Witchcraft accusations in France, 1850–1990
The continued widespread belief in witchcraft and magic in nineteenth- and twentieth-century France has received considerable academic attention. Yet little of the relevant work has been published in English and, moreover, no thematic historical survey has yet been attempted to trace the continued social significance of witchcraft over the two centuries. As well as discussing the extent and nature of witchcraft accusations in the period, therefore, this chapter also provides a general survey of the published work on the subject for an English audience. As the reader will find, this requires considerable interdisciplinary awareness. Although historians, folklorists and anthropologists often find themselves in the same field of study, they rarely follow the same path across it. Despite a wealth of information, historians have ignored the history of French witchcraft accusations beyond the nineteenth century, while anthropologists, folklorists and psychologists, who have built up an impressive body of analysis from oral interviewing, have largely failed to trace the historical context of the contemporary beliefs they have studied. Reading through the publications of the various disciplines it soon becomes obvious that if we are to understand fully the recent history of witchcraft accusations, then a flexible interdisciplinary approach is essential. This is certainly being done in the broader context of the social history of the period, but has yet to be applied to more specific cultural themes such as witchcraft. Finally, my approach to the subject is much influenced by my own work on English witchcraft in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. This introduces the puzzling question as to why two countries separated by a narrow stretch of water have such different recent histories regarding the continuation of traditional witchcraft accusations.
Most of the historical studies on the continuance of witchcraft and magic in French society during the modern period have focused on the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. Matthew Ramsey’s work on popular medicine between the years 1770–1830 has done much to highlight the profusion and diversity of magical practitioners and practices in that period.