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Krause probes Renaissance witchcraft

Published: March 4, 2011
Section: Arts, Etc.

bewitching: Professor Virginia Krause provided a detailed examination of witchcraft trials in Renaissance France in a lecture given Thursday.
Photo by Nafiz ‘Fizz’ R. Ahmed/The Hoot

“‘She confessed and was burned’ was a refrain,” Virginia Krause, an associate professor of French at Brown University, said during her lecture yesterday, titled “Under the Witch’s Spell: Demonology in Renaissance France.”

During the lecture, held in the Mandel Center for the Humanities and sponsored by the Mandel Center for the Humanities, the Romance Studies Department, the History of Ideas Program and the Comparative Literature Program, Krause focused on the intangible evidence that many courts required when prosecuting witches.

Her main focus was on Jean Bodin, the 16th-century French author who wrote treatises advising the French courts to rely on auricular evidence rather than visual, believing that the auricular was more trustworthy than the visual.

Due to this belief, most witches were prosecuted with their own confessions, obtained after torture. Bodin wrote that a confession “must pass from the mouth of the witch to the ears of the judge.”

Krause asked rhetorically, “What sort of truth must pass from the witch’s mouth to the judge’s ears? Secret crimes? Heresy? Witchcraft’s dark crimes—crimes that cannot be seen in the light of day but only whispered in the darkness?”

Krause explained that there was a set formula of speech, almost like a spell, that all judges had to say when sending an accused witch to be tortured for a confession; Krause said, “All the judges said, ‘Considering that your statements are not constant and that there is sufficient proof to warrant this and so that your speech will not offend the judges, you will be subjected to torture …’ on such and such a date.”

There was also a set formula for confessions, which has led historians to wonder what the accused witch actually said and how much of their testimonies have been honestly preserved.

In order to elicit a confession, Bodin suggested different ploys aside from torture. The main ploy was to send a friend of the accused witch to visit them in jail, where they would converse with the accused until nightfall, at which point they would ask to remain in jail overnight in order to continue their discussions. The court would place spies outside the jail cell to write down everything the witches said, the darkness both hiding them and setting the tone for the things being discussed. Once they had the auricular evidence that the accused was a witch, they would get the witch to confess.

The main question that Krause sought to answer during the lecture, however, was why auricular evidence is preferable to visual evidence. Courts tended to discount visual evidence because it was believed that the devil could confuse one’s vision.

The courts believed that the devil could cause visions in women, making them believe that they had the ability to fly. Krause said that “the eyes of these women are blinded” became a mantra during the Renaissance.

Additionally, Krause said, “Knowledge about some things, such as the sacred, could be gained by the senses such as hearing and touch, not vision.” Moses was the only prophet to see God; all the others merely heard Him.

Bodin, who believed that he was a prophet of God, had personal “proof” that the miraculous manifested itself in sound, not sight. He tells his story, paraphrased by Krause, that “during his 37th year, he became aware of a spirit and he had prophetic dreams. He heard something knocking on his door at 2 or 3 a.m., a time of darkness, but he could see nothing. He began to fear that it was some evil spirit.”

Bodin eventually became convinced that the spirit was not evil, but was in fact a sign that Bodin himself was a divine prophet. He claimed that this spirit communicated with him via touch rather than sound or sight. Bodin wrote, “Since then the spirit always accompanied me, giving a perceptive sign by touching me first on the right ear and then on the left ear.” Krause pointed out that it was significant that, although the spirit was not communicating by sound, it was touching Bodin’s ears.

Although Krause spent the majority of her lecture discussing the importance of speech and hearing during witchcraft trials, her respondent, Professor Govind Sreenivasan (HIST), focused on putting the prosecution of witches into a context that would be easier for modern people to understand.

“It can be related to questions of terrorism—there’s a tendency for the gloves to come off,” said Sreenivasan. “The rules have to be different for witchcraft because it is a very different kind of crime.”

Sreenivasan was adamant the audience not think of the rigor with which the courts prosecuted witches as normal for all prosecutions in that day. Only 50 thousand witches were burned in Europe in a 300-year span but even more people were executed for property crimes in a 100-year span.

Torture was not used in most criminal cases but, like with terrorism today, witchcraft was something that terrified people and caused them to behave drastically.

Professor Michael Randall (FREN), chair of the Romance Studies Department, said while introducing Krause, “In the field of Renaissance Studies, often academic value is weighed in how many footnotes and dead languages you can put on one page. It can get pretty dry.” Luckily for the audience, Krause and Sreenivasan were anything but dry.