The Trial of Anne de Chantraine (1620-25)

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The sad and brutal history of Anne de Chantraine is but one of at least tens of thousands, if not hundreds of thousands, of similar histories. It reminds us that the people who do such things as were done to Anne were not monsters, that they were not very different from ourselves. The history simply shows us what people are capable of when they believe, from our perspective at least, too much, or wrongly, or do not care about the human consequences of their beliefs, and what people are capable of when the foundation of a society cares more for the alleged unseen than what is.

You should remember Anne de Chantraine, for her own sake,

and that those times will not come again, ushered in by those who do not know of her, and would not care if they did, saying "It was a long time ago and doesn't matter now". Personally, I think it does matter, not least because we should not forget what those who believe are capable of in the service of their beliefs.

binglie At the beginning of March 1620, the sergent of the court of Warêt-la-Chaussée arrested a girl of seventeen, Anne de Chantraine, who had recently come to live in the village with her father and was reputed to be a witch. She was imprisoned and soon brought before the mayor, Thomas Douclet, and the aldermen of the district. She made no bones about relating her deplorable life, and made the most brazen avowals.

The daughter of a travelling merchant of Lèige, she scarcely remembered her mother, who had died when Anne was only two years old. Her father placed her in the orphanage of the Soeurs Noires at Lèige. The child remained there ten years, and received an education rare for her time and certainly above her station: reading, writing, catechism, needlework. At twelve years old she was placed by the good sisters with a widow of the city, Christiane de la Chéraille, a second-hand clothier by trade. Anne mended old clothes there the whole day long.

The practice of witchcraft and the hatred of its practitioners are to be found in every age and every part of the world. But in sixteenth-century Europe witch-hunting reached a sustained level of ferocity without parallel. We have the bull Summis desiserantes of Innocent VIII followed by the Malleus maleficarum (Hammer of Witches), written by two Dominicans. Calvin was a witch burner. It was under pressure from John Knox that Scotland passed its first law making death the penalty (or witchcraft. James IV of Scotland, who was to be James I of England, presided personally at burnings. Most of Europe was involved in the mania; Ireland seems to have been free of it.

Was it mania? The persecutors were convinced that Satan was in it. Some of the witches were, too. But as the learned English Jesuit Father Herbert Thurston said, "The vast majority of the lives sacrificed were those of innocent victims hunted down in a blind panic of hatred and terror."

The reader may draw their own conclusions from the story of Anne de Chantraine and the Witches of Salem.

  One evening she saw her mistress rub grease on her body as far as her girdle and disappear up the chimney. Before leaving, Christiane de la Chéraille recommended her to do the same, which she forthwith did. Passing up the chimney in a gust of strong wind, she found herself in the company of her patron in a huge hall, filled with many people, in which there was a large table covered with white bread, cakes, roast meats, and sausages. There was much joyful feasting and banqueting.

Anne was timidly approaching the table when a young man, "with a look as of fire," accosted her politely and asked if he could "have to do with her." Dismayed by this audacity, Anne was much troubled, and she uttered an ejaculatory prayer, accompanying it with the sign of the cross. Immediately table and food, banqueting room, and revellers all disappeared. She found herself alone in the dark, imprisoned among the empty casks of her patron's cellar, from which she was delivered by that same lady the following morning.

  This was Anne de Chantraine's first contact with the infernal powers. The contacts which followed were not so furtive, and the awakening of fleshly desire was first occasioned in her through Christiane de la Chéraille. She then gave herself to the Sabbath with all the violence of her youth. She was present three times a week-on Wednesday, Friday, and Saturday-and took part in all the rites: dances dos-a-dos, copulation with a demon, adoration of the devil in the form of a goat, etc. She received the magic powder and the power of witchcraft.

Laurent de Chamont, brother-in-law and lover of her mistress, king of the sorcerers in that region, very quickly noticed Anne. He was chief of a group who knew how to take a very practical advantage of their Satanic initiation; they entered houses by magic and stole money, vessels, clothes, and food. It was Laurent de Chamont who cut hairs from the sexual organs of his own daughter, Anne, and of the children of Christiane de la Chéraille and, placing them on the palm of his hand, blew them into keyholes; for it was thus, by the help of the devil, that doors of houses and locks of chests were opened.

  But the band of nightbirds was soon overtaken. Laurent de Chamont and Christiane de la Chéraille were burned, and their accomplices were dispersed. Six weeks later Anne was also arrested and, after being tried, was sentenced to banishment. Leaving the principality of Lèige, she came to her father, who had settled at Warêt, but not daring to remain with him, she hired herself as a milkmaid to a farmer of Erpent, four leagues off-a certain Laurent Streignart, a shady character, who was himself suspected of heresy.

Such were the avowals of Anne de Chantraine, and they sufficed to provoke prosecution. Her trial was immediately put in hand. On March 17 the mayor of Warêt demanded from the Provincial Council a procureur for the accused, and the advocate Martin of Namur was named. But because of contemporary troubles, the number of cases under consideration, or the slowness of the judicial machinery, the matter remained for six months in suspense. Anne spent the whole spring of 1620 in the prison of Warêt.

[Next] On September 13 the accused was informally examined. That same day the tribunal decided to send one of its members to Lèige to obtain more complete information. This step had grievous results for the accused. Together with the report of the interrogation of Laurent de Chamont and of Christiane de la Chéraille, the magistrate returned with the evidence of Gaspard José, who was for a few weeks her employer after the arrest of Christiane, and that of Jean Agnus, her accomplice in flights about the city. All these taxed her with evildoing, with witchcraft and witchflights.

Recalled on October 9, Anne admitted to all the horrors of the accusation, and in particular to having given herself to an unknown man dressed in black, with cloven feet, who appeared to her while she was blaspheming because the heat of the day had dispersed her herd. As a result, she avowed, the cows reassembled of their own accord.