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La sorcellerie et la ville

 | 
Antoine Follain
, 
Maryse Simon

La perception de la sorcellerie par les élites urbaines dans une capitale provinciale du royaume de France : Poitiers aux xvie et xviie siècles

The perception of witchcraft by the urban elite in Poitiers (16th-17th century)

Antoine Coutelle

Résumé

Witchcraft in Poitiers during the modern age should be studied in light of the story of the devils in Loudun. This case was a turning point in perceptions of demoniacal demonstration. The city of Poitiers was the capital of a province that was not particularly affected by witchcraft hunting. This Province of Poitou belonged to the western part of the French kingdom where the hunt for witches was overseen by legal procedures from an early stage. In Poitiers, many traces in the files of the local archives were left by a homogeneous social elite composed of royal officers from the so-called Bureau des finances, from the Presidial and the Election, as well as of clerks from the numerous chapters present in the city and professors from the University. From these files, it is possible to restore the texts—speeches and writings—elaborated by this urban elite about witchcraft and demonic possession.

In Poitiers, as in other places in the kingdom, witchcraft cases were taken to court before several jurisdictions. Among them, the Corps de ville (i.e. municipal) assembly which had the competence to police cases, the Prévot, the Presidial where the sentence could be appealed, and the Intendant. Between the middle of the 16th century and the end of the 17th century, historians have established that 21 cases were judged in the whole province of Poitiers, among which 18 cases of witchcraft and 3 cases of possession, 11 taking place in small rural parishes, 7 in towns and only 2 in Poitiers itself.

In the archives, we can read how the presence of the devil was considered by the social, political, and judicial elite. From this perspective, 1634 seems to be the turning point in local history. Poitiers sustained substantial damage after the events of Loudun. Among the 15 judges selected for the trial of Urbain Grandier, 3 belonged to Poitiers’s law court and came from influential families in the city. Several inhabitants of Poitiers, including students of the Jesuit school were present at the public exorcism of the possessed nuns. Antoine Denesde, a merchant of Poitiers, left a record of this spectacle in his family manuscript. François Carré, both doctor and member of the Corps de ville, took part in a committee of scientists who attested to the veracity of the devil’s possession regarding nuns. In 1635, another doctor from Poitiers, François Pidoux, who had many relatives in the University of Medicine, published a treatise against theories doubting the diabolical phenomenon. He claimed that the perception of possession was not a side effect of feminine character nor a side effect of the theory of humours.

Every member of the elite of Poitiers, whether more or less involved in the case of Loudun, tended towards defending and explaining the truth about demoniacal possession. Therefore, they condemned the guilty person, acting in keeping with the context of the Catholic recapture. The city of Poitiers and the province of Poitou deemed themselves a Catholic border opposite communities of Protestants. In 1634, a few weeks after the end of the case of Loudun, the elite of Poitiers received the Grands Jours, i.e. the judges from the Parliament of Paris who temporarily settled in the city to re-establish a proper justice system. They were not very concerned about witchcraft. The main part of their activity was dedicated to implementing a restrictive reading of the Edict of Nantes. Both local and national levels shared a common goal of restoring rigorous orthodoxy, leading to a struggle against all religious deviations.

Nevertheless, the case of Loudun had direct consequences on Poitiers. A woman known as the Dutemple widow, suspected of spending time with possessed nuns, settled in Poitiers around 1640. The Corps de ville managed the situation and the register of the debates shows that the urban elite considered possession as contamination. The words of those who were said to have been exposed to the devil were seen as infectious. The Corps de ville dealt with the situation both as a religious threat and as a law enforcement problem. The case turned into a jurisdiction conflict between the city council and the Intendant. In the end, the elite of Poitiers did not disavow its belief in the devil’s presence sooner than the other cities of the kingdom.

The last witches were burned in public in 1642, on August 9th. Two men and one woman from a parish on the outskirts of Poitou and Limousin were convicted. Witch-hunting gradually grew weaker but the witch remained a strong figure of social reprobation. The word was still an intolerable insult, as we can see in the judicial archives.

In the end, the devil was rather absent from the core of Poitiers during the 17th century. The city suffered indirectly from the effects of the demoniacal cases. This observation can be explained by the following hypothesis: first, both the size of the city and the action of the municipal institution enabled stronger social control than in smaller villages, then members of the urban elite lived in a cultural sphere that had been reorganized by the Catholic Reform. The fear of the devil remained strong, but belief in the witchcraft phenomena was turning into superstition. The main enemies were the Protestants. The elite became a relay for the royal authority and adopted the point of view of the Parliament of Paris. During the 17th century, the diabolical threat, which seemed so close from the battlements of Poitiers during the trial of Urbain Grandier in Loudun, was gradually moving away.

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Extrait du texte

« Partant, ô vous gentilz esprits, & vous Juges & Seigneurs de la terre, gardez (comme dict l’Apostre) d’estre surprins par vaines parolles […] dont usent ces pipeurs, Sorciers, Magiciens & Nostradamistes […] Faictes en plutost (nous vous supplions) bo[n]ne justice […] atte[n]dés vous qu’ils lient vos femmes d’un nœud charmé, & les détiennent par leurs sorts, sans vous pouvoir engendrer de beaux enfants ? […] qu’ils tuent vos enfanço[n]s […] qu’ils empoisonnent vostre ma[n]ger ou breuvage […] qu’ils courbent le dos à vos serviteurs ou servantes d’une infinité de tortions angoisseuses, & détienne[n]t en dure langueur vos pauvres fermiers & laboureurs, ou qu’eux mesmes, possible, estans imbus de leur malice, brassent contre vous leurs maistres en leur fureur, milles sorcelleries & poisons ? […] La loy civile veult leur mort corporelle, les sainctz Canons […] ordonnent leur mort spirituelle, & Dieu commande l’une & l’autre… »
Déclamation… de Pierre Nodé, chap. 21-23.

Lorsque Pierre Nodé ...

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