Why Flanders has become a land haunted by witches

“Possessed of the evil spirit”. On February 26, 1659, a certain Jeanne Delecluse was condemned to “be strangled on the scaffold and burned”. We are in Merville, near Hazebrouck, in the North. It is one of the most resounding witchcraft trials of this time. On the occasion of Halloween, 20 minutes returns to these stories of spells because, in the region, at the beginning of the reign of Louis XIV in France, “we burned one witch per month in less than a year”, reports Jacques Messianta northern historian specializing in the subject.

A frenzy which is explained, according to him, by “the tensions of the religious reform” that the Flemish country is experiencing, then under the domination of the King of Spain. “The facts of revolts between Catholics and Protestants are numerous,” he says. Many Protestants are driven out and their property is taken away. The witchcraft trials are therefore timely.

Confessions under torture

The “exact and faithful” copy of Jeanne Delecluse’s trial, which appeared in the local press, recounts the expeditious way in which the proceedings were carried out. This woman was condemned to the stake in two months of judicial investigation. Today, one would find the indictments terribly light.

Thus, such and such, having eaten the boiled cream made by the said Jeanne, fell ill with it, then cured it by swallowing it again. Another felt bad, to the point of dying a few days later, after Jeanne had put her hand on his shoulder. Yet another saw her rooster die, which she had refused to sell to…Jeanne.

To all these “spells” are added marks observed on his body “next to the navel” as well as “at the bottom of the shoulder”. In fact, the unfortunate woman’s skin is paler in these places. For the representatives of authority, there is no room for doubt: it is indeed the mark of the devil. A few torture sessions later and the young woman ends up admitting that she “became carnal acquaintance” with her devils. Before recanting and confessing again under torture. End of trial.

Many witch countries

“The executions gave rise to celebrations with the organization of large fairs”, continues Jacques Messiant, originally from Merville, an area renowned for its stories of bewitchment. “It must be understood that the North had been subjected to severe episodes of plague at the beginning of the 17th century. The population was traumatized and it was enough to make a noise about a woman to get revenge on her. »

Thus, the history of these trials soon fed many legends. And the countries of witches have multiplied in Flanders. A godsend for Jacques Messiant who was able to glean some forty local fables. “I started my investigation in the 1980s with elders in a small village near Hazebrouck called Sercus,” he explains. From then on, stories of evil spells dating back more than 300 years have emerged, which the author has published in several books.

Illustration of the cover of a book by Jacques Messiant, – Drawing Jean-Michel Delambre

His first collection In the land of witches, published in 1981, did not go unnoticed in Hazebrouck. “A bookstore refused to put the book on the front because it was about stories of demons, remembers the author. A friend also told me that it would bring me bad luck. Proof, if need be, that these legends are tough.

“Every witchcraft legend raises questions”

In any case, they left traces in the landscape. In Morbecque, not far from there, a place called N’ Hell Hock [le coin de l’enfer]. “Located on the highest point of the town, it is a mysterious place where wizards and witches danced and copulated with the devil every week”, summarizes Jacques Messiant. Here, too, a real trial took place, where a woman was tortured for seven hours, when divine law only allowed one hour of torture. “The judges felt they had the right to claim that she was helped by the devil,” says the historian.

In Ellezelles, Belgium, the trial of a witch named Quintine is re-enacted every year in June. “Each witchcraft legend raises questions,” he notes. They are told to children to keep them away from danger. The most famous witches, at home, is called Marie Grauette. She lures little girls near the water to swallow them. The message is to stay away from the water. For other legends, the prohibition is not to go for a walk in the woods. »

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Why Flanders has become a land haunted by witches

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