Arras witches

Arnold, Charles

Arras witches (1459–1460) A mass witch hunt in
Arras, northern France. The accused were brutally tortured
and promised their lives, then burned at the stake.
The incident roused the ire of the duke of Burgundy, and
eventually those executed were posthumously exonerated.
The witch hunt was one of the earliest in the region.
Inquisitors used charges of witchcraft against heretics
such as the Waldenses, or Vaudois, a religious sect under
persecution. The Arras affair began at Langres in 1459,
when a hermit, who may have been suspected of being
one of the Vaudois, was arrested. Under torture, he admitted
attending a sabbat (the Vaudois were said to hold
nocturnal revelries in worship of the Devil) and named a
prostitute and an elderly poet of Arras as his companions.
The hermit was burned at the stake, and the inquisitors
arrested and tortured his accomplices. They, in turn, confessed
and named others.
A widening pool of accusations, arrests, tortures and
confessions spread through Arras, including not only
poor and feebleminded women but persons of importance.
The inquisitor of Arras was spurred on by his zealous
superiors, two Dominican monks. The Dominicans
believed that one-third of the population of Europe were
secret witches, including numerous bishops and cardinals
in the church. Anyone who was against burning
witches was also a witch.
The accused were put on the rack and tortured. The
soles of their feet were put into flames, and they were
made to swallow vinegar and oil. They confessed to
whatever the judges wanted, specifically, to attending
the sabbat, where they bowed to the Devil and kissed
his backside (see kiss of shame), and then indulged in a
sexual orgy. They also named others in accordance with
the inquisitors’ leading questions. The inquisitors lied to
them, promising that in exchange for their confessions,
they would be spared their lives and given only the mild
punishment of a short pilgrimage. Instead they were sent
to the stake, where they were publicly denounced and
burned alive. As they died, some of them shrieked out to
the onlookers, protesting their innocence and how they
had been framed, but to no avail.
Some of the richer prisoners bribed their way out, but
most were not so lucky. Their estates and possessions
were seized. Eventually, the witch hunt took a severe toll
on the commerce of the city. Arras was a trading and manufacturing
center, and many ceased doing business there,
out of fear that the merchants they dealt with would be
arrested and have their monies seized.
At the end of 1460, Philip the Good, the duke of Burgundy,
intervened, and the arrests stopped. In 1461 the
Parlement of Paris demanded the release of some of those
imprisoned; the remainder were freed by the bishop of
Arras, who had been absent during the hysteria. Thirty
years later, in 1491, the Parlement of Paris condemned the
cruelty of the tortures and said the Inquisition had acted
without due process.

Arnold, Charles

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