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  • On the Inconstancy of Witches: Pierre de Lancre's Tableau de l'inconstance des mauvais anges et demons (1612)
  • Elspeth Whitney
Gerhild Scholz Williams , ed. and trans. On the Inconstancy of Witches: Pierre de Lancre's Tableau de l'inconstance des mauvais anges et demons (1612). Arizona Center for Medieval and Renaissance Studies. Medieval and Renaissance Texts and Studies 307. Tempe: Arizona Center for Medieval and Renaissance Studies, 2006. liv + 586 pp. index. illus. map. gloss. bibl. $62. ISBN: 0-86698-352-X.

Pierre de Lancre's lengthy, lurid, and sensationalized account of satanic practices among the population of the Labourd (Basque) region of France has been taken with varying degrees of seriousness since its publication in 1612. As the contemporary study of early modern writings on demonology has matured, however, the Tableau has received renewed attention as an example of the variety of cultural and political purposes served by discourse about witches. This first translation into English, therefore, is timely and should further the study of the role of elite witchcraft beliefs in early modern thought on both the teaching and scholarly level.

In 1609 De Lancre, a magistrate of the Bordeaux Parlement, was charged by Henry IV with conducting a one-man royal commission to investigate witchcraft in the Labourd. The Tableau, written ostensibly as a straightforward account of his four-month investigation, is in fact a literary tour-de-force that combines great emotionality and a strong streak of voyeurism with the professional zeal and apparent objectivity of the anthropologist and judge. Although de Lancre is usually classed with his contemporaries Boguet, Remi, Del Rio, and Bodin as a witchcraft theorist (to use Walter Stephens's term), his stance is not so much that of the scholar (despite the learning he brings to bear) as that of the ethnographer and eyewitness responding personally to direct experience. As Williams rightly observes, "De Lancre's text is a supreme document of how observations of social realities became transposed to the fantastic, intrinsically erotic realm of the demonological imagination" (xxxiv). Almost one third of the work describes the Sabbath in elaborate detail, down to the food eaten (cakes made of black millet and the liver of an unbaptized child) and the hierarchies of age, experience, and beauty imposed on the assembled witches. Another third is taken up with legal questions, including the difficulties of prosecuting Labourdin priests who have become witches themselves. Most of the remainder contains more conventional discussions of such topics as lycanthropy, the witches' mark, and the pact with the devil. These sections are bracketed with acute observations of the Labourd's geography, its economy, and its local customs, including distinctive hairstyles, clothing, dances, and tobacco smoking, all of which lend an air of realism and immediacy to the whole. This effect is further heightened by de Lancre's habit of injecting personal comments and his presentation of the witches' testimony as freely and even eagerly offered. Fully justifying the Tableau's reputation as pornographic, de Lancre consistently emphasizes the erotic pleasures afforded by and to the female witch, who implicitly becomes both the means and object of his own simultaneous desire and revulsion. [End Page 1405]

The Tableau offers rich possibilities for examining the intersections of attitudes toward the Other, women, and sexuality at a pivotal point in French history. This volume will make the text deservedly more accessible. The introduction provides a thoughtful overview. Although Williams's emphasis on a literal translation occasionally means that nuances are lost, the translation is readable and accurately conveys the impassioned tone of the original. Especially helpful to those who wish to correlate the translation with the French text is that the original page numbers to the 1612 edition are given in square brackets in the text. Explanatory notes, including de Lancre's own citation information, are provided for all names referred to the text, as well as to quotations. The volume also includes some notes on the translation, a glossary of legal terms, and a useful but limited bibliography. Together with its (in these days) reasonable price, this volume will be very useful in graduate courses and will also be helpful for scholars, especially as the...


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pp. 1405-1406
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Archived 2009
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