French Witchcraft

French Witchcraft

(religion, spiritualism, and occult)

Witchcraft in France is perhaps most remarkable for the large numbers of people executed after they were accused of being witches. The Benedictine Abbey of St. Maximin contained a register of supposed witches covering 306 accused persons, who, in turn, named 1,500 others as suspects. Eventually, a total of 6,000 names was recorded. By 1350, in two towns in southern France, the Inquisition had prosecuted more than 1,000 people and burned 600 of them. In the first few years of the 1580s, Nicholas Remy sent 900 people to the fires. In 1600, Henri Boquet exterminated another 600 people, and just nine years later, Pierre de Lancre killed another 600 in a four-month span.

A French witchcraft law passed in 500 CE demanded proof that an act of evil had been committed. Without that proof, the accuser had to pay damages. As Robbins points out, had that law remained in force, none of those accused of attending witches' sabbats would have been executed. But based on the speculation of such theologians as Thomas Aquinas, Archbishop Guillaume d'Auvergne, Gabriel Biel,

Pierre de Palude, and Duns Scotus, a precise picture of pacts with the devil was painted and magic and sorcery moved into the realm of religion, becoming an antiCatholic heresy subject to the Inquisition.

One of the earliest trials took place in 1275, at Toulouse, when Angèle de la Barthe became the first person burned at the stake. In 1278 Bishop Peter of Bayeux, together with his nephew, was tried for using sorcery against Philip III. Bishop Guichard of Troyes used magic against Philip le Bel, in 1308, and Count Robert d'Artois made a wax image of Louis X in 1331.

In 1335, seventy-four people were accused of witchcraft. After being tortured, Anne-Marie de Georgel confessed to attending a witches' sabbat presided over by a goat. In 1352, at Carcassonne, near Toulouse, seven people were found guilty of attempting to join a group of witches. They were unsuccessful in their attempt but were still found guilty of worshiping a goat.

By 1390, the Parlement de Paris encouraged secular courts to try witchcraft cases. The first secular trial was held that year, and gradually the secular courts replaced the Inquisition. However, the Inquisition did continue to try some cases, notably that of Gilles Garnier in 1592. Garnier was accused of lycanthropy (werewolfism), and the case caused much publicity and led to proclamations from the local parliament. Garnier was eventually found guilty of attacking and eating numerous children and was burned at the stake without the mercy of strangulation.

Between 1428 and 1448, 110 women and 57 men were burned alive at the stake at Briançon, Dauphiné. In 1438, Pierre Vallin confessed to flying to sabbats on a stick, to copulating with the devil in woman's form, and to giving up his daughter to the devil. In 1477, Antoine Rose, who also claimed to have flown on a stick, was tortured and tried in the Savoy region. She said that she saw many men and women at the sabbat, all feasting and dancing backwards. She adored the devil in the form of a dark man named Robinet, who put his mark on her.

Witches were numerous in Dauphiné and in Gascony, according to Franciscan Alphonsus de Spina's book Fortalicium Fidei (1459). Many writers wrote of the great number of witches in existence in all parts of the country. Anything that seemed in any way out of the ordinary was linked to Satanic forces. A hundred years later, in 1595, Nicholas Remy wrote in Daemonolatreia, "Whatever is not normal is due to the Devil."

In 1456 and 1457, there was unusually bad weather at Metz, which harmed many crops. This was attributed to witches, and huge witch hunts followed. In 1488, again in Metz, an unusually cold summer was similarly attributed to witchcraft, leading to twenty-eight people being burned alive. In 1460, at Arras, the ecclesiastical authorities examined a large number of suspected witches. After torture, many confessed that they had been to sabbats. There, they said, they had worshiped the devil, feasted liberally, and indulged in wild orgies. There was mention of the osculum infame, the kissing of the devil's posterior, and of signing pacts in their own blood. Twelve of the more than thirty suspects were executed.

There were more cases at Luxeuil in 1529, Bièvres in 1556, Toulouse in 1557,

Poitiers in 1564, Amon in 1567, Poitiers in 1574, Avignon and Puy de Dôme in

1594, plus many other cases. The Toulouse case of 1557 involved the burning of forty witches. In 1580, in De la Démonomani des Sorciers, Jean Bodin wrote that burning over a slow fire was not punishment enough for witches, since it only took about half an hour.

Richard Cavendish points out that almost all of the accusations about what took place at the sabbats had been made earlier against the heretical sects, such as the Knights Templar. Gilles de Rais and Joan of Arc were accused of witchcraft at their trials. From the end of the fifteenth century the pace increased, with more and more people accused and put to death. The main period for the trials was the forty years between 1580 and 1620. That time saw mass persecutions by civil judges, with thousands of witches burned alive at the stake. In 1579, the death penalty was extended to everyone who even practiced divination. In Alsace, Béarn, Burgundy, Loraine, and Normandy alone there were more than 3,000 men and women put to death.

By the early seventeenth century, witchcraft suddenly started appearing in convents around the country. It generally appeared in the form of possession of the nuns by the devil. Cases emerged at Aix-en-Provence (1611), Lille (1613), Loudon (1634), Louviers (1647), and Auxonne (1661).

Witchcraft also made an appearance in the royal court of Louis XIV in what became known as the "Chambre Ardente Affair" of 1680. It included the exposure of a complicated poisoning ring, with various aristocrats poisoning and attempting to poison one another. Catherine Deshayes, a popular fortune-teller known as La Voison ("the Poisoner"), led a large coven dedicated to worshiping the "old gods," including Ashtaroth the goddess and Asmodeus the god. She claimed that she had been initiated at the age of nine. In addition to fortune-telling, she sold beauty potions, aphrodisiacs, preparations to induce abortions, and poisons.

As her fame spread, Catherine Deshayes became very wealthy. In the garden of her large house, in rue Beauregard, she built a special chapel for worshiping the old gods. Her coven met there, and she then made even more money by initiating aristocrats into the Old Religion. She continued that practice for more than ten years. At the initiation rituals, according to Deshayes's daughter Marguerite, the titled ladies were stripped and laid naked on the altar, with the officiating priest standing between the woman's legs. The chalice was placed on the belly of this living altar, and the priest kissed the woman's genitals as part of the rite. There were a number of actions similar to the Great Rite that is practiced in Witchcraft today. Many famous women of the time were initiated in this fashion, including Madame de Montespan, Louis's mistress. A chance remark by one of the inner circle, Marie Bosse, brought the police to Deshayes's door and, after they searched the premises, she was arrested. In prison, she underwent brutal torture, forcing her to reveal many names, and after which she was condemned and burned alive.

By 1625 the excitement had finally started to die down, although occasional outbreaks did still occur. Louis XIV reprieved twelve witches at Rouen, in 1670, after as many as 525 people had been indicted. The king rebuked the Parliament of Normandy, restored property to the accused, and reduced sentences from death to banishment. In 1682 he issued an edict that effectively ended all of the witch hunts in France. Probably the last execution took place as late as 1745, when Father Louis Debaraz was sent to the pyre for performing sacrilegious masses.

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