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The Superstitions of Witchcraft

The following is from The Superstitions of Witchcraft by Howard Williams:

Part III--Modern Faith

Chapter VI

'Possession' in France in the Seventeenth Century--Urbain Grandier and the Convent of Loudun--Exorcism at Aix--Ecstatic Phenomena--Madeleine Bavent--Her cruel Persecution--Catholic and Protestant Witchcraft in Germany--Luther's Demonological Fears and Experiences--Originated in his exceptional Position and in the extraordinary Circumstances of his Life and Times--Witch-burning at Bamburg and at Würzburg

Demoniacal possession was a phase of witchcraft which obtained extensively in France during the seventeenth century: the victims of this hallucination were chiefly the female inmates of religious houses, whose inflamed imaginations were prostituted by their priestly advisers to the most atrocious purposes. Urbain Grandier's fate was connected with that of an entire convent. The facts of this celebrated sorcerer's history are instructive. He was educated in a college of the Jesuits at Bordeaux, and presented by the fathers, with whom his abilities and address had gained much applause, to a benefice in Loudun. He provoked by his haughtiness the jealousy of his brother clergy, who regarded him as an intruder, and his pride and resentment increased in direct proportion to the activity of his enemies, who had conspired to effect his ruin. Mounier and Mignon, two priests whom he had mortally offended, were most active. Urbain Grandier was rash enough to oppose himself alone to the united counsels of unscrupulous and determined foes. Defeated singly in previous attempts to drive him from Loudun, the two priests combined with the leading authorities of the place. Their haughty and careless adversary had the advantage or disadvantage of a fine person and handsome face, which, with his other recommendations, gained him universal popularity with the women; and his success and familiarities with the fair sex were not likely to escape the vigilance of spies anxious to collect damaging proofs. What inflamed to the utmost the animosities of the two parties was the success of Canon Mignon in obtaining the coveted position of confessor to the convent of Ursulines in Loudun, to the exclusion of Grandier, himself an applicant. This convent was destined to assume a prominent part in the fate of the curé of the town. The younger nuns, it seems, to enliven the dull monotony of monastic life, adopted a plan of amusing their leisure by frightening the older ones in making the most of their knowledge of secret passages in the building, playing off ghost-tricks, and raising unearthly noises. When the newly appointed confessor was informed of the state of matters he at once perceived the possibility, and formed the design, of turning it to account. The offending nuns were promised forgiveness if they would continue their ghostly amusement, and also affect demoniacal possession; a fraud in which they were more readily induced to participate by an assurance that it might be the humble means of converting the heretics--Protestants being unusually numerous in that part of the country.

As soon as they were sufficiently prepared to assume their parts, the magistrates were summoned to witness the phenomena of possession and exorcism. On the first occasion the Superior of the convent was the selected patient; and it was extracted from the demon in possession that he had been sent by Urbain Grandier, priest of the church of St. Peter. This was well so far; but the civil authorities generally, as it appears, were not disposed to accept even the irrefragable testimony of a demoniac; and the ecclesiastics, with the leading inhabitants, were in conflict with the civil power. Opportunely, however, for the plan of the conspirators, who were almost in despair, an all-powerful ally was enlisted on their side. A severe satire upon some acts of the minister of France, Cardinal Richelieu, or of some of his subordinates, had made its appearance. Urbain was suspected to be the author; his enemies were careful to improve the occasion; and the Cardinal-minister's cooperation was secured. A royal commission was ordered to inquire into the now notorious circumstances of the Loudun diabolism. Laubardemont, the head of the commission, arrived in December 1633, and no time was lost in bringing the matter to a crisis. The house of the suspected was searched for books of magic; he himself being thrown into a dungeon, where the surgeons examined him for the 'marks.' Five insensible spots were found--a certain proof. Meanwhile the nuns become more hysterical than ever; strong suspicion not being wanting that the priestly confessors to the convent availed themselves of their situation to abuse the bodies as well as the minds of the reputed demoniacs. To such an extent went the audacity of the exorcists, and the credulity of the people, that the enceinte condition of one of the sisters, which at the end of five or six months disappeared, was explained by the malicious slander of the devil, who had caused that scandalous illusion. Crowds of persons of all ranks flocked from Paris and from the most distant parts to see and hear the wild ravings of these hysterical or drugged women, whose excitement was such that they spared not their own reputations; and some scandalous exposures were submitted to the amusement or curiosity of the surrounding spectators. Some few of them, aroused from the horrible delusion, or ashamed of their complicity, admitted that all their previous revelations were simple fiction. Means were found to effectually silence such dangerous announcements. The accusers pressed on the prosecution; the influence of his friends was overborne, and Grandier was finally sentenced to the stake. Fearing the result of a despair which might convincingly betray the facts of the case to the assembled multitude, they seem to have prevailed upon the condemned to keep silence up to the last moment, under promise of an easier death. But already fastened to the stake, he learned too late the treachery of his executioners; instead of being first strangled, he was committed alive to the flames. Nor were any 'last confessions' possible. The unfortunate victim of the malice of exasperated rivals, and of the animosity of the implacable Richelieu, has been variously represented.1 It is noticeable that the scene of this affair was in the heart of the conquered Protestant region--Rochelle had fallen only six years before the execution; and the heretics, although politically subdued, were numerous and active. A fact which may account for the seeming indifference and even the opposition of a large number of the people in this case of diabolism which obtained comparatively little credit. It had been urged to the nuns that it would be for the good and glory of Catholicism that the heretics should be confounded by a few astounding miracles. Whether Grandier had any decided heretical inclinations is doubtful; but he wrote against the celibacy of the priesthood, and was suspected of liberal opinions in religion. A Capuchin named Tranquille (a contemporary) has furnished the materials for the 'History of the Devils of Loudun' by the Protestant Aubin, 1716.

Twenty-four years previously a still more scandalous affair--that of Louis Gauffridi and the Convent of Aix, in which Gauffridi, who had debauched several girls both in and out of the establishment, was the principal actor--was transacted with similar circumstances. Madeleine, one of the novices, soon after entering upon her noviciate, was seized with the ecstatic trances, which were speedily communicated to her companions.2 These fits, in the judgment of the priests, were nothing but the effect of witchcraft. Exorcists elicited from the girls that Louis Gauffridi, a powerful magician having authority over demons throughout Europe, had bewitched them. The questions and answers were taken down, by order of the judges, by reporters, who, while the priests were exorcising, committed the results to writing, published afterwards by one of them, Michaelis, in 1613. Among the interesting facts acquired through these spirit-media, the inquisitors learned that Antichrist was already come; that printing, and the invention of it, were alike accursed, and similar information. Madeleine, tortured and imprisoned in the most loathsome dungeon, was reduced to such a condition of extreme horror and dread, that from this time she was the mere instrument of her atrocious judges. Having been intimate with the wizard, she could inform them of the position of the 'secret marks' on his person: these were ascertained in the usual way by pricking with needles. Gauffridi, by various torture, was induced to make the required confession, and was burned alive at Aix, April 30, 1611.

Demoniacal possession was a mania in France in the seventeenth century. The story of Madeleine Bavent, as reported, reveals the utmost licentiousness and fiendish cruelty.3 Gibbon justly observes that ancient Rome supported with the greatest difficulty the institution of six vestals, notwithstanding the certain fate of a living grave for those who could not preserve their chastity; and Christian Rome was filled with many thousands of both sexes bound by vows to perpetual virginity. Madeleine was seduced by her Franciscan confessor when only fourteen; and she entered a convent lately founded at Louviers. In this building, surrounded by a wood, and situated in a suitable spot, some strange practices were carried on. At the instigation of their director, a priest called David, the nuns, it is reported, were seized with an irresistible desire of imitating the primitive Adamite simplicity: the novices were compelled to return to the simple nudity of the days of innocence when taking exercise in the conventual gardens, and even at their devotions in the chapel. The novice Madeleine, on one occasion, was reprimanded for concealing her bosom with the altar-cloth at communion. She was originally of a pure and artless mind; and only gradually and stealthily she was corrupted by the pious arguments of her priest. This man, Picart by name--one of that extensive class the 'tristes obscœni,' of whom the Angelos and Tartuffes4 are representatives--succeeded to the vacant office of directing confessor to the nuns of Louviers; and at once embraced the opportunities of the confessional. Without repeating all the disgusting scenes that followed, as given by Michelet, it is only necessary to add that the miserable nun became the mistress and helpless creature of her seducer. 'He employed her as a magical charm to gain over the rest of the nuns. A holy wafer steeped in Madeleine's blood and buried in the garden would be sure to disturb their senses and their minds. This was the very year in which Urban Grandier was burned. Throughout France men spoke of nothing but the devils of Loudun.... Madeleine fancied herself bewitched and knocked about by devils; followed about by a lewd cat with eyes of fire. By degrees other nuns caught the disorder, which showed itself in odd supernatural jerks and writhings.'

The Superior was not averse to the publication of these events,  having the example and reputation of Loudun before her. Little is new in the possession and exorcism: for the most part they are a repetition of those of Aix and Loudun. During a brief interval the devils were less outrageous: for the Cardinal-minister was meditating a reform of the monastic establishments. Upon his death they commenced again with equal violence. Picart was now dead--but not so the persecution of his victim. The priests recommenced miracle-working with renewed vigour.5 Saved from immediate death by a fortunate or, as it may be deemed, unfortunate sensitiveness to bodily pain, she was condemned for the rest of her life to solitary confinement in a fearful dungeon, in the language of her judges to an in pace. There lying tortured, powerless in a loathsome cell, their prisoner was alternately coaxed and threatened into admitting all sorts of crimes, and implicating whom they wished.6 The further cruelties to which the lust, and afterwards the malignancy, of her gaolers submitted her were not brought to an end by the interference of parliament in August 1647, when the destruction of the Louviers establishment was decreed. The guilty escaped by securing, by intimidation, the silence of their prisoner, who remained a living corpse in the dungeons of the episcopal palace of Rouen. The bones of Picart were exhumed, and publicly burned; the curé Boullé, an accomplice, was dragged on a hurdle to the fish-market, and there burned at the stake. So terminated this last of the trilogical series. But the hysterical or demoniacal disease was as furious as ever in Germany in the middle of the eighteenth century; and was attended with as tremendous effects at Würzburg as at Louviers.

In Germany during the seventeenth century witches felt the fury of both Catholic and Protestant zeal; but in the previous age prosecutions are directed against Protestant witches. They abounded in Upper Germany in the time of Innocent VIII, and what numbers were executed has been already seen. When the revolutionary party had acquired greater strength and its power was established, they vied with the conservatives in their vigorous attacks upon the empire of Satan.

Luther had been sensible to the contagious fear that the great spiritual enemy was actually fighting in the ranks of his enemies. He had personal experience of his hostility. Immured for his safety in a voluntary but gloomy prison, occupied intensely in the plan of a mighty revolution against the most powerful hierarchy that has ever existed, engaged continuously in the laborious task of translating the Sacred Scriptures, only partially freed from the prejudices of education, it is little surprising that the antagonist of the Church should have experienced infernal hallucinations. This weakness of the champion of Protestantism is at least more excusable than the pedantic folly of the head of the English Church. When Luther, however, could seriously affirm that witchcraft 'is the devil's proper work wherewith, when God permits, he not only hurts people but makes away with them; for in this world we are as guests and strangers, body and soul, cast under the devil: that idiots, the lame, the blind, the dumb are men in whom ignorant devils have established themselves, and all the physicians who attempt to heal these infirmities as though they proceeded from natural causes, are ignorant blockheads who know nothing about the power of the demon,' we cannot be indignant at the blind credulity of the masses of the people. It appears inconsistent that Luther, averse generally to supernaturalism, should yet find no difficulty in entertaining these irrational diabolistic ideas. The circumstances of his life and times sufficiently explain the inconsistency.7

On the eve of the prolonged and ferocious struggle on the continent between Catholicism and Protestantism a wholesale slaughter of witches and wizards was effected, a fitting prologue to the religious barbarities of the Thirty Years' War. Fires were kindled almost simultaneously in two different places, at Bamburg and Würzburg; and seldom, even in the annals of witchcraft, have they burned more tremendously. The prince-bishops of those territories had long been anxious to extirpate Lutheranism from their dioceses. Frederick Forner, Suffragan of Bamburg, a vigorous supporter of the Jesuits, was the chief agent of John George II. He waged war upon the heretical sorcerers in the 'whole armour of God,' Panoplia armaturæ Dei. According to the statements of credible historians, nine hundred trials took place in the two courts of Bamburg and Zeil between 1625 and 1630. Six hundred were burned by Bishop George II. No one was spared. The chancellor, his son, Dr. Horn, with his wife and daughters, many of the lords and councillors of the bishop's court, women and priests, suffered. After tortures of the most extravagant kind it was extorted that some twelve hundred of them were confederated to bewitch the entire land to the extent that 'there would have been neither wine nor corn in the country, and that thereby man and beast would have perished with hunger, and men would be driven to eat one another. There were even some Catholic priests among them who had been led into practices too dreadful to be described, and they confessed among other things that they had baptized many children in the devil's name. It must be stated that these confessions were made under tortures of the most fearful kind, far more so than anything that was practised in France or other countries.... The number brought to trial in these terrible proceedings were so great, and they were treated with so little consideration, that it was usual not even to take the trouble of setting down their names; but they were cited as the accused Nos. 1, 2, 3, &c. The Jesuits took their confessions in private, and they made up the lists of those who were understood to have been denounced by them.'

More destructive still were the burnings of Würzburg at the same period under the superintendence of Philip Adolph, who ascended the episcopal throne in 1623. In spite of the energy of his predecessors, a grand confederacy of sorcerers had been discovered, and were at once denounced.8

Nine appears to have been the greatest number, and sometimes only two were sent to execution at once. Five are specially recorded as having been burned alive. The victims are of all professions and trades--vicars, canons, goldsmiths, butchers, &c. Besides the twenty-nine conflagrations recorded, many others were lighted about the same time: the names of whose prey are not written in the Book of Death. Frederick Spee, a Jesuit, formerly a violent enemy of the witches, but who had himself been incriminated by their extorted confessions at these holocausts, was converted to the opposite side, and wrote the 'Cautio Criminalis,' in which the necessity of caution in receiving evidence is insisted upon--a caution, without doubt, 'very necessary at that time for the magistracy throughout Germany.' All over Germany executions, if not everywhere so indiscriminately destructive as those in Franconia and at Würzburg, were incessant: and it is hardly the language of hyperbole to say that no province, no city, no village was without its condemned.

1 Michelet apparently accepts the charge of immorality; according to which the curé took advantage of his popularity among the ladies of Loudun, by his insinuating manners, to seduce the wives and daughters of the citizens. By another writer (Alexandre Dumas, Celebrated Crimes) he is supposed to have been of a proud and vindictive disposition, but innocent of the alleged irregularities.

2 M. Maury, in a philosophical and learned work (La Magie et l'Astrologie dans l'Antiquité et au Moyen Âge), has scientifically explored and exposed the mysteries of these and the like ecstatic phenomena, of such frequent occurrence in Protestant as well as in Catholic countries; in the orphan-houses of Amsterdam and Horn, as well as in the convents of France and Italy in the 17th century. And the Protestant revivalists of the present age have in great measure reproduced these curious results of religious excitement.

3 It is but one instance of innumerable amours within the secret penetralia of the privileged conventual establishments. In the dark recesses of these vestal institutions on a gigantic scale, where publicity, that sole security, was never known, what vices or even crimes could not be safely perpetrated? Luther, who proved in the most practical way his contempt for the sanctity of monastic vows by eloping with a nun, assures us, among other scandals attaching to convent life, of the fact that when a fish-pond adjoining one of these establishments in Rome was drained off, six thousand infant skulls were exposed to view. A story which may be fact or fiction. But while fully admitting the probability of invention and exaggeration in the relations of enemies, and the fact that undue prejudice is likely to somewhat exaggerate the probable evils of the mysterious and unknown, how could it be otherwise than that during fourteen centuries many crimes should have been committed in those silent and safe retreats? Nor, indeed, is experience opposed to the possibility of the highest fervour of an unnatural enthusiasm being compatible with more human passions. The virgin who,

'Ut flos in septis secretus nascitur hortis
Ignotus pecori,'

as eulogised by the virgin-chorus in the beautiful epithalamium of Catullus, might be recognised in the youthful 'religieuse' if only human passion could be excluded; but the story of Heloise and Abelard is not a solitary proof of the superiority of human nature over an impossible and artificial spirituality.

4 As Tartuffe privately confesses,

'L'amour qui nous attache aux beautés éternelles
N'étouffe pas en nous l'amour des temporelles.

*       *       *       *       *

Pour être dévot, je n'en suis pas moins homme.'

5 To the diabolic visions of the other they opposed those of 'a certain Anne of the Nativity, a girl of sanguine hysterical temperament, frantic at need, and half mad--so far at least as to believe in her own lies. A kind of dog-fight was got up between the two. They besmeared each other with false charges. Anne saw the devil quite naked by Madeleine's side. Madeleine swore to seeing Anne at the Sabbath with the Lady Superior, the Mother Assistant, and the Mother of the novices.... Madeleine was condemned, without a hearing, to be disgraced, to have her body examined for the marks of the devil. They tore off her veil and gown, and made her the wretched sport of a vile curiosity that would have pierced till she bled again in order to win the right of sending her to the stake. Leaving to no one else the care of a scrutiny which was in itself a torture, these virgins, acting as matrons, ascertained if she were with child or no; shaved all her body, and dug their needles into her quivering flesh to find out the insensible spots.'--La Sorcière

6 The horrified reader may see the fuller details of this case in Michelet's La Sorcière, who takes occasion to state that, than 'The History of Madeleine Bavent, a nun of Louviers, with her examination, &c., 1652, Rouen,' he knows of 'no book more important, more dreadful, or worthier of being reprinted. It is the most powerful narrative of its class. Piety Afflicted, by the Capuchin Esprit de Bosrager, is a work immortal in the annals of tomfoolery. The two excellent pamphlets by the doughty surgeon Yvelin, the Inquiry and the Apology, are in the Library of Ste. Geneviève.'--La Sorcière, the Witch of the Middle Ages, chap. viii. Whatever exaggeration there may possibly be in any of the details of these and similar histories, there is not any reasonable doubt of their general truth. It is much to be wished, indeed, that writers should, in these cases, always confine themselves to the simple facts, which need not any imaginary or fictitious additions.

7 The following sentence in his recorded conversation, when the free thoughts of the Reformer were unrestrained in the presence of his most intimate friends, is suggestive. 'I know,' says he, 'the devil thoroughly well; he has over and over pressed me so close that I scarcely knew whether I was alive or dead. Sometimes he has thrown me into such despair that I even knew not that there is a God, and had great doubts about our dear Lord Christ. But the Word of God has speedily restored me' (Luther's Tischreden or Table Talk, as cited in Howitt's History of the Supernatural). The eloquent controversialist Bossuet and the Catholics have been careful to avail themselves of the impetuosity and incautiousness of the great German Reformer.

Of all the leaders of the religious revolution of the sixteenth century, the Reformer of Zurich was probably the most liberally inclined; and Zuinglius' unusual charity towards those ancient sages and others who were ignorant of Christianity, which induced him to place the names of Aristides, Socrates, the Gracchi, &c., in the same list with those of Moses, Isaiah, and St. Paul, who should meet in the assembly of the virtuous and just in the future life, obliged Luther openly to profess of his friend that 'he despaired of his salvation,' and has provoked the indignation of the bishop of Meaux.--Variations des Eglises Protestantes, ii 19 and 20.

8 'A catalogue of nine and twenty brände or burnings during a very short period of time, previous to the February of 1629, will give the best notion of the horrible character of these proceedings; it is printed,' adds Mr. Wright, 'from the original records in Hauber's Bibliotheca Magica.' E.g. in the Fifth Brände are enumerated: (1) Latz, an eminent shopkeeper. (2) Rutscher, a shopkeeper. (3) The housekeeper of the Dean of the cathedral. (4) The old wife of the Court ropemaker. (5) Jos. Sternbach's housekeeper. (6) The wife of Baunach, a Senator. (7) A woman named Znickel Babel. (8) An old woman. In the Sixteenth Burning: (1) A noble page of Ratzenstein. (2) A boy of ten years of age. (3, 4, 5) The two daughters of the Steward of the Senate and his maid. (6) The fat ropemaker's wife. In the Twentieth Burning: (1) Gobel's child, the most beautiful girl in Würzburg. (2) A student on the fifth form, who knew many languages, and was an excellent musician. (3, 4) Two boys from the New Minster, each twelve years old. (5) Stepper's little daughter. (6) The woman who kept the bridge gate. In the Twenty-sixth Burning are specified: (1) David Hans, a Canon in the New Minster. (2) Weydenbusch, a Senator. (3) The innkeeper's wife of the Baumgarten. (4) An old woman. (5) The little daughter of Valkenberger was privately executed and burned on her bier. (6) The little son of the town council bailiff. (7) Herr Wagner, vicar in the cathedral, was burned alive.--Narratives of Sorcery and Magic. The facts are taken from Dr. Soldan's Geschichte der Hexenprocesse, whose materials are to be found in Horst's Zauber Bibliothek and Hauber's Bibliotheca Magica.

Part III--Modern Faith--Chapter VII


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