Saturday 28 September 2019

The Sorcerers of Lyon

The affair of the "sorcerers of Lyon" was a further, far more extensive trial involving magic quests for treasure.  Proceedings took place over a three-year period, from 1742 to 1745, and involved the arraignment of no less than twenty-nine individuals.

This episode is fascinating, not only for the insights into legal practices and attitudes to witchcraft but also for the details of the lives and hopes of  ordinary people that it revealed.

The trial is unusually well-documented: the library of the Château Grosbois-en-Montagne in Bourgogne preserves a comprehensive manuscript dossier, including full transcripts of the many interrogation.  This  compilation was the work of the commissioning magistrate for the case Jean-Claude Perreney de Vellemont (1718-1810), conseiller, and later  Procureur-général  in the Parlement of Dijon.  According to family tradition Perreney was an austere and conscientious man, who got up at four in the morning to attend early mass and habitually spent his days in study. This is borne out by the manuscript, which amounts to 400 folio pages, laboriously transcribed in small neat handwriting.

The fortified manor house of Grosbois en Montagne, much embellished by the Perreney family in the 18th century.
A full account of the case, based on the dossier, was published by Henri Beaune  in 1868.  More recently, in 2001, the evidence has been revisited in an article by Mathias Dupas Didier.  

The events unfolded in a number of distinct phases:

Benoît Michalet, his capture and confession

On 21 July 1742, two members of the maréchaussée of Bourg-en-Bresse, on patrol in the hamlet of Caluire on the outskirts of Lyon, heard rumours of strange-goings on in a property in the village.  When they investigated, they found a young man asleep on mattress on the floor with a gun at his side.  Under the mattress was an assortment of magical paraphernalia  - grimoires, ecclesiastical vestments and books, a crucifix, a stone, candles and a candle stick, plus a knife engraved accipe gladium manus a Deo datum.  Also found were nineteen parchment fragments inscribed with mysterious red symbols.  The individual was promptly arrested and imprisoned. He identified himself as Benoît Michalet, aged 19, a fabric designer, from the parish of St Paul in Lyon.

When brought to testify before the prévôt of the bailliage of  Bourg-en-Bresse, Michalet naively confessed his involvement in a magic quest. 

It seemed that the Lyon sorcerers wanted to awaken the Archangel Uriel and put him in a bottle:

that at the moment of his arrest he was working to summon the angel Uriel, who would reveal the whereabouts of hidden treasures;  that a group had been formed to search for these treasures;  that the 19 fragments of parchment were the pentacles of Solomon, with the aid of which they would summon the angel;  that the angel would be forced to descend in the form of a cloud of smoke into a phial of water placed on the sacred stone, between two torches, at the instant that the evocator, armed with his knife, recited the gospels; that the sacred vestments were necessary for the success of the operation. (quoted Beaune, p.21)

Michalet revealed, equally ingenuously, that he had learned this ritual from a  book entitled Cornelius Agrippa - but, despite his best efforts, it had not proved successful. He was part of a group of treasure-hunters who had been prompted by rumours that five million silver pieces had been found near the Saint-Just quarter in Lyon.  A letter from a certain Charbonier to Michalet was produced, but the latter now refused to say more.

The local Procureur now set in motion a formal investigation; over forty witnesses were heard in Caluire and several of Michalet's  accomplices were arrested.  

From this first instruction it emerged that Michalet was not a designer at all, but  a penniless drifter, sometime clerk or choir boy at the church of Saint-Paul in Lyon. He had been shown the grimoire by François Charbonier -  given at his subsequent conviction as merchant and "ex-doctor", aged 42 - who claimed that he had bought it from a noble priest in Saint-Just.   With the aid of this book, Charbonier claimed, many wonders were possible: he was convinced that they could summon a demon and force him to reveal the whereabouts of  hidden treasure.

The grimoire in question was clearly  the Philosophie Occulte d'Agrippa (See Baune, p.24, nt.1)

Michalet, Charbonier and their companions had rented the house in Caluire under the guise of theology students;  after a few nocturnal essays, they had soon decided they needed the services of a priest.  At the  seminary at Saint-Pothin in Lyon, their advances were rejected with horror. However, a disaffected churchwarden provided them with a chalice and other ecclesiastical accoutrements.  Spells to summon inferior spirits were deposited in various places - woods, the side of roads, inside the house itself.  These demons were supposed to appear at given days of the week in allotted disguises - as a cloud, a bat and so on.  Finally, an unscrupulous priest was prevailed upon to celebrate mass on the belly of a girl who was laid out as an altar.  But all this activity had absolutely no result.  Some individuals claimed to have seen a red man appear or to have heard unearthly voices - but the majority doubted this.  The company had reached the end of their hopes when the arrest of Michalet raised the alarm and led to their dispersal.

At this point the investigation in the bailliage court of Bourg stalled. Nine individuals were arrested, but three, who were not gravely implicated, were later released.  Among those held in addition to Michalet and Charbonnier, were  Philibert Tissot a clerk of the court of the sénéchaussée in Lyon.  and Jeanne Godefroy, the wife of  François Bernard, a satinaire from Lyon (who fled). On 14th February 1743 the  lieutenant criminel ordered the hapless Michalet to be put to the torture. However, he made no effort to secure material evidence by seizing the books and magical instruments. The priests who were implicated were not troubled,  and nor were the bookdealers who were said to have sold the grimoires.

The execution of Bertrand Guillaudot

 The saga was now complicated by the arrest at the beginning of 1742 in Gergy, a small town in Chalon-sur-Saône of a priest called Bertrand Guillaudot.  Although the case at first seemed unconnected, it soon became clear that Guillaudot was part of the same circle of treasure seekers centred in Lyon.  Evidently the group was more extensive than previously appreciated. 

Guillaudot was another cleric of humble origins.  Although he had been born into abject poverty, Guillaudot had been educated thanks to Languet de Gergy, Bishop of Soisson, and had entered holy orders.  After an initial period of religion fervour, he had spent most of his life dabbling in alchemy and magic, chasing chimerical fortunes.  By the time of his arrest he had already been condemned to banishment and was celebrating masses in Lyon under an assumed name.  He was found to possess several  books of magic, including the Cavicula Salomonis, as well as manuscripts transcribed in his own hand.

In his extensive final confession Guillaudot  related how he had been  approached at the end of a service in the Jesuit chapel in Lyon by two magicians Guillaume Janin, a silkworker, and Jean Feroussat, a former potter:  they had formed a society to"find ancient treasures with the aid of aerial spirits" and needed the assistance of a priest.  With the aid of  Feroussat he had sanctified a host and stole various sacred vessels. The group got up to many shenaningans. They held a nocturnal gathering in the bois de Limonnet, where Janin and a woman named Simonne la Borgne, solemnly promised to give themselves to the devil.  A few days later Guillaudot, Janin and Feroussat had gone to a castle in the parish of Bois-d'Oingt, outside Lyon where Guillaudot had celebrated four sacrilegious masses .

These invocations too had failed to result in riches, or any other magical benefits.  Having lived on bounty of his congregation, Guillaudot was eventually forced to return to Gergy, where took up post as vicaire and secured further dupes.  There was even a project  to perform a black mass and call up Beelzebub.  However, the situation soon began to unravel.  Back in Lyon, Guillaudot  was betrayed sent back to Gergy  and imprisoned.

After a protracted instruction, Guillaudot was condemned by both the ecclesiastical and the bailliage courts.  He duly appealed his case to the Parlement of Dijon, but to no avail.  On 3rd April 1743 he was sentenced to be burned at the stake.  He was taken to the place du Morimont (now place Emile-Zola) in Dijon, where he entered the famous antichambre du bourreau, a chapel next to the scaffold, to dictate his last testament.  Between 9 and 10 in the evening the Dijon executioner  maitre Chefdeville, strangled him, then consigned his body to the fire together with his seized papers and books of magic.  

Trial in Dijon

The magistrature now had little choice but to take action. Three days after the execution, on 6th April 1743, an arrêt was issued by the Parlement of Dijon ordering the  arrest of thirteen inhabitants of Lyon identified by Guillaudot, including  Feroussat, Janin, the hatters Motet, Saive and Lambert and a priest named Rodier. A new full-scale information was launched, with the commissioner Verchère d'Arcelot despatched to Lyon to publish monitoires; in all 120 witnesses were heard.  Fifteen months were necessary to collect  the depositions, which filled Perreney's immense dossier.  Finally on 10th November 1744 twenty-nine individuals were formally accused.

The confession of Michalet was at the heart of this second investigation.  He described how "naked, dying of hunger, without lodging or resources", he had fallen in with the treasure seekers.  He identified the ringleaders as Janin, Feroussat and Tissot and named Guillaudot and several other priests. It seems that members were recruited in all sorts of locations:  sacristies, courtrooms, shops, bars, on the streets.  No-one was considered too humble or disreputable; each had their place at the "great banquet" where Uriel would dispense his largesse. Their contributions ranged from mixing wax to consecrating their unborn child to the Devil.  Virgins gave their blood and the dust of the dead was collected and baked in a cake to be broken at the moment of the spirit's apparition. Lack of success did not discourage the treasure-seekers; on the contrary their number increased daily.

The most grave of the charges involved sacrilegious masses:

As at Lorient, the magical practices described gave a central place to elements borrowed from Catholicism. The ritual was reconstructed roughly as follows:

The magician, with the aid of the grimoire, was first charged with determining the exact time and ideal site in which to summon the spirits. Although  spells could be simply written down and deposited, for more serious conjurations, the  presence of a priest was considered indispensible; only an ordained priest had the power to  purify the equipment, carry out the ritual and cast the summoning spells.   According to Michalet, the ceremonies took place in a variety of locations, sometimes indoors, sometimes out in the woods, but almost always at night.  A circle, five feet in circumference, was traced or laid out in hazelwood as a defence against demons. The participants also set out pentacles or "seals of Solomon", which were sacred signs intended to protect participants, and enable them to attach and destroy demons, or to attract and mollify the angels.  In Guillaudot's account  the Four Names of God were inscribed at the cardinal points of the circl. Candles of wax and asafoetida were  lit. The priest would then begin the mass more gnosticorum.  The sacrament was pronounced, but, at the moment of  consecration, the celebrant would place the grimoire (or in some versions the parchments bearing the seals of Solomon) under the altar cloth, and hold the host reversed.  He would then begin the  conjuration, calling on the spirit to appear in the name of the living god. The incantations might go on for an hour or more and were not without risk, since the spirit might resist or attempt to possess the conjurer.  

Judgment and condemnation

The case was formally referred to the Tournelle for judgment in early February 1745.  Judicial indiscretion and popular rumour stirred the curiosity of the people of Dijon ; from first deliberations until the executions, a dense crowd filled the little place du palais and the adjacent streets, undeterred by the glacial North Wind (Baune, p.57). The Tournelle was presided over by the marquis de Bourbonne. As was the custom, the accused were interrogated separately, in secret, without defence. No record was made of their responses.

The commissioning magistrate, Perreney de Vellemont, now read his carefully prepared report. The guilt of the accused was self-evident: the only point at issue was whether or not an individual had committed sacrilege and was therefore liable to the death penalty.  A carefully graded set of penalties was meted out, ranging from execution to simple fines. Janin as the ringleader was sentenced first and found guilty of sacrilege and profanation.  On 10th February he was condemned to be hanged and his body burnt on the place du Morimont.  First he was to be put to the ordinary and extraordinary question using the moine de camp and have his right-hand cut off. The sentence was read to him at midday; by three thirty in the afternoon, his lifeless body was taken down from the scaffold. On 12th February Feroussat suffered a similar fate.  In all six death sentences were meted out. A second priest, Louis Debaraz, was "burned at the stake and his ashes scattered to the winds", and the priests Carat and Lambert were hanged.   Michalet, Tissot and Charbonnier were sentenced to the galleys, Tissot for life and the other two for nine years. The rest of the accused were condemned to banishment or fines.

The fate of the accused

Mathias Dupas Didier in his 2001 article reserves his final comments for the miserable fate of these poor deluded treasure seekers. Even after the 1682 Edict, the theoretical punishments for blasphemy and irreligion were harsh: but, a time when torture was falling into disuse, the sentences seemed unnecessary brutal.  Indeed Louis Debaraz is generally cited as the last person in France burnt at the stake for sorcery.  The case was exceptional in scope, and the magistrates involved were conservative. It also attracted an element of exemplary punishment: Jean-Claude Perreney de Vellement, feared a recrudesence of sorcery which might put the kingdom in danger.  Nonetheless, Didier is right: in the Century of Light it was still possible to burn men alive for magical practices.


Henri Beaune, Les Sorciers de Lyon (Dijon 1868)

Mathias Dupas Didier, "Un procès de magiciens au XVIIIe siècle",  Histoire, économie et société, 2001, 20(2):p. 219-229.

Clément-Janin, Le Morimont de Dijon : bourreaux et suppliciés (1889)

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