An Examen of Witches

by Henri Bouget

Mr. Bouget was a French magistrate who specialized in investigating witches in the late 1500s. To appreciate his work, you must first appreciate the justice system used in much of Europe, called the inquisitorial system, which is very different from the adversarial system used in English-speaking countries. In the inquisitorial system, there’s no prosecutor and no jury. Instead, the judge carries out the entire juridicial process. He conducts the investigation, runs the trial, determines the guilt or innocence of the accused, and sets the punishment if he finds the accused guilty. This may seem like a terribly unfair arrangement, but it was the only way to dispense justice in countries where legally educated people were few and far between. Nowadays, judges in the inquisitorial system delegate the investigative work to the police; important trials always have more than one judge.

Henri Bouget was the judge for an area of France that seemed to have a lot of witches, and after a life spent sending many to the stake, Mr. Bouget thought it would be a contribution to civilization to write a book setting down all he had learned about witches and witchcraft. His book lays out in great detail the behavior of witches, how they can be recognized, and some of his most important cases.

One might think that a book about witchcraft has little utility nowadays, but in fact this book provides fascinating insights into the working of the European mind during the crucial period before the Enlightenment, when rationalism was just beginning to seep into European consciousness.

Mr. Bouget is partly rational. On the one hand, he cannot recognize his own role in creating the characteristics of witchcraft. Over and over he finds witches engaging in exactly the same activities. He believed that this demonstrated the reality of witchcraft; in truth, he was merely taking advantage of his victims’ susceptibility to suggestion. In modern legal terminology, he engaged in a great deal of “leading the witness”. He would start off with simple questions such as “What did you do?” and, after a moment of sullen silence from the defendant, he would start to ask simple yes-no questions. “Did you have sex with the Devil?” “Did he look like a large black man?” You can imagine how readily he got the answers he wanted to hear (especially after a bout of torture), confirming his pre-existing beliefs.

Interestingly, Mr. Bouget does not have a lot of faith in torture: he points out that all too often the victim will say whatever he thinks the judge wants to hear. This did not, of course, prevent Mr. Bouget from using torture; instead, he would take no testimony during torture, relying instead on testimony given after torture. The notion that the same psychological pressures would exist afterwards seemed to have escaped Mr. Bouget. Yet he bends over backwards trying to appear fair and sympathetic to the defendants. He insists that a conviction can be obtained only if the defendant confesses. Without a confession, a judge cannot in good conscience send somebody to the stake. If a defendant refuses to confess after plenty of tongue-loosening torture and several months in the filthy prisons of the day, the judge must release the defendant. How kind of him!

Here’s a cute quote from early in the book:
“There is nothing that makes a woman more subject and loyal to a man than that he should abuse her body.”
How very romantic!

What most captured my attention was his attempt to justify his decisions. For example, here’s one such explanation:

“The conviction of Claudia Gaillard was founded on the same reasons as those of le Baillu:

1. It was popularly rumored that she was a witch.
2. She was never seen to shed a single tear, however much she tried to weep.
3. In her language she commonly used execrable imprecations.
4. Like le Baillu, she convicted herself before she was accused. For when she was asked, among other things, whether Humbert Guichon was married, she replied that he was, and that his wife was named Marie Perrier; and she immediately added of her own accord that she had never harmed that woman; and all the time that was the woman whom she had made sick by breathing on her face.
5.She was convicted on being brought face to face with Christofle of Aronthon; for when she and another were brought into the room where the officers were, Christofle recognized her and firmly declared that she (Christofle) had seen her, together with other women whom she named, at the Sabbat (witch’s meeting) near the village of Coirieres.
Also, there were many discrepancies in her answers.”

There you have it: proof based on the following:
1. Rumors
2. She didn’t cry.
3, She cussed.
4. She denied an accusation that Bourget assumed to be true.
5. Another convict fingered her.
6. She couldn’t keep her story straight after weeks of prison and interrogation.

Therefore, Bourget condemned her to be burned. What’s important here is not that his reasons stank, but that he felt compelled to offer them. I interpret this to mean that people were coming to expect decisions to be somehow rational, but they still had not developed a sense of what constituted a rational argument.

And before you pat yourself on the back because we are so much more advanced than they were, consider all the people who believe in astrology or deny anthropogenic climate change.