Sacred Texts  Neopaganism  Index  Previous  Next 
Buy this Book at

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

p. 159



WHATEVER the appearance of fanaticism and satanic possession still displayed by the Sorceresses, it is quite plain both from Lancre's account and others of the seventeenth century that by this time the Witches’ Sabbath was become primarily a matter of money-making. The levy contributions which are virtually compulsory, demand payment from those present, and fine the absent. At Brussels and in Picardy they pay in accordance with a fixed tariff anyone bringing in a new member to the confraternity.

In the Basque countries there is no attempt made at concealment. Assemblages are held twelve thousand strong, including persons of every class, rich and poor, priests and nobles. Satan, a nobleman himself, over and above his triple horns, wears a laced hat, like a gentleman. By this time he has found his old throne, the Druid stone, too hard a seat, and has given himself a good gilded armchair. Does this mean he is growing old? Nimbler than in his young days, he plays all sorts of pranks and gambols, springs up like a Jack-in-the-box from the depths of a huge crock, officiates, legs kicking in the air and his head downwards.

He is for having everything done decently and in order, and defrays the expenses of the arrangements and decorations. Besides the usual yellow, red, and blue fires that amuse the eyes and alternately reveal and conceal the flying shadows, he entertains the ear with strange music, "in especial certain little bells that tickle" the nerves, like the penetrating vibrations of some

p. 160

particular harmonies. To crown his magnificence, Satan has silver plate brought for use at the feast. His very toads display an affectation of refinement and elegance, and like little lords, come to the festival tricked out in green velvet.

The general appearance is that of a huge fair, a vast masked ball, when the disguises are of the thinnest. Satan, who knows his world, opens the dance with the Bishop of the "Sabbath," or else the King and Queen,—dignitaries established on purpose to flatter the bigwigs, the rich or noble personages who honour the assembly by their presence.

All is changed from the old grim festival of revolt, the sinister orgy of serfs, of Jacques as they were nicknamed, communicating by night in love, by day in murder. The frenzied Sabbatical Round no longer forms the one and only dance. It is supplemented by Moorish dances, lively or languishing, amorous and obscene, in which girls trained for the purpose, such as the Murgin and the Lisalda mentioned above, simulate and parade the most lust-provoking actions. These dances, it is said, were the irresistible attraction which among the Basques inevitably drew to the Witches’ Sabbath all the world of women, wives, maids, and widows,—the last especially in great numbers.

Apart from these diversions and the feast to follow, it would be difficult to account for the unbounded popularity the "Sabbath" enjoyed. Loveless love was the dominant note; the festival was expressly and avowedly a celebration of female sterility. This Boguet establishes beyond a doubt.

True, Lancre tells a different tale in one place, in order to scare women away and make them afraid of being got with child. But as a rule he is more sincere, and agrees with Boguet. The cruel, indecent examination he undertook of the Witches’ persons is good and sufficient proof of his belief in their sterility, and that sterile passive love is the foundation-stone of the "Sabbatical" observances.

This could not but have cast a gloom over the festival, if the men had had hearts. It was the mad women who flocked there

p. 161

to dance and feast that paid for all; but they were resigned to their fate, their sole aspiration being not to leave the place pregnant. True enough they bore the burden of wretchedness and poverty far more than men did; and Sprenger tells us the dismal cry that as early as his day would escape them in the very act of love, "May the Devil have the fruit of our embrace!" Yet in his time (1500) living cost but a penny a day, while at the later period here referred to (1600), under Henri IV., it was difficult to keep body and soul together at ten times that expense. Throughout the whole century, the desire, the craving for sterility is for ever on the increase.

This mournful reserve, this fear of mutual love, must have rendered the "Sabbath" a cold, wearisome function, had not the expert mistresses of the ceremonies, who managed the entertainment, exaggerated the burlesque element, and diverted the spectators with many a ludicrous interlude. Accordingly the opening ceremony of the "Sabbath," the world-old scene, coarse and realistic, of the pretended fecundation of the Chief Sorceress by Satan (in former days by Priapus), was followed by another travesty, a lavabo1 a cold purification (to chill and sterilise), which she received not without grimaces expressive of shuddering and mortal chill, the whole forming a broad farce in which the Sorceress usually substituted an attractive-looking understudy for herself, the Queen of the "Sabbath," some young and pretty married woman.

Another distraction, no less abominable, centred round the black wafer, the black radish, the subject of a thousand coarse witticisms in ancient Greek days, when it was used as an instrument of punishment upon the man-woman or puthic and the

p. 162

young debauchee who went with other men's wives. Satan sliced it into little discs which he then solemnly swallowed.

The grand finale was, according to Lancre,—which means, no doubt, according to the two hussies who made him believe whatever they pleased,—a very astonishing thing to happen before so numerous an assemblage. Incest would seem to have been publicly, indiscriminately, and ostentatiously indulged in, by way of reproducing the old satanic conditions needed to originate the Sorceress—that is to say, the mother's impregnation by her own son. But this horror was not only unnecessary by this time, when Sorcery had become hereditary in certain fixed and legally descended families, but impossible in fact, a thing altogether too shocking to be endured. Possibly merely a travesty of it was acted, a grotesque kind of miracle-play between a comic Semiramis and a dotard Ninus.

There was another and probably a more serious feature, a comedy of real and actual life, and one that points strongly to the presence of persons of high rank and corrupt morals,—his was an odious sort of practical joke, a cruel and coarse mystification.

They would entice to the festival some ill-advised married man, whom they proceeded to intoxicate with their deadly brews (datura, belladonna, and the like), till he was spellbound and lost all power of motion and speech, but not the use of his eyes. His wife, also spellbound, but in a different way, with erotic beverages and reduced to a deplorable state of self-abandonment, would then be shown him naked and unashamed, patiently enduring the caresses of another before the indignant eyes of her natural protector, who could not stir a finger to help her.

His manifest despair, his unavailing efforts to speak, his violent struggles to move his torpid limbs, his dumb rage, his rolling eyes, all provided the spectators with a cruel pleasure, not dissimilar, be it said in passing, to that afforded by certain comedies of Molière's. In the present instance the play was all palpitating with actuality, and was easily pushed to the last

p. 163

extremities of sin and shame. Doubtless the shame was followed by no after effects, as was the invariable rule at these Witches’ Sabbaths, and next day's recollections were but dim in the brains of the now sobered victims; but the spectators, the actors, were they likely to forget?

These criminal doings show plainly the aristocracy is now at work, bearing no resemblance whatever to the old fraternity of serfs, the primitive "Sabbath,"—impious and impure no doubt, but free, open, and aboveboard, where everything was voluntary and done by universal consent.

Satan, always corrupt, is evidently going from bad to worse. The Evil One is growing a polite, adroit, soft-handed gentleman,—and the change only leaves him a more false-hearted and filthy-minded villain than before. What a new and strange departure is this for a Witches’ Sabbath, to find him hand and glove with the priests! What of the curé who brings his bénédicte, his sacristaness, to the feast, who burlesques the holy offices, says the White Mass in the morning and the Black Mass at night! Satan, Lancre says, recommends him to debauch his penitents, his spiritual daughters. Simple-minded magistrate, who actually seems unaware that for a good century now Satan has well understood and made good profit of the advantages offered by the Church. The Devil has turned Confessor, Director of Consciences; or if you like it better, the Confessor has turned Devil.

Just recall, my worthy Lancre, the series of trials beginning in 1491, which it may well be did something towards teaching the Parlement of Paris toleration. This body discontinues almost entirely the practice of sending the Devil to the stake, realising that he is no more now than a mask, a cloak, to cover priestly offenders.

Not a few nuns fall victims to his new ruse of borrowing the face and figure of a beloved confessor. We may instance the case of Jeanne Pothierre, a nun of Le Quesnoy, a woman of middle age, forty-five years old, but, alas! only too susceptible.

p. 164

[paragraph continues] She declares her passion for her father confessor, who takes good care not to listen to her, and runs away to Falempin, a place at some leagues’ distance. The Devil, who never sleeps, at once recognises his advantage, and seeing her (in the chronicler's words) "pricked by the thorns of Venus, he cunningly adopts the form of said father, and returning night after night to the convent, enjoys her favours, deceiving her so thoroughly that she declares herself to have been had by him—she had kept count—four hundred and thirty-four times. 2 . . ." Her subsequent repentance met with no little compassion, and she was speedily relieved from the agonies of shame, a good walled dungeon being at once provided for her in the near neighbourhood, at the Castle of Selles, where she expired in a few days, dying a peaceful, edifying death as a good Catholic should.

What could be more touching? . . . But after all the incident was a trifling thing compared with the notable Gauffridi affair, which occurred at Marseilles while Lancre was still busy at Bayonne.

The Parlement of Provence had no occasion to envy the successes of their confrères at Bordeaux. The lay jurisdiction once more seized the opportunity of a trial for Sorcery to institute a systematic reform of ecclesiastical morals, and undertook a searching scrutiny into the cloistered life and mysterious secrets of the nunneries. The opportunity was a rare and exceptional one, involving as it did, and was bound to do, a remarkable concurrence of circumstances, a series of savage jealousies and acts of reprisal between priest and priest. But for this indiscreet and passionate violence, a passion and violence we shall see breaking out again and again on subsequent occasions, we should possess no information whatever as to the real destiny of the vast population who live and die within these gloomy walls, and never hear one word of what takes place behind

p. 165

convent bars and within the portals the father confessor is alone privileged to enter.

The Basque priest Lancre depicts, so volatile and worldly, tripping sword on thigh to dance at the nocturnal "Sabbath," his sacristaness by his side, was not an object of great concern or apprehension to the authorities. He was not of the sort the Spanish Inquisitors took such pains to screen, and for whose peccadilloes that stern conclave showed itself so indulgent. It is clear enough from what Lancre hints, in spite of all his reticence, there is something else behind. The States General of 1614, too, when they lay it down that priests ought not to try priests, are likewise thinking of something else. Here lies the mystery, the veil of secrecy that is rudely torn asunder by the Parlement of Provence. The father confessor of nuns, their tyrant and the irresponsible disposer of soul and body alike, fascinating them by all sorts of sinister acts—such is the figure revealed at the trial of Gauffridi, and at a later date in the dreadful affairs of Loudun and Louviers and others which Llorentz and Ricci and the rest have made us acquainted with.

The tactics adopted were invariably the same—to extenuate the scandal and mislead the public by concentrating its attention on the accidental form and diverting it from the essential substance. When a priest was tried for Sorcery, every pain was taken to lay stress on his doings as a Wizard, and juggle into the background his priestly character, in such a way as to put all the mischief down to the magic arts employed, and ignore the natural fascination exercised by a man occupying a position of absolute domination over a herd of women abandoned to his good pleasure.

The first of these sad affairs, that of Gauffridi, it was impossible to hush up. The thing had broken out in mid-Provence, in that land of light where the sunshine penetrates every crevice. The principal scene of the events that followed was not only Aix and Marseilles, but the well-known locality of La Sainte-Baume

p. 166

[paragraph continues] (The Holy Balm), a much-frequented place of pilgrimage, to which a crowd of curious devotees now resorted from every part of France to look on at the duel to the death to be fought out between two nuns afflicted with diabolical possession and between their respective demons. The Dominicans, who interfered in the matter as Inquisitors, deeply compromised themselves on this occasion through the keen attention they drew to the event by the marked partiality displayed by them in favour of one of the two combatants. For all the pains the Parlement subsequently displayed in order to arrive at an early settlement of the affair, the monks found themselves bound in honour to explain and excuse the attitude they had adopted. Hence the important book of the monk Michaëlis, a strange medley of truth and myth, in which he exalts Gauffridi, the priest he sent to the stake, as the Prince of Magicians, not only of all France, but of Spain, Germany, England, Turkey, as well; in fact, of the whole habitable world.

Gauffridi appears to have been a man of agreeable manners and many accomplishments. A native of the mountains of Provence, he had travelled widely in the Low Countries and in the East. He enjoyed the best of reputations at Marseilles, where he served as priest at the Church Des Acoules. His Bishop thought highly of him, and the most pious ladies selected him as their Confessor. He possessed, we are told, a singular aptitude for winning the love of all such.

Nevertheless, he would probably have preserved his good repute intact had not a certain noble Provençal lady, a woman blinded by passion, and whom he had already ruined, pushed her infatuation to such lengths as to confide to his care (with a view, perhaps, to her religious education) a charming child of twelve, named Madeleine de la Palud, a pretty blonde of a gentle and affectionate disposition. Gauffridi lost his head, and failed to respect either her tender age or the sweet innocence and utter confidence of his pupil.

But presently she grew into a woman, and realised her calamity;

p. 167

how, noble as she was, she was bound to an inferior by an unworthy tie and could now never hope for marriage. In order to keep her, Gauffridi said he could wed her before the Devil, if he could not before God. He flattered her pride by telling her he was the Prince of the Magicians, and that she should be the Queen. He placed on her finger a silver ring, engraved with cabalistic signs. Did he take her with him to the Witches’ Sabbath, or did he merely make her think she had been there, clouding her mind with magic potions and magnetic spells? This much at least is certain, that the poor child, torn between credulity and doubt, tormented by anxiety and terror, became from this time liable to fits of insanity and subject on occasion to epileptic seizures. Her overmastering dread was of being carried off alive by the Devil. She dared not stay longer in her father's house, and took refuge at the Convent of the Ursuline Sisters of Marseilles.


161:1 The instrument employed is thus described by Boguet (p. 69): it is cold, hard, very slender, a little longer than a finger,—evidently a canula. In Lancre (pp. 224, 225, 226) it is much improved, less liable to inflict injury; it is an ell long and bent, part is of metal, the other part flexible, and so on. Satan, on the Basque borders, midway between two great monarchies, is well posted in the progress of this art, already very fashionable among the fine ladies of the sixteenth century.

164:2 Massée, Chronique du Monde (1540), and the Chronicles of Hainault, Vinchant, etc.

Next: 18. Gauffridi (1610)