French Demonology and the Witch Trials in Early Modern France

Sofia Lauretti

History 229

12 December 2014

The French Demonological Tradition and the Witch Trials in Early Modern France

The witch trials in France provide a particularly interesting and unique case study of witch-hunting in Europe during the early modern period. Although the region had an early history of witch accusations and executions in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, during the pinnacle of the trials in Europe in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, France had a relatively low involvement compared to many other regions.[i] In fact, aside from isolated trials and cases of demonic possession, there was only one large-scale witch-hunt in France during the early modern period. Unlike in countries such as Scotland[ii] and Sweden[iii] where widespread, nearly ubiquitous hysteria and collective action prompted large numbers of prosecutions and executions in various towns and villages, the theories and actions of individual men were primarily responsible for promoting and executing the trials in France. The strong tradition of widely disseminated French demonological theory, which had a significant effect on trials both domestically and in other areas of Europe, was largely a product of a small group of powerful, elite demonologists such as Pierre de Lancre and Nicolas Remy. These same men also had a key role in perpetuating witch belief and even presiding over trials in the regions under their jurisdiction.

Jean Bodin began the French tradition of demonology when he published his most well known work, On the Demonmania of Sorcerers, in 1580[iv]. A highly educated member of the ruling class and a local magistrate, he wrote popular works on political, legal, and demonological theory. Demonmania was published in twenty-three different editions and was widely read throughout Europe at the time of its publication. [v]       Arguably one of the most influential arguments contained within the book is Bodin’s notion of witchcraft as an “exceptional crime” that lies outside the realm of standard legal procedure. In the section “Chapter 1 On the Investigation of Witches,” he offered several explanations for why witches deserved the harshest of sanctions and prescriptions for how the trials should be carried out. He recommended that special magistrates be appointed to oversee the proceedings: “it is necessary to establish special magistrates for that purpose, at least two in each province” (129-130) and encouraged the use of torture to produce confessions: “the judge, nevertheless, must first proceed with tortures, according to the rank of the persons, against the one accused of witchcraft…” (133). Finally, he made the claim that in order to legitimize confessions, “one must link them with the confessions of others.” (134).[vi] This is a critical point because as the numbers of trials increased, more and more of the accused persons drew upon specific details from previous trials and testimonies in their own confessions, especially when forced to confess under torture. The fantastical claims of pacts with the devil and mass orgies became more and more believable each time they were repeated, and the similarities in the claims of accused witches throughout Europe gave credibility to the notion of a dangerous group that could be pinpointed and targeted. Bodin’s Demonmania played a principal role in structuring the legal procedures of the trials and gave a great deal of authority to local magistrates in persecuting witches. Although he did not lead an actual witch-hunt, his work laid a theoretical foundation for future demonologists such as Pierre de Lancre to build upon.

Nicolas Remy was also a key contributor to the growing body of work concerning witchcraft, maleficium, and the devil in France. He was an educated member of the ruling class and quickly rose in status, eventually being named the procurator-general of the court system in the region of Lorraine, a French-speaking duchy just outside the French border. As such, he had a great deal of power to control the types of crimes prosecuted and the ways in which prosecutions were carried out. Towards the end of his career, Remy claimed to have caused the executions of nine hundred witches in the region of Lorraine; however, while exact numbers are unknown, this statement is largely considered a gross exaggeration today. [vii] Yet, his presence in the area certainly led to a notable spike in witchcraft prosecutions. Surviving fiscal court documents indicate that somewhere around 125 witches were brought to trial, largely between the years 1583 and 1591.[viii] As evidenced, Remy firmly believed in the existence of witches and in taking every effort to eradicate them.

Remy expressed these opinions in his influential work, Demonaltry, published in 1595. In the treatise, he discussed in great detail all aspects of the witches’ Sabbath. In one passage, he claimed that witches “truly feed upon human flesh, animals which have been found dead, and other unwonted meats of that kind” and described the “orgies of carnal indulgence and dances” in which the assembled witches participated.[ix] He also offered descriptions of the devil’s mark and directions for locating it on the body of the accused and testing it for lack of feeling using a needle. Finally, he built upon the work of Bodin and other writers of demonological texts and even used Bodin’s writings to support his argument that witches had the power to fly to the Sabbath: “credible authors such as Fr. A Turella and Jean Bodin in his Demonmania, have vouched for cases where women have manifestly spent the whole night at home, and even in bed with their husbands, and yet on the next morning they have confidently recounted many details of the Sabbat.”[x] Like Demonmania before it, Remy’s work of demonological theory was widely read locally and in other countries and both his writings and his actions in the courts of Lorraine added to the cumulative notion of witchcraft and created an atmosphere of fear and paranoia that prompted trials and executions elsewhere.

Although the theories used to support his cause were built on the demonological works of influential scholars before him like Jean Bodin and Nicolas Remy, Pierre de Lancre was arguably the most notorious figure associated with the witch-hunts during the early modern period because of his direct involvement in carrying out a large number of trials. De Lancre was an educated elite from the Bordeaux region and an official in the legal system there, the Parlement of Bordeaux. During his studies, he gained an extensive knowledge of demonological theory and was selected by King Henry IV himself to investigate the possible presence of witches in Pays de Labourd[xi]. The area became associated with witchcraft due to its close proximity to the Basque region of Spain after a large-scale witch-hunt occurred there. De Lancre’s elite upbringing ensured that “his social and economic distance from the people whose deliverance from satanic magic was entrusted to him could not have been greater.”[xii] He was especially wary of the border region of Labourd because as a fierce nationalist, he was opposed to the mixture of Spanish and French culture and practices he observed there. His harsh treatment of the people of the area led to the execution of approximately eighty witches during his investigation. [xiii]

De Lancre produced several works detailing his beliefs regarding witchcraft and the actions he had taken against its accused practitioners in Labourd. He was heavily influenced by the writings of demonologists before him, particularly Jean Bodin and Henrich Kramer. He shared the belief that women had a natural tendency towards temptation and witchcraft, a notion first expressed by Kramer in his infamous demonological text, the Malleus Maleficarum. [xiv] Like both Remy and Bodin, De Lancre firmly believed in the reality of the Sabbath. In his 1612 treatise, Description of the Inconstancy of Bad Angel and Demons, he described the ritual gathering of witches in explicit detail and argued that the practice originated with the Basque people of France and was subsequently adopted by the neighboring witches in Labourd: “they are acts of incest and other hideous crimes, which we can truthfully say came to us from this bad and pernicious neighboring of Spain, Where the Basques and those of the country of Lambourd, are neighbors.” [xv] However, unlike in previous demonological works, he did not discuss witchcraft elements such as the Sabbath and sexual acts with the devil broadly, but rather, contextualized them within the framework of a specific group of people. For example, he wrote that he had heard the “[the women of Labourd] recount the dirtiest and the most obscene occurrences and deeds, with such liberty and gaiety, that they make saying it glorious.” [xvi] De Lancre’s strong distrust and treatment of the people of Labourd as “the other” made the trials in this region particularly deadly and contributed to the highest number of executions in the shortest period of time in early modern France.

The role of the individual, particularly of the three aforementioned men, in perpetuating witchcraft belief and initiating prosecutions in France becomes increasingly apparent when compared with the court records of the Parlement of Paris. Although some historians such as Christina Larner have made the argument that the witch-hunts were a method of social control and a product of rising centralized authority and top-down regulation throughout Europe in the 16th and 17th century[xvii], Brian Levack makes a more compelling and substantiated counter-argument, using Scotland as his primary example, that the most intense witch-hunting often occurred in the lower courts of more rural towns and villages under the jurisdiction of powerful local magistrates.[xviii] The role of central authority, then, was not to promote the trials, but rather, to intervene and stop local authorities if necessary. Briefly examining the witch trials in France, he writes that “most of [the] prosecutions took place in the peripheral regions of the kingdom, outside ‘royal’ France” and that “the main reason why prosecutions flourished in these outlying regions was the failure of government to supervise the judicial process.”[xix]

This argument certainly fits with the examples of the witch-hunts led by de Lancre in Labourd, a border region dominated by local authority and court systems and by Remy in Lorraine, the French-speaking province that lacked the regulation and organization of neighboring regions controlled by a strong monarchical government. In comparison with the lower court systems of Labourd and Lorraine, the Parlement of Paris was highly regulated and was its procedures were moving increasingly towards the standards of modern justice systems during the early modern period. Practices common to many European courts such as torture were employed fairly infrequently and confessions produced under torture were rarely accepted as legitimate evidence in the courtroom.[xx] As one of the primary court systems of the French monarchy and the court of appeals for Paris and much of the area surrounding it, the attitudes of the magistrates in the Parlement of Paris toward witchcraft and demonic-related crimes and the parlement’s decisions regarding said crimes largely reflected the attitudes of the more northern regions of France. The magistrates’ hesitancy to accept witchcraft as a legitimate crime because of the lack of tangible evidence associated with it had a significant impact on the nature of witch prosecutions both in Paris and in much of the surrounding area.[xxi] According to French historian Alfred Soman, “the magistrates of this sovereign court were [reluctant] to confirm death sentences of witchcraft when the defendants came before them on appeal from the lower courts” and even goes further, stating that the actions of the Parlement were largely “to decriminalize witchcraft in a large part of northern and eastern France from the late sixteenth century onwards.”[xxii]

Soman’s claims that an overwhelming majority of witchcraft sentences that were appealed before the Parlement of Paris were lessened or overturned altogether substantiated by the court records of the period: “more than 75% of the death sentences in the period 1565-1640 were commuted or dismissed on appeal” and “more than 90% of the non-death sentences were commuted in some form.”[xxiii] When compared with the conviction rates in other countries such as Scotland, which ranged from 57% in more centralized courts to as high as 95% in local courts, the low numbers of executions and high numbers of convictions that were appealed and ultimately overturned in the central court systems of France is particularly astonishing. [xxiv]

The court records of the Parlement of Paris not only confirm Levack’s thesis that central authority and the increased regulation and standardization of legal procedure in the courts of Europe did more to discourage witch-hunting than promote it, but also highlight the leading role that individuals like de Lancre and Remy played in the French witch trials. They approached the subjects of maleficium and the demonic through a scholarly lense and as elite members of society with experience in the judicial system, they had a great deal of authority and their theories were widely read throughout France and all of Europe. Jean Bodin’s definition of witchcraft as an “exceptional crime” set a critical precedent for magistrates to follow in legal proceedings and for future demonologists to build upon. By encouraging confessions linked to the testimonies of previously accused witches, he helped to create and perpetuate a shared image of the witch, which led to more accusations and trials. Remy and de Lancre were heavily influenced by Bodin in both their own demonological texts and in nature of the witch trials they carried out. Because they both operated far from court systems structured by strong central authority, they were able to employ controversial practices, leading to the most deadly and widespread trials in France. In this way, the witch trials in France and the neighboring duchy of Lorraine were largely the product of the body of work and actions of a select group of elite demonologists.

[i] William E. Burns, “France, Witch-Hunting in,” in Witch Hunts in America and Europe: An Encyclopedia by William E. Burns (Westport, Greenwood Press, 2003), 98-99.

[ii] William E. Burns, “Scotland, Witch-Hunting in” in Witch Hunts in America and Europe: An Encyclopedia by William E. Burns (Westport, Greenwood Press, 2003), 270-272.

[iii] William E. Burns, “Sweden, Witch-Hunting in” in Witch Hunts in America and Europe: An Encyclopedia by William E. Burns (Westport, Greenwood Press, 2003), 292-294.

[iv] William E. Burns, “Bodin, Jean,” in Witch Hunts in America and Europe: An Encyclopedia by William E. Burns (Westport, Greenwood Press, 2003), 35.

[v] Idib, 37.

[vi] Jean Bodin, Demon-Mania of Witches in The Witchcraft Sourcebook, ed. Brian P. Levack (New York: Routledge, 2004), 128-134.

[vii] William E. Burns, “Remy, Nicholas,” in Witch Hunts in America and Europe: An Encyclopedia by William E. Burns (Westport, Greenwood Press, 2003), 245-246.

[viii] William Monter, “Fiscal Sources and Witch Trials in Lorraine,” Magic Ritual and Witchcraft 2 (2007): 36, accessed November 18, 2014,

[ix] Nicolas Remy, Demonolotry: An Account of the Historical Practice of Witchcraft, ed. Montague Summers (Mineola: Dover Publications, Inc., 2008), 65.

[x] Nicholas Remy, Demonolatry in The Witchcraft Sourcebook, ed. Brian P. Levack (New York: Routledge, 2004), 84.

[xi] William E. Burns, “Lancre, Pierre De,” in Witch Hunts in America and Europe: An Encyclopedia by William E. Burns (Westport, Greenwood Press, 2003), 168-170.

[xii] Gerhild Scholz Williams, Defining Dominion (Ann Arbor: The University of Michigan Press), 92.

[xiii] Burns,“Lancre, Pierre De,” 168-170.

[xiv] Williams, Defining Dominion, 90.

[xv] Pierre de Lancre, Tableau de l’inconstance des mauvais anges et demons in The Witchcraft Sourcebook, ed. Brian P. Levack (New York: Routledge, 2004),106.

[xvi] Idib, 107.

[xvii] Christina Larner, “The Crime of Witchcraft in Europe” in in The Witchcraft Reader, ed. Darren Oldridge, (New York: Routledge, 2008), 171-179.

[xviii] Brian P. Levack, “State Building and Witch-Hunting in Early Modern Europe” in The Witchcraft Reader, ed. Darren Oldridge (New York: Routledge, 2008), 185-196.

[xix] Idib, 193.

[xx] Burns, “France, Witch-Hunting in”, 99.

[xxi] Idib, 99.

[xxii] Stuart Clark, Thinking with demons (New York: Oxford University Press, 1997), 608-609.

[xxiii] Burns, “France, Witch-Hunting in”, 99.

[xxiv] Levack, “State Building and Witch-Hunting in Early Modern Europe,” 189.

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