Pierre deLancre (1550?–1631?) Infamous French witch-trial judge who terrorized the Basque region, sent an estimated 600 persons to their deaths at the stake and compiled detailed accounts of alleged infernal activities at witches’ sabbats. Jules Michelet, who relied heavily upon the writings of Pierre de Lancre for his own work, Satanism and Witchcraft, called de Lancre “something of a Gascon, boastful and vain of his own achievements . . . a man of wit and perspicacity, and being manifestly in relations with certain young witches, was in a position to know the whole truth.” Julio Caro Baroja, in The World of Witches (1961), describes de Lancre as “[a man] obsessed with the desire to uncover criminal activities, who accepted religion as the basis for the penal code.”
Pierre de Lancre was born Pierre de Rosteguy, sieur de Lancre, between 1550 and 1560. His father was a wealthy winegrower who adopted the surname “de Lancre” upon becoming a royal official. Pierre was given a Jesuit education. He studied law at Turin and in Bohemia, and became a lawyer.
In 1609 two men of Labourd petitioned the French Parlement to ask Henry IV to send judges to deal with witches who were plaguing the region. One of the petitioners was Siegneur de Saint-Pei, Urtubi, who had attended a sabbat and believed a witch was sucking his blood. Henry IV agreed and appointed de Lancre and a man named d’Espaignet (also spelled d’Espagnet). They were given plenary powers subject to no appeal.
De Lancre took his job most seriously. He viewed the people of the Basque country as an irresponsible and immoral lot, easy prey for the Devil. By virtue of their geographic locale and their separate language, the Basques were viewed as mysterious and isolated. The men were primarily sailors, who would go off on long fishing expeditions to Canada and Newfoundland, leaving their women behind to run the villages and support themselves and their family. Upon their return, the men would waste their earnings on festivities, wild dancing and drinking. Furthermore, superstitions and beliefs in Magic ran high among the Basques. It was no wonder, then, that witchcraft seemed to have infested the population.
De Lancre seemed both fascinated and repulsed by the Basque women. Says Michelet, “the very judge that burns them is all the while charmed by their fascinations.” In his writings, de Lancre himself described the Basque women as follows:
When you see them pass, their hair flying in the wind and brushing their shoulders, so well adorned and caparisoned are they, as they go, with their lovely locks, that the sun glancing through them as through a cloud, makes a flashing aureole of dazzling radiance. . . . Hence the dangerous fascination of their eyes, perilous for love no less than for witchery.
The appearance of de Lancre and d’Espaignet in Labourd in may of 1609 caused great alarm. Some residents, anticipating the bloodshed that was to come, fled into the mountains, to Spain and to Newfoundland. most, however, remained in their homes. Initially, those questioned yielded no information. The dam of resistance was broken by a 17-year-old girl, margarita, who perhaps thought she could save herself by denouncing others. This she did in great detail, enabling the judges to begin hauling in suspects. They were tortured, pricked for insensitive spots and searched for Witch’s Marks. margarita herself participated in some of the tortures. The confessions implicated others, until hardly a family in Labourd had not been denounced for witchcraft.
De Lancre was undiscriminating in his acquisition of evidence. No person was too young, too old or too feeble in body or brain—he believed them all. He relied heavily upon the testimony of children. Some as young as five years old admitted to attending sabbats and riding on brooms and the backs of goats; some testified against their own mothers. De Lancre collected numerous tales of nocturnal sabbats and the brewing of ointments and poIsons. On the face of the confessions, the Basque witches were the most active and diabolical of all in Europe. They met weekly, sometimes almost daily, at any hour, even during mass. Crowds of up to 2,000 attended the four major sabbats held during the year. They danced naked, ate corpses, copulated, said Black Masses and worshiped the Devil. They made poisons out of toads for ruining the crops, including one incredible mixture of grilled toads and clouds, which ruined fruit trees.
D’Espaignet quit his post in June, leaving de Lancre to carry on alone. De Lancre became convinced that some 3,000 persons, including members of the clergy, bore witch’s marks. He said the local priests dispatched sailors to Newfoundland, then imported Devils from Japan who copulated with the wives left behind.
De Lancre pushed through trials and executions. At intervals in the proceedings, he played the lute from the bench and had the condemned witches dance before him. The first group of witches to be burned named many others, which so infuriated the townsfolk that they attacked the condemned as they were being led in carts to the stakes, crying at them to withdraw their accusations. De Lancre relates that on the sabbat after these first burnings, the cowardly Devil did not show up, nor did he for the next three sabbats, but sent an inferior Imp in his stead. Satan allegedly told his followers that no more witches would be burned, but de Lancre proved him a liar.
At one point, de Lancre became convinced that witches and the Devil attempted an attack on him one night while he slept in a castle in Saint Pe. On the night of September 24, the Devil supposedly entered his bedchamber and said a Black Mass. Witches forced their way under his bed curtains to poison him but could not do so because he was protected by God. The Devil had sex with one of the witches. According to another version of the story, the Devil and the witches could not gain entrance to the bed chamber but said two Black masses.
According to de Lancre, when the last witch to be tried and executed was set afire, alive, at the stake, a swarm of toads escaped from her head. The spectators responded with a hail of stones, so that the witch was nearly stoned to death before the flames claimed her. One great black toad, however, managed to avoid stones, sticks and flames, and escaped.
At the end of de Lancre’s legal tour in 1610, he was granted a leave of absence and went to Rome, Naples and Lombardy. Sometime between 1612 and 1622, he was rewarded for his great service to the state and was made a state counsellor in Paris. He wrote the details of his trials and investigations in three works: Tableau de l’inconstance des mauvais anges et démons (Description of the inconstancy of evil angels) (1612); L’Incredulité et miscréance du sortilège plainement convaincue (Incredulity and misbelief of enchantment) (1622); and Du sortilège (Witchcraft) (1627). He died in Paris in 1630 or 1631.
- Baroja, Julio Caro. The World of the Witches. 1961. Reprint, Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1975.
- Michelet, Jules. Satanism and Witchcraft. Translated by A. R. Allinson. 1939. Reprint, Secaucus, N.J.: Citadel Press, 1992.
- Seligmann, Kurt. The Mirror of Magic. New York: Pantheon Books, 1948.