Montaigne and the witches

The witches

“Firstly, private error makes public error, which in turn, makes private error.” –On the lame, Montaigne

In the English speaking world, the credit for the idea that the witches persecuted in the witch hunts of Europe were actually members of an underground pagan cult, trapped like a bubble inside Christendom, goes to Margaret Murray, writing in 1921. But the idea was actually articulated long before Murray in 1862, in Jules Michelet’s book, The Witch. Michelet, familiar with the philologists, used the comparativist method that became a craze for desk bound anthropologists in Murray’s time, like J.G. Frazer. It did not escape Michelet that the ‘odious’ custom of brothers sleeping with their sisters in Basque country, an accusation relayed by Pierre de Lancre, the head of the witchhunting commission in Labourd (Southwest France)  in 1609, reproduces a custom of the mages of Persia.

De Lancre is a mysterious character, a footnote in not only the histories of witchcraft in Europe, but in Montaigne studies. He owes that latter to the fact that he married Jeanne, Montaigne’s great niece, in 1588. In the former, he has figured as a miserable inquisitor, responsible for the death of thousands – Rudolph Reuss’s evaluation in the 19th century – to a faulty old gull, responsible for most probably a couple of executions, and certainly for the flight of two priests and a number of Basque common folk from the Lebourd territory – a twentieth century view. Reuss, who probably read about Lancre in Michelet, took Lancre’s estimate that there were as many as thirty thousand worshippers of Satan in Labourd at face value. Michelet took many other of Lancre’s comments, in his Tableau de l’inconstance des mauvais anges et demons, at face value as well. This may be because Lancre’s dark reading of the willingness of the women of Labourd to consort with the devil (including much detail about the size of the devil’s penis and his preference for fucking pretty women from the front and ugly women from behind, which Lancre presents – from the testimony of one of his 17 year old prisoners – as self-evident) was read in an inverted way by Michelet, who saw this as an obscure revolt against the bleak hegemony of the church and king.

Jan Machielson, in a fascinating essay entitled Thinking with Montaigne, contemplates Montaigne’s odd relation with two of the doctrinaire demonologists – Lancre and Lancre’s source for certain of his theological claims about the heresy of not believing in witches, Martin Delrio. Delrio was a Spanish Jesuit who, as Machielson points out, was not involved in using the persecution of witches as a cover for the persecution of skepticism, an idea that has persisted from the Enlightenment down to Richard Popkin. Rather, Delrio shows himself skeptical of one of Montaigne’s great reasons for adopting a skeptical attitude to the testimony of witches: the power of the imagination. In addition, Lancre’s writings are evidently, stylistically, influenced by Montaigne. In fact, Lancre honors Montaigne whenever he mentions him. Lancre was a lawyer from Bordeaux, where Montaigne was mayor, and he has an evident respect for him deriving perhaps from the lawyer’s humanism of those circles.

However, it is interesting that Montaigne’s great theme of inconstancy – his idea that, as he says over and over again, the I is the great natural monster, an ever changing Proteus at grips with an ever changing ocean of objects  – becomes, in Lancre’s hands, the reason that the Basques are so attracted to Satan. Instead of rooting themselves to the fields, the Basques in this region, which includes Bayonne, are great sailors and whalehunters. Lancre suspects that the sea, with its bottomlessness and storms, makes these people rootless. Not only that, but the men tend to leave the women alone for long periods of time. Hence, the devil comes in.

Montaigne, in the essay that is most concerned with witchcraft, On the Lame, presents a very interesting critique of the idea that to know is to know the cause of a fact. For Montaigne, this gets ahead of what one wants to know first: is there a fact? Montaigne is wary of the instinct for marvels. The marvel weaves around itself a story about its cause, and that story is then woven around in turn by a larger story, and so on. But what do we know about causes?

This is why Montaigne interrupts his meditations to continually tell the reader about himself. For his telling is telling from a cause, the self. And as the telling is broken, changeable, sometimes implausible, and full of holes – so our sense of causes in the world should be precarious and uncertain. At the same time, Montaigne does have an account of the spread of error, which we have quoted at the beginning of this post. This is one that, twisted in another direction,  has informed Carlo Ginzburg’s notion of the history of witches: that the narratives can be recoded by the inquisitors, played back to the population they are hunting through, and come gradually to be accepted by that portion of the population that is in continuity with the beliefs and practices the inquisitors have hunted. The benandanti first make sense of themselves as being on God’s side, and then, after the inquisitors insist for decades that they are on the devil’s side, they slowly change their mind: but they don’t change being benandanti. This, in fact, seems to be the story in Mexico, as well, with the way the Nahua magicians saw themselves during the 16th century.