Speak of the Devil: Preaching Against Heresy and Witchcraft in the Fifteenth and Sixteenth Centuries in France

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University of New Brunswick


The study of Catholic preachers in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries who delivered sermons linking the devil, the apocalypse, and the Antichrist with heresy and witchcraft shows that their rhetoric was part of a strategy aimed at defending and validating Catholic sacraments and the Church’s exclusivity over spiritual salvation. Eliminating the enemies of God and the Church – heretics and witches – was one of the practical outcomes of this discourse. One of the historical paradoxes generated by their demonizing discourse was the creation of an imaginary satanic religion that was then portrayed as the complete, negative reversal of the Church, thus providing counterevidence to validate Catholic doctrines. The existence of medieval heretical sects, and Protestants in the sixteenth century, who openly rejected the authority of the Church and the sacraments led to the progressive construction of a demonizing discourse which presumed the existence of an all-inclusive demonic conspiracy. Tracing the demonizing discourse of itinerant preachers in the fifteenth century and into the Reformation period of the sixteenth century highlights the parallels between the effects of Catholic preachers’ dehumanizing sermons that spilled over from the late Middle Ages into the early modern period. In the fifteenth century, preachers like Vincent Ferrer whipped up anxieties concerning the End Times and the dangers heretics posed to individual salvation right on the eve of the transformation of the image of the witch from an individual performer of harmful magic into a member of a sect of evil-worshipping heretics. In the sixteenth century, preachers like François Le Picart and Simon Vigor called Protestantism the ‘religion of the devil’. Beyond the horrific large-scale massacres of the Huguenots, the prosecution of witches accused of serving Satan and sensational cases of demonic possession soon followed. The public exorcisms performed on French demoniacs was in many respects a form of sermon performed to large crowds and with considerable impact. The crossing of periods shows a similar dynamic concerning the Catholic Church’s earlier response to the threat of heresy in which preaching against heresy led to the transformation of practitioners of magic into an imagined sect of devil worshippers.