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Witchcraft, Spirit Possession and Heresy

Author(s): Lucy Mair

Source: Folklore, Vol. 91, No. 2 (1980), pp. 228-238
Published by: Taylor & Francis, Ltd. on behalf of Folklore Enterprises, Ltd.
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Witchcraft, Spirit Possession and Heresy


THE harm
ideato that some people have a sinister power by which they can do
others simply by wishing to has been held in the past in most parts
of the world, and it still is today in many. These are the people that
anthropologists call witches; they may be either men or women. Of course
people seldom imagine that they have such power themselves. But if anything
goes wrong with him, or his family or his possessions, someone who believes in
witchcraft will at once assume that one of his enemies is responsible, and
therefore this person must be a witch. Witches are people who quarrel with us,
and use mystical powers to get their own back. Obviously, if they quarrel with
us, we quarrel with them, but we forget that part of it. I put this statement in the
present tense because, although very few people in what we call the West -
though it's really the north - now think there is such a thing as 'mystical
aggression,' a great many like to blame their own failures on others - on the
jealousy of their rivals, or the hide-bound attitudes of their teachers, or just 'the
system.' This propensity is a very important reason why people believe in
witchcraft where they do. Another very important one is the imperfection of
medical knowledge, or in many places its near-absence. People can't see what
carries malaria or measles, as they can see the source of an attack by force, and it
is not illogical to suppose that a disease has been 'sent' by somebody who
couldn't or wouldn't attack directly.
All over the world, people's ideas of what witches do, and what they are like,
have a great deal in common. I think there are two main reasons for this. In the
first place, all witches are supposed to be able to harm their victims without
apparently coming near them. That might be left as a mystery, but in practice it
isn't. Action at a distance has to be accounted for in some approach to everyday
terms. Witches work at night like other criminals, but you can never watch them
at it, as you can sometimes with thieves or murderers. Witches always have an
alibi; they were sound asleep in bed. So they must have some means of escaping
from their bodies and getting into their victims' houses in an incorporeal form.
Some Africans believe that witches have a serpent in their entrails which they
send out at night to attack their enemies. Early European ones were supposed to
have a magic ointment which enabled them to slip through a space as tiny as a
A person who is ill feels his strength, or his life, being eaten away; so African
witches are believed actually to eat their victims' flesh. Therefore, a general
characteristic ascribed to witches is that they are greedy for meat; and this is
elaborated in various ways. Often they are supposed to gather round a new grave
to feast on the corpse. A more rationalistic view - shall we call it? - is that they

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cause people to die so as to get a share of the funeral feast. Somet

said to eat infants. There is a small shred of reasoning here. In c
little medical knowledge, many infants die and their death is of
witchcraft; why should the witches kill them unless they want
Familiar spirits and werewolves may be the accomplices of witch
they once were in Europe.
The second reason for the likeness in the imaginary picture of
places far apart in space or time is that everywhere the witch is p
opposite of whatever is socially approved, and there are not so ma
between cultures in the kind of behaviour that they approve. In ad
thought of as curmudgeonly types who bear grudges and wreak th
secret instead of coming out into the open, witches are sometimes
representing the physical opposite of what is normal; they may b
walk on their hands, for example. Also they are supposed to be gui
to their witchcraft, of all the most heinous offences, particulary inc
the African beliefs is the elaboration in Europe of the idea of the
which Christian ritual is reversed, and people dance naked in
outwards, eat food without salt, trample on sacred objects, and s
Another belief that still prevails over much of the world, even t
in supposedly rationalist Europe, is that certain kinds of mental d
caused by some alien spirit entering a person's body: what is call
Possessed persons go into trances, they utter unintelligible sound
often taken to be foreign languages that they do not know, they may
horrendous things such as walking on live coals; and when they ret
they cannot remember what has happened. The possessing spirits
or evil; evil spirits have to be driven out, but a good spirit possess
order to make that person its mouthpiece. Such spirit mediums,
called, learn to go into trance at will, and in that condition they g
people who consult them about their troubles. And among these tr
of witchcraft is prominent.
Anyone will remember instances of both kinds of possessio
Testament. Christ cast out devils from people whom we would call
Apostles on the day of Pentecost were possessed by the Holy Spiri
so many languages that everyone who was there could understand.
churches seek this kind of possession today.
Both these types of belief have flourished in non-literate societ
illiterate sections of populations among whom literacy was limited
Both became matters of acute controversy as literate Christian ch
to formulate and reformulate the bases of their faith.
Outside Europe today, only the victims of individual misfor
others of witchcraft. From time to time, an attempt may be made to
the witches in a small community and so to speak give it a fresh
people may have a reputation as witches which makes them likely
they may trade on such a reputation to make people afraid of them
never arraigned or punished simply for being witches. The same
classical and early medieval times. There was a recognised cr
maleficium which consisted in causing death or damage by occult m

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was punished in t
accusations that or
you stretch a poin
was a common acc
But from about t
new line on witch
explicit rejection o
must be rooted ou
burned; it was no
heretics too, but w
but hanged them.
form just at the t
and superhuman, b
explained by supe
continuing debat
attributed to them
and of course the
that when bad wea
were producing it
not they could d
themselves to the
with him. And t
particular actions
The church began
late twelfth centu
this was a puritan
Reformation. The
the devil and hon
many of them we
seeking out and ex
Inquisition. Their
to get people to be
at their gatherings
The Cathars, th
worship. The next
never a matter o
neighbours of mal
But the judges, ins
into an elaborate t
and that was what
centre of this myt
consisted in putti
those rites. This w
says this shows ho
Hunting in Southw
How did Europe ev
is a farrago of n

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enlightenment through recognition of the laws of physical causation

writers - Montaigne was one - ridiculed the whole belief system, but
opinion in general moved only slowly from partial to total scepticism.
In France a very important influence was that of lawyers concerne
criminal justice. Their argument ran like this: granted that there are w
that they are in league with the Devil; granted that their crime can
detected by normal means; all the same, judges should not be too ready
dubious evidence, such as confessions made under torture, the ordeal b
the 'devil's mark' that witches were supposed to show, or mere allegati
reputation. As early as 1601 the Parlement of Paris, which at that tim
highest court of justice in northern France, had ruled that anyone w
convicted of witchcraft had the right to appeal directly to it. From
refused to recognise the validity of the ordeal by water, in which a pe
proved guilty if he (or she) did not drown. In 1640 it gave up the pros
people accused of making a pact with the Devil. The church too, in th
of the theologians of the Sorbonne, asserted as far back as 1615 that
should be condemned on the word of the Father of Lies.
In this century there began to appear a difference between rural and urban
witchcraft. Accusations of what might be called ordinary maleficia went on in the
country, but in the cities there appeared something new. This was the idea that
devils had entered convents and taken possession of nuns, sometimes many at a
time; some priest was held responsible, and when he had been condemned to
death the devils usually departed.
There was nothing new in the exorcism of devils. What was new in these
dramatic cases was that the exorcisms were performed in public. For the church
authorities they were a continuation by other means of the physical warfare
between Catholics and Protestants that had raged in the sixteenth century. The
Devil was in league with the Protestants - or they with him. Anyone who
doubted the guilt of the accused, let alone the genuiness of possessions, was
siding with the enemy. Of the crowds who came to watch the exorcisms, many
no doubt were edified at the spectacle of these spiritual combats and terrified at
the strength of the adversary's resistance, and some were persuaded to return to
the Catholic faith. But others took it like a fair-ground show.
The most famous case was that of the Ursuline sisters of Loudun. It has
inspired novels, a play, a film and an opera, all emphasising the sexual
frustrations of the nuns, which certainly played their part in the events. But this
aspect of the story is of minor importance in the context of the wider issues that
divided France at that time. Most of these were illustrated at some point in the
drama of Loudun.
Loudun was a smaller city than Belfast, but it was as deeply divided between
Protestants and Catholics. It was one of the strongholds which the Protestants
were allowed to keep at the end of the religious wars of the sixteenth century,
where they had their own garrisons and governors of their own choice; and at
first they didn't allow Catholics to live there. But this arrangement was only
meant to be temporary, and it came to an end in 1624. After that Richelieu set
about demolishing the fortresses.

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In Loudun Cathol
established them
convent of the Ur
of the Counter-R
be pulled down,

In the city there was a priest called Urbain Grandier, a handsome, intellectual
and arrogant man, who made enemies, as such men do. He was critical of the
mendicant orders, he wrote a tract against the celibacy of the clergy, and he had
Protestant friends, among them the Governor of the city. His sexual adventures
were widely known; they were unseemly in a priest, but far from unique in those
days. He joined in protests against the destruction of the walls of Loudon. He
was asked to become the spiritual director of the Ursulines, but he refused. The
man who accepted the post was called Mignon, and he was already an enemy of

In 1632 first the prioress, Sister Jeanne des Anges, and then all the nuns,
began to show signs of diabolical possession; as one of the most striking, the
prioress was said to have been seen walking on the roof of the convent. Father
Mignon tried to exorcise them. They insisted, through the mouths of their
devils, that Grandier was responsible for their afflictions. Grandier's enemies
had already brought various charges against him, though not charges of
witchcraft, and he had successfully defended himself to both civil and
ecclesiastical authorities. Now he appealed to the Archbishop of Bordeaux, and
the Archbishop sent a doctor to examine the nuns, and then ordered the
exorcisms to cease.

The affair took on political significance when it came to the notice of

Laubardemont, who had clashed with Grandier at the time when the Loudunais
were trying to preserve their fortifications. Two of the high-born young ladies in
the convent were his cousins, and when he learned from their families what was
going on, he got a special commission from Richelieu to make an investigation.
Exorcisms began again, and now they were held in public. Platforms were set
up in the churches, and the possessed women lay and writhed on them while two
or three exorcists together might try to compel the devils to leave their victim,
and members of the public climbed up to get a good view. The news spread all
over France, and people came in crowds, one or two even from England, to see
the battles with the powers of darkness. The visitors gave alms to the convent,
which considerably increased its revenues. Richelieu paid the expenses of the
official exorcists, but others offered their help; friars of different orders
competed. Laubardemont set up a tribunal of his own to examine Grandier,
disregarding the local court of justice; most of the members were Grandier's
enemies. In what was a speedy process for those days, they found him guilty,
tortured him to make him name people supposed to have joined him in the Black
Mass, which he refused to do, and couldn't have done anyhow, and had him
burnt at the stake before a crowd of six thousand people.
But the possessions went on, and now anyone who had spoken up for Grandier
was liable to be accused. But by this time Richelieu had had enough. People
began to think the nuns had acquired a sort of addiction to exorcism; and it was

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noticed that at other times than the exorcism sessions they conduc
in a perfectly normal way. Richelieu transferred the responsibility
from the Capuchin Friars to the Jesuits, and the new confessor
appointed dealt with his penitents in private. Then the Cardinal or
of exorcism, and with that possession too came to an end for most
The political destruction of Protestant Loudun had been achieved
friend the governor, who had always stood up for him, had been
Richelieu had also cared about the destruction of Grandier, as som
did, that too had been accomplished. Of course I am not trying to
Richelieu gave Laubardemont his mission simply for that purpos
was committed to the restoration of the Roman religion and Laubar
fiercely orthodox Catholic. I am just offering posssible reasons w
lost interest in the case at the point when he did.
The story shows very well how, in a case where guilt or innocenc
really proved, people are influenced by their interests on extraneo
not that anyone necessarily made accusations that he knew to be fa
that their judgement was affected by their preconceptions. It is a
assume the moral obliquity of people who disagree with you, and
easier when right views are held to be inseparable from adherenc
doctrine. Liberal humanism suggests that these issues should be k
the political creeds that seem to be taking its place are closer to those
hunters. In this case some Protestants questioned the genuin
possessions because they really doubted it, others because Catholi
People who stood for local autonomy against royal absolutism rese
ruling of the local judiciary by the king; naturally many o
Protestants. Catholics thought it was evidence of an alliance with
doubt that he was responsible for the afflictions of the nuns; na
thought the Protestants were his chief allies. Laubardemont, for h
deeply committed to the king's cause that he saw opposition to roy
itself a kind of heresy.
These events have their place in history because of the discussion
about the way to treat accusations of witchcraft. Of course the que
there was such a thing had been debated for a very long time
entering on dangerous religious ground, people could consider tw
more carefully than they had in the past. One was what evide
regarded as enough to condemn a man to death; that preoccupied
The other was the possibility that the women who were supposed
were simply suffering from hysteria. This was a subject that had
medical men for a long time too, though the explanations that the
hysteria might seem to us bizarre. But they very sensibly asked
whether any of the nuns' contortions were really more than
without supernatural force. Both they and the judges asked whet
was sometimes faked. The devils were supposed to speak in languag
victims didn't know; this was one of the recognised marks of pos
doctors noticed that the devils themselves didn't seem to know mu
one said it was odd that they had such a strong provincial accent
For those who accepted the reality of possession, there was

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possibility; it coul
afflict anyone in
Ursulines by subm
kind, a nun who w
done her that hon
as evil spirits. She
occasion when she
restored her with
had been dropped
XIV. Her angel tol
Sales, and this bec
received by Rich
inspired her with
consulted her on t
in the third wor
shamans. Her emot
towards Laubardemont.

Just because this case was so notorious, it stimulated debate on the general
question of the judicial treatment of this kind of accusation. As I mentioned
before, the Parlement of Paris gave up prosecutions for witchcraft as early as
1640, though it still had to decide on cases sent up to it from lower courts; in
those cases it usually reduced the sentence. As the century wore on, the
authorities came to treat the supposed victims of possession simply as disorderly
characters. Their accusations against others were not taken seriously, and they
were turned out of cities or locked up in madhouses. This is certainly an
indication of increasing scepticism. But another reason for a change in attitudes
was not directly connected with arguments about natural causes. This was the
extension of central authority under Louis XIV. In the field of law this brought
many local courts under the jurisdiction of superior ones, and enabled the
Parlement of Paris in particular to enforce its ruling that convictions for
witchcraft must be referred to it. Their ruling was resisted for some time by
many lower courts where judges often shared the popular beliefs; also, taking a
strong line on witchcraft was entangled with standing up for autonomy. In the
reverse direction there was one occasion when a royal official insisted on the
condemnation of a witch simply because the local court opposed it. The issue
here was a purely political one; but as it happens, in most cases the central
authorities took the more sophisticated view.
In England it was the Protestants who took the offensive against the enemies of
God. They rejected exorcism, but they still believed in demoniac possession, and
that human malice could cause it. Their remedy was prayer and fasting, which
no doubt was equally effective with exorcism. But they too sometimes
experienced relief at the moment when an accused person died; and some people
reverted to the Catholic church when it seemed to offer a stronger defence. The
death penalty in England was imposed in these cases not for heresy but for
The most famous case in a Protestant country, and the last famous case in
history, is that of the witches of Salem in Massachusetts. The divines of New

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England were indeed greatly concerned with the extirpation of he

was not the issue in this case. Nevertheless, Satan was involved. Th
Massachusetts believed that New England was an outpost in the W
Devil, and this metaphor regularly coloured their preaching.
Salem was a tiny village, with a population of some 200 adults.
first settled about 1639 in the hinterland of Salem Town, and it w
the Devil in 1692. The afflicted persons there were mainly li
nobody supposed that God was honouring them by allowing the De
them. But it was supposed that the New Englanders as a bo
especially chosen by God, were for that reason subjected to partic
the activity of witches was one such trial. Again, none of the af
Salem turned out later to be a saint. But all the same there is a po
here between my two stories. Nobody thought the Salem girls had
inspired. But some forty years later, more young people in Mass
time in Northampton, began to manifest just the same kind of sy
this time nobody thought the Devil was at work. Their 'fits,' as th
in America, were interpreted as an 'outpouring of the spirit' repea
happened at the original Pentecost, and pointing the way to the m
kingdom of God on earth. In this case the inspiration - in the stric
word - was the precursor of a major religious movement in Ame
what is called the Great Awakening. Its followers claimed to be re
that austerity of life that Salem Village stood for, as we shall see
authority was against them, but this time the lines were not
analogy of a holy war. In the context of my present theme, the con
1692 and 1735 shows that in America as in France, and as earlier in
same kinds of disturbance could equally be ascribed to the powers o

In Loudun the devils had attacked the house of a religious order.

first attacked the house of a minister of religion. In Salem the minist
league with them, he was the champion in the fight against them.
at the centre of a conflict that had more than a religious sign
division of the people of Salem Village was between those who want
the prosperity of Salem Town and those who wanted to cut themse
it; between those who held to the Puritan values of austerity and
pursued that acquisitiveness that we have been taught to call the Pr
In the New England theocracy the autonomous political unit was
its own minister. So the division of views in Salem was crystallised
attitudes towards the appointment and maintenance of a minister.
in question was the Reverend Samuel Parris. He was in the un
position that one faction of the villagers had duly appointed him,
was refusing to maintain him. It was his small daughter and her co
began to suffer from what their elders called distempers and fits, tro
the resources of the village doctor. The children were badgered t
amicting them, and eventually they came up with the names of t
These women were duly examined and sent to prison, but this di
afflictions. More and more girls were possessed, and more and mor
given. Naturally these must have been the names of people whom

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disliked; as time wen

cannot even have kn
of them women, we
shrieked and genera
were their tormento
hanged. Then the tri
for another five yea
If there were any pe
and possession by de
the existence of the
thought in that socie
and they did ask whe
insufficient evidence
Harvard, and his so
Cotton Mather's disc
very credulous by m
have their t brought
with infernal forces
wrote a letter to the
prosecution of prov
judging the evidence
led the Governor to e
had done earlier in F
could, as he put it,
recalled a notorious c
in particular he crit
belief that the Devil m
responsible for h
possibilities of accusa
the testimony of ch
their innocence. Incr
his own defence, th
communications from
deceive. He asked 'w
Imaginations of Pe
Innocent, yea that a
doth it.' And he con
'This then I declare
because a Spectre o
them, will bring the
shall be done.'
Hardly were the trials over when the people of Salem became appalled at what
they had done - not least because a girl whose own grandfather had been hanged
confessed that she had wantonly accused him. There were no more witch trials
- but not because New England had rejected its belief in the devil and all his
works. That was as strong as ever.
In this case we know how accusers and defenders were aligned because both

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sides were constantly signing petitions and manifestoes on the subject of Pa
position as minister. And we know the characteristics of the two sides from
brilliant work of two American historians, Paul Boyer and Stephen Nissenb
(Salem Possessed: The Social Origins of Witchcraft, 1974). They have combed
records of this tiny community in a way that no one has done with the data
Loudun, and they know the actors in the drama as if they had grown up
them. The most obvious division was geographical. Parris's supporters,
were the accusers, lived on the landward side of the village, his opponents o
side that looked towards Salem Town. But what was significant was not a m
of being near the town but of attitudes towards it. Salem Town had grow
fifty years to be the second commercial port of Massachusetts, and the grow
its prosperity had brought with it great differences in wealth, as it always
The leading men, those who were elected to political office, were not farmer
more; they were merchants, and they were better off than any farmer. Mem
of the faction opposed to Parris, who defended the accused and opposed t
trials, were markedly richer than his supporters. And while they got richer
farmers got poorer as there was no more land to open up. Several of the
Parris faction lived along the road that led to Boston. Along this road came
both from Boston and Salem Town; along it were taverns where news circu
Salem Village disapproved of strong drink; ministers said that young men
went to the taverns were 'seldom away before Drunk or well tippled.' One o
inns was licensed to sell drink only to what we call bona fide travellers. Two
keepers were hanged as witches.
This is a description of the types of person who supported and opposed
separation of Salem Village from Salem Town, a separation that was epitom
in the presence of Samuel Parris as minister. It is not quite so easy to
common characteristics among the people who were accused of witchcraft
that is mentioned by Boyer and Nissenbaum would not surprise an an
pologist. They were all outsiders to the village; that is, they had not been
there. A more unexpected finding is that they were all socially mobile, th
not all in the same direction. Some had come up in the world; they had inc
the unpopularity that is often the price of that kind of success. Others had fal
and did not accept their lower status in the deferential manner of people wh
been born to it.
I said there was no express question of heresy in the Salem prosecutions. B
you assume that the established order is the right one, and if you believe
there is a Devil, you can easily believe that those who subvert the establis
order are in league with him. He can lead people astray in matters of mor
much as doctrine. The order that Parris and his friends were fighting fo
that of a closely-knit community in which every member put the comman
God and the good of the whole before his private interests. They were fight
losing battle against the attraction of new opportunities. The opposition c
not be readily formulated in the way that arguments about the validi
exorcism could. It is Boyer and Nissenbaum who have formulated for us t
troubles of a community where the New England clergy could see only 'a sp
full of contentions and animosities.'
When I spoke of Loudun I emphasised the conflict of material and politi

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interests that sur

in the afflictions
Salem too. I am
infrastructure. I
views that are pl
obliquity of your
them. But there i
Boyer and Nisse
internal conflict
witchcraft was d
words, 'the wron
calling with the
make a commerc
things of this wo
that of Dr. Norm
the ascription to
fantasies that go
that is ostensibly

I would like to co
on the ending of
happen because th
influential in bot
evidence that was
in New England, t
instances. Judges
good deal, gave u
detect witches, a
law making wit
rejecting indictme
to abandon the
enlightenment h
acceptance of nat

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