‘A Most Certain, Strange, and true Discovery’: Witches in Modern France

Some of our enduring assumptions about the history of witchcraft in Europe after the ‘witch craze’ need busting.

I’m hardly the first to notice this.

In fact, several historians have written about how pervasive and inaccurate it is to think that secularization created the scepticism that made Europeans – and especially elites – realize that witchcraft was not real, bringing the trials and executions of the early-modern period to an end.

So what happened to witchcraft after the end of the trials? My project focuses on a paradigm case: France, 1789-1939.

This is the nation that produced Voltaire’s skepticism and the materialism of the Encylopédie, the French Revolution and the Napoleonic Law Codes. And yet, this was also a nation that – as historians such as Eugen Weber and Judith Devlin highlighted 30 or 40 years ago – had a remarkably vibrant and enduring culture of witchcraft. A series of sensationalist journalists and more sober anthropologists have shown time and again that belief in sorcery endured into the second half of the twentieth century, and beyond.

But I am at a point where I have realised what my project really needs to start with is a systematic assault on the common-sense story of modern witchcraft in France.

“Arrested at 77, Faget the witch had been performing magic since his adolescence. Why did the justice system take so long to become concerned about his activities?” Le Matin asked, 23.01.1922

Wait, are we talking about witchcraft? Old ladies on broomsticks?

Yes.

Well, I mean no.

Not old ladies on broomsticks. The stereotypes are about as far divorced from what most people believed as they could possibly be, but the basic ideas of charms, spells, malevolent influences, these really were important to French popular cultures in this period.

But didn’t witchcraft cases in the courts basically disappear after the witch craze?

Let me be clear. Absolutely not.

Between the French Revolution and the Second World War, hundreds of criminal cases involving witchcraft made it into the French newspapers, and many more may have gone unremarked. I’ve found almost 250 so far, and I think there are many more to be discovered.

Ok, but the courts didn’t prosecute ‘witches’ did they?

Well actually, they did.

It is true that sorcery itself could not be considered a crime: the courts and the newspapers went to great lengths to emphasize that the legal system did not believe in magic. Yet, by inserting the adjectives ‘supposed’ or ‘suspected’ in front of the word witch, the courts effectively targeted men and women who were thought to have supernatural powers for the crimes of fraud and illegal medical practice.

The orders came from the very top, as when the Minister of the Interior instructed the prefects in 1871 to ‘severely prosecute’ any ‘supposed’ witches they came across.

In some weirder cases, ‘witches’ found themselves in court for murdering people. Hyacinth Danse, for instance, was not only endowed with a name fit for a novel, his life had the contours of cheap fiction. In 1933, this low-level pornographer, Occultist, or even amateur ‘pyschoanalyst’ (according to the newspapers), and paedophile killed his lover and mother, before calmly boarding a train to Belgium, where he killed his childhood confessor, knowing that he could not be executed in Belgium, unlike France.

Hyacinthe Danse

And I’m not the only one to think his life sounds like a novel. Georges Simenon, famous for his gritty pulp detective novels, knew Danse personally, and included him in his book Les Trois crimes de mes amis. Stranger than fiction indeed…

Yes, yes, crackpots. They existed in 1933, they exist today. But the legal system and the people involved in it no longer believed in witchcraft, did they?

Belief is a slippery question…

… but it has to be emphasized that for every newspaper article poking fun at the astounding credulity of the ‘peasants’, and for all the administrative talk of the reprehensible ‘superstitions’ of the countryside, the legal system and the individuals who worked within it often behaved as if witchcraft was real.

Now, of course we are not dealing with judges openly saying they believed in witches, but they believed in the same way that Jeanne Favret-Saada summarized many years ago with the telling phrase: ‘I know [witchcraft isn’t real]… but all the same’

Let me suggest two ways in which the courts suggested witchcraft could be real.

  1. They recognized it as a social reality. So, in a series of libel cases, the courts agreed with accused witches that being called a witch was slanderous, because it damaged their local reputation. Witchcraft may not be ‘real’…. But all the same, if people believe in it… For the same reason, the French state apparently had no qualms about trying to use the supernatural to influence the populations of their colonial holdings, as in the famous case when the magician Robert Houdin was sent to intimidate the Algerians with his superior magic.
  1. They entertained the possibility of witchcraft by invoking new ideas from psychology, para-psychology, psychoanalysis, and Occultism. Witchcraft might seem a ridiculous superstition, lawyers argued, but what if there was some truth to the powers of rural magicians? And judges in the period of the great secularization debates were not always as dismissive of these arguments as you might assume.
Perhaps they got ideas from the various semi-legal and illegal medical practitioners, who combined X-rays, vibrations, and other technological healing techniques, with patently magical methods, such as spells and charms. Doctor Macaura was one such illegal medical practitioner.
Doctor Macaura in 1911.

Perhaps they got ideas from the various semi-legal and illegal medical practitioners, who combined X-rays, vibrations, and other technological healing techniques, with patently magical methods, such as spells and charms. Doctor Macaura (left) was one such illegal medical practitioner.

Ok, but these cases did not involve the levels of violence of the witch craze, did they?

Sadly, they often did.

Part of my project is to simply quantify the number of cases in France, and their outcomes. Without having finished this work yet, one thing is clear: a great many men and women were shot, beaten, burned, and poisoned in modern witchcraft cases, and many of them died.

Although the courts no longer burned witches, local communities did.

There were three unrelated murders for witchcraft in both the years 1834 and 1922 alone. Other years saw similar levels of violence and attempted murders.

But this was a local, rural thing, wasn’t it?

Each case may have had local causes and connections, but it would be a mistake to see this as a phenomenon limited to isolated rural communities.

There were a great many cases involving witchcraft in Paris and all of the major towns in France. (Danse and ‘Dr.’ Macaura, for instance). Many of the people involved were connected to wider networks that stretched across France and the world. Indeed, unwitching specialists were often mobile individuals who travelled to attract work and avoid the authorities.

Moreover, the reverberations of the cases were national and international. In fact, the French state became involved in witchcraft conflicts in its colonies, and the French public became an audience for criminal cases taking place all around Europe and the world.

Fine. So what you’re saying is that pre-modern witchcraft beliefs survived a surprisingly long time in modern France?

Actually, that isn’t what I’m saying.

What is most interesting – I think – about everything I have said so far is that far from highlighting the survival of ‘superstition’ into a secular, modern state that battled to eradicate it, my research suggests that these supernatural beliefs were entwined with modernity. They fed off newspaper coverage. They relied on the transmission of ideas through cheap print, pulp fiction. They invoked new technologies and scientific discoveries. They talked the language of modern medicine and psychology. And they thrived at the heart of the secular state.

But there were fewer as time went on?

I haven’t finished the first stage of my research, which involves identifying as many cases as possible. But there are no signs the trials declined very much. Most of the cases I have mentioned in this post are from the twentieth century.

This is partly because the more recent cases come with photos and pictures that I have used as illustrations, and partly because I wanted to make the point that decline cannot be assumed. In a survey of French witchcraft, Owen Davies has drawn attention to just how much there was in the second half of the twentieth century.

And it was mostly old, rural women who were accused of sorcery, right?

HAVE. YOU. BEEN. PAYING. ANY. ATTENTION?

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9 thoughts on “‘A Most Certain, Strange, and true Discovery’: Witches in Modern France

  1. Thanks for a fascinating post Will (and brilliant ‘pass notes’ style too!). Every early modernist who has taught knows a lot about witchcraft whether they want to or not, so it is great to get this longer term perspective. As I am sure you are aware, in England witchcraft trials stopped not because everyone became enlightened and stopped believing in witches, but because people lost faith in the process of law – they were no longer so sure that they were persecuting the right people. Thus the persistence of belief makes a lot of sense. Have you read Monod’s ‘Solomon’s Secret Arts’? Strikes me that he would endorse this sense of the supernatural and modernity working as one as well.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Thanks for this fascinating research. Have I understood correctly? Are you suggesting a seamless continuity between the old witch trials and subsequent trials for (alleged) sorcery – that the activity persisted, and only the framing changed? And are you suggesting that the levels of sorcery trial activity and executions for sorcery since the witch trials hadn’t declined much in France by 1940?

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Actual continuity is hard to prove:I don’t know what happened in the eighteenth century and I don’t know that there is much work on it (though I’d love to hear of any that exists).

      But continuity IS an important part of the counter intuitive nature of the modern trials in France, I think (seamless isn’t the word I would use though: there are lots of new aspects, which are what makes these trials so interesting).

      As for numerical decline, I don’t have reliable numbers for the early modern trials and don’t know if anyone does (though I do have a long reading list to help think about this) but if anything the surviving sources suggest MORE trials in the modern period than the early modern.

      But then the population was also larger. And more trials doesn’t mean more magic. It may mean that a higher proportion of supernatural conflicts are making it into court. I am wary of blanket statements at this stage and given how limited our absolute numbers are.

      So basically there are a lot of unanswered questions (!) as you’d expect at the start of a research trajectory.

      But thanks for the questions!

      Like

  3. As ex pat Northern Irish (and yes we are still a superstitious lot too) living in the north of France, for the past four years i find that the belief in folklore and the supernatural, though not always obvious on the surface, still runs deep with the French. I have heard little directly about witchcraft but lutins (bit like our Oirish leps), “dames blanche” (white lady ghosts – not the ice cream dish of same name – no respectable French chateau is without at least one), ghostly horses that steal naughty children and throw them in the sea, river, or nearest wells, etc, easily come up in conversation, when prompted. I thought at the time when i visited my sis in law to be in the Morbihan in southern Bretagne, it was just rural yokels who believed in “healers”, known as “magnetiseurs” and “guérisseur‎s”, but no, they are in most local phone directories throughout France. I will admit, on insistence of sis in law to be, to having visited a guérisseur, and despite my scepticism, came away feeling better, and didn’t need my cane for balance for a while. Is this witchcraft, or psychology? Must go – i hear a knocking on the wall – i think it may be the korrigans calling. Bon weekend biloute.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Very interesting I have met a long term New Zealander, who was brought up in France and farming on a tapu site. He was aware of the spirits on the land as it had been a major battle site but was reluctant to talk about it because of his fear . This fear was because of being thought of as a seer and that frightened him as in his childhood it was not to be named. Along with any gypsy connections.

    Liked by 1 person

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