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Jan Machielsen (Cardiff University): ‘The Alchemist’s Witch-Hunt: Jean d’Espagnet and the Witches of the Pays de Labourd’

The ‘Chemistry’s Cicero.’ That is how the Enlightenment philosophe Diderot praised the Bordeaux judge and naturalist Jean d’Espagnet (c.1564–after 1643). Only marginally less lyrical, Pierre Bayle described him as ‘one of the savans hommes of the seventeenth century’. Although little known today, contemporary editors placed and published Espagnet’s writings alongside those of Descartes and Boyle. Newton studied his alchemical treatise, and Milton borrowed some of his philosophical ideas for his Paradise Lost

The celebrated scientist had a shady past. As Bayle already noted in one of his ironic footnotes, in 1609 Espagnet was one of two Bordeaux judges sent to the French Basque country to conduct one of Europe’s most infamous witch-hunts. Historians have gone through great lengths to absolve Espagnet, putting as much blame as possible on the shoulders of his colleague, the positively diabolical Pierre de Lancre. Newly discovered archival documents reveal a very different picture, exposing the extent of Espagnet’s involvement. These sources raise an intriguing question – how would an early scientist conduct a witch-hunt? – which in turn causes us to see the tragic events of 1609 with fresh eyes.

The Work in Progress seminar explores the variety of subjects studied and researched at the Warburg Institute. Papers are given by invited international scholars, research fellows studying at the Institute, and third-year PhD students.