The Shadow of the Stake

THE WITCHES: THREE TALES OF SORCERY, by Françoise Mallet-Jori, translated by Herma Briffault. Farrar, Straus & Giroux, $6.95
Under the influence of Margaret Murray and her book The Witch Cult in Western Europe, English-speaking scholars have, in recent years, tended to accept the view that devil worship—so vigorously prosecuted during and just after the Renaissance—was a survival of an old European religion, and that most of the accused witches who went to the stake were guilty as charged. Not only that, but that they died willingly, as martyrs to their faith.
Mme. Mallet-Joris holds the more conservative and orthodox view that “a doctrine, a theology of sorcery was elaborated out of whole cloth”:
The delusion of witchcraft (sorcery, magic) flourished in a clearly delimited period of time. ... It broke upon the Western World toward the end of the fifteenth century, flourished in widely varying degrees of intensity for a little more than two hundred years, and ended in about the year 1680. ... In those two centuries witchcraft was elevated almost to the dignity of an established Religion of Darkness. It was indeed not a majestic relic of the Middle Ages, a somber ruin which the Renaissance would gradually undermine. Instead, it was a new phenomenon . . . an original creation of the Renaissance.
Two other original creations of the Renaissance were the Reformation and the Counter-Reformation. Seen from this distance, the Saint Bartholomew’s Day Massacre, the demonic seizure of the convent of Londun, and the raptures and ecstasies of Saint Teresa seem to be part of the same phenomenon. Then, as always, there must have been lots of people who were indifferent to religion and many, many more who were lukewarm to it. And these must have been in small danger of falling into the hands of the executioner. It was the pious ones who most easily got entangled with the courts on charges of sorcery.
In her new book, Mme. MalletJoris brings together the stories of three extremely dissimilar women, all of them people who really lived and whose lives are documented. “Not intending to write a historical work,” says the author, “I have not hesitated to bring together or distort certain facts. My aim has been to reconstitute as faithfully as possible the spirit of the time.”
Her first subject is Anne de Chantraine, who lived in the early seventeenth century and went to the stake at the age of seventeen. Anne was a motherless child, raised by her father in a milieu of privation and cruelty. When she was eleven and the first few drops of menstrual blood appeared, she became an intolerable burden to her father, who abandoned her to the orphanage-school of a nunnery. Here, the child was on stage for the first time:
In the parlor she was looked at, was seen. Of the twenty some little girls in the convent school she was perhaps the most disinherited, therefore the most interesting. The story of her vagabond life . . . always brought forth shocked exclamations and demonstrations to which Anne was sensitive.
Anne formed a particular affection for a Sister Marie of the Cross—a woman pumping hard for sainthood and putting on a good show in the process. Sister Marie’s effect on the child was to make her increasingly aware of the advantage of dramatizing everything. The world became her theater.
When Anne was fourteen years old, the nuns placed her as a maidof-all-work with a widow named Christiane de la Cheraille. Christiane and her brother-in-law, Laurent, were experimenting with the black arts, and tactlessly took Anne with them to a witches’ sabbath where (according to her testimony) she made the pact with “the man in black” (i.e., the devil in the form of his human representative) . It was not long before the girl was handing out spells, potions, and powders to strangers. There was a scandal, then a trial. Christiane was first strangled, then burned. Laurent was burned alive. Anne was released.
She continued to work her magic, but it was fairly gray magic—the spells were to help rather than hurt. She was arrested again and put to death in a rather neighborly way:
They . . . brought baskets of food to her in prison. They gave her a new dress to wear for the occasion.
It was her one moment of importance. She mounted the steps . . . as if she were on a stage and about to seat herself upon a throne. . . . The executioners strangled her quickly, and the flames took her into their arms.
In the second of these tales, “Elizabeth, or Demonic Love,” the gallows meat is not the woman, but rather the man she loves.
Elizabeth de Ranfaing was the beautiful child of a murderously quarrelsome marriage. Her mother held the view that every amenity of life was a snare of the devil, and that perpetual terror of damnation was a token ot sanctity. Her technique for breaking the spirit of her daughter was so expert that the child was hopelessly neurotic by the time she was six.
Elizabeth was sent to school with the nuns when she was seven, and was ready to take the veil at the age of thirteen. Immediately there was a terrible row, because her mother’s only goal in life was to impose her own will on that of the child. So a marriage was arranged with a man in his late fifties. The girl consented with the greatest reluctance, bore three children (one of whom survived long enough to be tormente in the style of the house), and on her husband’s death took a vow of perpetual chastity.
Even before this event, Elizabeth was suffering from migraine, stomach disorders, dizziness, and odd pains, for which she consulted the family physician, Dr. Charles Poirot. He became her confidant and, after her husband’s death, the male participant in a love affair which was not platonic but, at the same time, was never consummated. Poirot, for his part, wanted to marry Elizabeth. She was hopelessly caught between God and man, and her physical condition deteriorated. She had fits and convulsions, and in the fall of 1620, was “officially recognized as possessed of the devil.”
Exorcisms were performed without success. At length, they took her to the chapel of a nearby Jesuit novitiate for further treatment:
“Astaroth! Reply!” an exorcist now exhorted the demon. “I conjure thee to reply! Dost though possess the body of Elizabeth? Beelzebub!
By the all-powerful Holy Ghost I conjure thee to reply! . . . Demon, whoever thou art who possesseth the body of this woman, I conjure thee to reveal thy name!”
At these words, Elizabeth’s body stiffened. . . . Her eyes rolled up, foam appeared on her lips, and a hoarse voice that issued from her throat but was unrecognizable as her voice called out a name: “Charles Poirot!”
Poirot went to the stake and Elizabeth went home, where she exhibited great religious zeal. At the time of her death, she was under suspicion of heresy.
The third of these tales deals with the courtroom battle between Jeanne Harvilliers, an accused witch, and Jean Bodin, her judge.
Bodin was a sixteenth-century political philosopher and jurist who evidently took Jeanne’s case because he had never before seen a witch at close range and wanted some firsthand information about the practice of sorcery. Contemporary sources agree that, by the standards of the time, he was a humane man, and certainly not a bloodthirsty judge.
The bailiff brought Jeanne in, dragging her backwards, as was the custom, for a witch must not be allowed to cast a spell on the judge she was confronting. Once past the first shock, God would protect him.
Jeanne Harvilliers had Gypsy blood in her. Her mother had been burned as a witch, so when Jeanne was denounced, there was no doubt that she would be put to death. But Bodin, as her judge, could ameliorate her sufferings by sparing her the ordeal of torture and having her strangled at the stake before the faggots were lit:
He told her quite plainly what he expected of her: that she was to reveal her secrets to him, her methods, her beliefs, and should talk freely, as to an equal, as to a scholar who questioned her without animosity ... let her regard him as merely a reasonable man wanting to understand and analyze.
Bodin had expected a cooperative witness. He had read some learned books on the subject of witchcraft, and assuming that they were true and that Jeanne Havilliers was a witch, concluded (logically enough) that she could supply corroborative details. For her part, she did not know what the man was talking about, and defended herself vigorously.
As the case became more exasperating to the judge, he began to consider using torture, and kept putting it off. Finally, he felt that he had no choice. In the torture chamber Jeanne, in a virtuosic torrent of mockery, shamed the torturer into leaving her alone, but teas overheard to confess to being a witch. Dragged back to face Bodin, she was asked to discuss her pact with Satan. When she denied that there was one, Bodin in a fury ordered her burned alive the next day.
Bodin lived for many years, and wrote a famous book, De la demonomanic des sorciers.
Mme. Mallet-Joris’ protagonists— the exhibitionist, the hysteric, the rebel—are all familiar as types, and the implication is that in writing about them, she is saying something meaningful about us all. In a sense, all of the characters in her book are victims, and to each of them she brings as much empathy and compassion as she has. Each of her studies is a morality play from which no moral is to be drawn.
Like the tales of Isak Dinesen, these poignant stories lend themselves to an ornate style. The excerpts that I have cited are fair to Herma Briffault’s rich and musical translation.