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~ The Old Sachem ~ The Witches of France

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By Bill Stewart


You probably know about the witches of Salem in the late 1600s and the trials that went with it. You might even know that the idea of witches came across with the Pilgrims from England. But you probably never heard of the witches of France.

In the Middle Ages there was little central control, so there is little national information of witches, but local areas started their own persecutions. The early 15th century saw accusations of citizens as witches in France and there were more accused of witchcraft than the other European nations. The Spanish kingdom and the Italian states saw fewer accused because the Holy Roman Empire had other interests. There was a decrease in accusations in the 15th century. The 16th and 17th centuries had a resurgence of accusation of witches, with the revival of old laws and new ways to criminalize witchcraft.

People relied on the church to provide answers to mysteries of the world. Occurrences of life – such as paralysis, sudden seizure, birth of a baby born ill or disfigured – required people to search for answers, and witchcraft was a very easy choice to blame. The church believed in the Devil and witches were considered as primary disciples. The church took up the cause as their duty to rid the earth of the Devil’s protégés.

About 2,000 witchcraft trials were taken during this period (1550 to 1700). Few women admitted to these alleged powers, and most vehemently denied the accusations. The church considered prosecution of witches as a necessary procedure and often used torture to obtain confessions. The church looked mostly at older women who were not protected by a husband, and prosecution included death using fire or hanging as the reasonable option. Midwives were a closely watched group and when they were assisting at a childbirth if the child or mother died, people often blamed the midwife.

Heinreich Kramer, a German churchman, often referred to as the Witch Hammer, published a handbook for conducting torture. He listed a step-by-step process for inquisition of witches. Johaan Weyer and Jean Bodin published works that discussed witchcraft to the literary.

Demonic possession was linked to the theories of witchcraft. Both women and men were linked to this process, particularly in the northern area of Normandy. Witchcraft was believed fueled by malevolent and mysterious forces. In one of the earliest cases, Louis Gaufridi, a priest, was accused of leading a nun, Madeleine de Demandolx de la Palud, to witchcraft. Gaufridi was eventually burned at the stake after gruesome torture. Madeleine much later was twice accused of being a witch and spent the rest of her life in prison.

Another recorded case includes a nun, Jeanne des Anges, who was accused of feelings for a parish priest, Father Urbain Grandier. Jeanne’s group of nuns complained about her possession, and Cardinal Richelieu ordered a trial of Jeanne, which resulted in her death at the stake. Men were almost never accused of witchcraft.

During these times various pamphlets were printed that showed images of black-robed witches with pointy hats, which became the picture of a witch. Among the famous women accused of witchcraft was Joan of Arc.

Although we have pretty much given up the accusation of witchcraft, women are often still rated as inferior to men, and men were very infrequently accused of witchery.


(Editor’s Note: Bill Stewart, who is better known to Saugus Advocate readers as “The Old Sachem,” writes a weekly column about sports – and sometimes he opines on current or historical events or famous people.)

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