In his book Grimoires, A History of Magical Books Owen Davies writes of how Thomas Tryon, the English mystic, learned to read while working as a Shepherd. In Tryon’s writings, he leaves the passage, ‘[The] Sherpherd and Husbandman understand something of Nature, putting out their own Eyes, and boasting what Wonders they can see with other Mens.’ Likewise, Davies records that John Cannon, while a child, met a shepherd who introduced him to the magical arts contained in a copy of Agrippa’s Fourth Book of Occult Philosophy.
A Brief Note
I must admit, I’ve partially only included an introductory paragraph from Davies’ superb work to show that I made every attempt to write from as many sources as possible. I usually try to use four or more sources for these blog posts, but as I researched for this particular entry, I found that every source tracks back to William Monter’s Toads and Eucharists: The Male Witches of Normandy, 1564-1660. If there is another work that has eluded me, I apologise, and I do hope that someone makes me aware of it.
Since I really want to write about the shepherd witches of Normandy, I’ve followed suit with Robin Briggs, Owen Davies and Brian Levack in publishing a précis of Monter’s original work.
The Parliament of Rouen was particularly severe in terms of its sentencing: a survey showed that Rouen dispensed a larger number of death sentences for sorcery than any of its neighbours. Witch trials were unusually regular, judging that at least one death sentence for witchcraft was passed every year from 1582 to 1619, and lasted longer than in neighbouring regions. In Iceland cultural traditions biased witchcraft away from women, but as Monter wrote, Normandy lies at the centre of Northwestern Europe.
Although Normandy had a centralised court, the Duchy maintained several legal convention of clamour de haro and an annual contest where a criminal could be pardoned, but it is not proven that any witch was ever pardoned at said festival.
Yet… Norman witchcraft was overwhelmingly male. In 1540, Monter writes that two young shepherds from Gisors were executed for sacrilege after stealing hosts from the mass for a sorcerer who was never found. In 1542, Laurens de Limoges was sentenced to be hanged for sorcery and his body burned, but successfully appealed and was instead banished. In 1577, two shepherds were tried (again, in Gisors) for being ‘accustomed to bewitching, causing deaths of people and animals for twenty years’. According to Monter, both had been tortured for sorcery after appealing the decision of the Rouen parliament. After 1625, Monter writes, Norman witchcraft was a male monopoly.
The Shepherd Witches
In May 1603, a twenty year old shepherd appealed a conviction for witchcraft in Rouen, after already being banished form the district of Moulins because of sorcery. This time he was hanged and burned for ‘execrable blasphemies of the name of God’. Interestingly, although five of his twenty five witnesses were priests, the parliament reduced his sentence to a public apology followed by life in the galleys.
A second shepherd that year was fifty years old, and had been previously condemned for sorcery. Another man accused him of making ‘a pact with the enemy of the human race’, and it would seem that he did know some degree of folk magic: despite denying spells to set wolves on a stranger’s flock, he admitted knowing how to protect his own flock by the use of a special prayer. In this case, the man was examined by parliamentary surgeons, and was found to have no feeling in a patch on his left side during his second day of examination.
A final examination, for this article, proves that there might have been some fire behind the smoke of witchcraft. In June 1603 two men were arrested at a rowdy wedding in Sainte-Croix-des-Pelletiers. According to trial documents, the shepherd Guillaume Beuse had performed an impotence spell known as ‘the ligature’ during his sister’s marriage, while a pharmacist named Etienne Moreau pretended to undo it with a different ritual. According to authorities, Moreau had been arrested ‘in possession of a bad book containing many recipes and magical signs’, including a piece of paper scrawled with odd symbols, and ‘four pieces of virgin parchment containing invocations of evil spirits’, which led to Beuse’s banishment from Rouen, and Moreau’s sorcerous materials being burned.