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French Women & Feminists in History: A Resource Guide

Witch Trials & Witchcraft

Joseph E. Baker, artist. The witch no. 1. 1892. Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division.

The High Middle Ages (1300-1500), did not have the degree of centralized control that we associate with modern-day France. Under the Capetian and later Valois monarchy, France was still fighting intermittently with the English (most notably during the Hundred Year's War, 1337-1453). The French also had constant struggles with unruly feudal lords such as the Burgundians. Because of this, politics were localized. One of the most frustrating aspects of researching witchcraft in France is a scarcity of primary sources that document these local trials themselves. In the case of European witchcraft, and especially witchcraft in French history, it can help to start with regional sources because witch hunts and trials were regional in nature.

While witch hunts were a local phenomenon, they were affected by larger historical events. For example, during the decades of the Protestant Reformation the number of witches accused decreased, as did the number of publications on the topic of witchcraft. This coincided with Martin Luther and other reformers who were publishing critiques on Papal authority and challenging the authority of the medieval Church. Witch hunts and accusations of witchcraft began in the early 15th century and lasted for approximately 300 years. They were more numerous in France than in other European countries or kingdoms. The Spanish Kingdom and the Italian states, for example, saw far fewer cases, while they proliferated in the Holy Roman Empire (which included areas of present-day France and Germany). Europe was not the only place to witness witch hunts; the American colonies also had a dark history. From about 1520-1560 there was a noticeable pause on witch hunts in France, but they came back with a vengeance. The 16th and 17th centuries saw a sharp increase in the persecution of witches with both the revival of old laws, and the creation of new ways to criminalize witchcraft.

FAUST! 1887. Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division.

Before the Scientific Revolution took hold, people looked to the Church to explain the mysteries of the earthly world. Frightening occurrences such as paralysis, a sudden seizure, or a baby born ill or disfigured left people looking for an explanation — and preferably someone to blame. The Church believed in the Devil and considered witches to be their willing disciples. It was therefore the duty of the Church to find and condemn them. In France approximately 2,000 witch trials occurred between the years 1550 and 1700. While some women admitted to their alleged powers, most women vehemently denied the accusations. The Church often resorted to torture in order to elicit confessions. The women targeted were typically marginalized women such as spinsters, widows, or those without a male protector. Many of the accused, while not convicted, were still subjected to a lifetime of suspicion and fear. Furthermore, women employed in healing occupations (such as laying-in-nurses) were in a vulnerable position. When children or mothers died during childbirth — as often happened — these nurses made easy targets. If they had the power to help, then by extension, they had the power to harm.

In 1486 German churchman and inquisitor Heinreich Kramer (often known by his Latinized name Henricus Institoris) published what essentially became a handbook for conducting torture. The Witch Hammer (Malleus Maleficarum) contained step-by-step instructions for inquisitors on methods of torture and became the standard medieval text on witchcraft. Second only to the Bible, it was a best-selling book for over a century, going through multiple editions and translations. Other important works on the topic included Johann Weyer’s De praestigiis daemonum, which was intended as a defense of witches (and perhaps a critique on the Catholic Church), and Jean Bodin’s Démonomanie des sorciers. These three texts formed an unofficial trilogy discussing witchcraft and magic. The Library of Congress holds many editions and translations of these texts, most of them in the Law Library of Congress and the Rare Book & Special Collections Reading Room.

Melusine Bathing. 1838. Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division.

Inherently linked to witchcraft was the idea of demonic possession. Demonic possession and witchcraft were two separate but connected phenomena. Both women and men were embroiled in these dramas, particularly in the region of Normandy in northern France. Ideas of possession were circulating in the Church, and the power of suggestion in the community was intense. Witchcraft and possession were both fueled by a fear of malevolent and mysterious forces. There are many instances of women claiming possession. The first one on record takes place in the mid 16th century with Martha Brossier. Hearsay and hysteria abounded in these environments. The case of Louis Gaufridi attests to the ambiguous nature of these cases. Father Gaufridi allegedly possessed the young Madeleine de Demandolx de la Palud, a nun in Aix-en-Provence. In this instance Gaufridi was burned after gruesome torture. However, decades later Madeleine herself was twice accused of witchcraft, spending her last years in prison. Clearly lines were blurred between villain and victim as scholars and communities grappled with notions of the supernatural. A compelling case decades later concerns Jeanne des Anges (Belcier), a nun from the early 17th century who became consumed by her feelings for a parish priest, Father Urbain Grandier. After complaints and hysterical outburst from two dozen nuns claiming possession, the Cardinal Richelieu ordered a trial for witchcraft that resulted in Grandier’s death at the stake.

Witches were purported to have committed two crimes: practice of harmful magic (maleficium), and a covenant with the Devil (often named as Satan). But some scholars, including Roger Bacon, argued that there was a type of natural magic that was not derived from a pact with the devil. He also argued that some practices associated with magic and witchcraft were actually legitimate-such as healing and alchemy. Village healers, who shared many characteristics with witches, were often sought to heal a sick child, or to create love potions. Magic, sorcery, and the ideas of the supernatural had co-existed with Christianity — if somewhat uneasily — for centuries before witch hunts became so prevalent. Folklore, tales of the French fées (fairies), and mythologies of legendary creatures such as Mélusine (a mermaid-like water spirit you may recognize as the Starbucks logo) represent other efforts to moralize and explain the unexplainable. Possible reasons for the panic over witches are debated by historians, but many agree that economic struggles and scarcity tend to turn neighbor against neighbor. Furthermore, the religious divisions that began with the Reformation compounded these mutual suspicions. State building had the effect of creating standardized laws that also may have facilitated criminal proceedings. Lastly, the lack of knowledge surrounding mental illness, the effects of spoiled food or mushrooms, and undiagnosed medical conditions may have played a part. Hallucinations or seizures may have led medieval people to truly believe they were possessed or had witnessed a supernatural event. Furthermore, some accused witches embraced their so-called powers and intentionally scared people. We will never know if these individuals truly believed in their own powers.

Jules Bastien-Lepage, artist. Joan of Arc. [1900 and 1920]. Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division.

While some scholars referred back to the Bible for guidance, there were contradictions that fueled intense arguments among churchmen. These issues were rigorously debated by Christian authorities and scholars. As far back as the 5th century, Saint Augustine (Bishop of Hippo), rejected magic as associated with the worship of false idols in his work, City of God. The cleric, Isidore of Seville, reiterated this sentiment in his famous text, Etymologiae. This work delineated gradations of practitioners of magic in ways that further confused matters for the medieval Church. Venerable Bede, an English Benedictine monk, was also involved in the debates over magic and witchcraft. Ultimately, the medieval Christian Church came to view all magic as demonic in origin.

But the population was not as neatly divided into skeptics and believers. Those who opposed the witch hunts did not categorically refute the existence of witches, but merely cast doubt on the process by which they were deemed guilty. The fear and uncertainty of these centuries seemed to create a mass hysteria among the population. The inquisitors and officials who tried witches drummed up suspicion to increase their personal authority and power, and the neighbors in the community fanned the flames because many of them truly believed they were victims of evil magic. What about the voices of the witches? Unfortunately, their testimony was often given under torture or the threat of torture making it less reliable and harder to analyze. Fortunately, the era of rational thought ushered in a sudden shift. In 1682 King Louis XIV issued an edict that laid the foundation for the decriminalization of witchcraft in France. This was perhaps influenced by the scandalous “Affair of the Poisons” a decade earlier featuring the sinister Madame de Brinvilliers, who was a master of poison rather than witchcraft.

Joan of Arc - Chatillon. Library of Congress Digital Collections.

The infamous trial of Jeanne d'Arc illustrates the precarious position of women who defied the expectations of their place in society. After hearing voices from God to save France, the so-called “Maid of Orléans” (1412-1431) set off to meet with the dauphin, the eldest son of the King, and heir to the crown. After being interrogated by various prelates (who were wary of heresy) she was allowed a visit with the future king who she was able to locate (unmarked) among his courtiers. Through stubborn diplomacy, and as an inspiring leader in battle, she paved the way for Charles to be crowned King at Reims (pronounced raans). One of the most courageous women of French history, she was ultimately used and abandoned after her purpose had been served. She was captured and burned at the stake as a heretic (charges also included witchcraft and of violating divine law by dressing like a man) by the British and their Burgundian allies. France canonized her as Sainte Jeanne d'Arc in 1920 and every year she is celebrated in cities across France.

Magic has played a delicate role in history from antiquity into the modern era. Witch-like figures abound in paintings and the plethora of black and white woodcuts and etchings that circulated during this era. The transformative power of affordable printing (an innovation of the German printer Johannes Gutenberg) that arose in the 16th century, also aided in creating the iconic silhouette of the witch. The mass production of pamphlets during this time reached an unprecedented number of people, and these images of the black-robed witch, adorned with a pointy hat and hunched over a cauldron, stuck in the collective memory. By the 18th century there was a steady decline in prosecution as laws were slowly repealed. Accusations decreased dramatically, and witches who were accused, were often acquitted. Yet the popular imagination is still very much captivated by the witch and her craft. Popular operas, novels and indeed, modern-day witches themselves, all attest to this.

Famous "Witches" or "possessed women" of France

  • Joan of Arc
  • Marie des Vallées, Saint of Coutances
  • Margot de La Barre
  • Marion la Droiturière
  • Jehenne de Brigue
  • Macette de Ruilly
  • Catherine David
  • Martiale Espaze
  • Madeleine de Demandolx de la Palud (Louis Gaufridi)
  • Élizabeth of Ranfain
  • Jeanne des Anges (Urbain Grandier)
  • Madeleine Bavent
  • Leonora Galigaï

For further historical context see Witchcraft in France and Switzerland : the borderlands during the Reformation by E. William Monter. (digitized)

Searching for items in the Library on the topic of witches requires some patience and precision. For extensive instructions see the Library's blog Hunting for Witchcraft in the French Provinces. A keyword search functions differently from browsing Library of Congress Subject Headings (LCSHs) but both will be necessary to retrieve all relevant materials. A keyword search of Witchcraft and France will bring up records with these two words anywhere in the catalog record. This is not a bad way to start, however, browsing the Library of Congress Subject Headings (LCSHs) by “SUBJECTS beginning with” will allow you to narrow or broaden your search in a more methodical way. The LCSHs for Witchcraft are largely associated with the specific regions of France (e.g. search Witchcraft—France—Aix-en-Provence or Alsace, Burgundy (Bourgogne), Lorraine, Metz, Paris, Saint-Claude, Sancerre, Valenciennes or Vesoul). They are listed alphabetically and contain over 60 regions starting with Aix-en-Provence and ending with Vosges Mountains. Similarly, if looking for trials one will have to look at individual regions under the larger LCSH e.g. Trials (witchcraft)—France—Burgundy.

Below is a bibliography of print resources, digitized primary sources, and tips on finding more works in the Library of Congress online catalog. For information on the legal aspects of witch trials, consult the Law Library of Congress.

Print Resources

The following titles link to fuller bibliographic information in the Library of Congress Online Catalog. Links to additional online content are included when available.

The following titles link to fuller bibliographic information in the Library of Congress Online Catalog. Links to additional online content are included when available.

The majority of these sources are held in the Rare Book & Special Collections Division or in the Rare Book section of the Law Library. To find more rare legal texts search Magic--Early works to 1800. The following titles link to fuller bibliographic information in the Library of Congress Online Catalog. Links to additional online content are included when available.

Finding Additional Materials in the Library's Online Catalog

The Library of Congress Online Catalog represents a collection of over 18 million catalog records for books, serials, manuscripts, maps, music, recordings, images, and electronic resources in the Library of Congress collections. To find additional materials about Women in the French Revolution it is useful to browse by authorized subject heading. The following Library of Congress Subject Headings (LCSH) will reveal the most relevant materials in the Library's collections.

For more information on Library resources on Medieval Studies see the research guide, Medieval Studies.

For biographies or monographs on individual women, it is recommended that you browse by name (be sure to try several different forms of the name).

For example, to find all books on Joan of Arc, browse "SUBJECTS (beginning with)":