Canadian Witch Trials
The idea for the blog posts came from, well, let’s call it ‘shallow holes that you fall down.’ It’s a great topic, very interesting but it’s not as deep as you were hoping and isn’t long enough to make in to an episode. That is how this started out, I wanted to do the Halloween episode on Canadian Witch trials, only it turns out there were not a lot of them nor are they as horrific as the trials in New England, England, Scotland or Spain. It turns out even back in the day we were chiller about witchcraft than our homeland or neighbours to the south.
Witch trials started in the 15th century and lasted until the 18th century, but really hit their peak between 1580 and 1630. A large number of accused, especially during the height of the trials, were women often unmarried or elderly. Scholarly consensus on the total number of executions for witchcraft ranges from 40,000-60,000. That number does not include the number of unofficial lynchings of accused witches, or the individuals who died as a result of the unsanitary conditions of their imprisonment, or due to the torture.
Back in Canada most of the cases I found came from New France. At that time, New France worked under laws much the same as France, and the French approach to witch trials was as about as sensible as laws around witchcraft can be. They were very different than the British laws, which relied on evidence like “swimming” a witch to see if they would float (which was when you tied their thumb to their opposite big toe and then threw them in to a body of water), finding a witch’s mark, or hearing testimony that they could fly, change into some form of animal, or had visited you in a dream to torment you. These things were not admissible in France. Basically, anything that was deemed impossible in the natural world, or against God’s law, was deemed impossible by French judiciaries and therefore not credible evidence. Also in France because of the popularity of witchcraft cases in certain areas, anyone found guilty of witchcraft, a capital offence, had the right to appeal to the provincial parliament. Who paid for the appeal was based on the sentence; people sentenced to death had their appeals was paid for by the community magistrates, but people sentenced to banishment had to pay the cost of appeals themselves. This lead too many more “witches” being sentenced to banishment than death.
Black Magic (Wo)men
As in instances, sex and magic where linked in New France. This was the case with René Besnard, who was accused in 1661 of using the “nouement à l’aiguillette” (which can be translated as knotting the needle) on a young couple (Pierre Gadois and Marie Pontonnier) in the town. This spell was very popular and feared; it supposedly cause impotence in newly wedded grooms, and the fear was so strong that getting married in secret in the middle of the woods was not uncommon. The “witch” in this situation is often a man who the bride did not chose.
Back to old René. Documents from his trial are spotty, but much of the trial centered on why Pierre and Marie still did not have a child after three years of marriage. Apparently René admitted (after being questioned over and over again) that he did offer to remove the effects of the spell if she would have him over to her house while her husband was away. His defence was that he did not do any magic on the couple he just said that so he could quote “enjoy her.” Yup men have been creepy since forever. I do not think he was convicted but I’m not sure.
Another case that I wanted to tell you about is of Anne Lamarque a tavern keeper in 1680 Montréal; she was accused of witchcraft, debauchery, adultery, and suspected infanticide. There are lots of records on Anne, and they are gossip AF. Her neighbours testified to how often her husband is spending the night at the house, how often she is taking walks with suspected lovers, and how frequently certain men are walking in and out of her tavern. (If you listened to this week’s episode of the podcast than you will know that this is classic small town gossip but not in the good, prosocial way.) Her biggest sin was having a magic book, or a grimoire, which the local doctor saw and read parts of and then told the whole world about it. He could not keep his mouth shut at all and during the trial whenever anyone was asked about the book they would reply that they heard about it from the doctor. The spell the doctor saw had to do with “making people love you,” so of course rumours started to spread that she was using magic to draw young men to her tavern and then debauch them with sex.
It’s interesting to note that the most famous witch of New France is Marie Joseph La Corriveau. La Corriveau was the first person to be executed by the English regime in New France, however she was never accused of witchcraft, actually witchcraft had nothing to do with her case or trial. She was convicted of murdering her husband, and the English used a gibbet to hang her dead body. The association with witchcraft came many years after her death and more than likely had more to do with the first-ever use of the gibbet New France, the gibbet is heavily connected to the Salem witch trials.