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  • Fiscal Sources and Witch Trials in Lorraine
  • William Monter

Early modern historians rarely attempt to reconstruct aspects of social history from financial sources, even though they exude an aroma of relative veracity. Local officials recorded information about people prosecuted (and often executed) for practicing harmful magic primarily in order to recoup their expenses connected with such prosecutions and executions. But because fiscal records remain utterly unconcerned with the specific evidence against suspected witches, and their compilers tell us nothing about the extent (if any) of diabolical associations among those accused of harmful magic, they are usually the very last place in which historians questioning the reliability of historical information about prosecutions for witchcraft seek the manna of analyzable discourse about this subject. In addition, they are completely useless to gender historians, who frequently complain that women’s voices cannot be heard clearly in witch trials, because women were never responsible for either justifying or investigating the stewardship of state funds. For such reasons, fiscal records understandably occupy the very lowest rung in the hierarchy of historians’ sources for witchcraft, being used only when there is nothing better available.

But the trade-off for their incurable laconism is a high level of credibility. Witch trials were public knowledge, at least locally; although, for various reasons, fiscal sources might underreport such events, they never invented them. If an official claimed reimbursement for the cost of prosecuting and/ or executing an accused witch, we can be reasonably certain that some real person (frequently named) had been arrested in a particular place at a particular time. If we generally learn little from such sources except how much witchcraft prosecutions and/or executions cost, a careful reading can sometimes tell us more—including fragments of written discourse between those who originally prepared such documents and those for whom they were prepared and who annotated them before they preserved them.

While it would be foolish to claim that such dry sources can revolutionize [End Page 21] our knowledge of witch hunting, fiscal accounts can improve our understanding of its numerical dimensions by charting the relative frequency (or infrequency) of witch trials by measuring those trials in district/years. For example, eight recorded witchcraft trials scattered among forty preserved annual fiscal accounts from one district gives a ratio of 0.2 trials per district/ year. When explored in this manner, the large body of local fiscal accounts surviving from the jointly ruled duchies of Lorraine and Bar can help us map the extent of their witch-hunting over a long period from the 1470s to the 1630s. This method permits various kinds of comparisons—for example, between Bar and Lorraine, or between French- and German-speaking districts in Lorraine—using exactly the same type of evidence; these comparisons can be further extended through fiscal records from the adjoining duchy of Luxemburg in the Habsburg Netherlands, which like Lorraine contained both French- and German-speaking districts.

More specifically, fiscal sources enable us to grasp a “traditional” late-medieval pattern of occasional small local outbreaks, very unevenly distributed across a larger state and usually involving three to five defendants, which persisted far into the sixteenth century. As one would expect, these sources confirm a massive increase in witch-hunting throughout the region in the later sixteenth century, while also backdating its beginnings in Lorraine by a decade; at the same time, they provide a cold douche for the oft-repeated assertion of Lorraine’s demonologist about its numerical dimensions. After 1600, these fiscal sources (supplemented in one case by published correspondence from a future saint) enable us to locate the single largest “panic” in Lorraine. Perhaps most useful of all, they suggest some very different patterns of witch trials in French- and German-speaking parts of two adjoining states, as well as differences between two contiguous French-speaking states with the same ruler but different legal systems.

Early Patterns: Witch Trials in the Fifteenth-Century Lorraine-Luxemburg Region

Let us begin with the evidence about early witch trials in the duchy of Luxemburg, located immediately north of Lorraine, where fifteenth-century fiscal records have occasionally proved vital for locating early witch trials ever since the pioneering work of Joseph...


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