The region of Pays de Labourd was the site of the only official, mass witch-hunt in France during the early modern period. The hunt was initiated in 1609 when King Henry IV sent two officials from the Parlement of Bordeaux, Pierre de Lancre and Jean d’Espagnet, to investigate witchcraft in the area. However, de Lancre quickly and clearly distinguished himself as the leader of the two-man tribunal and largely carried out the witch-hunts in Labourd by himself. Although exact numbers are not known, it is estimated that approximately eighty (80) accused witches were burned in the region during his four-month stay there. Because de Lancre was appointed directly by the king of France, he had a great deal of power and authority and was able to conduct the trials as he wanted. He was also outside the jurisdiction of higher courts such as the Parlement of Paris and as such, was able to use torture and unreliable witnesses, two practices that were largely frowned upon by Parlement magistrates and employed infrequently in Parlement proceedings.
Pays de Labourd was located in the southwest of France, bordering on Spain and was inhabited by a mix of French, Spanish, and Basque people. The Basque people were an indigenous population with a unique culture and language that resided in the border region between Spain, France, and the Bay of Biscay. As a firm believer in the superiority of French culture and language, de Lancre found the unique blend of French, Spanish, and Basque cultures in the area particularly distressing. In his work, Description of Bad Angels and Demons, published in 1612, he describes the inhabitants of Labourd, particularly those of Basque descent, with great distance from himself as “the other.”
Due to the economic structure of the region, the women of Labourd also had a great deal of freedom as compared to most French women during the time. De Lancre shared the sexist views expressed in the Malleus Maleficarum by Henrich Kramer and was therefore highly suspicious of the women in Labourd and the liberties they enjoyed.
It is likely that the trials in Labourd were particularly harsh because de Lancre was not only motivated by his pre-existing beliefs in demonology and witchcraft, but also by his sexist and nationalistic agendas that were products of the unique social and economic structures of Labourd. After four deadly months, de Lancre’s appointment expired and he was forced to leave when several institutions including the Parlement of Bordeaux began to protest his presence there.
1. 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.
2. Image: http://www.d.umn.edu/cla/faculty/troufs/anth1604/images/map-Basque.jpg