The Vauderie d’Arras: An Inaugural Witch-Hunt?


Bodleian Libraries, Oxford, MS. Rawl. D. 410, fol. 1r


We are remarkably well informed about the Vauderie d’Arras—the witch-craze that gripped and terrorized the medieval city of Arras, in northern France, inspiring Tinctor to write the Invectives—thanks to an unusually large collection of writings contemporary with the incident. The most important of these were produced by a local chronicler, Jacques du Clercq, who dedicated several chapters of his chronicle to the Vauderie. Relying on du Clercq and on a number of other sources—histories, legal and municipal records, letters, and scholarly texts—scholars have reconstructed the narrative of this strange and troubling incident. 

It is important to note that, as specialist Franck Mercier has warned, the process of crafting such narratives can be somewhat perilous; there are more gaps and inconsistencies in the record than one might imagine, and some connections are not as simple and linear as they appear. Bearing this warning in mind, we offer here a partial summary of the incident, based largely on Gordon Singer’s (1974) account.

The remainder of this page is adapted or paraphrased from Singer (84-89).

Du Clercq tells us that the Vauderie d’Arras was instigated in 1459, when a Franciscan hermit named Robinet de Vaux, on trial for heresy at a chapter (or meeting) of Dominicans in Langres, in the duchy of Burgundy, accused two people living in the county of Artois of being witches. Artois, the region of northern France in which Arras was situated, was also under the authority of the duke of Burgundy. The inquisitor of Arras, one Pierre le Broussard, was present at the chapter meeting, and followed up on the accusations as soon as he returned to Artois.

The first of the accused, a sex worker named Deniselle Grenier, was apprehended in the nearby city of Douai. Interrogated and tortured by a group of local clerics, including the vicars (or lieutenants) of the absent bishop of Arras and the dean of the local cathedral, Grenier appears to have accused others of witchcraft. One of those she accused was Jean Lavite, a vagabond, artist, and poet. Nicknamed the “Abbot of Folly,” Lavite was the leader of a société joyeuse—a company of dramatic performers. Arrested and brought to Arras in February 1460, Lavite was likewise subjected to torture. His confession, which, du Clercq tells us, named “by name and surname, people of all estates—nobles, clerics, and other men and women,” led to a series of new arrests; soon eight people were in prison. (Here as elsewhere, we present our translation of du Clercq's middle French prose rather than Singer's.)

While some of the vicars appear to have had misgivings about the prosecutions, the dean of the cathedral, Jacques du Bois, and the bishop’s suffragan, one Jean Fauconnier (the titular bishop of Beirut), remained doggedly determined to proceed. They enlisted the support of the nearby count of Étampes, a relative of the duke of Burgundy, who ordered the vicars to carry on—on pain of being prosecuted themselves. Despite the advice of neighbouring scholars that a measure of mercy should be shown to the accused, du Bois and Fauconnier remained adamant that those found guilty of vauderie—“witchery”—should be put to death. Indeed, said du Bois, the very accusation of vauderie should be enough to demonstrate guilt; and those who protested should themselves be suspected of witchcraft.

Next: The First Trial (May 1460)