Jefe: I have put many beautiful piñatas in the storeroom, each of them filled with little suprises.
El Guapo: Many piñatas?
Jefe: Oh yes, many!
El Guapo: Would you say I have a plethora of piñatas?
Jefe: A what?
El Guapo: A “plethora”.
Jefe: Oh yes, you have a plethora.
El Guapo: Jefe, what is a plethora?
Jefe: Why, El Guapo?
El Guapo: Well, you told me I have a plethora. And I just would like to know if you know what a plethora is. I would not like to think that a person would tell someone he has a plethora, and then find out that that person has no idea what it means to have a plethora.
Jefe: Forgive me, El Guapo. I know that I, Jefe, do not have your superior intellect and education. But could it be that once again, you are angry at something else, and are looking to take it out on me?
(From “Three Amigos”)
Were the confessions of Rinaldo des Trois-Echelles du Mayne (d. ca. 1571) to be taken at face value, it would seem that one could not swing a broom in 16th Century A.D. France without hitting a witch. While the Medieval Catholic Church never had any tender feelings towards witchcraft and was perfectly happy with the occasional round of torture, confession, and execution, the height of the “European Witch Craze” that took as its mission the elimination with extreme prejudice of a reportedly widespread conspiracy of sorcerers peaked roughly between 1580-1630 A.D., most notably including the Trier witch trials (1581–1593), the Fulda witch trials (1603–1606), the Basque witch trials (1609-1611), the Würzburg witch trial (1626–1631) and the Bamberg witch trials (1626–1631). It’s not that there weren’t enthusiastic persecutions prior to that time, just that they weren’t all so hot and bothered about the effort. Historically, France had its fair share of witch burnings, but later historians were not particularly careful in distinguishing between campaigns against heresy and straight up witch hunts, often lumping in the 13th Century crusade against the Cathars and the politically motivated 14th Century eradication of the Templars with subsequent paranoia about mad masses of sorcerers in their midst. Until the early 1600’s, France was actually not such a bad place to be in league with the powers of darkness. The inquisitorial courts of France were much more lenient in handing out death sentences, and neither were they as particularly gender-biased as the rest of Europe about who witches were, going after about as many men as they did women. Now, that may be setting the bar a little low, but until the rest of Europe went batshit crazy about human barbecues, France kept it pretty low key. Even the Queen Mother Catherine de’ Medici (1519-1589), mother to King Charles IX (and more or less the ruler of France as Charles was crowned when he was 9 years old) was said to have routinely dabbled in a little sorcery herself. Along came Charles IX’s court sorcerer Rinaldo des Trois-Echelles du Mayne to screw it up for everybody.
Although the Protestant Reformation precipitated by Martin Luther tacking up his 95 Theses on the door of a German church in 1517 was underway in Europe, the contemporary King of France, Francis I had a few humanist tendencies, and maintained relative tolerance for Protestants (nicknamed Huguenots in France), that is until the massacres, atrocities, and general violence of the French Wars of Religion(1562-1598) erupted in the context of political struggle, as a number of antagonistic noble houses had converted to Protestantism. Some three million people died in the ensuing insanity. These civil wars coincided with an uptick in the witch hunting frenzy. It’s not hard to believe in yet another imagined widespread and nefarious conspiracy when you are surrounded by actual widespread and nefarious conspiracies.
Who exactly Rinaldo des Trois-Echelles du Mayne (generally known simply as Trois-Echelles) was remains obscure. He was clearly a member of the Court of Charles IX, but he is alternatively referred to as a clergyman, juggler, court sorcerer, necromancer, or a stage magician. He is often referred to as “the well-known and much feared sorcerer”, but there is some evidence that he was kept around for entertainment value, particularly since Catherine de’ Medici was big on the “bread and circuses” philosophy of keeping political rivals pacified and tended to throw lavish parties with fancy shows. And Trois-Echelles seems to have been able to pull off some pretty nifty tricks to amaze and confuse.
Father Delrio, a Jesuit, says that the magician called Trois-Echelles, by his enchantments, detached in the presence of King Charles IX the rings or links of a collar of the Order of the King, worn by some knights who were at a great distance from him; he made them come into his hand, and after that replaced them, without the collar appearing deranged (Calmet, 1850, p353).
A court sorcerer wasn’t such an odd thing in the 16th Century, since it was more or less a generic appellation applied to fellows with a wide variety of specializations including medicine, astrology, and poisoning, among others. Obviously, a good magician who wants to keep making a little coin and get that show in Vegas doesn’t reveal his tricks, so evidently when pressured to explain the source of his magical abilities, Trois-Echelles went with a cover story that in retrospect was probably ill-advised. He told Charles IX that he was actually a witch.
The epoch of the dissolute Renaissance, equally persecuting and credulous, was certainly not that of the second birth of reason. Catherine de Medicis was a sorceress, Charles IX consulted necromancers, Henry III played at devotion and debauch. It was the heyday then of astrologers, though a few of them were tortured from time to time, to make them change their predictions. There were, moreover, the court sorcerers, who dabbled a little in poisoning and deserved the hangman’s rope. Trois-Echelles, the magician of Charles IX, was a juggler and rogue; one day he made confession to the King and his misdeeds were not peccadillos; the King forgave him, but promised his cure on the gallows if he had a relapse (Lévi , 1913, p349).
Now Charles IX had a stunningly reasonable response to this declaration that amounted to “don’t do it again”. At this point, the wise sorcerer counts his blessing, packs his bags, and hits the carnival circuit, but there were undoubtedly a lot of perks to being part of the royal court in 16th Century France. Trois-Echelles made two fatal mistakes. After claiming association with dark forces (in the middle of a burgeoning religious conflict) he (1) hung around, and (2) apparently continued to exercise his thamaturgical talents, despite telling Charles IX he was opting out of his diabolical contracts. And when it came to light that he was still practicing his infernal arts, his earlier, narrow escape from the dubious mercies of the Inquisition was all for naught. He was arrested, thrown in prison, and sadly made one last effort to dodge a fiery death.
A French clergyman, named Trois Echelles, was accused of sorcery in the reign of Charles IX, but had the good fortune to escape the flames on that occasion. He was less fortunate on the second occasion, and expired at the stake. During his imprisonment he accused vast numbers of people of witchcraft and demon worship (Madden, 1857, p308).
Unfortunately, Trois-Echelles didn’t just confess to being a witch and accept his fate. Instead, he decided to up his ante, presumably thinking that if he turned informer he might once again sidestep the unpleasantness of a fiery execution. From his prison cell in Poitou he started describing a vast conspiracy of organized witchcraft.
The well-known sorcerer, Trois Echelles, told Charles IX, while he was at Poitou, the names of 1200 of his associates. This calculation is according to Mezeray’s more reasonable version of the story, for the author of the ‘Journal du Regne de Henri III makes the number 3000, and Bodinus, not satisfied even with this allowance, adds a cypher, and makes the total return of witches denounced by Trois Echelles 30,000, though he does at the same time express some doubt as to the correctness of this account (Moir, 1852, p15).
Later historians vary widely on exactly how many witches Trois-Echelles claimed were in France, naming according to some accounts at least 1200 co-conspirators and claiming there were as many as 100,000 practicing witches in greater France. Many attributed this to the permissiveness and blind-eye that the court of Charles IX took towards sorcery.
The dark reign of Henry II and Diana of Poitiers ends the season of toleration. Under Diana, they burn heretics and wizards again. On the other hand, Catherine of Medici, surrounded as she was by astrologers and magicians, would have protected the latter. Their numbers increased amain. The wizard Trois-Echelles, who was tried in the reign of Charles IX, reckons them at a hundred thousand, declaring all France to be one Witch (Michelet, 1863, p202).
Ever the showman, Trois-Echelles not only claimed a veritable army of witches at his back, but gave detailed accounts of sabbats and various sorcerous practices. Whether he did all this while they were poking him with hot implements is not mentioned.
Trois-Echelles, in the time of Charles IX, affirmed that all his accomplices bore the marks of a hare’s foot. The free consent of those who sought to profit by these hellish arts was deemed essential, and it is a curious fact that even the race of wretched impostors, who pretend to practise them, have taught each other invariably to ask the credulous fools who trust them, whether they come from choice and give from their heart what is demanded (Digby, 1845, p734).
Remember, at this time, French Protestants and Catholics were gearing up to start slaughtering each other and Trois-Echelles didn’t think twice about pouring fuel on the fire. A true sign of the diabolical if you ask me. Hard to fault the guy. He probably was waking up to how combustible he was. Nonetheless, he did make the obvious point that, in the 16th Century, everybody was busy consulting with sorcerers, especially when they were looking for a good marriage prospect. Match.com had not yet been invented.
Practices of this kind were so common that, in 1571, a pretended sorcerer named Trois-Echelles, who was executed on the Place de Greve, declared in his examination that there were more than three thousand persons engaged in the same business, and that there was not a woman at court, or belonging to the middle or lower class, who did not patronize the magicians, particularly in love matters (Jacolliot, 1908, p148).
In the end, Trois-Echelles confessions didn’t save him from the fires. The inopportune timing and vast extent of his confessions may very well have contributed to exacerbating the severity of the European witch craze, which after his execution reached its most epic proportions. No longer were individual witches the primary target, both Church and State institutions across Europe began intensive campaigns to root out vast conspiracies of witches.
In 1571 the celebrated sorcerer Trois Echelles was burned in the Place de Gréve in Paris. He confessed, in the presence of Charles IX, and of the Marshals de Montmorency, De Retz, and the Sieur du Mazille, physician to the king, that he could perform the most wonderful things by the aid of a devil to whom he had sold himself. He described at great length the saturnalia of the ﬁends, the sacriﬁces which they offered up, the debaucheries they committed with the young and handsome witches, and the various modes of preparing the infernal unguent for blighting cattle. He said he had upwards of twelve hundred accomplices in the crime of witchcraft in various parts of France, whom he named to the king, and many of whom were afterwards arrested and suffered execution (Mackay, 1852, p120).
Charles IX died at the young age of 23, and many ascribed his early death to the fact that he had neglected his duty (as a presumed “good Christian King”) to kill witches.
One fatal example there had been, of a king tampering with his duty in this respect. Charles IX had spared the life of the famous sorcerer, Trois Echelles, on the condition of his informing against his colleagues; and it is to this grievous sin that the early death of the king is most probably to be ascribed: “For the word of God is very certain, that he who suffers a man worthy of death to escape, draws the punishment upon himself, as the prophet said to King Ahab, that he should die for having pardoned a man worthy of death. For no one had ever heard of pardon being accorded to sorcerers” (Lecky, 1900, p9).
Other European rulers certainly took note, and even Queen Elizabeth in England approved more stringent anti-witchcraft laws as a result.
The first penal statute” against witches was enacted in 1541, when Cranmer enjoined his clergy “to seek for any that use charms, sorcery, enchantments, witchcraft, soothsaying, or any like craft invented by the devil.” But few executions took place under this law, which was repealed in the next reign, as savouring of Popery, and no fresh law was made until 1563, when public opinion was exasperated by Bishop Jewell’s preaching before Queen Elizabeth on the wickedness and danger of disobeying the Scriptural precept to put witches to death. His sermon made the deeper impression on the Queen, because current rumour confidently attributed the early death of Charles IX of France to the grievous sin which he had committed in sparing the life of the famous sorcerer Trois Echelles, and in the following year a new law of increased severity was made, which was rigidly enforced (Waters, 1887, p58).
I suppose it stands to reason that if you are going to be burned at the stake regardless of what you say, a fitting revenge would be to instill paranoia in your executioners for the next few centuries. How was Trois-Echelles to know just how seriously they would take his confessions? Whether, as David Moranis said, “life is chaotic, a jumble of accidents, ambitions, misconceptions, bold intentions, lazy happenstances, and unintended consequences” or sorcery was the standard practice in 16th Century France, perhaps the “Witch Craze” would have been a little less crazy if it weren’t for Trois-Echelles. Jerk.
Calmet, Augustin, 1672-1757. The Phantom World: Or, the Philosophy of Spirits, Apparitions, &c. London: R. Bentley, 1850.
Digby, Kenelm Henry, 1800-1880. Mores Catholici: Or, Ages of Faith … London: C. Dolman [etc. etc.], 1845.
Jacolliot, Louis, 1837-1890. Occult Science In India And Among the Ancients: With an Account of Their Mystic Initiations, And the History of Spiritism. New York: Theosophical Publishing Co., 1908.
Lecky, William Edward Hartpole, 1838-1903. History of the Rise And Influence of the Spirit of Rationalism In Europe. London: Longmans, 1900.
Lévi, Eliphas, 1810-1875. The History of Magic: Including a Clear And Precise Exposition of Its Procedure, Its Rites And Its Mysteries. London: W. Rider & Son, 1913.
Mackay, Charles, 1814-1889. Memoirs of Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds. London: Office of National illustrated library, 1852.
Madden, Richard Robert, 1798-1886. Phantasmata, or, Illusions And Fanaticisms of Protean Forms, Productive of Great Evils. London: T. C. Newby, 1857.
Michelet, Jules, 1798-1874. La Sorcière: the Witch of the Middle Ages. Lodnon: Simpkin, Marshall and co., 1863.
Moir, George, 1800-1870. Magic and Witchcraft. London: Chapman and Hall, 1852.
Waters, Robert Edmond Chester, 1828-. Parish Registers In England: Their History And Contents, With Suggestions for Securing Their Better Custody And Preservation. New ed., rewritten throughout and enl. (1882) London: Longmans, Green, 1887.
In the British Isles, the witchcraft craze was a direct result of the Dissolution of the Monasteries. Under Catholicism, if you thought the old woman whose pleas for charity you spurned had decided to do witchcraft against you in revenge, the parish priest could give you a blessed item and assign a mild to moderate penance to the alleged witch. But under the Tudor church, there were no priestly remedies allowed: the accusation had to be tried in the courts.