Lille Boarding School Witchcraft Hysteria
Antoinette Bourignon, a pious but mentally unstable seventeenth-century Frenchwoman, founded an all-girls boarding school in Lille, France. One day in 1639, upon entering the classroom, Madam Bourignon imagined that she saw a swarm of little black angels flying around the heads of the schoolgirls. Taking fright, she told the children to beware the devil, whose little black imps were buzzing all around them.
The school headmistress developed an obsession with the little black imps hovering around her wards’ heads, and kept warning the schoolgirls daily to watch out for the Devil. Soon, the impressionable children came to believe that there were, indeed, little black demons flying all around them, and before long, Satan and satanic possession became almost the sole topic of conversation in the school.
One of the girls ran away, too frightened to remain in a school infested with little black devils who might possess her at any moment, as Madam Bourignon and her staff never tired of warning the students. When she was brought back, she claimed not to have run away, but to have been carried away by the Devil, and that she was a witch and had been one since age seven.
Upon hearing that, about fifty other schoolgirls started having fits, and when they came to, joined in a “me, too!” rush, and claimed to be witches as well. In their clamor to confess, the children competed to outdo each other with the details of their supposed dark and fell deeds. Some claimed to ride on broomsticks, only to be topped by others claiming an ability to pass through keyholes, to be trumped in turn by those claiming to feast on the flesh of babies or to have attended the Domdaniel, or gathering of the demons.
A formal investigation was launched, and while some clergy and citizens of Lille were skeptical, the majority were of the opinion that the children’s confessions were valid, and that an example should be made by burning all fifty schoolgirls at the stake as witches. Their lives were only spared after some of the skeptical clergy, aghast at what was about to happen, insisted that the investigators dig in deeper, at which point they discovered what the school’s headmistress had done to fill the girls’ heads with thoughts of demonic possession. The children were absolved, and the blame was shifted to Madam Bourignon, who barely escaped punishment after the authorities, unsure of her sanity and tired of the whole affair, wound down and closed the investigation.