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

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THE Church always granted the judge and the accuser a right to the confiscated property of those condemned for Sorcery. Wherever the Canon Law remains powerful, trials for Witchcraft multiply, and enrich the clergy. Wherever lay tribunals make good their claim to try such cases, the latter grow fewer and fewer and finally disappear, at any rate for a hundred years in France,—between 1450 and 1550.

A first gleam of light is visible as early as the middle of the fifteenth century, and it emanates from France. The revision of the case against Jeanne d’Arc by the Parlement and her rehabilitation set me thinking about dealings with spirits, good or evil, and the mistakes committed by the ecclesiastical tribunals. A vile Sorceress in the eyes of the English and in those of the wisest Doctors of the Council of Bâle, for the French she is a Saint and a divine Sibyl. The rehabilitation of the Maid of Orleans inaugurates in France an era of toleration. The Parlement of Paris likewise rehabilitates the so-called Vauclois of Arras. In 1498 the same body dismisses as a mere madman a wizard brought before its bar. Not a single condemnation for Sorcery was registered under Charles VIII., Louis XII., or François I.

Just the opposite in Spain; here under the pious Queen Isabella (1506), under Cardinal Ximenes, they begin burning Witches. Geneva, then governed by its Bishop (1515), burned five hundred in three months. The Emperor Charles V., in his Germanic Constitutions, tries in vain to establish the principle

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that "Sorcery, as causing injury to property and person, is a civil matter, not an ecclesiastical." In vain he abolishes confiscation of goods,—except in the case of High Treason. The smaller Prince Bishops, of whose revenues Sorcery supplied a principal source, go on savagely burning all the same. The microscopic bishopric of Bamberg sends six hundred individuals to the stake in one batch, and that of Wurzburg nine hundred! The procedure is of the simplest. To begin with, apply torture to the witnesses, and build up a travesty, a caricature of evidence, by dint of pain and terror. Then drag a confession from the accused by excruciating agonies, and believe this confession against the direct evidence of facts. For instance, a Sorceress confesses she had recently dug up a child's dead body from the churchyard, to use it in her magic compounds. Her husband says, "Go to the churchyard and look; the child is there now." The grave is opened, and the body found intact in its coffin. Yet the judge decides, against the testimony of his own eyes, that it is only an appearance, an illusion of Satan. He credits the woman's confession in preference to the actual fact,—and the poor creature is burned. 1

Things reached such a pass among these worthy Prince Bishops that later on the most bigoted emperor there ever was, the Emperor of the Thirty Years’ War, Ferdinand II., is forced to interfere and establish at Bamberg an Imperial Commissioner to see the rights of the empire are not infringed and that the episcopal judge shall not open these trials by tortures which made the result a foregone conclusion and led straight to the stake.

The Witches were very easily convicted on their own confessions, sometimes, without any application of torture. Many were really half-witted. They were quite willing to admit transforming themselves into beasts. The Italian Sorceresses often turned into cats—they said so themselves—and, slipping under

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the doors of houses, would suck children's blood. In the region of great forests, Lorraine and the Jura, women readily became wolves and devoured travellers, if we are to believe their own accounts, even when there were no wayfarers travelling the roads to devour. Anyway they were burned. Young girls would solemnly declare they had sacrificed their maidenhood to the Devil, and on examination be found virgins still. They were burned likewise. Not a few seemed positively to want to go to the stake, and the sooner the better,—the result of insanity, frenzy, sometimes of despair. An English Witch on being led to the stake, tells the crowd not to blame her judges. "I wanted to die. My family shunned me, my husband repudiated me. If I lived, I should only be a disgrace to my friends. . . . I longed for death, and I lied to gain my end."


The first avowed plea for toleration against the dull-witted Sprenger, his horrible Manual and his persecuting Dominicans, was advanced by a lawyer of Constance, Molitor by name. He maintains for one thing with excellent good sense the unreasonableness of taking the confessions of Sorceresses seriously, inasmuch as from the nature of the case it was the Father of Lies, and none other, who spoke by their mouth. He made fun of the pretended miracles of the Devil, and asserted they were mere figments of the imagination. Indirectly again the mockers, Ulrich von Hütten and Erasmus, in the Satires they composed upon the imbecility of the Dominicans, dealt a severe blow to the Inquisition. Cardau says straight out, "In order to succeed to the goods of the victims, identically the same persons acted as accusers and judges, condemned the innocent to death, and to bolster up their case were ready to invent a thousand fables."

The Apostle of Toleration, Châtillon, who maintained, against Catholics and Protestants alike, that we should not burn heretics, to say nothing of sorcerers, started men's minds in a better path. Agrippa, Lavatier, Wyer above all, the illustrious physician of Clèves, said very justly that, if these unhappy

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beings, the Sorceresses, are the Devil's playthings, as they are said to be, it is first and foremost the Devil we must deal with, that we should try to cure them rather than burn them off-hand. Before long sundry Parisian doctors push their incredulity as far as to maintain that all the devil-possessed, all the Sorceresses, are nothing more nor less than impostors. This was going too far; the great majority were really sufferers from disease, dominated by a morbid hallucination.


The gloomy reign of Henry II. and Diane de Poitiers ended the days of toleration; heretics and Sorcerers alike are sent to the stake under the fair Diane's influence. Catherine de Médicis on the contrary, surrounded as she was by Astrologers and Magicians, was all in favor of shielding these protégés of hers. They multiplied apace; Trois-Echelles, brought to trial under Charles IX., reckons them by the hundred thousand, and declares all France to be bewitched.

Agrippa and others maintain that all Science is contained in Magic—white Magic of course, be it understood. But the terror of fools and the rage of fanatics make small distinction between white and black. Against Wyer, against the genuine men of science, against light and toleration, a violent reaction of darkness and obscurantism arises from a quarter one would least of all have expected. The magistracy, which for nearly a whole century had shown itself just and enlightened, now largely involved in the Catholic Bond of Spain and the fiercely bigoted Ligue, prove themselves more priestly than the priests. While driving the Inquisition out of France, they match it and would fain eclipse it with their own severities. Indeed, they went so far that on a single occasion and single-handed the Parlement of Toulouse burned four hundred human bodies at the stake. Imagine the horror of it; think of the thick, black smoke from all this burning flesh, picture the masses of fat that amid yells and howls melt in horrid deliquescence and pour boiling down

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the gutters! A vile and sickening sight such as had not been since the broilings and roastings of the Albigensians!

But even this is not enough for Bodin, the Legist of Angers, and the furious antagonist of Wyer. He begins by declaring the Sorcerers are so many they could in Europe alone make another host of Xerxes, an army of eighteen hundred thousand men. Then he expresses a similar wish to Caligula's, that all these two millions of men had one common body, so that he, the redoubtable Bodin, might judge them and burn them all at one fell swoop.


Presently a rivalry springs up. The lawyers begin to complain that the priest is often too closely connected with Sorcery himself to be a trustworthy judge. And there is no doubt the jurists do for a time seem surer even than the clergy. The Jesuit pleader, Del Rio, in Spain, Remy (1596) in Lorraine, Boguet (1602) in the Jura, Leloyer (1605) in Marne, are incomparable persecutors, men to make Torquemada die of envy.

Lorraine was swept by a dreadful contagion, as it were, of Sorcerers and Visionaries. The populace, driven to despair by the everlasting depredations of marching armies and marauding bands, had long ceased to pray to any deity but the Devil. Many villages, in their terror, distracted between two horrors, the Sorcerers on the one side and the judges on the other, longed, if Remy, Judge of Nancy, speaks truth, to quit their lands and all they possessed and fly to another country. In his book dedicated to the Cardinal de Lorraine (1596), he claims positively to have burned within sixteen years eight hundred Sorceresses. "So good is my justice," he says, "that last year there were no less than sixteen killed themselves rather than pass through my hands."


The priests were humiliated. Could they have done any better than this layman themselves? Accordingly the monks, Lords

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of Saint-Claude, when they found their subjects addicted to Sorcery, chose another layman, the worthy Boguet, to act as their judge. In this dreary Jura country, a poverty-stricken district of meagre pastures and barren pine-woods, the serfs were for ever devoting themselves to the Devil out of sheer hopelessness. To a man they worshipped the black cat.

Boguet's book (1602) became an authority of the greatest influence and importance. The lawyers of Parlement studied this golden book of the little judge of Saint-Claude as the manual and mainstay of their practice. Boguet is in very deed a typical Legist, scrupulous even according to his lights. He inveighs against the bad faith displayed in these trials; he will not have the advocate betray his client, nor the judge promise the accused a pardon to lure him on to his death. He disapproves of the very untrustworthy tests to which Witches were still habitually compelled to submit. "Torture," he says, "is both useless and unnecessary. They never give in under it." Lastly, he possesses humanity enough to have them strangled before being cast into the flames, always excepting in the case of the female werewolves, "whom we must take every precaution to burn alive." He refuses to believe Satan willing to make pact with children. "Satan is cunning, and he knows far too well that under fourteen the bargain with a minor would be liable to forfeiture on the ground of insufficient age and discretion." Then children are safe from the stake? Not at all; for he contradicts himself on this point, declaring elsewhere that this leprosy can only be cleansed by burning all, even to babes in the cradle. He would have come to that if he had lived longer. He turned the whole countryside into a desert. Never was judge more conscientious, more thorough, more bent on extermination.

But it was in the Parlement of Bordeaux that the pæan of victory of lay jurisdiction rose loudest in Lancre's book, entitled, Inconstance des Démons (1610 and 1613) . The author, a man of intelligence and ability, and a Counsellor of the Parlement named, relates triumphantly the successful battle against

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the Devil he had waged in the Basque country, where in less than three months he has worked off I forget how many Witches and, more important still, three priests. He looks with contemptuous pity on the Spanish Inquisition, which at Logroño, on the frontier of Navarre and Castile, not far from his own district, has had a trial dragging on for two years, ending finally with a poor, miserable little auto-da-fé, from which a whole host of women got off scot-free.


144:1 See Soldan in confirmation of this true story, and for facts about Germany generally.

Next: 16. The Basque Witches (1609)