The Sorceress, by Jules Michelet, , at sacred-texts.com
SPRENGER said, before 1500: "We should speak of the Heresy of the Sorceresses, not of the Sorcerers; the latter are of small account." So another writer under Louis XIII.: "For one Sorcerer, ten thousand Sorceresses."
"Nature makes them Sorceresses,"the genius peculiar to woman and her temperament. She is born a creature of Enchantment. In virtue of regularly recurring periods of exaltation, she is a Sibyl; in virtue of love, a Magician. By the fineness of her intuitions, the cunning of her wilesoften fantastic, often beneficentshe is a Witch, and casts spells, at least and lowest lulls pain to sleep and softens the blow of calamity.
All primitive peoples start alike; this we see again and again in the accounts given by travellers. Man hunts and fights. Woman contrives and dreams; she is the mother of fancy, of the gods. She possesses glimpses of the second sight, and has wings to soar into the infinitude of longing and imagination. The better to count the seasons, she scans the sky. But earth has her heart as well. Her eyes stoop to the amorous flowers; a flower herself in her young beauty, she learns to know them as playfellows and intimates. A woman, she asks them to heal the men she loves.
Pathetic in their simplicity these first beginnings of Religion and Science! Later on, each province will be separated, we shall see mankind specialiseas medicine-man, astrologer or prophet, necromancer, priest, physician. But in these earliest days woman is all in all, and plays every part.
A strong and bright and vigorous religion, such as was Greek Paganism, begins with the Sibyl, to end with the Sorceress. The
first, a virgin fair and beautiful, brilliant in the full blaze of dawn, cradled it, gave it its charm and glamour. In later days, when sick and fallen, in the gloom of the Dark Ages, on heaths and in forests, it was concealed and protected by the Sorceress; her dauntless pity fed its needs and kept it still alive. Thus for religions it is woman is mother, tender protectress and faithful nurse. Gods are like men; they are born and they die on a woman's breast.
But what a price she paid for her fidelity! . . . Magian queens of Persia, enchanting Circé, sublime Sibyl, alas! how are you fallen, how barbarous the transformation you have suffered! . . . She who, from the throne of the Orient, taught mankind the virtues of plants and the motions of the stars, she who, seated on the Delphic tripod and, illumined by the very god of light, gave oracles to a kneeling world, is the same that, a thousand years later, is hunted like a wild beast, chased from street to street, reviled, buffeted, stoned, scorched with red-hot embers! . . .
The clergy has not stakes enough, the people insults, the child stones, for the unhappy being. The poet, no less a child, throws yet another stone at her, a crueller one still for a woman. Gratuitously insulting, he makes her out always old and ugly. The very word Sorceress or Witch calls up the image of the Weird Sisters of Macbeth. Yet the cruel witch trials prove exactly the opposite; many perished just because they were young and pretty.
The Sibyl foretold the future; but the Sorceress makes it. Here is the great, the vital distinction. She evokes, conjures, guides Destiny. She is not like Cassandra of old, who foresaw the coming doom so clearly, and deplored it and awaited its approach; she creates the future. Greater than Circé, greater than Medea, she holds in her hand the magic wand of natural miracle, she has Nature to aid and abet her like a sister. Foreshadowings of the modern Prometheus are to be seen in her,a beginning
of industry, above all of the sovereign industry that heals and revivifies men. Unlike the Sibyl, who seemed ever gazing towards the dayspring, she fixes her eyes on the setting sun; but it is just this sombre orb of the declining luminary that shows long before the dawn (like the glow on the peaks of the High Alps) a dawn anticipatory of the true day.
The Priest realises clearly where the danger lies, that an enemy, a menacing rival, is to be feared in this High-priestess of Nature he pretends to despise. Of the old gods she has invented new ones. Beside the old Satan of the past, a new Satan is seen burgeoning in her, a Satan of the future.
For a thousand years the people had one healer and one only,the Sorceress. Emperors and kings and popes, and the richest barons, had sundry Doctors of Salerno, or Moorish and Jewish physicians; but the main body of every State, the whole world we may say, consulted no one but the Saga, the Wise Woman. If her cure failed, they abused her and called her a Witch. But more generally, through a combination of respect and terror, she was spoken of as the Good Lady, or Beautiful Lady (Bella Donna), the same name as that given to fairies.
Her fate resembled that which still often befalls her favourite herb, the belladonna, and other beneficent poisons she made use of, and which were antidotes of the great scourges of the Middle Ages. Children and ignorant passers-by cursed these sombre flowers, without understanding their virtues, scared by their suspicious colour. They shudder and fly the spot; yet these are the Comforting plants (Solanaceæ), which, wisely administered, have worked so many cures and soothed so much human agony.
They are found growing in the most sinister localities, in lonely, ill-reputed spots, amid ruins and rubbish heaps,yet another resemblance with the Sorceress who utilises them. Where, indeed, could she have taken up her habitation, except on savage heaths, this child of calamity, so fiercely persecuted,
so bitterly cursed and proscribed? She gathered poisons to heal and save; she was the Devil's bride, the mistress of the Incarnate Evil One, yet how much good she effected, if we are to credit the great physician of the Renaissance! Paracelsus, when in 1527, at Bâle, he burned the whole pharmacopia of his day, declared he had learned from the Sorceresses all he knew.
Had they not earned some reward? Yes! and reward they had. Their recompense was torture and the stake. New punishments were devised for their especial benefit, new torments invented. They were brought to trial en masse, condemned on the slightest pretext. Never was such lavish waste of human life. To say nothing of Spain, the classic land of the auto-da-fé, where Moor and Jew are always associated with Witches, seven thousand were burned at Trèves, and I know not how many at Toulouse; at Geneva five hundred in three months (1513); eight hundred at Wurzburg, in one batch almost, and fifteen hundred at Bamberg,both of these quite small bishoprics! Ferdinand II. himself, the bigot, the cruel Emperor of the Thirty Years War, was forced to restrain these worthy bishops, else they would have burned all their subjects. I find, in the Wurzburg list, a wizard of eleven, a schoolboy, and a witch of fifteen, at Bayonne, two sorceresses of seventeen, damnably pretty.
Mark this, at certain epochs the mere word of Sorceress or Witch is an arm wherewith Hate can kill at discretion. Female jealousy, masculine avarice, are only too ready to grasp so convenient a weapon. Such and such a neighbour is rich? . . . Witch! witch! Such and such is pretty? . . . Ah! witch! We shall see Murgin, a little beggar-girl, casting this terrible stone at a great lady, whose only crime was being too beautiful, the Châtelaine de Lancinena, and marking her white forehead with the death sign.
Accused of sorcery, women anticipate, if they can, the torture that is inevitable by killing themselves. Remy, that worthy judge of Lorraine who burned eight hundred of them, boasts of this Reign of Terror: "So sure is my justice," he declared, "that
sixteen witches arrested the other day, never hesitated, but strangled themselves incontinently."
In the long course of study for my history during the thirty years I have devoted to it, this horrible literature of Sorcery, or Witchcraft, has passed through my hands again and again. First I exhausted the Manuals of the Inquisition, the asinine collections of the Dominicansthe Whips, Hammers, Ant-Swarms, Fustigations, Lanterns, etc., to give some of the absurd titles these books bear. Next I read the men of the Law, the lay judges who take the place of these monks, and who despise them without being much less idiotic themselves. I say a word or two of these elsewhere; for the present I have only one observation to make, viz. that from 1300 down to 1600, and even later, the administration of justice is identically the same. With the exception of one small interlude in the Parlement of Paris, we find always and everywhere the same ferocity of folly. Ability and talent make no difference. The wise and witty De Lancre, a magistrate of Bordeaux under Henri IV., a man of enlightened ideas in politics, directly he has to deal with witchcraft, falls back to the level of a Nider or a Sprenger, two imbecile monks of the fifteenth century.
One is filled with amazement to see all these widely different epochs, all these men of varying cultivation, unable to make one step in advance. But the explanation is simple; they were one and all arrested, let us rather say, blinded, hopelessly intoxicated and made cruel savages of, by the poison of their first principle, the doctrine of Original Sin. This is the fundamental dogma of universal injustice: "All lost for one alone, not only punished but deserving punishment, undone even before they were born and desperately wicked, dead to God from the beginning. The babe at its mother's breast is a damned soul already."
Who says so? All do, even Bossuet. A Roman theologian of weight, Spina, Master of the Sacred Palace, formulates the
doctrine in precise words: "Why does God permit the death of the innocent? He does so justly. For if they do not die by reason of the sins they have committed, yet they are guilty of death by reason of original sin" 1
From this monstrous theory two consequences follow, in justice and in logic. The judge is always sure of doing justice; anyone brought before him is inevitably guilty, and if he defends himself, doubly guilty. No call for Justice to sweat, and rack its brains in order to distinguish true and false; in every case the decision is a foregone conclusion. The logician likewise and the schoolman may spare themselves the trouble of analysing the soul of man, of examining the phases through which it passes, of considering its complexity, its internal disparities and self-contradictions. No need, as we feel ourselves bound to do, to explain how, by slow and subtle degrees, the soul may grow vicious instead of virtuous. These refinements, these doubts and difficulties and scruples, if they understood them at all, how they would laugh at them, and shake their heads in scorn, and how gracefully would the fine long ears that ornament their empty pates waggle to and fro!
Particularly when the Compact with the Devil comes into question, that ghastly covenant where, for some small ephemeral gain, the soul sells itself into everlasting torment, we philosophers should endeavour to trace out the accursed path, the appalling ladder of calamities and crimes, capable of having brought it so low. But our theologian can ignore all such considerations! For him Soul and Devil were created for each other; so that at the first temptation, for a caprice, a sudden longing, a passing fancy, the soul flies headlong to this dreadful extremity.
Nor can I see any traces of modern writers having made much inquiry into the moral chronology of Sorcery. They confine themselves far too much to the connections between the Middle
[paragraph continues] Ages and Classical Antiquity. The connection is real enough, but slight and of quite minor importance. Neither the ancient Enchantress, nor yet the Celtic and Germanic Seeress, are yet the true Sorceress. The harmless Sabasia (festivals of Bacchus Sabasius), a miniature rustic "Sabbath" which survived down to Mediæval times, are far from identical with the Black Mass of the fourteenth century, that deliberate and deadly defiance of Jesus. These gloomy conceptions were not passed on down the long thread of tradition; they sprang ready made from the horrors of the time.
From when does the Sorceress date? I answer unhesitatingly, "From the ages of despair."
From the profound despair the World owed to the Church. I say again unhesitatingly, "The Sorceress is the Church's crime."
I pass over the string of plausible explanations by which the priests attempt to mitigate her guilt: "Weak and frivolous by nature, open to every temptation, women were led astray by concupiscence." Alas! in the wretchedness and famine of those dreadful times, this was no force sufficient to rouse to demoniac frenzy. Loving women, jealous and forsaken, children driven out of doors by a cruel stepmother, mothers beaten by their sons (all hackneyed subjects of legendary tales), may indeed have been tempted to invoke the Evil Spirit; but all this does not constitute the Sorceress, the Witch. Because the unhappy creatures call upon Satan, it does not follow that he accepts their service. They are still far, very far, from being ripe for him. They have yet to learn to hate God.
To understand this better, read the accursed Registers still extant of the Inquisition, not in the extracts compiled by Llorente, Lamotte-Langon, etc., but in what is extant of the original Registers of Toulouse. Read them in their vapid sameness, their dismal aridity, their shocking unconscious savagery. A few pages, and you are cold at heart, a cruel chill strikes home
to the vitals. Death, death, always death, you feel it in every page. You are already in the tomb, or immured in a little chamber of stone with damp-stained walls. The happiest gate is death. The dreadful thing is the in pace. One word recurs continually, like a bell of horror tolled, and tolled again, to drive the dead in life into despair,always the same word, Immured.
Dread apparatus for crushing and annihilating souls, cruel press for breaking hearts. The screw turns, and turns, till breath fails and the very bones crack, and she springs from the horrid engine a mystery in an unknown world!
The Sorceress has neither father nor mother, neither son, nor mate, nor kindred. She appears none knows from whence, a monster, an aërolite from the skies. Who so bold, great God! as to come nigh her?
Where is her lurking-place? In untracked wilds, in impenetrable forests of bramble, on blasted heaths, where entangled thistles suffer no foot to pass. She must be sought by night, cowering beneath some old-world dolmen. If you find her, she is isolated still by the common horror of the countryside; she has, as it were, a ring of fire round her haunts.
Tis hard to credit it, but she is a woman still. Even this fearful life has its spring of womanhood, its feminine electricity, in virtue of which she is dowered with two gifts
The half-sane, half-insane madness, illuminism, of the seer, which according to its degree is poetry, second sight, preternatural vision, a faculty of speech at once simple and astute, above all else the power of believing in her own falsehoods. This gift is unknown to the male Sorcerer; the Wizard fails to comprehend its very elements.
From it flows a second, the sublime faculty of solitary conception, that parthenogenesis our physiologists of to-day recognise as existing among the females of numerous species. The same fecundity of body is no less procreative where conceptions of the spirit are involved.
All alone, she conceived and brought forth. Whom or what? Another of her own kind, so like the original as to cheat the eyes.
Child of hate, conceived of love; for without love nothing can be created. The Sorceress, terror-struck as she is at her strange offspring, yet sees herself so faithfully reproduced, finds such content in contemplating this new idol, that instantly she sets it on the altar, worships it, immolates herself to it, giving her own body as victim and living sacrifice.
We shall often and often find her telling the judge: "There is only one thing I am afraid of,not to suffer enough for him." 2
Do you know how the newborn infant salutes the new world he enters? With a horrid scream of laughter. And has he not good cause to be glad, there on the free and open plains, far from the dungeons of Spain, and the immured victims of Toulouse? His in pace is wide as the world itself. He comes and goes, roaming where he will. His the boundless forest! his the vast heath that stretches away to the farthest horizon! his the round world and the riches thereof! The Sorceress calls him tenderly, "Robin, Robin mine! "from the name of that gallant outlaw, the gay Robin Hood, that lived under the greenwood tree. Another pet name she loves to give him is Verdelet, Joli-Bois, Vert-Bois. The green woods, indeed, are the frolicsome scamp's favourite haunts; one glimpse of bush and briar, and he is off, a wild truant of Nature.
The astounding thing is that at the first essay the Sorceress really and truly made a living being. He has every mark of actuality. He has been seen and heard, and everybody can describe him.
The saints, those children of affection, the sons of the house, pay little heed, only watch and dream; they wait in patient waiting, confident of getting their share of the Elect in God's
good time. The small degree of activity they possess is concentrated within the narrow circle of Imitationthe word sums up the Middle Ages. But for him, the bastard all curse, whose share is only the lash, he has no thought of waiting. He is for ever prying and searching, never an instant still, trying all things in heaven and earth. He is to the last degree curious and inquisitive, scrutinising, rummaging, sounding, poking his nose everywhere. At the solemn Consummatum est he grins, and makes a derisive mow. His word is always "Not yet!" and "Forward still!"
All the same, he is not hard to please. Nothing rebuffs him; what Heaven throws in his way, he picks up with alacrity. For instance the Church has rejected Nature as something impure and suspect. Satan seizes on it, and makes it his pride and ornament. Better still, he utilises it, turns it to profit, originates the arts from it, accepting gladly the great name they would fain cast at him as a stigma and a disgrace, that of Prince of this World.
"Alas for them that laugh!"they had declared with startling unwisdom; for what was this but giving Satan a fine initial advantage to start with, the monopoly of laughter, and proclaiming him amusing? Let us say necessary at once; for laughter is an essential function of human nature. How support life at all, if we cannot laugh,at any rate when we are in sorrow?
The Church, which sees in our life below only a test and trial for one to come, takes care not to prolong it needlessly. Her medicine is resignation, a waiting and a hoping for death. Here is a great field opened to Satan; he becomes physician, healer of living men. Nay more! consoler as well; he has the compassion to show us our dead, to evoke the shades of the dear ones we have loved and lost.
Another trifle the Church has cast away and condemnedLogic, the free exercise of Reason. Here again is an appetising dainty the Enemy snaps up greedily.
The Church had built of solid stone and tempered mortar a
narrow in pace, vaulted, low-browed and confined, lighted by the merest glimmer of day through a tiny slit. This they called the schools. A few shavelings were let loose in it, and told "to be free"; they one and all grew halting cripples. Three hundred, four hundred years, only made them more helplessly paralysed. Between Abelard and Occam the progress made isnil!
A pretty tale, to say we must look there for the origin of the Renaissance! The Renaissance came about, no doubt of that; but how? by the satanic effort of men who broke through the vault, the struggles of condemned criminals who would see the light of heaven. It came about in the main far away from schools and scholastics, in that school of wild nature where Satan lectured a truant band of Sorceresses and shepherd lads.
A dangerous curriculum, if ever there was one! But its very risks stimulated the love of knowledge, the frantic longing to see and know. It was there began the black sciences, the forbidden Chemistry of poisons, and the accursed thing, Anatomy. The shepherd, first to scan the stars, along with his discoveries in Astronomy, brought to the common stock his sinister recipes and his experiments on animals. Then the Sorceress would contribute a corpse filched from the nearest graveyard; and for the first timeat the risk of the stakemen could contemplate that miracle of God's handicraft "which" (as M. Serres so well said) "we hide in silly prudishness instead of trying to understand."
The only Doctor admitted to these classes, Paracelsus, noted a third as well, who now and again would glide in to join the sinister conclave, bringing Surgery with him as his contribution. This was the surgeon of those gentle times,the Public Executioner, the man of unflinching hand, whose plaything was the branding-iron, who broke men's bones and could set them again, who could slay and make alive, and hang a felon up to a certain point and no further.
This criminal University of the Sorceress, the Shepherd, and the Hangman, by means of its experimentsa sacrilege every
oneemboldened the other and rival seat of learning and forced its scholars to study. For each was fain to live; and otherwise the Witch would have monopolised all, and the Schoolmen turned their backs for good and all on Medicine. The Church had to submit, and wink at these crimes. She allowed there were good poisons (Grillandus); she permitted dissection in public, though reluctantly and under dire constraint. In 1306 the Italian Mondino opened and dissected a woman, and another in 1315. It was a solemn and beneficent revelation, the veritable discovery of a new world,far more so than Christopher Columbus's. Fools shuddered, and howled in protest; wise men dropped on their knees.
With victories like these to his credit, Satan could not but live. Alone the Church would never have had strength to crush him. Fire and stake were of no avail, but a certain line of policy was more successful.
With no little astuteness the kingdom of Satan was divided against itself. In opposition to his daughter and bride, the Sorceress, was set her son, the Healer.
The Church, deeply and from the bottom of her heart as she hated the latter, none the less established his monopoly, to secure the Sorceress's ruin. She declares, in the fourteenth century, that if a woman dare to cure without having studied, she is a Witch and must die.
But how should she study publicly? Imagine the scene, at once ludicrous and terrible, that would have occurred if the poor savage creature had ventured to enter the schools! What merriment and wild gaiety! In the bale-fires of St. John's day, cats chained together were burned to death. But think of the Sorceress bound to this caterwauling rout of hell, the Witch screaming and roasting in the flames, what a treat for the gentle band of young shavelings and sucking pedants!
We shall see Satan's decadence all in good time,a sorry tale. We shall see him pacified, grown a good old sort. He is
robbed and pillaged, till at last, of the two masks he wore at the Witches Sabbath, the foulest is adopted by Tartuffe.
His spirit is everywhere. But for himself, for his own personality, in losing the Witch, he lost all. The Wizards were bores, and nothing more.
Now that his fall has been so far consummated, do his foes quite realise what they have done? Was he not a necessary actor, an indispensable factor in the great engine of religious faith,something out of gear nowadays? Every organism that works well is double, has two sides; life is hardly possible otherwise. A certain balance between two forces is necessary, forces mutually opposed and symmetrical, but unequal. The inferior acts as counterpoise, corresponding to the other. The superior grows impatient at the check, and is for abolishing it altogether. But the wish is a mistaken one.
When Colbert, in 1672, shelved Satan with so little ceremony, forbidding the Judges of the Realm to hear cases of Witchcraft, the Norman Parlement, in its obstinate conservatism, its sound Norman logicality, demonstrated the dangers attending such a decision. The Devil is nothing less than a dogma closely bound up with all the rest. Touch the vanquished of the agesare you not touching the victor too? Doubt the acts of the oneis not this paving the way to doubt those of the other, those very miracles he did to fight the Devil? The pillars of heaven are based in the abyss. The rash man who shakes this infernal foundation may well crack the walls of paradise.
Colbert paid no heed; he had so many other things to do. But it may be the Devil heard. And his wounded spirit is greatly consoled. In the petty trades where he now gains his livingSpiritualism, Table-turning, and the likehe resigns himself to insignificance, and thinks, at any rate, he is not the only time-hallowed institution that is a-dying.
xiii:1 De Strigibus, ch. 9.