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The Sorceress, by Jules Michelet, [1939], at

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WITCHES’ Sabbaths. We must use the plural, for it is obvious the word has denoted very different things at different epochs. Unfortunately, we possess detailed accounts of such scenes only of quite late date,—reign of Henri IV. 1 By that time it had degenerated into little more than a huge carnival of lust, under pretence of magic rites. But even in these descriptions of an institution so far gone in decay are to be found certain marks of extreme antiquity that bear witness to the successive periods and divers forms through which it had already passed.

We may start with one fact that admits of no doubt, that for many centuries the serf lived the furtive life of the wolf and the fox, that he was a nocturnal animal, meaning by this, exhibiting the least activity possible by day, being really alive only at night.

Still, up to the year 1000, when the people is still busy canonising its saints and framing its legends, the life of daylight continues to be of interest to him. His nocturnal Sabbaths are merely

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an unimportant relic of Paganism. He honours and fears the moon, exerting as she does an influence over the productions of the soil. Old women are her devotees, and burn little candles in honour of Dianom (Diana-Luna-Hecaté). Goat-footed Pan still chases women and children, under a mask, it is true, the black face of the ghostly Hallequin (Harlequin). The festival of the Pervigilium Veneris is scrupulously observed on May 1st. On St. John's day the he-goat of Priapus-Bacchus-Sabasius is slaughtered in celebration of the Sabasia. All this without a thought of mockery. It is the serf's harmless carnival.

But, as we approach the year 1000, the Church is all but closed against him by difference of language. In 1100 her officers become unintelligible to him. Of the mysteries performed at the church doors, what he remembers best is the comic side, the ox and the ass, etc. He makes carols out of this material, but with an ever-increasing spice of mockery in them—true "Sabbatic" literature.


We may well believe the great and terrible revolts of the twelfth century were not without influence on these mysteries and this nocturnal life of Werewolf and Moonrakes, of the Wild Game of the Woods, as the cruel barons style it. These revolts may likely enough have often begun in such moonlight festivals. The Holy Sacraments of insurrection among serfs—drinking each other's blood, or eating earth by way of host 2—were doubtless often celebrated at the Witches’ Sabbath. The Marseillaise of the period, sung more by night than by day, is perhaps a "Sabbatic chant:—

Nous sommes hommes comme ils sont
Tout aussi grand cœur nous avons!
Tout autant souffrir nous pouvons! 3

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But the ponderous coffin lid falls back again in 1200. The Pope sits atop, and the King, both exerting enormous pressure, and poor mankind is immured within without hope of escape. Does the old nocturnal life survive? Undoubtedly, and more vigorous than ever. The old Pagan dances are revived, more fast and furious than ever. The Negroes of the Antilles, after an intolerable day of heat and exhausting labour, forgot all their sorrows in moonlight dances. The serf did likewise; but with his revelry were inevitably mingled fierce anticipations of the delights of vengeance, sarcastic buffooneries, mockeries, and caricatures of the lord and the priest. A whole literature of the dark side of nature, that knew never a word of that of its brighter aspects, and little even of the fabliaux of the intermediate bourgeois classes.


Such was the essence of the "Sabbath" before 1300. For it to assume, as it did later, the astounding character of an open war against the god of those times, much more was needed, two things in fact, that the lowest depths of despair should be sounded, and that all sense of revenge should disappear.

This consummation is only reached in the fourteenth century, during the Great Schism when the Papacy had migrated to Avignon, and the two-headed Church seemed no longer a Church at all, when all the nobility of France and the King himself are crestfallen prisoners in England, squeezing the uttermost farthing out of their vassals to provide their ransom. Then it is the Sabbaths adopt the imposing and grimly terrible ceremonial of the Black Mass, the Holy Sacrament turned inside out, so to speak, when Jesus Christ is defied, called up to strike his impious worshippers dead—if he can. This devilish piece of play-acting would have been impossible in the thirteenth century, when it would have raised a shudder of pious horror. Later again, in the fifteenth, when every sentiment was outworn, even that of suffering, an outburst of the sort could never have taken place; men's spirits were unequal to so monstrous a creation. It belongs essentially to the century of Dante.

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It was, I hold, the invention of a moment,—the frenzied outbreak of a maddened brain, lifting impiety to the level of popular indignation. To realise what this indignation was, we must remember how the people, brought up by the clergy themselves in the firm belief of the credibility and possibility of miracles, so far from supposing God's laws immutable, had for centuries expected and hoped for a miracle,—that never came. In vain men called for this miraculous intervention in the day of their despair and utmost need. From that hour forth Heaven seemed but the ally of their savage tyrants and oppressors, itself a tyrant as blood-thirsty as any.

Hence the Black Mass and the Jacquerie.

The original framework of the Black Mass was elastic and could find room for a thousand variations of detail; nevertheless it was strongly put together, and in my opinion all of a piece.

I was enabled to retrace the course of this grim drama in 1857 in the Histoire de France, where I recomposed its four successive Acts,—an easy enough task. Only, at that date, I was too lavish in leaving it a superfluity of those grotesque ornaments and after-growths the primitive Witches’ Sabbath borrowed from modern times, and failed sufficiently to indicate how much belongs to the old framework, so gloomy and so terrible in its grim simplicity.


The date of this general framework is fixed beyond a doubt by sundry abominable characteristics of an accursed age,—as also by the dominant place woman holds in it, a marked peculiarity of the fourteenth century.

It is the special note of this century that woman, very far from being enfranchised as she is, yet reigns as its queen, and this in a hundred rude forms. She inherits fiefs in those days, brings a dowry of kingdoms to the Sovereign. She sits enthroned in this world, and still more in the skies. Mary has supplanted Jesus. St. Francis and St. Dominic beheld the three worlds lying in her gracious bosom. In the immensity of her grace she drowns the

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guilt of sin; what do I say, she abets sin. Read the legend of the nun whose place in choir the Virgin keeps for her, while she goes to see her lover.

In the sublimest heights, in the lowest depths, it is woman, always woman. Beatrice is in heaven, ringed about by the stars, while Jean de Meung, in the Roman de la Rose, is preaching the indiscriminate enjoyment of women. Pure, degraded, woman is everywhere. We may say of her what Raymond Lulle says of God: "What part is He of the Universe? The whole."

But in the skies, in the realm of poetry, the woman that is exalted is not the fertile mother, the parent glorified with children. It is the virgin,—Beatrice, sterile, and dying young.

A fair English damsel, they say, visited France about 1300, to preach the redemption of women, who deemed herself the Messiah of that creed.


The Black Mass, in its primary aspect, would seem to be this redemption of Eve from the curse Christianity had laid upon her. At the Witches’ Sabbath woman fulfils every office. She is priest, and altar, and consecrated host, whereof all the people communicate. In the last resort, is she not the very God of the Sacrifice as well?


There are many popular elements in it all, and yet it does not come solely and entirely from the people. Your peasant respects force and force alone; he holds women in light esteem. This is seen only too plainly in all the old French "Coutumes" (see Michelet's Origines). He would never have given woman the dominant place she here occupies, had she not taken it of her own initiative.

I should be quite ready to believe the Sabbath, in its contemporary shape, was the creation of woman's efforts, of a woman driven to desperation, such as was the Sorceress of those days. In the fourteenth century she sees opening before her a long and terrible career of punishment and torments—three hundred,

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four hundred years lighted up with blazing faggots! Subsequently to the year 1300 her medicines are adjudged to be mischievous, her remedies condemned as poisons. The harmless spells where-by the lepers of that time thought to alleviate their lot lead to the massacre of these unhappy beings. Pope John XXII. has a bishop flayed alive on suspicion of sorcery. Under such a system of blind and indiscriminate repression, to venture little, to venture much and far, is all one, and the risk the same. The very danger incurred increased the Sorceresses’ recklessness, and led them to do and dare everything.


Fraternity of man with man, defiance of the Christians’ heaven, worship of Nature's God under unnatural and perverted forms,—such the inner significance of the Black Mass.

The altar was raised to the Spirit of the revolted serf, "to Him who has suffered wrong, the Proscribed of ancient days, unjustly driven out of Heaven, the Great Creator of the earth, the Master that makes the plants germinate from the soil." Under such titles as these the Luciferians, his adorers, did him honour, and, if we are to credit a not improbable conjecture, the Knights of the Temple likewise.

The great marvel of all, in those times of utter poverty, is that means were forthcoming for the nocturnal feast of fraternity which could never have been provided by day. The Sorceress, at her own sore peril, induced those in better circumstances to contribute, and collected the offerings they made. Charity, as a satanic virtue, being at once crime and conspiracy, and assuming the aspect of revolt, exercised a mighty influence. Men stinted their meals by day to contribute to the nocturnal feast where rich and poor met at a common table.


Imagine the scene,—a wide heath, often in the neighbourhood of an old Celtic dolmen, at the edge of a wood. The picture is twofold,—on one side the heath brightly lighted up, and the crowds of people feasting; on the other, towards the wood, the

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choir of this church whose vault is the open heaven. The choir I speak of is a knoll rising somewhat above the surrounding country. Midway between the two, resinous fires burn with yellow tongues of flame and ruddy embers, making a vague, fantastic veil of smoke.

In the background the Sorceress set up her Satan, a great wooden Satan, black and shaggy. In virtue of his horns and the he-goat that stood by his side, he might have passed for Bacchus; but his virile attributes unmistakably proclaimed him Pan and Priapus. A darkling countenance, that each saw under a different aspect. While some beheld only an incarnate terror, others were moved by the haughty melancholy that seemed to enfold the Exile of Eternity. 4


Act the First. The superb Introit Christianity borrowed of antiquity,—usual at all ceremonies where the people wound in and out in long-drawn file under the temple colonnades, before entering the sanctuary,—this the ancient god, come back to his own again, appropriated for his services. Similarly, the lavabo was copied from the old Pagan rites of purification. All this Satan claimed as his own by right of ancient use.

His Priestess is always The Aged, this being a title of honour, but she may as an actual fact be quite young. Lancre speaks of a Sorceress of only seventeen, a pretty woman and atrociously cruel.

The Devil's Bride must not be a mere child; she should be full thirty years of age, with the face of a Medea and the beauty of Our Lady of Sorrows; her eye deep-set, tragic, and restless, her hair a dark untamable torrent, falling round her shoulders wildly like writhing snakes. Perhaps to crown all, the vervain crown above her brow, the funereal ivy, and the violets of death.

She bids the children stand aloof,—till the feast. The office begins.

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"I will enter in, to this altar. . . . But, Lord, preserve me from the Traitorous and the Overbearing" (the Priest and the Seigneur) .

Then comes the denial of Jesus, homage to the new Master and the feudal kiss, as at the receptions of neophytes by the Templars, where all and everything is yielded without reserve, shame, dignity, or choice,—with this outrageous aggravation of insult added to the repudiation of their God "that they love Satan's backside better."

It is his turn now to consecrate his priestess. The wooden god welcomes her as of old Pan and Priapus did their female adorers. Agreeably to the Pagan ceremonial, she gives herself to him, sits a moment on him, like the Pythia on the tripod of the Delphic Apollo. She thus absorbs breath, soul, life from him by way of this mimic impregnation. This done, with equal solemnity she purifies her person. Henceforth she is the living altar of the shrine.


The Introit is ended, and the office interrupted for the banquet. In contrast with the nobles’ merrymakings, where they sit sword by side, here at the feast of brothers not a weapon is to be seen, not so much as a knife.

To safeguard the peace, each has a woman with him. Without a woman no guest is admitted. Relation or no, wife or no, old, young, makes no matter; but a woman each must have.

What liquors went round the board? Mead? beer? wine? heady cider, or perry? Who can say? The last two, at any rate, first came into use in the twelfth century.

Beverages to delude the mind, with their dangerous admixture of belladonna, did these appear at the board as yet? The answer is undoubtedly No! Children were present. Besides, excessive disorder of the faculties would have hindered the dance that was to follow.

This dance, this whirling frenzy, the notorious "Witches’ Round," was amply sufficient by itself to complete the first stage

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of intoxication. The performers danced back to back, arms behind the back, without seeing their partner, though back often came in contact with back. Little by little each man lost all knowledge both of self and of her he had beside him. Old age and ugliness were abolished by a veritable satanic miracle; she was still a woman, still lovable and confusedly loved.


Act the Second. At the moment when the crowd, united in one and the same giddy madness, felt itself drawn into a single personality as well by the subtle influence of the feminine element as by a vague, undefinable emotion of fraternity, the service was resumed at the Gloria. Altar and host came on the scene. Under what form? That of woman incarnate. By her prostrate body and humiliated person, by the vast silken net of her hair, draggled in the dust, she (that proud Proserpine) offered up herself a sacrifice. On her loins a demon performed Mass, pronounced the Credo, deposited the offertory of the faithful. 5

In later times all this was an exhibition of indecency. But in the fourteenth century, that period of calamity, the dread epoch of the Black Death, and famine after famine, the days of the Jacquerie, and the robberies and cruelties of the Great Companies,—for a people exposed to so many perils, the effect was nothing if not serious. The whole assemblage had the worst to fear in case of surprise. The Sorceress herself ran the extremest risk, and in this act of defiant daring was in a very true sense giving away her life. Nay! worse, she was facing a perfect hell of possible torments,—tortures one dares scarcely so much as speak of. Torn with pincers and broken on the wheel, the breasts amputated, the skin flayed off little by little (as was done to the

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[paragraph continues] Sorcerer Bishop of Cahors), roasted before a slow fire and limb by limb, she might have to endure an eternity of agony.

All present must indeed have been deeply stirred, when over the body of the devoted being thus submitting to voluntary self-humiliation, prayer and offering were made for the harvest. Wheat was presented to the Spirit of the Earth, who makes the crops grow. Birds let loose—no doubt from the woman's bosom—bore the God of Liberty the signs and supplications of the unhappy serfs. What was the boon they craved? That we, we their far-away descendants, might win enfranchisement. 6

What was distributed by way of host at this strange eucharist? Not the burlesque and abominable stuff we shall find so used in Henri IV.'s day; but most probably the same confarreatio we have met with in philters, the sacrament of love, a cake baked on her body, on the victim who to-morrow might as likely as not pass through the fire herself. It was her life, her death, they ate. The morsel was impregnated already with the savour of her burning flesh.


Last of all, they laid on her two offerings apparently of human flesh, representations of the last dead and the last born respectively of the community. They shared the merit of the woman who was at once altar and sacrifice, and the assemblage (symbolically) communicated in both these novel elements. Triple the sacrifice, and human in all three; in Satan's dim and gloomy rites the people was the sole object of adoration to the people.

Here was the true sacrifice, and it was accomplished at last. Woman, having given her very flesh to the crowd to eat, had ended her task. She rose to her feet again, but did not leave the spot till she had firmly established and as it were ratified the authenticity of it all by appeal to the lightning, a defiance cast in the face of the God whose empire she had usurped.

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In ribald mockery of the words: Agnus Dei, etc., and the breaking of the wafer in the Christian Eucharist, she had a skinned toad brought to her which she then tore in pieces. With eyes rolling horribly and looks upturned to heaven, she decapitated the toad, repeating these strange words: "Ah! Philip7 if only I had you between my hands, I would treat you the same!"


Jesus making no reply to her defiance, no lightning stroke ensuing, He was deemed vanquished. The nimble troop of demons would seize this moment for astonishing the crowd with small miracles that impressed and terrified the credulous. Toads—perfectly harmless creatures, but which were believed to be deadly poisonous—were bitten and freely mangled between their teeth. Unharmed they would leap over blazing fires and red-hot embers, to amuse the populace and set them laughing at the fires of hell.

Laughing? was the people moved to laughter, the ceremonial so tragic, so bold, and reckless as it was? Impossible to say; but there can be no doubt whatever hers was no laughing mood who first did and dared it all. The bonfires could not fail but call up the image of those that might ere long blaze round the stake of her own doom. Hers, too, the weighty responsibility of safeguarding the succession of satanic sovereigns, of training up the Sorceresses of the future.


98:1 The least unsatisfactory is that given by Lancre. He is a man of wit and perspicacity, and being manifestly in relations with certain young witches, was in a position to know the whole truth. Unfortunately, his Sabbath is confused and overloaded with the grotesque ornaments of the age. The descriptions of the Jesuit Del Rio and of the Dominican Michaëlis are ridiculous, impossible portraits of a pair of silly, credulous pedants. In that of Del Rio are found an incredible number of platitudes and absurdities. Still, taking the thing as a whole, it contains some interesting and valuable traces of antiquity, which I have been able to turn to account.

99:2 At the battle of Courtrai. See also Grimm, and Michelet's Origines.


"We are men as much as they!
 We have a heart as big as they!
 We can suffer no less than they!"

104:4 This comes from Del Rio, but is not, I should suppose, exclusively Spanish. It is an antique trait and characteristic of primitive inspiration. Farcicalities come later.

106:5 This highly important point, that woman was herself the altar, and that the office was performed on her, we know from the trial of La Voisin, published by M. Ravaisson, senior, among the other Bastille Papers. In these imitations, of recent date, it is true, of the Witches’ Sabbath, carried out for the amusement of the great nobles of the Court of Louis XIV., there is no doubt that the antique and classical forms of the primitive Sabbath were reproduced, even in respect of a point such as this, where the ancient ceremonial may very likely have been discontinued during the intermediate period.

107:6 This charming offering of wheat and birds is peculiar to France (Jaquier, Flagellans, 57; Soldan, 225). In Lorraine, and no doubt in Germany also, black animals were offered up,—black cats, black goats, black bulls.

108:7 Lancre, 136. Why the name Philip, I have no idea. It is as impossible to give a reason as to say why Satan, when he names Jesus, calls him little John, or Janicot. Can it be she says Philip here, from the odious name of the King who gave France a hundred years of English wars, who inaugurated at Crécy the series of national defeats and cost the country the first invasion of her soil? The long, almost uninterrupted, period of peace that had gone before made war all the more horrible to the masses. Philippe de Valois, author of this interminable war, was held accursed, and perhaps left behind him in this popular ritual a never-forgotten word of malediction.

Next: 12. Black Mass Continued—Love and Death—Satan Disappears