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La sorcellerie et la ville

Antoine Follain
Maryse Simon

D’une Vauderie l’autre : les clés de la réussite ou de l’échec d’une persécution contre la sorcellerie en territoire urbain à Lyon (v. 1440) et Arras (v. 1460)

“D’une vauderie l’autre”: the keys for success or failure of witch prosecution in the urban space in Lyon (1440 c.) and Arras (1460 c.)

Franck Mercier


Between the autumn of 1459 and late 1460, the city of Arras in Artois saw a veritable wave of witch trials that took the lives of more than twenty people. The trials had not yet fully ended when an anonymous pamphlet was published and diffused all over the town, accusing the judges of corruption. The question then became how the witches had gained entry to the town and who was responsible for this tragedy. The inhabitants of Arras probably agreed with this opinion, not because the people did not believe that witchcraft was possible but rather because they realised that it was impossible to produce acceptable evidence of guilt. This pamphlet shows that, at that time, the tribunal was discredited in the eyes of the urban elites and probably of a large part of the population.

The presence of witches in town also poses problems for historians. Classical historiography usually situates fear of witchcraft in other segments of the population, especially in village society. The Arras trials contrast with the enlightened attitude toward witches that supposedly prevailed in urban society. The historiographical tendency to focus on popular and rural culture is baffled by this urban episode of witch-hunting. Yet the so-called Vauderie d’Arras (derived from the French vernacular for Waldensian heretics, vaudois) is not the only occurrence of urban witchcraft in the context of the fifteenth century. This article draws specific attention to another urban example of witch-hunting, which is less well known: the Vauderie of Lyon.

The unequal historical notoriety of these two affairs results from a substantial difference in the documentary situation. Much of the documentation concerning the Artois trials was unfortunately destroyed by fire in 1491 at the time of overturning of the Arras judgements by the Parliament of Paris, but some of the trials are referred to in others sources. The documentary situation in the city of Lyon is quite different. In this area of the realm of France, witchcraft trials were a very rare phenomenon. Only one treatise, entitled in French “la Vauderye de Lyonois en brief”, refers to witchcraft trials that have left no other traces in the sources. The recent discovery of new documents, such as other manuscript versions of the “Vauderye”, makes it possible to establish a more precise chronology of the events leading to the writing of the treatise. It is now possible to demonstrate that this treatise had its origins in the Dominican convent of Lyon and was written around 1440. The Dominican inquisitor in the diocese of Lyon named Jean Tacot, probably with a mandate from Pope Eugène IV, managed to introduce witch-hunting and the concept of demonic witchcraft in the city. He rounded up suspects and apparently began their trials. At this point, however, his aggressive plans went awry. Local officials, led by Archbishop Amédée of Talaru, used obstructive tactics to thwart the inquisitor’s actions and all the trials were ended, the suspects released, and, after some initial resistance, the Dominican Inquisition was neutralised. Finally, when compared with Lyon, the Vauderie of Arras seems more like a victory for the judges, as measured by the high number of victims. The initial success of the judicial investigations in Arras contrasts with the inability of the Dominican inquisitor to develop witch trials in Lyon.

A balanced analysis of this dichotomy could throw new light on the way in which witchcraft developed. How can high urban culture and witch-hunting be reconciled? To what extent did urban scholars, theologians, and judges use their science and personal charisma to prosecute witches? And above all, why would a repressive strategy based on the concept of witches’ Sabbath work successfully in Arras and fail or work badly in Lyon? These are the questions at the core of the investigation conducted in this article.

In both cases, the Dominican Inquisition played a major part in the release of the prosecutions. The trials were conducted by inquisitorial vicars from the local Dominican convent, acting on papal authority, while the local bishop was represented by vicars or officials. Both the tribunals adhered to the same general stereotype of conspiratorial, diabolical witchcraft, which was combined with bewitchments, the pact with the devil and even witches’ flight, the aspect which probably gave rise to the most heated debate and the greatest doubts. A comparison between the episodes underscores another driving force behind prosecution: the Observance Dominican or Franciscan reform. On both sides, several judges, both secular (Philippe of Saveuses) and ecclesiastical (Thomas Girbelli), managed to simultaneously promote witch-hunting and Observance reform. These two cases show that religious involvement in the Dominican reform or moral purification were not without importance, but these elements were certainly not the decisive factor. In a global context with “a highly fluid mythology, in which no two trials resemble each other very closely” (Kieckhefer), analysis of differences is more important than analysis of similarities.

It should be emphasized that the trials in Arras and Lyon had different destinies in and because of the jurisdictional and political situations.

In the south, in the mid-fifteenth century, the Dominicans used fear of diabolic witchcraft as a means to assert their autonomy in a jurisdictional landscape which was remarkably fragmented. But the other ecclesiastical courts, such as the “cour des excès” in Lyon, displayed little enthusiasm for this programme of action against witchcraft. The Bishop of Lyon, Amédée de Talaru, and his officials did what they could to obstruct the activities of the Dominican friars carrying out the Inquisition. The Archbishop of Lyon claimed complete jurisdiction in heresy cases and the Dominican inquisitor in this city was confined to the status of assistant. In Lyon, where the main administration of justice was effectively in the hands of the archbishop (who was also Count of Lyon), the opposition of ecclesiastical authorities sabotaged the work of the inquisitor. All these ecclesiastical courts were staffed with academically trained jurists and these professionals disliked the violation of due process in witchcraft trials. The pretensions of the Dominicans in the field of witchcraft were perhaps very high, but their real power was much smaller. Faced with this local obstruction, the Dominicans of Lyon asked for the help of the King of France, Charles VII. In an unpublished letter, the Dominican prior, Thomas Girbelli, complained to the king about his material poverty. Expensive procedures made it difficult for him to pay the expenses of the trials. But this strategy did not work. The failure of the Dominican inquisitor can also be explained as being the result of the secular authorities’ passivity. Finally, the silence of King Charles decidedly put an end to this endeavour to introduce witchcraft prosecution.

Some twenty years later, in the northern Burgundian lands, the Dominican inquisition exercised more considerable power, in concert with the local ecclesiastical courts. Unlike the Lyonnaise inquisition, which operated in a fragmented jurisdictional area and relied on the support of the king to carry out their task of eradicating diabolic heresy, the inquisitions’ tribunal in Arras could count on the cooperation of episcopal officials and local clerics. The Dean of Arras, Jacques du Bois, was one of the chief advocates of the trials. He probably wrote a Latin treatise known as the Recollectio in which he argued that the only way to eradicate witchcraft was by using inquisitorial procedure. He specifically and vigorously promoted the use of torture and condemned the witch’s apostasy as the most serious crime against God and divine omnipotence. It is not a coincidence that this text ended up in the same manuscript as the vauderye de Lyonois.

A final precondition for the success of witch trials is the support of secular authorities. In Arras, witch trials that were initially under the control of the ecclesiastical court were transferred to a more intricate playing field on which various authorities could act. This article argues that ducal power did not have a moderating effect on the prosecutions. Once hailed by some historians (Johann Huizinga) as an enlightened prince that had a moderating influence on prosecutions, it now appears that the Duke of Burgundy, Philippe the Good (d. 1467), had a more ambiguous effect on the repression of witchcraft. Rather than bringing witch prosecution to an end, the Duke of Burgundy protected the tribunal of Arras. He never repudiated the theological presumptions that justified the repression of witchcraft, and maintained an ambivalent stance towards prosecution. This attitude paved the way for bloodier witch-hunting.

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« Seigneurs1 pour Dieu ne vous deplaise mye
S’on veut sçavoir la vérité du cas
car cha esté par trop grande villenie
de mettre sus les vauldois en Arras… »
Chronique de Jacques Du Clercq, livre IV, ch. 16, p. 81-842.

Vers la fin de l’année 1460, le chroniqueur Jacques Du Clercq signale la présence « en plusieurs lieux de la ville d’Arras » de petits rouleaux de papier qui, sous le couvert de l’anonymat, prennent violemment à partie le tribunal local d’inquisition. Il est vrai que ce dernier vient à peine de conclure l’une des plus virulentes persécutions urbaines de la sorcellerie connue sous le nom de Vauderie d’Arras3. De novembre 1459 à octobre 1460, la justice inquisitoriale a en effet organisé de vastes investigations et poursuites contre une secte démonolâtre dont les membres étaient supposés se rendre régulièrement à la « vauderie », c’est-à-dire au sabbat. Si l’enquête elle-même a sans doute conduit à l’incrimination d’une soixantaine d’habitants d’Arras ou des environs, toutes c...

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