Robin Briggs

title.none: Ostorero, Bagliani, Tremp, eds., L'imaginaire du sabbat (Briggs)

identifier.other: baj9928.0009.011 00.09.11

identifier.issn: 1096-746X

description.statementofresponsibility: Robin Briggs, All Souls College,

publisher.none: .

date.issued: 2000

identifier.citation: Ostorero, Martine, Agostino Paravicini Bagliani, Kathrin Utz Tremp en collaboration avec Catherine Chene, eds. L'imaginaire du sabbat: Edition critique des textes les plus anciens (1430 c. - 1440 c.). Cahiers Lausannois D"Histoire Medievale, Vol. 26. Firenze: SISMEL, 1999. Pp. 7, 569. $45.00. ISBN: 2-940-11016-6.

type.none: Review

relation.ispartof: The Medieval Review

The Medieval Review 00.09.11

Ostorero, Martine, Agostino Paravicini Bagliani, Kathrin Utz Tremp en collaboration avec Catherine Chene, eds. L'imaginaire du sabbat: Edition critique des textes les plus anciens (1430 c. - 1440 c.). Cahiers Lausannois D"Histoire Medievale, Vol. 26. Firenze: SISMEL, 1999. Pp. 7, 569. $45.00. ISBN: 2-940-11016-6.

Reviewed by:

Robin Briggs
All Souls College

Over the past decade Agostino Paravicini Bagliani and his associates at the University of Lausanne have produced a whole series of valuable works on the Suisse Romande region in the late middle ages. Several of these have been specifically concerned with witchcraft and its persecution, in what seems to have been the epicentre of the earliest serious outbreaks of trials. Painstaking searches of the archives have turned up a great deal of new information, including some documents giving details of the precise charges against individuals, and of their own confessions. This work, with that of other scholars such as Pierrette Paravy on the Dauphine, has given us a much better idea of the considerable numbers of trials and their location, of the identity of the persecutors, the nature of the allegations, and the characteristics of those stigmatized as witches. The latest production in the series adds another dimension, with its central focus on the construction of the myth of the sabbat. On this occasion the actual texts are relatively familiar, with some of them having been included, albeit in defective or partial form, in Hansen's great collection a century ago. What is now offered is however infinitely more useful, comprising scholarly editions of the originals (one in German, three in Latin, one in French), with excellent French translations of the first four. The various manuscripts are described, with careful attention to significant differences, then the problems of attribution and dating are assessed. There is also an extended discussion of the significance of each text, well integrated into a general approach shared by the editors and their contributors.

The texts are a description by the Lucerne chronicler Hans Fruend of the trials in the Valais after 1428, four chapters from John Nider's Formicarius, the short anonymous treatise Errores gazariorum, a more legalistic discussion by the Dauphinois judge Claude Tholosan, and an extract from Martin le Franc's poem "Le Champion des Dames." While each presents a distinctive view of the sabbat, whose particularities are largely explicable in terms of authorial intention, they are evidently using very similar materials. Unsurprisingly "Le Champion des Dames" stands a little apart, for even a didactic poem is hard to compare with a formal treatise. Martin le Franc's defence of women did not extend to old crones who allowed themselves to be seduced by the devil, so much of the interest in this context lies in the way he brought a much more gendered vision into play. One manuscript has the famous marginal drawing of a witch on a broomstick, one of a number of excellent illustrations to the present volume. Although it was certainly worth including this text, which both adds an important dimension and points up aspects of the others, it reflects much less directly on the specific local situation. The editors also include a couple of statements made by those accused of witchcraft, and the various essays make considerable use of this wider archival corpus to locate the main works properly.

Any historian looking for the origins of the European persecution must of necessity be drawn to this region, where so many crucial developments appear to have taken place. Both Andreas Blauert and Carlo Ginzburg made extensive use of similar materials in their influential studies, although they came to rather different conclusions. In some respects this collection might be read as an extended commentary on their work and that of others such as Arno Borst. On the whole the effect is to induce still greater caution in trying to interpret what remain, despite the efforts of the Lausanne group and their associates, teasing and often ambiguous sources. For example, the longstanding identification of the judge cited by Nider with Peter von Greyerz cannot be sustained, since there were three baillis of the Haut-Simmental named Peter in office between 1393 and 1417, and the last of these, Peter von Ey or Eyg, now looks marginally the strongest candidate as Nider's informant. It remains plausible to think that there were tensions resulting from the imposition of external authority on what had previously been a largely autonomous territory, because it was during the time of von Ey that the "guerre de Rarogne" (1415-20) troubled the region, and this conflict can also be linked with trials in the Valais. There is evidence for internecine feuding with possible connections to witchcraft accusations, while some administrators may well have become eager to see conspiracies around them. At several points different authors echo the view most fully developed in Pierrette Paravy's contribution, which emphasises shifts in the relationship between the clergy and their flocks. On this view a major increase in the numbers of literate clerics, together with the operations of the preaching orders, sharpened awareness of the challenge posed by the tradional syncretist beliefs with which the church had always previously compromised. The bulls issued by the Avignon Popes and the preaching of Bernardino of Sienna add further evidence for this trend, which is certainly visible at numerous points in the texts given here.

What also emerges is the fairly well-established link between the pursuit of heretics and that of witches, plain here even in the names applied to the latter. Many of the key themes in the sabbat myth were simply transferred, as part of a kind of intellectual bricolage, from allegations previously made against heretics. Nevertheless the evidence does again suggest the need for caution. Around 1380 there were already some convicted witches who were naming accomplices; although these trials seem to have concentrated on maleficium, our vestigial sources simply do not permit any safe conclusion about what confessions they may have produced. Again, Fruend, Nider and Tholosan were all relying to a considerable extent on actual confessions, probably dating from somewhere in the 1410s to the 1430s, for their material. One must ask how far it would have been possible for an intellectual construction which was only just being assembled at that very time to have been transmitted down to the popular level, then relayed back up to the judges. In other words, if there was a conflation between ideas about conspiracies and orgies attributed to heretics, lepers or Jews and the idea of a sect of witches, this probably occured at both popular and elite levels, as would seem quite natural. It was Fruend who gave the conspiracy theory the sharpest twist, when he suggested that the witches had been recruiting so fast that they had been on the verge of fulfilling their own plans and taking control, presumably aided by their widespread murders of babies. On the other hand he moved quickly to the reassuring conclusion that God had always had matters safely in hand, controlling everything in order to show up the virtues of the true faith.

Overall one of the most striking features of the evidence is how quickly virtually all the elements of 'classic' witchcraft beliefs seem to have coalesced. The charges against individual witches apparently included just about every standard type of maleficium, together with a strong association between powers to heal and to harm. Where the sabbat is concerned, the imaginary combination of blasphemous worship, compulsion to perform evil acts, murder of children and cannibalism, sexual orgies, and the preparation of noxious potions took place with almost effortless ease. Nider's sophisticated discussion is interesting for its maintenance of the position of the canon Episcopi, with the claim that witches merely dreamed about their nocturnal adventures, or were deluded by the devil. He added a more sinister note, however, with the suggestion that an ointment made from dead babies might be deliberately employed to produce these illusions. The reader of this admirable volume will find a large number of other detailed points on which to ponder, nearly all of them explored in the meticulous discussion of the texts. The authors carefully avoid any kind of sensationalism, despite the lurid elements in the material, and are properly cautious about making ambitious claims. In the end that restraint adds greatly to the force of their careful scholarship, and makes this a model set of edited texts, which would be a wonderful teaching aid for any group with a proper command of French.