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28-03-2015, 16:36


Marthe Brossier was among the most celebrated of the demonically possessed French girls of the late sixteenth century. This was not because her fits were convincing—in fact, she was a transparent fraud—but because she came along at a time when cernservative Catholic forces in Paris needed a demoniac. Brossier was born around 1573 in Romorantin, one of four daughters of the draper Jacques Brossier. The Brossier family had come down in the world, and Marthe Brossicr’s prospects for marriage were slim. She expressed her discontent by running away from home disguised as a man hut was c]uickly captured and returned to her family. Early in 1598, she claimed to have been bewitched by a neighbor, Anne Chevreau. Chevreau’s sister had married a prominent local landlord who had been a possible match for Brossier’s eldest sister, before the family’s economic decline, so there was bad blood between the Brossier and Chevreau families. As an unmarried, middle-aged woman, Chevreau was the type of persern vulnerable to witchcraft accusations. A local priest with a grudge against the Chevreaus encouraged Brossier in her accusations. Chevreau was imprisoned for about a year, during which time a fellow prisoner accused her of bewitching her, hut she was eventually released after Brossier’s possession was discredited. A statement by Chevreau blamed Brossicr’s accusation on her mental state, rather than deliberate or malicituis fraud.

Chevreau and the original circumstances of Brossier’s possession, however, played only a minor role as Brossier toured the Loire Valley as a demonically possessed woman, being publicly exorcised in front of huge crowds. Church authorities treated her with skepticism—one official found that she would react to ordinary water as if it were holy water if she were simply tctld that it was and vice versa. Brossier arrived in Paris shortly after the promulgation of the Edict of Nantes in 1598, which guaranteed tolerance t(t French Protestants. This appalled many Catholics, particularly members of religious orders, and a Paris monastery of Capuchin Friars promoted exorcisms of Brossier in which the demon who possessed her, Bcezlebub, would denounce the Huguenots, or French Protestants, as slaves of the Devil. These exorcisms were popular events among the Catholic population erf Paris. Brossier and her handlers closely modeled her career on that of Nicole Obry, an account of whom Brossier possessed. Reezlebub was the same demon that had possessed Obry. Brossier’s possession

By male demons may have been related to her original fleeing of her home in male disguise—both allowed her to abandon womanlu)od temporarily.

Brossier attracted the attention of the government of Henri IV (r. 1589-1610), a c(tnvert from Protestantism strongly identified with the toleration policy. The king’s physician Niichael Marescot examined Brossier and found her possession to be Iraudulent. The Parlement of Paris, at the king’s behest, imprisoned her and eventually sent her home. From there she was abducted by Alexander de la Rtichefoucauld, a high-ranking ecclesiastic who took her to Rome, where she repeated her exorcisms for the Jtibilee year of 1600. Eventually, French gox'ernment pressure forced her out of Rome, and she last appears in the historical record in Milan, still claiming to be possessed. Brossier became the archetypal fraudulent detruniiac. Marescot’s 1599 tract denouncing her was translated into English the same year as part of the campaign against the Puritan exitrcist John Darrell, and she appeared in skeptical literature into the eighteenth centtiry.

REFERENCES: Anita M. Walker and Edmund H. Dickenuann. “ ‘A Woman under the Influence’: A Case of Alleged Possession in Sixteenth-Century France.” The Sixteenth Century Journal 22 (1991): 5 H-544; P>. P. Walker, Unclean Sjhrits: Possession and Exorcism in France and England in the late Sixteenth and early Seventeenth Centuries. London: The Warburg Institute, University of London, 1981.


Richard Burt, a victim of a witch called Mother Atkyns, was the subject of a witchcraft pamphlet dated 1592 and titled A Mo, st Wicked Work of a Wretched Witch. The pamphlet, by an unidentified “G. B., maister of arts,” tells the story of an afflictittn that Atkyns laid on Burt, a servant to a gentleman in the parish (tf Pynner in Middlesex, after he called her a witch. A spirit, presumably sent by Atkyns, internipted him at his threshing and took him on a brief visit to hell, which G. B. treats humorously, with an uncredited reference to Robert Greene’s (1558-1592) play Friar Bacon and Friar Bungay, performed early in 1 592. The humorous treatment extends to the characterization of Burt himself, who is depicted as a comic, clownish rustic. The spirit demanded that Burt speak to no one iif what he had seen, and when Burt refused to comply, the spirit took away his ability to speak. Burt went into hiding after his return to Pynner. His voice was restored when the ktcal parish minister reached into his mouth and unfttlded his tongue. Burt then demanded to be taken before Mother Atkyns and employed the ctimmon countermagical technic]ue of scratching her until he drew blood. Unlike some witchcraft writers w’ho disap-pix)ved of countermagic, G. B. described it as sticcessful and not a “Capital error.” The pamphlet concludes with two stories of maleficia wetrked by Mother Atkyns on others. In one instance she caused cream to swell and burst a churn; in the other she caused two lambs to die. A Mo. st Wicked Work of a

Wretched Witeh is one of the earliest surviving English witchcraft pamphlets that was not based on a trial record—indeed, it makes no mention of any legal process whatsoever. This, along with the use of Greene’s play, may indicate that the whole narrative is fictional.

REFERENCT: Marion Gib. son, cd. Early Modern Witches: Witchcraft Cases in Com temporary Writing. Londttn and New York: Routledgc, 2000.