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La sorcellerie et la ville

Antoine Follain
Maryse Simon

La Sorcière de ville et la Sorcière des champs en Lorraine aux xvie et xviie siècles

Sorcière de ville and Sorcière des champs in Lorraine in the sixteenth century and seventeenth century

Antoine Follain


To study the question of Sorcery and City, we must first agree on the terms, on what is sorcery and precisely what practices are criminalized in the 16th and 17th centuries and regarded today as acts of sorcery by historians.

We must also agree on the term “city” and determine on what conditions we can talk of Sorcière de ville or Sorcière des champs1. The simplest way is to consider the question asked to the accused during questioning. He responds with his birthplace and then his home. But is this the best way? We would rather read the entire procedure to know where the accused lived from his childhood until his arrest and where he performed his activities considered as acts of sorcery. The example of Claudette Clauchepied summarizes all these problems. According to Robin Briggs she is a case of Sorcière de ville but for Jean-Claude Diedler, she is a perfect example of Sorcière des champs.

This article incorporates the whole issue in the state of Lorraine in the 16th century and 17th century to about 1625–1630. The archives are exceptional. The documents of the trial were usually burnt in the pyre but in Lorraine, they were kept to justify expenditure and revenue.

The question is : Are witches rare or absent from towns because population in the city is different from population in the country (they don’t believe in healers’ abilities or fear witches’ powers)? Or is this because a city, as a seat of power, is a more dangerous place for reprobates (that is why they should stay away)? Claudette Clauchepied would have eventually made the mistake of coming to town once too often.

The plan of our communication corresponds to the steps we followed with our students in research seminar. First we made an approach of the concepts of sorcery and of urban identity (Part 1). Then we studied several cases, starting with the small town of Neufchâteau (Part 2) and in Nancy, the capital city, in which we considered the officers’ attitude in regard of sorcery (Part 3). Finally we analyzed the trial of Barbe Grosse Gorge, a case which helps to understand the difference between Sorcière de ville and Sorcière des champs (Part 4).

Giving a definition of sorcery is not an easy task. It includes precise, central or accessory things such as magic, healing power, poisoning, divination, ability to harm people, possession and even agreement with the Devil and renunciation of God. All of these coexist in town sorcery. To give a definition of city, we determined the cities of Lorraine. In ancient texts, the places called “cities” have legal status but they are small communities. The territory of Saint Dié for instance, has a population between 1,000 and 3,000 inhabitants. All of them are not living in the city limits. Bruyères and Arches have the same population as a village but they have higher administrative functions. Blâmont appears in Civitates Orbis Terrarum published in Köln from 1572 to 1617. It is a big atlas of cities in the world but it is not reality. It gives an idea of what a city is supposed to be. The surroundings are cleared of surroundings, houses and villages. It is not a real city but an idea of city. One can study sorcery and city in small towns but it is not the most interesting urban level. At least 5,000 inhabitants are needed (“introduction” Antoine Follain and Maryse Simon) and the bigger the most interesting it becomes.

There are two or three capital cities in Lorraine. Metz is big but there are no archives. Toul is in the Kingdom of France. Nancy is the new capital city of the Dukes of Lorraine. It is a medium city with 7 to 10,000 inhabitants in the 1580s. From 1590, the Duke Charles III builds an extension, a new town in the South of the old one. Nancy thus becomes a bigger city with a fast growth of population. The new inhabitants are coming from small towns and villages. Nancy must be the heart of the study.

The article presents documentary sources but they are disappointing. The authorities of Nancy claimed for many documents in their jurisdictions and they were well preserved, but the same authorities were less demanding with themselves. The first archives start from 1580 and they are incomplete in the 1580s and 1590s. There are mentions of trials for sorcery in accounts registers but the articles of these trials do not remain.

In the article, we explain why we think they were burnt in pyres (like elsewhere) while they were preserved in the country. We don’t think it is fortuitous, rather a case of elimination of papers where honourable names could be stained through relationship with criminal witches. As historical knowledge is based on remaining archives, if our hypothesis is true, the elimination of these papers concerning sorcery in cities gives a view as blurred as if trials concerning old people, young people, red-haired or any protected class had been destroyed. This prospective would be coherent with the book Demonolâtrie by Nicolas Remy. He always specifies in the text or in the margin, the witch’s name, a place and a date. There are hundreds of mentions. However, he makes a difference between Nancy and the country. He tells the name of the village for a Sorcière des champs but does not specify anything for the Sorcière de ville.

The first case we studied takes place in Neufchâteau. We know there were trials but they left no trace except one. It concerns Jehenne, widow of Magnien, accused for sorcery in 1611. All the accusations look similar to a trial in the country. The woman defends herself well but we know that judges can resort to torture and obtain any confession. In this case, they decide not to do it, this means that they did not really want to condemn her. The final question is why they preserve her. In fact, it is not a trial of the city but of the streets. All the accusations come from lower class people. In refusing to condemn Jehenne, the judges did not disavow important people. What can we conclude? We would be mistaken thinking that the city spares witches, others were burnt in Neufchâteau. It would be another mistake thinking that small cities are cleverer than the country and spare witches and the bigger city, is even cleverer and spares all the witches, it is not the reality.

The third part is at the heart of the subject, dealing with the capital city. The article shows that people of justice in Nancy believe in sorcery. They have a tendency to find witches everywhere. First example: after the death of a woman who committed suicide, the family, the neighbours do not talk about the Devil. But the judges insist on finding sorcery.

Second example: the trial in Nancy against Claudon Magistère in 1615. All the witnesses live in the city, they denounce acts of sorcery exactly the same as people usually do in the country. Judges believe them and give more importance to accusations of sorcery than to any other accusation.

In fact, the third case is not really a case of sorcery. The proof is that at the end Nicolas Le Bragard is not burnt but hanged. He is an amateur wizard, a man who buys books of magic and tries experiments. The Princes of these times have magicians in their courts but the judges in Nancy do not want to leave this common people magician alive. They want to prove that he is a sorcerer. At the end he is condemned to death penalty and his books are burnt.

The study of these cases shows that Nancy is not different from the country.

The last part is the study of the trial against Barbe Grosse Gorge in 1591. The trial is made by a lord’s justice that is why papers remain. Barbe is a healer; she does not live in Nancy but not far. She has customers in the city. One day, a man and his wife want revenge because she could not heal their son. They are very disappointed because he was going to be employed at the court of the Duke but had to be cured. During the trial, all the customers turn themselves against the healer. They believe that the woman who cures the disease is the same who gives the illness. All the accusations resemble those we can see in the country. Barbe’s confession is obtained through bad means, judges wanted to get rid of her.

The trials we have found and studied allow us to assert a few things. First, the documentation is incomplete. Trials are missing maybe eliminated on purpose.

Then, there is no difference of mentality between people of the city and people of the country. Judges in Nancy have the same beliefs and the same speech as judges in the country.

Nevertheless there are some differences. Trials for sorcery are less numerous in Nancy than in the country. In the Bailliage de Vosges, there are moments of witch hunt. Two, three or four women are arrested in a short time. Ten, twelve or more witches are burnt in a few years; it is like a burst of fever. But in Nancy things never speed up. Trials follow one another, case by case. Juges de ville were not more enlightened than Juges des champs but they were more moderate.

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Extrait du texte

« L’avons interrogée pour et à quelle occasion ledict Bastien avoit telle querelle et malveillance de la faire ainsy prendre ? Dict et respond qu’elle ne le peult sçavoir, synon que peult avoir environ ung an la femme dudict Bastien et la femme du filz d’icelluy Bastien […] luy demandarent si elle sçavoit aulcuns remède pour [le] guarir ; laquelle respondit qu’elle veoit bien que c’estoit […] maladie fort faucheuse […] Surquoy ladicte mère […] luy dict qu’elle avoit soubson sur une femme qui habitoit en leurs maisons et qu’elle craindoit qu’elle eust donné le mal à sondict filz […] Laquelle Barbe luy dict qu’elle en feroit ce qu’elle poulroit et de fait elle commença à le médiciner […] À Caresme prenant dernier, la femme dudict Bastien retournant de Nancy appella ladicte Barbe, luy disant que […] s’il y avoit quelque moyen qu’il peult parler et s’ayder de son bras pour escripre, qu’il auroit ung office à la court… »
Extrait du premier interrogatoire de Barbe Grosse Gorge en 1591, Arc...


Professeur des universités, directeur de l’institut d’Histoire moderne de l’Université de Strasbourg et membre de l’EA 3400 « Art, civilisation et histoire de l’Europe » (ARCHE).

© Presses universitaires de Strasbourg, 2018

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