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The Parlement of Paris :: History 229: The Age of the Witch Hunts

The Parlement of Paris

The Parlement of Paris was a powerful, centralized court system located in Paris. It was also the court of appeals for the lower courts of much of the surrounding areas of northern France. Unlike some of the lower courts in more rural areas, the parlement was becoming increasingly regulated and aligning more and more with modern standards of justice during the early modern period. By the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, confessions produced under torture were no longer accepted as legitimate evidence in legal proceedings and the practice of torture was waning. Tests that were used in other countries to prove a connection with the demonic or the possession of magical powers such as the flotation test were never using in cases of witchcraft-related crimes brought before the parlement.

Although the officials of the Parlement of Paris were not necessarily hesitant to believe in the existence of witchcraft and maleficium, they were hesitant to define it as a crime that could be proven in court because of the unique nature of it and the lack of tangible evidence. French historian Alfred Soman goes one step further, claiming the magistrates of the parlement were not just skeptical of the crime of witchcraft, but even “acted to decriminalize witchcraft in a large part of northern and eastern from the late sixteenth century onwards.” [1]

The statistics from the court records of the parlement are certainly in favor of this argument. It is estimated that only 103 of the total 1,272 accused witches brought before the parlement between 1565 and 1670, a period that saw the most severe witch-hunting in many European countries, were sentenced to execution. [2] Even more astonishing are the records from the period between 1565 and 1640. During this seventy-five year period, over 75% of all death sentences from witchcraft-related crimes that were appealed before the parlement were overturned completely or converted to less severe punishments and over 90% of all sentences were dismissed or lessened in some way. [2]

The highly regulated procedures and low conviction rates of witch trials of the parlement of Paris provide a standard on which to compare the trials that occurred in the lower courts of rural regions of France, particularly the witch-hunt in Labourd in 1609. Outside of the jurisdiction of the higher royal courts, local magistrates were able to use torture to gain confessions and unreliable child witnesses, which led to much higher conviction rates and larger numbers of executions.


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

[2] 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.

[3] Image: https://jspivey.wikispaces.com/file/view/GeoffrinLemonniermini.jpg/97411148/400×267/GeoffrinLemonniermini.jpg

Painting of the Parlement of Paris

Painting of the Parlement of Paris


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