In 1917, the author Lewis Spence claimed that sorcery “in the civilised portions of Brittany is but a thing of yesterday, while in the more secluded departments it is very much a thing of to-day. The old folk can recall the time when the farm, the dairy, and the field were ever in peril of the spell, the enchantment, the noxious beam of the evil eye”.
In the 17th century, the division between natural and supernatural differed markedly from our modern-day notions. The concept of the natural world was not restricted to things corporeal and observable but included the incorporeal and unobservable. It was not considered irrational to believe in the existence of spirits causing natural effects and it was widely accepted that demons and witches existed in nature, acting according to its laws. Witchcraft helped some to explain the world around them; whether that was a hailstorm in summer or a pail of fresh milk turning sour overnight. Thus the activities of witches were regarded as natural phenomena by most people. A notable unbeliever being the noted 17th century English philosopher Thomas Hobbes who held that belief in witchcraft originated in ignorance of natural causes and was promulgated and encouraged by self-serving priests.
While the word witch is now almost exclusively applied to women, it was not always so. Derived from the Old English word wicce which related to magic and sorcery, the word evolved into wicche in the Middle English period and did not differentiate between masculine and feminine subjects. By the 16th and 17th centuries, the current spelling was in use and described a woman who attempted to control and manipulate natural or supernatural forces in order to effect changes.
In the late Renaissance period, the accepted characteristics of a witch varied but a little across Europe; they were held to engage in illicit or dangerous practices usually in secret, carried the power to use evil forces and possessed an innate capacity for harm. In Brittany, they were also held to have the ability to talk the languages of the beasts. However, some distinctions were made between witches along the lines of what we would nowadays call ‘white witches’ and ‘black witches’. The ends of the spectrum being, on the one hand, the cunning folk or folk healers who treated ailments, cured illnesses, enhanced fertility, divined springs or misplaced items and marshalled fair weather. On the other hand were the witches who practised sorcery invoking, usually, malevolent spirits in pursuit of selfish aims or to cause harm to others. In French, the word sorcier encompassed the full spectrum of witchcraft.
At this time, accusations of witchcraft generally included accusations of Satanism; the witch being accused of having rejected God and entered into an alliance with the Devil. Unfortunately, examples of such trails were not rare throughout 17th century Europe; one of the most notable cases taking place just over the Breton border in Loudun. Where, in 1632, a group of nuns from the local Ursuline convent claimed to suffer strange visions and hallucinations causing them to behave erratically with displays of fits and convulsions. Under investigation by Church authorities, the nuns accused a parish priest, Urbain Grandier, of sexual assault and of having bewitched them, sending Asmodeus (the demon of lust) and other demons to commit evil and impudent acts upon them.
Despite his vow of celibacy, Grandier was known to have had sexual relationships with a number of women and had a reputation as an arrogant philanderer around town, much to the ire of husbands and fathers alike. As hysteria around the events at the convent increased, Grandier’s enemies seized upon the opportunity to orchestrate his downfall. Public exorcisms during which nuns barked, spoke in tongues, screamed blasphemies and performed obscene contortions were performed to no avail. These mass demonic possessions were regarded as powerful witchcraft and Grandier was accused of having acted as the agent of evil.
In 1632, he was arrested on charges of witchcraft, interrogated, tried and convicted by a tribunal directed by a special envoy appointed by Cardinal Richelieu; a magistrate well practiced in trying witches and a relative of the convent’s Mother Superior. This lady provided one of the key pieces of evidence used against Grandier – a document purporting to be his pact with the Devil and helpfully signed by him, Lucifer, Beelzebub, Satan, Astaroth, Leviathan and Elimi.
We, the all-powerful Lucifer, seconded by Satan, Beelzebub, Leviathan, Elimi, Astaroth and others, have today accepted the pact of alliance with Urbain Grandier, who is ours. And we promise him the love of women, the flower of virgins, the respect of nuns, worldly honours, lusts and riches. He will go whoring every three days; drunkenness will be dear to him. He will offer to us once a year a tribute marked with his blood; he will trample under-foot the sacraments of the church, and he will say his prayers to us. By virtue of this pact, he will live happily for twenty years on earth among men and will later come among us to curse God. Done in hell, in the council of demons. . Signed by Lucifer, Beelzebub, Satan, Astaroth, Leviathan and Elimi and set down by Baalberith.
My lord and master Lucifer, I acknowledge you as my God and prince, and promise to serve and obey you while I live. From this hour, I renounce the other God, as well as Jesus Christ and all the saints and the apostolic and Roman church, all the sacraments and all the prayers and petitions which might be made for me. I promise to adore you and pay you homage thrice a day and to do the most evil that I can and to lead into evil as many others as possible. I renounce chrism, baptism and all the merits of Jesus Christ and his saints. And if I fail to serve you, I give you my life as your own, having dedicated it for ever without any will to repent. .Signed, Urbain Grandier, from hell.
On 18 August 1634, Grandier was sentenced to be tortured and burned alive at the stake; his ashes scattered to the winds. There was widespread public interest in the trial and Loudon was swelled with thousands of onlookers who had come to town in anticipation of a guilty verdict; the sentence was therefore carried out immediately.
The ropes, boards, and mallets used in the torture known as The Boot were exorcised to ensure no demons would interfere and relieve Grandier’s suffering. It took almost an hour before his legs were completely crushed to a pulp and still he refused to confess to witchcraft. With a rope around his neck, he was hauled through the streets on a cart to beg forgiveness for his sins. At the place of execution, a piece of iron was used to keep his broken body upright against the stake which, along with the straw and wood, was exorcised to prevent any intercessions by his diabolical partners. Grandier made several attempts to speak but his words did not reach the baying crowd as Capuchin friars silenced him with buckets of holy water and blows to his mouth with an iron crucifix. After the pyre had burned itself out and embers cast to the wind, the crowd surged forward to scavenge any detritus; the relics of a witch being popularly believed to form the basis for powerful charms and spells.
Another notorious witchcraft trial in Brittany happened in the town of Fougères in 1642 when Isaac Marais was accused of having used curses and incantations to the devil in the treatment of the plague some years earlier. It is unclear whether, under torture, he denounced Mathurin Trullier, chaplain of the Saint-Sulpice church in Fougères and an accomplice with whom he had been involved in conducting alchemical experiments in search of the Philosophers’ Stone. Trullier was arrested and also charged with sexually assaulting a young girl and of possessing grimoires. The two cases were heard together at the Breton Parliament, then sitting in Rennes. On 19 January 1643, the pair were convicted of lèse-majesté divine for having used magic arts and spells; a rather vague charge that could cover transgressions ranging from petty counterfeiting to high treason. Both were sentenced to death, Marais to the gallows and Trullier condemned to be tortured and burned alive.
After enduring the torture of The Boot and neither confessing their crimes or denouncing others, Trullier and Marais, with ropes around their necks, were led to door of Saint-Peter’s Cathedral to beg for forgiveness. Trullier was taken through the cheering mob to the pyre set-up in the nearby Place des Lices where he was tied to the tall stake and burnt; the fire’s ashes being subsequently scattered to the four cardinal points of the compass. Marais swung from the gallows nearby.
The persecution and prosecution of witches in the 16th and 17th centuries mainly focused on the notion that they were heretics who had renounced God and made a pact with the Devil and in some countries this new concept was even introduced into criminal law, making witchcraft an offence under both ecclesiastical and common law. Slowly perceptions about witches turned from the harmless traditional healer to a dangerous sorceress in league with the Devil, the source of her magical powers and the object of her adoration. Closely related to this, was the idea that witches who made pacts with the Devil also worshipped him collectively and engaged in a number of blasphemous, immoral and obscene rites in gatherings known as Sabbaths.
This new perception of witchcraft was propounded by the Papal bull Summis Desiderantes Affectibus issued by Innocent VIII in 1484 and refined in the Malleus Maleficarum (The Witches’ Hammer) issued by Dominican Inquisitors in 1487. The effect of these two documents over the next two centuries was profound; recommending deception and torture to obtain confessions and extermination rather than redemption seen as the only sure remedy to contain witchcraft.
The Malleus Maleficarum describes how women, rarely men, become inclined to practice witchcraft, arguing that women are more susceptible to demonic temptations through the innate weaknesses of their gender; the demon assails them in particular, being weaker in faith than men. Men could sometimes be witches but the impetus behind male witches was attributed to ambition and a desire for power rather than from faithfulness or lust, as was claimed for female witches. Women possessed loose tongues, a temperament towards flux and were defective in all the powers of body and soul. Lest there be any doubt that women were being targeted as the villain, the very title of the document uses the feminine noun, Maleficarum! The result of this deeply misogynistic text was that over three quarters of those subsequently prosecuted as witches in Europe were women.
A Jesuit priest, Antoine Boschet, described 17th century Brittany as being in the primitive age of the Church, a place where one witnessed something akin to what the pagans experienced when the first Apostles preached to them. Superstitions and witchcraft flourished, talismans and charms abounded, prayers were addressed to the moon and relics of paganism were noticeable everywhere. The region was therefore a prime target for Christian revivalists and evangelical missions abounded.
The principal 17th century Jesuit missionary to Brittany, the Blessed Julien Maunoir, kept an extensive journal of his 43 years work in the region and these formed the basis for Xavier-Auguste Séjourné’s biography, Histoire du vénérable serviteur de Dieu (1895). In it, he recounts that nine years into Maunoir’s mission he met his first ‘follower of hell’ in Saint-Guen in 1649. A young man he met said he was persecuted and threatened with death for having deserted a secret society. He spoke of nocturnal assemblies held on a large, deserted moor.
There, by torchlight that gave the light of day, a noisy crowd engaged in all kinds of games of chance such as dice and cards, while others danced around a golden throne on which sat a horrible monster. He was the king of this empire of darkness. Above all, it was necessary to pay him homage of fidelity. In return, he promised happiness that would last as long as life. Adore him, give him shameful kisses, give him body and soul, such were the tributes demanded. Furthermore, he demanded the merrymakers deny God, Christ, the Virgin, the sacraments, the Holy Church, that they renounce the faith of His baptism and the worship of saints especially Saint Anne and Saint Corentin. The unhappy culprit admitted to having submitted to these infamous conditions and to seal the infernal pact he had concluded, he had been struck on the neck with an indelible mark and his name written in a black book with the blood that had been drawn from one of his fingers. Thereafter, for many months, he took his share of the banquets, dances and abominable secrets of which the Sabbath was the theatre.
Maunoir feared that ‘the evil’ had deep roots in central Brittany and was much more extensive than he had thought. “The Sabbath was the meeting not of a small number but of a considerable multitude. We saw people of all ranks and all conditions: men, women, young people, daughters and children whom their parents had devoted to the Devil from their birth, sometimes even before. The gentleman struck the country shepherd there; the woman of the lowest condition, the high-born lady; and in the middle of this filthy bog, one could distinguish priests. The place where they met was not always the same but most often it was a huge heath which was called the crossroads of the Seven Ways”.
Séjourné relates other instances of what Maunoir called the Iniquity of the Mountain around Saint-Guen: “A man whose name and authority inspired all confidence, had asked a young girl to accompany him to a meeting where she would find, he told her, a lot of pleasure. When she got there, she was in the middle of the Sabbath. She was immediately asked to renounce Jesus Christ and worship the Devil.
Another time, one of the most daring characters in the sect – must we say that he was a priest? – had offered to an old peasant woman at a Sabbath, an enchanted mirror where he showed her Father Bernard and Father Maunoir surrounded by demons. They taught her to mould portraits of the two missionaries in wax. The operation finished, she had to prick the effigy with a needle every day while reciting certain cabalistic formulas. To this stratagem, their death was assured at short notice. Two years later, the two Fathers visited a parish near the one where this woman lived. She had never seen the missionaries except through her enchanted mirror. Great was her surprise to recognize them and especially to find them alive. The obvious uselessness of her spell became the cause of her conversion.”
The missionaries were not surprised to encounter witches and what they termed Devil worshippers in parts of Brittany; it was no more remarkable than in other parts of France and Europe yet the extent of religious ignorance, even amongst the native clergy, alarmed them. Re-building a deeper faith took time and zeal; mission priests worked in pairs, parish by parish, staying in each for up to six weeks every five years or so, not leaving until the entire adult population had made confession. “How to confess so much sacrilege, blasphemy and turpitude? Had these people not renewed every month, between the Devil’s hands, the promise to descend into hell rather than disclose anything to a confessor of their monstrous attacks against God, Jesus Christ, the Blessed Virgin and the Saints?”
Maunoir had been given a copy of the Malleus Maleficarum by his predecessor and mentor Dom Michel Le Nobletz in 1641 with the words “A day will come when you will draw from this book of great lights to lead the souls deceived by the Devil”. It was a work he drew heavily from when framing instructions for his missionaries in search of witches. He noted that demons enter their victims through dreams and tempted them to assemblies with pleasures of the flesh. Thus, when interrogating a virgin, it was necessary to ask her of her dreams: did she dream of beasts or of men? Did they offer her gifts and make promises to her, as lovers do? Did she feel the weight of their body on hers as she slept? Did she think about her dreams during the day? If the penitent was married, the questions turned to her children; how many does she have and how many did she sacrifice to the Devil? The question of abortion was also to be confronted, interrogators were instructed to ask how many children the woman had lost and whether the Devil had told her that she had too many children and that neighbours would mock her because she had not the means to feed them all. Had she ever desired the death of the unborn child she once carried?
Such questions were strikingly similar to those asked of women in Brittany a hundred years later, long after the witch-hunting frenzy had died away, as part of a typical official investigation to assess a woman’s honour. The key difference being that positive answers in a witch-hunt carried demonic as well as criminal implications. Unfortunately, the dawning of the Age of Enlightenment did nothing to enlighten attitudes towards women and in the 18th century, the position of women in Brittany was little better than it had been in previous centuries. Even Europe’s most influential Enlightenment era philosopher, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, considered that “there are no good morals for a woman outside a withdrawn and domestic life”.
Lone women in particular were open to accusations of immoral living and punishments were severe with public humiliation, confiscation of all assets, prison and even banishment. False accusations – and an accusation was often enough to completely destroy a woman’s reputation and livelihood – were an all too easy means of ridding oneself of a rival whether in business or love. As in the witch-hunts of earlier times, women were also the common accusers of other women and just as in the witch-hunts, an accusation was enough to kick-start formal investigations. It was almost impossible to successfully defend oneself against charges as vague as moral misconduct. Conviction for crimes against morality rarely required any more evidence than a denunciation and a supporting testimony. It was often enough to simply show that a woman had been in the wrong place or in bad company or even badly dressed!
Similarities between 16th and 17th century witch-hunts and an 18th century ‘honour trial’ do stand scrutiny. The methods of detection and punishment were similar and both targeted non-conformist or unconventional women and relied on evidence that could almost always neither be proven nor disproven. Both were predominantly trials by suspicion, usually based on anonymous and vague denunciations, a standard pro forma wording of accusations and the general non-conformity of the accused; usually masterless women or societal misfits who could be punished on the most cursory of evidence.
The vast majority of those accused of witchcraft or dishonourable conduct were women; who were expected to uphold standards never expected of men. Many have claimed that the majority of women accused of witchcraft were probably guilty of nothing more than possessing a forceful and forthright personality and were likely well known in their neighbourhood as being unconventional or notorious for behaving in a way that was regarded as contrary to society’s notion of proper female decorum.
The psychologist Léon Marillier, writing in 1893, proposed that Bretons still possessed a state of mind where the explanation of a natural phenomenon, illness or death, which immediately comes to mind, is a supernatural explanation; a manifestation of the human tendency to treat objects of the imagination as real entities. So, we should not be too surprised to see that despite the formal disdain of society, people continued to consult the Groac’h or local witch to assuage ills, retain livelihoods by inviting her intercession to ensure the health of livestock and crops, seeking her assistance in affairs of the heart or as a fortune-teller. With many witches adept at healing or popularly held to be gifted in lifting curses through charms of un-bewitchment, the witch’s position in rural society was often an ambivalent one.
One of the most well-known witches of modern times was Naïa, the witch of Rochefort-en-Terre, who lived in the ruins of Rieux castle just outside the picturesque small town. Daughter of a local bone-setter, she claimed never to eat and relished in the air of mystery that surrounded her. A herbalist of some skill, she was a popular yet marginal figure at the same time; a loner who lived at the very fringe of society. In her time, she was quite well known in southern Brittany and was consulted by a broad cross-section of people, from star-crossed lovers to litigants in property disputes. The author and photographer Charles Géniaux described his meeting with Naïa in the Wide World Magazine in 1899.
“She stood there, in her majestic ugliness, solemn and imposing like Pythia of ancient times. We watched each other in silence. Her eyes inspired dread: sunken in their sockets, creamy in colour, glassy like those of the dead. Her hands, large and bony, were resting on a thorny staff and a sort of colourless shawl, partially covering her head and shoulders, fell to her feet. Long strands of white hair slid out of her hood. An indomitable will was imprinted on her wrinkled face, with an expression of intelligence even more striking than the hideous ugliness of her appearance.”
“The oldest among the old men remember Naïa. Their early childhood was lulled by the magical tales of her exploits. They have always known her unique silhouette, that is to say the same appearance, an invariable costume, neither newer nor older, and her gait, her features, her vigour, would escape the attacks of age. From there, they conclude to the immortality of Naïa.
There was a touching unanimity to convince me of this: namely that Naïa did not eat or drink and that, in memory of man, she had not entered a farm, a house or a shop to buy or ask what the common people usually dispense daily in the uses of life.”
He recounts the experiences of Jean Élain, a farmer from Pluherlin, with Naïa: “While I was telling my story, my tongue sometimes went into my throat from what I saw. First, she started a wood fire with smoke that I sneezed at every moment, and my eyes stung horribly. Then she threw dry herbs into the flames, which she removed from the pockets of her apron. Instantly, the fire started to speak. Yes sir! She would make little cries and chuckle with laughter. Suddenly, Naïa picked up the red coals with her fingers and placed them in her hands like a bouquet. I couldn’t speak but I heard myself called by my dead wife whose voice I recognized. Thereupon, Naïa gnashes her teeth and crushes the red coals between her palms. So, she started to tell me such shenanigans that a cunning lawyer would have gotten lost and thanks to her, I won my case.”
“Finally, and this borders on demonism, a notable family from Rochefort told me that, on the same day, the witch was met at very distant distances by two brothers. One, disembarking at Malensac, met her near the vast abandoned slate quarries, and the second, who was at the Questembert fair around the same time, swore to me that Naïa had called him by name.”
Naïa clearly had a sense of the dramatic; among her last words to Géniaux, she asked that he report their meeting thus: “Tell them also that I am not a foolish good woman, like their city sleepwalkers. I have the power! Me! And Gnâmi is stronger than death. He is The One Who Can, The One Who Wants, The One We Do Not See.”