Witchcraft and the Inquisition

Robin Briggs

  • Unclean Spirits: Possession and Exorcism in France and England in the Late 16th and Early 17th Centuries by D.P. Walker
    Scolar, 116 pp, £9.95, March 1981, ISBN 0 85967 620 X
  • The Witches’ Advocate by Gustav Henningsen
    Nevada, 607 pp, $24.00, November 1980, ISBN 0 87417 056 7

The proliferation of books on the history of European witchcraft, which has been such a feature of the past fifteen years or so, is itself an interesting phenomenon. The relationship between these scholarly writings and the popular interest in the occult is far from easy to assess; with a few regrettable exceptions, their tone has been rigorously sceptical, seeking to uncover the social and intellectual roots of what they unequivocally see as a delusion. In contrast to earlier rationalists such as Joseph Hansen, H.C. Lea or R.H. Robbins, however, modern specialists are inclined to take popular beliefs much more seriously. If the recent occultist vogue has done nothing else, it has at least undermined confidence in a steady progress from superstition to rationality. Earlier simplifications once discarded, and the history of persecution studied in detail, it becomes impossible to accept any of the ‘conspiracy theories’ which lay the blame primarily on the cupidity of judges, the credulity of clerics, or the cruelty of the Inquisition. It is now plain, moreover, that witchcraft commonly gave rise to great divergences of opinion, not hard-and-fast orthodoxies, even if the balance of such opinions may have differed as between regions, confessions and social or professional groups. One of the greatest common merits of the two books under review, so different in many respects, is that they emphasise the extent and severity of these disagreements. In this respect, as in many others, the study of witchcraft enables us to penetrate to an exceptional depth beneath the surface of early modern society; the imaginary nature of the crime renders it a peculiarly sensitive barometer of shifts in attitudes at various levels. This alone would be a more than sufficient justification for the attention given to the subject. In addition, it is notable how many of the recent contributions not only produce striking new evidence, but tend to raise as many questions as they solve; the subject is far from being exhausted.

The discussion of witchcraft is still some way from being properly integrated into the study of European history in general, and it is here that Professor Walker’s book on possession and exorcism is most helpful. This handsomely produced, if expensive version of his 1979 Northcliffe lectures is mostly devoted to quite well-known cases, such as that of Marthe Brossier in France, and the activities of John Darrel in England. Economically written, with telling quotations and a good deal of quiet humour, these must have been entertaining and instructive lectures; readers should not undervalue Unclean Spirits on account of its lightness of touch, still less its author’s over-modest claim to have ‘only scratched the surface’. Apart from giving a crisp and convenient account of some important cases, he demonstrates very effectively how the arguments over possession and exorcism linked up with the religious conflicts of the 16th century. Naturally this was most apparent in France, where the rivalry was between Catholic and Protestant, so that the successful use of consecrated host or holy water in an exorcism had powerful propagandist overtones. The cases of Nicole Obry at Laon in 1566, of four demoniacs at Soissons in 1582, and of Marthe Brossier, who arrived in Paris in 1599, all fit this pattern; indeed, the Laon case seems to have been a direct model for both the others.

The precise mixture of neurosis, self-deception and outright fraud in each case cannot be exactly reconstructed, but all these elements were certainly present among the demoniacs and their entourages. The possession of Marthe Brossier was much the most significant, timed as it was to coincide with the first awkward months of the Edict of Nantes. Furthermore, by going up from her original stamping-ground in the Loire valley to Paris, Marthe brought herself to the attention of the leaders of French political life, including Henri IV himself. The subsequent investigations produced a masterly report by the leading physician Marescot and other doctors, exposing the feeble and unconvincing nature of the possession symptoms. The doctors emphasised the need to look for natural causes first; despite the opposition of a less prestigious medical team hastily assembled by the Capucin exorcists, neither the King’s physicians nor he himself seem to have felt the slightest doubt that Marthe was a fraud being used for political ends. Professor Walker’s discussion of the surrounding circumstances only strengthens this withering diagnosis. He is particularly interesting on the subject of Bérulle’s extraordinary attempt to defend the possession thesis, where feeble arguments on the central issue are combined with a fascinating and subtle account of God’s purpose in permitting evil. The strongest impression, however, remains that of the intelligent scepticism of the doctors, which had already emerged from the earlier study of the Marthe Brossier case and its 17th-century successors by Professor Robert Mandrou. In this context it is interesting to note that Charles Miron, Bishop of Angers, who exposed Marthe as a fraud with almost casual ease before she even reached Paris, was himself the son of Henri III’s premier médecin.

Marescot’s report on the affaire Brossier was published by the French government with an obvious political intent – and promptly appeared in English translation with a dedication to Bishop Bancroft. This was part of the campaign by Archbishop Whitgift and Bancroft against the Puritan exorcist John Darrel, condemned ‘for a counterfeyte’ that same year by the Commissioners for Ecclesiastical Causes after a notably unfair trial. The case provoked a lively series of polemics, including two important books by Bancroft’s chaplain Samuel Harsnett, A Discovery of the Fraudulent Practices of John Darrel (1599) and A Declaration of Egregious Popish Impostures (1603). Professor Walker brings out very well how decisively Harsnett aligned himself with the notorious sceptics Scot and Wier, effectively questioning belief in witchcraft as well as in possession. Darrel and his supporters saw this perfectly well, stressing in their counter-polemics that Harsnett implicitly disapproved of the Witchcraft Act and the judges and juries who enforced it. It may have been partly to meet this awkward attack that Harsnett diverted attention back to the exorcisms conducted by the Jesuit William Weston at Denham and other places in 1585-6; various participants were tracked down to be interrogated, their depositions and a Book of Miracles kept by the priests forming the basis for Harsnett’s scornful treatise of 1603. Professor Walker makes several cogent and very plausible points about the original episode and the later investigation. At first sight, it is amazing that Jesuits should have been able to conduct exorcisms attended by much publicity and large crowds: this problem is neatly solved when we realise that several of the priests were involved in the Babington Plot, and that Walsingham was waiting his time to bag them all – as he did in August 1586. Bancroft and Harsnett resurrected the affair for at least two reasons. They hoped to exacerbate the divisions among the English Catholics, to which Weston himself had contributed powerfully during his long imprisonment at Wisbech; they also wanted to show that they were every bit as hostile to Popish exorcists as they were to Puritan ones. Indeed, behind this lay the belief of the ‘Anglican’ party that Puritans were as factious and seditious as Catholics. There seems little doubt that the imperatives of the controversies in which they were engaged drove the Anglicans into a more explicit disavowal of witchcraft, possession, and even miracles, than they would otherwise have chosen to publicise: an interesting example of such disputes generating scepticism rather than credulity.

Professor Walker ends his brilliant and penetrating little book with a most helpful insight into the relationship between possession and witchcraft. He suggests that the tendency for demoniacs to denounce other persons as witches provided the only real way in which a suspect could be proved innocent – if the demoniac were exposed as fraudulent. This did indeed happen on several occasions under King James, who appears to have been much influenced by Harsnett’s views, and such exposures must have had a considerable effect on attitudes to witchcraft in general. The point might in fact be extended further, to include the activities of witch-finders like Hopkins and such French ‘experts’ as le petit prophète in Burgundy. It certainly fits in very well with many of the arguments deployed in The Witches’ Advocate. Based on an enormous mass of inquisitorial records which he discovered in the Spanish national archives, Dr Henningsen’s book ranks with the very best ever written on witchcraft. It also gives a vivid and detailed picture of the functioning of that notorious yet little-known institution, the Spanish Inquisition. The title celebrates the fact that, unlike any other work on this subject, it has a hero, the humane and sceptical Inquisitor Alonso de Salazar Frias. Salazar arrived to take up the post of Third Inquisitor in the tribunal of Logroño, which covered a wide area including the Basque country, in 1609, just as a large-scale witch panic broke out. The original centre lay just on the French side of the border, and it was this panic which had given rise to the famous mission of Pierre de Lancre to the pays de Labourd. De Lancre’s operations naturally stimulated similar fears and tensions in Spanish Navarre. Soon the three Inquisitors at Logroño were in violent disagreement, with Salazar appealing over the heads of his more credulous colleagues to the central tribunal of the Inquisition, the Suprema in Madrid. The constant flow of documents and memoranda which resulted allows Dr Henningsen to reconstruct the events and arguments in revealing detail, despite the destruction of the Logroño archives themselves in 1808.

It is no surprise to find that belief in witchcraft was apparently commonplace in this region, as elsewhere in rural Europe, nor that supposed bewitchment was most commonly combated by unofficial means, notably counter-magic. According to Salazar himself, the number of ‘white witches’ offering services of this kind was very large. The panic which broke out in 1608-9, however, was of rather a different nature. It was based on the notion of an enormous conspiracy of witches, who met in assemblies called aquelarres, local versions of the Sabbat. In the worst-affected areas these ideas were spread by the confessions of scores of possessed children, ever ready to denounce more and more adults as witches they had seen at the aquelarre. It is impossible, even given Dr Henningsen’s expertise and the wealth of the source material, to determine exactly how these fantasies originated: many of their elements must have existed in Basque folklore, yet it appears that they were previously unknown in at least one of the affected communities. Certainly they were spread by a variety of means, including news from the French side of the border, the auto-da-fé held by the Inquisition at Logroño, and the preaching of local priests and monks. The French version of these beliefs, as reported by de Lancre, has been the most influential single source for later versions of the Sabbat; it is even possible that the fantasies of the Bordelais judge were relayed by word of mouth, and mingled with local folklore. As it is, the inquisitorial records provide us with probably the fullest accounts of the Sabbat to be found anywhere in Europe, and with great care and fairness Dr Henningsen sets them against the interpretation of Margaret Murray. The result is conclusive and utterly destructive. The horrible rituals, obscenities and supernatural happenings described by the Basque witches bear no relation at all to the rationalised, edited picture of a secret ‘Dianiccult’ proffered by Miss Murray. What they do fit perfectly is the well-known inversion pattern, whereby persons making imaginary confessions of this kind present the negative side of the values and behaviour to which they would normally aspire. Another hypothesis which can be tested against the Basque evidence is that witches suffered dream experiences after rubbing themselves with special ointments. Jars containing mysterious unguents appear frequently in the records – but nearly all of them later turned out to be fakes, produced under pressure from local witch-hunters, and the remainder may be assumed to be of the same kind.

Salazar’s scepticism took some time to reveal itself, although from early on he seems to have felt disquiet at his colleagues’ proceedings. His position became far more confirmed, even radical, in the course of his eight-month visitation of the affected area in 1611. As he investigated the phenomenon on the spot, he was deluged with evidence of the ill-treatment and irregularities to which the suspects had been exposed, while discovering multiple inconsistencies in the evidence brought against them. The priests and interpreters who assisted him, many of whom started out as firm believers in witchcraft, were soon converted to a similar viewpoint. Salazar retained his balance and sense of humour in circumstances that put de Lancre into a frenzy of alarm. When a 17-year-old witch confessed to having poured poison down the Inquisitor’s throat as he slept, he commented drily: ‘It would not seem entirely surprising, however, that I survived this attack without any difficulty, since I apparently suffered no ill effects from the other attempts to kill me, not even when, as I presided over the hearings in that room, the Devil and some witches bound me fast, and others set fire to my person, and to the chair in which I was sitting.’

Scepticism had already become apparent in other quarters, with the secular courts and other authorities starting to check on irregularities, and the influential bishop of Pamplona, Antonio Venegas de Figueroa, conducting his own investigation. The bishop, himself an ex-Inquisitor, wrote to the Inquisitor-General early in 1611 expressing the view that the witch-craze was a product of local hysteria and the foolish conduct of some clerics, together with the activities of the Logroño tribunal itself. Soon these assertions were to be supported by letters and reports from Salazar, as the Suprema was forced to decide between the conflicting views of the local Inquisitors. With maddening and elaborate slowness, partly caused by the obstructionism of Salazar’s colleagues, the Suprema moved to the sceptical side. In August 1614 a new set of instructions for procedure in witchcraft cases was issued, following almost all of Salazar’s own suggestions. There were a few more outbreaks of persecution elsewhere in Spain over the next few years, but from the 1620s the Inquisition had reaffirmed its control, which was consistently exercised to avert further panics, and to subject individual accusations to the kind of close scrutiny which invariably refuted them.

Dr Henningsen has a dramatic story to tell, a task he carries out soberly yet most effectively. There is a certain irony in the way that the centralised and secretive nature of the Inquisition actually facilitated the imposition of advanced views, probably contrary to those of most local Inquisitors, while ensuring that Salazar’s achievement would remain unknown for centuries. Something of it did emerge in Lea’s great history of the Inquisition, but only with this new account does his combination of moral courage and intellectual stature become truly clear. Witchcraft panics of the kind he had to deal with always burned themselves out eventually: in the immediate situation, therefore, Salazar minimised the casualties and advanced the reconciliation. In the longer run, however, the force and logic of his analysis had permanent results throughout the territories controlled by the Spanish Inquisition. One can only agree with Dr Henningsen that had the Inquisition taken a different attitude in response to the crisis of 1608-11, the consequences might have been horrific. This distinguished book leaves one anxious to see the promised publication of many of the documents on which it is based, alongside the author’s further researches in the archives of the Inquisition.