The history of witchcraft is a fascinating topic to research, but it is not always obvious where to locate the best resources. Primary sources are always a good place to begin but how does one find them? One of the most frustrating aspects of researching witchcraft in France is the scarcity of sources that document trials. In this post, I’ll point out a few ways to begin looking for both primary and secondary sources on witchcraft. Chief among these is the use of Library of Congress Subject Headings to search the Library’s catalog. For a quick primer on how that is done, see this useful post by Robert and Barbara.
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 (e.g. search Witchcraft–France–Auvergne.). The High Middle Ages (1300-1500) did not have the degree of centralized control that we associate with modern-day France. Each region of France operated under its own body of customary law, and large landowners maintained law and order on their own estates (Caswell, p. 3). Political volatility was the norm. Under the Capetian and later Valois monarchy, France was still fighting intermittently with England (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, interactions between authorities and those accused of witchcraft were often localized. A good place to start, therefore, is with region-specific Library of Congress Subject Headings, such as the following:
The Witch Hunt, Inquisitors, and Demonology
Large-scale witch hunts and accusations of witchcraft began in Europe in the early 15th century and lasted for approximately 300 years. These were mostly conducted in secular courts. In France, approximately 2,000 witch trials occurred between the years 1550 and 1700. The majority of people targeted were women. While some women admitted to their alleged powers, most women vehemently denied the accusations. Those who were charged were typically women without a male protector, such as spinsters, or widows. Many of the accused, while not convicted, were still subjected to a lifetime of suspicion and fear.
Early handbooks on witch hunting are a source of context for the European witch craze. In 1486, German churchman and inquisitor Heinrich Kramer (often known by his Latinized name Henricus Institoris) published a handbook for interrogating witches. The Witch Hammer (Malleus Maleficarum), both controversial and very popular, contained step-by-step instructions for inquisitors on methods of interrogation, and became a widely consulted late medieval text on witchcraft.
The subject of identifying witches often overlaps heavily with more general material on demonology. Jean Bodin’s Démonomanie des sorciers is an important work in this regard, as is Johann Weyer’s De praestigiis daemonum, which was intended as a defense of witches (and perhaps a critique of the Catholic Church’s approach to the subject). 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 Research Center. Some useful subject headings in this area are:
In addition to theoretical and legal takes on demonology, another subject that was often linked to witchcraft is the idea of demonic possession. Both women and men were embroiled in these dramas, particularly in the region of Normandy in northern France. There are many instances of women claiming to be possessed. Hearsay and hysteria abounded in these environments. The first example on record takes place in the mid-16th century with Martha Brossier. The case of Louis Gaufridi attests to the ambiguous nature of these cases. Gaufridi, a catholic curate in Marsailles, allegedly bewitched the young Madeleine de Demandolx de la Palud, a nun in Aix-en-Provence, leading to her possession by diabolical spirits. In this instance, Gaufridi was burned after gruesome torture led him to confess crimes of witchcraft. 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 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 outbursts from two dozen nuns claiming possession, Cardinal Richelieu ordered a trial for witchcraft that resulted in Grandier’s death at the stake. More information can be found by searching, for example:
Some modern scholarship has suggested that some activities which were criminalized as witchcraft included forms of folk healing or medicine. Village healers were often sought to heal a sick child, or to create love potions. Women employed in healing occupations (such as midwives) 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. Some scholars now deemphasize this line of interpretation and note that women involved in healing were often the source of witchcraft accusations (See generally, Purkiss). However, one can find information on this topic by searching these subject headings:
Pre-Christian ideas of the supernatural co-existed with Christianity, if somewhat uneasily, for centuries before witch hunts became so prevalent. Fairy Lore, 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) can serve as evidence for historical witchcraft beliefs and practices. They can also be found under these subject headings:
The subject of witchcraft was heavily debated by Christian authorities and scholars throughout the middle ages, making various forms of Christian literature – theological treatises, biblical commentaries, and sermons – all useful starting places for research. In 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 sophisticated ways. 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 witchcraft as demonic in origin. Works of this nature can be found under these subject headings:
Heresy/Witchcraft/Deviance and Women
Accusations of witchcraft often had something to do with late medieval French culture’s expectations of the proper role of women in society. The infamous trial of Jeanne d’Arc (1412-1431), known in English as Joan of Arc, illustrates the precarious position of women who defied those expectations. After hearing voices from God that commanded her to save France, the so-called “Maid of Orléans” set off to meet with the dauphin, the eldest son and heir to the crown. Various prelates (who were wary of heresy) interrogated her before she was finally allowed a visit with the future king whom 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. One of the most courageous women in 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 violating divine law by dressing like a man) by the English and their Burgundian allies. The Vatican canonized her as Sainte Jeanne d’Arc in 1920 and many cities celebrate her with festivities every year. Her prosecution and death are an example of how the concept of witchcraft was expanded to play a role in mechanisms of social control.
The Library of Congress provides her with her own subject heading:
Other books on Joan include:
Other Library of Congress resources about witchcraft and witches:
For information on France in general, consult the research guide, France & French Collections at the Library of Congress. Search our digital collections using limits such as Format (e.g. Manuscript/Mixed Material, Photo, Print, Drawing or Book/Printed Material), Custodial Division (e.g. Prints and Photographs, Law, or Rare Book and Special Collections) or Date. For general and all-inclusive results, search “witchcraft France”.
Cultures of Witchcraft in Europe from the Middle Ages to the Present / edited by Jonathan Barry, Owen Davies, Cornelie Usborne. Cham: Springer International Publishing: Imprint: Palgrave Macmillan, 2018.
Johnson, Noel J. and Mark Koyama. “Taxes, Lawyers, and the Decline of Witch Trials in France,” in Journal of Law and Economics, Vol. 57, No. 1 (February 2014), pp. 77-112.
Library of Congress. European Law Division. The coutumes of France in the Library of Congress: an annotated bibliography / by Jean Caswell and Ivan Sipkov, with the editorial assistance of Natalie Gawdiak, European Law Division, Law Library. Washington: Library of Congress: for sale by the Supt. of Docs., U.S. Govt. Print. Off., 1977 i.e. 1978.
Trevor-Roper, H. R. (Hugh Redwald), 1914-2003. The European witch-craze of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, and other essays [by] H. R. Trevor-Roper. New York, Harper & Row [1969, c1967], 118.
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