persia (Mém. de l’Académie des Inscriptions, xix. 326).

81:4 Dict. d’Histoire Naturelle of M. d’Orbigny; article Morelles (Nightshades), by M. Duchartre, after Demal, etc.

82:5 I have not been able to find this scale detailed in any work I have consulted. It is the more important, inasmuch as the witches who undertook this series of experiments, at the risk of being branded as poisoners, undoubtedly began with the weakest, and advanced little by little to the more powerful. Thus each degree of potency gives a relative date, and allows us to establish in this very obscure subject an approximative chronology. I propose to say more of this in the following chapters, when I come to speak of the Mandragora and the Datura. I have followed particularly Pouchet, Solanées et Botanique générale (Solanaceæ and General Botany). In this important monograph M. Pouchet has not disdained to draw from the ancient writers, Matthiole, Porta, Gessner, Sauvages, Gmelin, etc.

82:6 See plate in that excellent and quite inoffensive work, the Cours de Physiologie of M. Auzouz.

84:7 Madame La Chapelle and M. Chaussier have returned to these practices of old-fashioned popular medicine with great advantage to their patients (Pouchet, Solanées, p. 64).

86:8 Then quite a new beverage. It first began to be manufactured in the twelfth century.

87:9 This is the great discovery that makes Claude Bernard's name immortal.

Next: 10. Charms and Love Potions