Becoming a Witch
Rumors and Name-calling
In this excerpt, Virginia Krause, author of Witchcraft, Demonology, and Confession in Early Modern France (2015), explores how to become a witch.
In the first instance, witches do not self-identify as such. They are first called witches by their neighbors, sometimes even by members of their own family. Witch-hood is first an identity thrust upon someone.
In village life, the word “witch” was used as an insult, and in the trial of the Marlou witches, deposition records detail those instances in which a defendant was called “witch” by others.
Thus, Toussainct Tramoy claimed that he had on several occasions heard Guillemette and her half-brother calling each other “witch” during quarrels. When one is repeatedly called a witch, one acquires the reputation of being a witch – and in a witchcraft trial, bruit commun (reputation) was considered partial evidence of guilt.
As Jean Bodin observes, when it comes to witchcraft, bruit commun is almost infallible. Pierre Ragu thus carefully inquires into the reputation of each of the six defendants, surveying neighbors about the bruit commun surrounding the six suspects, and then questioning the defendant directly regarding this reputation.
During the first interrogation of the quarrelsome Jehan Cahouet, Ragu presses him on precisely this question, asking him if people hadn’t been calling him a witch for a long time. Cahouet’s reply is at once highly perceptive and completely futile. His answer is that the word “witch” was often thrown around as an insult, that he himself had called others “witch” in the heat of an argument, and that as an injurious term, “witch” should not be taken at face value:
Dict que quant on est fasché on dit du pis que l’on peult et que ceulx qui luy ont appellé il les y a aussy appellez et qu’il a appellé des femmes putains, paillardes et autres injures.
[He said that when one is angry, one says the worst thing one can think of and that as for those who had called him “witch,” he had also called them
by the same name just as he called women “whores,” “sluts” and other insults.]
For Cahouet and his neighbors, “witch” was an insult on a par with “whore” and “slut” – the worst name one could think of and therefore not something to be taken literally or descriptively, just as a woman called “whore” is not necessarily literally a prostitute.
Ragu’s by the books answer is that if this were the case, Cahouet should have sought reparation through legal recourse when he had had been called a witch, a common insult, and yet potentially damning, particularly when factors conspire to create the perfect storm in a trial for witchcraft.
A witchcraft trial transformed this common feature of village life (gossip and name-calling) into a sustained act of interpellation. No longer was one just called a witch; the trial summoned the witch to speak in the first person, to self-identify as a witch. In witchcraft trials, a bad reputation was turned into an identity one was forced to assume.
A witchcraft trial transformed this common feature of village life (gossip and name-calling) into a sustained act of interpellation
If the first step toward witchhood was thus an injurious name, the second step was a more sustained act of interpellation backed up by a formidable judiciary apparatus, with its crushing confessional incitation.
The resulting confession effectively installed the witch into a preexisting causal sequence.
Was it you ?
This is the question addressed to each of the defendants, for the witch is born out of an economy of moral accountability: who is responsible for the injury? First, there is harm done and then the will to identify the responsible party. The deed thus precedes the doer, with the trial machinery offering a means of coordinating cause (witch) and effect (bewitchment).
This is the logic at work in the initial scene in which a crowd has gathered to demand that justice be rendered, that the witches responsible for the possession be made accountable. It is also present in microcosm in the many stories of bewitchment related by the witnesses called to testify. In each
case, a sudden or unknown illness afflicts a person (or a cow, a horse, or a goose) after contact with someone either already suspected of witchcraft or expressing ill will toward the victim.
The sudden affliction triggers a retroactive logic inscribing the suff ering into a basic sequence, both chronological and causal: post hoc ergo propter hoc – after this therefore because of this. In the narratives of bewitchment they contain, deposition records stress first
the strangeness or suddenness of the affl iction (a sign that some preternatural force is involved) and then the tight chronology (which links the “witch”
to the deed). Thus, Leonarde Vincent swore that once when she was alone in her home, Tabourdet entered, struck her left shoulder with his hand, after which she became immediately sick throughout her entire body. Romble Lymosin testified that when Marin Semellé gave his goose a piece of bread, it perished soon thereafter.
Marguerite Crochet swore that at a wedding gathering, Jehan Cahouet approached her and touched her on the knee; she shortly thereafter fell sick with an unknown illness that kept her bedridden for eighteen full months.
The ongoing drama of Bernard’s possession plays out this sequence repeatedly as the community (first his parents, then the parish priest, the crowd that has gathered, and finally the judge) attempts to identify the person responsible for his suffering, which so clearly goes beyond any normal illness.
Witchcraft is thus about attributing afflictions to a malevolent agent – and in this process emerges the witch as subject. As a result, witch-hood is a place within a causal sequence that someone is called upon to fill.
Excerpt taken from Chapter 4 of Witchcraft, Demonology, and Confession in Early Modern France (2015) by Virginia Krause.