• Rebekah Day

The trial and torture of Jeanne wife of Demenge Mercier

**TRIGGER WARNING: Contains mention of torture and suicide**

Extract from the court transcript of the witchcraft trial of Jeanne wife of Demenge Mercier from Autrepierre,’ (France, 1613):

Because she would say no more, and was hesitating, was placed on rack again. This threat finally induced her to confess killing Demenge Bageat's son, because he had the-trial-and-torture-of-jeanne-wife-of-demenge-mercierbeaten her son; used an herb which Parsin gave her on some bread which she gave him to eat. This made him ill, but Parsin [the devil] told her he would not die of this, and death came after she had pinched his stomach, pretending to try and cure him.
Parsin [the devil] had told her they must break the neck of Jean André's son, but they did not have power to do this, and so injured his horse instead. Had also killed horse of Aulbry Colin with a herb her master gave her to put in water when it drank.
Finally agreed she had been a second time to sabat, and described dancing and feasting in fairly conventional terms. Also said that Parsin [the devil] had intercourse with her at second meeting. Asked whether the two she had denounced were not really her accomplices, insisted she had named them wrongly. Asked to be allowed to make confession, and to see her husband and child.
7 September 1613; procureur fiscal asks for death sentence. Change de Nancy approves, subject to repetition of confessions. Also note that torture should not be repeated without advice being sought. Same day Blâmont court records that she had killed herself in prison, by throwing herself down from top of room where she was held; body is to be dragged through town on a sledge then burned.
Title page of A Most Certain, Strange and True Discovery of a Witch (1643) — (www.flickr.com/photos/uofglibrary/5497116328/ Not openly licensed).

The document containing this extract from a 17th century witchcraft trial forms part of a wider collection of legal records archived online. To evaluate potential bias surrounding the source, the dual nature of its authorship must be noted. To a degree, this text is a product of both the clerk that wrote the original document, and the modern historian whose translation is published online.

In fact, the texts were translated into English primarily to assist in the research of two academic books – with trial documents contributing to the arguments presented by the author.[1]

The varied and personal nature of translation naturally opens a text like this to criticism, with scholars pointing out that discussion of different events are given more attention than others.[2]

However, the transparency with which the modern historian presents these texts as a summary of individual trials (as opposed to literal translations) and invites readers to challenge his conclusions, makes this an ideal source for those looking to engage with the history of witchcraft trials.[3]


Compared to other written material from the 17th century (like diaries, pamphlets, and even ecclesiastical works), judicial texts like this extract from Jeanne’s trial might at first appear devoid of opinion – making it hard to speculate on things like the bias and intention of the people involved. However, the formal record keeping employed to describe testimony and proceedings in court documents can reveal much about the wider societal beliefs. In this essay I will specifically demonstrate how a close analysis of the text indicates a pervasive belief in torture as a justified legal procedure during witchcraft trials.


In lines 1-3 of the extract the transcript records that after hesitating to continue confessing to crimes of witchcraft, the accused woman Jeanne was tortured for a final time and ‘induced’ to confess a murder.[4] This correlation made between her torture and eventual confession demonstrates the belief held by the procureur fiscal presiding over the court; that truth could be forced out of guilty individuals through physical punishment.

This is despite contrasting arguments shared by scholars, who have identified 17th century France as a period of dwindling confidence in torture as a method of gaining confessions during legal proceedings.[5] Regardless, the torture in Jeanne’s trial is introduced and escalated systematically, alluding to the presiding procurer’s belief that torture was a practical, and legally available, method through which a satisfactory conclusion to a witchcraft trial could be reached within their court.


The record of trial B 3345 follows a pattern of well-established legal proceedings: beginning with dozens of eyewitness testimonies attesting to Jeanne carrying out various deeds of witchcraft (such as causing the death of livestock and a woman’s miscarriage).[6]

This is followed by a direct interrogation of Jeanne, who provides her own account of the unfortunate incidents she is accused of - ultimately denying any wrongdoing and stating that she refused to use her family’s money for legal support (insinuating that she trusted the legal process would find her innocent).[7] Only after Jeanne denies all the charges against her, does the procureur then seek permission from the central court of Lorraine to begin torture.[8] The subsequent confessions Jeanne is noted to have provided during torture provide somewhat of an uncomfortable insight into the desperate motivations of a woman on trial accused of witchcraft.


Though the first instance of torture concludes with Jeanne’s continued denial of any wrongdoing, by the second instance she agreed the devil was indeed her master and detailed the first time he appeared to her. Jeanne continues by admitting she attended a sabat with other witches to conjure bad weather, naming two of the women who had accused her in court as other participants in the event – an occurrence many scholars acknowledge as an almost inevitable during a witchcraft trial.[9]


The document states that when Jeanne was warned not to accuse anyone of witchcraft wrongly, she admits to the falsity of her claims; explaining she had named Clerc’s wife because she had been responsible for getting Jeanne imprisoned.[10] The way Jeanne’s confessions pivot from denial, to accusing others, then begging for forgiveness, might indicate that she was willing to confess to anything that would satisfy the court and bring an end to her torture. Indeed, it has been suggested that tortured individuals accused of witchcraft were likely to have been coerced into confession at the suggestion of their torturers. [11]


The incentive for the torturer perhaps being that they reach the successful outcome for which they have been employed; and for the accused the incentive being an end to their suffering – no doubt with the added (conscious or subconscious) motive of gaining a sense of revenge, such as we see in Jeanne’s attempt to frame her own accuser of witchcraft.


Much like the preceding testimonies and interrogations held by the court, the process leading to Jeanne’s torture developed in an stringent manner, underpinned by existing legal customs throughout. [12] The document details a steady preparation before the torture commences, acting as a kind of paper-trail to prove its cautious - but supposedly warranted - employment:

  • The procureur first seeks permission from the central court of Change de Nancy

  • Approval is recorded two days later

  • A further thirteen days later, the interrogation under torture begins

  • This is then paused for observation of a religious feast day.

  • This is followed by another day of torture, resulting in multiple confessions of witchcraft from Jeanne

  • Concluding with her confession to the murder of a child and requesting to see her own husband and child.

  • Days later the procureur seeks the death penalty which is approved by the central court on the condition that Jeanne repeats her confession – with the added note that torture should not be conducted ‘[…] without advice being sought.’[13]


This summary of events shows repeated deferrals from the local court to the higher authority of the central court, demonstrating a methodical and legally justified utilisation of torture at the procureur’s direction.


With a clinical description, the extract states that on the same day the death penalty was declared, Jeanne killed herself in prison.[14] Not able to enact judicial punishment on the allegedly guilty Jeanne, the court resorted to a final kind of torture by ordering the public desecration of Jeanne’s body.


While we can only speculate on the specific motivations that prompted the procureur’s court to authorize this final act, the decision confirms a pervasive belief that torture was seen as a crucial aspect – both as a means of gaining confession and perhaps even as a form of punishment – in the legal proceedings of witchcraft trials.


Footnotes [1] “The first aim is to provide backup for my book The Witches of Lorraine […] This also applies to their extensive use in my earlier book Witches & Neighbours […]” Robin Briggs, Lorraine Witchcraft Trials, https://witchcraft.history.ox.ac.uk/about_site.html Accessed 15 December 2021. [2] “…worrying is the absence of a systematic exploration of judicial procedure.” Dr Euan Cameron, review of ‘Witches and Neighbours: The Social and Cultural Context of European Witchcraft,’ Reviews in History, (review no. 4) https://reviews.history.ac.uk/review/4 Accessed 15 December 2021. [3] “The abstracts are English summaries with selective quotations in French, so do not offer full contact with the original French texts.” Briggs, https://witchcraft.history.ox.ac.uk/about_site.html Accessed 15 December 2021. [4] “Because she would say no more, and was hesitating, was placed on rack again. This threat finally induced her to confess killing Demenge Bageat's son, because he had beaten her son […]” [5] “Indeed, so small a number of cases might suggest to the reader, as it has to some historians, the diminished importance of the practice of torture thanks to its restricted and declining use over the course of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries.” Lisa Silverman, ‘The practice of torture in the Parlement of Toulouse,’ Tortured subjects: Pain, truth, and the body in early modern France, (Chicago, 2001) p.73 [6] Testimony (20) Chrestienne femme [wife of] Claude Bastien, 40 [7] “Agreed she had told her husband not to spend money for her, saying she trusted in good justice.” [8] 18 August 1613; procureur fiscal asks for question ordinaire et extraordinaire [the latter meaning torture] [9] “The use of torture in witchcraft cases was the single most important factor in increasing the number of victims. Not only did it secure a large number of convictions, but the subsequent torture of confessing witches to force them to name their accomplices accounted for hundreds of additional executions.” Brian P. Levack, ‘Torture,’ The Oxford Handbook of Witchcraft in Early Modern Europe and Colonial America, (Oxford, 2013) DOI: 10.1093/oxfordhb/9780199578160.013.002 Accessed 15 December 2021. [10] “Warned not to charge anyone wrongly, threw herself on her knees and begged pardon for false accusations against two she had named. Charge against Clerc's wife was because she was responsible for her imprisonment.” [11] “Lyndal Roper has proposed that witchcraft confessions were the product of collusion between the witch and the torturer.” Levack, (Oxford, 2013) [12] “[…] torture was not employed arbitrarily at the will of interrogators. Rather, carefully considered procedural rules suggested its use in specific circumstances and with the authority of specific courts.” Silverman, p.21 [13] “7 September 1613; procureur fiscal asks for death sentence. Change de Nancy approves, subject to repetition of confessions. Also note that torture should not be repeated without advice being sought.” [14] “Same day Blâmont court records that she had killed herself in prison […]”


Primary sources

B 3345; Jeanne wife of Demenge Mercier from Autrepierre, tr. Robin Briggs, annotated Jan Machielsen


Secondary literature

Briggs, R, The Witches of Lorraine, (Oxford University Press, 2007), https://oxford-universitypressscholarship-com.abc.cardiff.ac.uk/view/10.1093/acprof:oso/9780198225829.001.0001/acprof-9780198225829-chapter-1. Accessed 13 December 2021.


Cameron, Dr Euan, ‘Review of Witches and Neighbours: The Social and Cultural Context of European Witchcraft,’ (review no. 4) Reviews in History, https://reviews.history.ac.uk/review/4. Accessed 15 December 2021.


Levack, Brian P. ‘Torture,’ The Oxford Handbook of Witchcraft in Early Modern Europe and Colonial America, (Oxford, 2013) DOI: 10.1093/oxfordhb/9780199578160.013.002 Accessed 15 December 2021.


Silverman, Lisa, Tortured Subjects : Pain, Truth, and the Body in Early Modern France, (Chicago, 2001) http://ebookcentral.proquest.com/lib/cardiff/detail.action?docID=547715. Accessed 16 December 2021.

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