While my role in purifying our church from the influence and evil of witches and heretics has been limited to persuasion and retribution, I have been present to see many executions of the condemned. Such executions can be swift and merciful, but traditionally, executions are an agonizing public display and warning to others. The most common form of execution for condemned witches, and sometimes heretics, is burning at the stake.
Such was the case with a young woman arrested for witchery in Avignon. Marie Roget was accused by her neighbor of cavorting with demons, and using their power to sour her milk, destroy her garden and seduce the man that was courting her. Marie was arrested and held for two days prior to her examination by the magistrate. There was significant evidence that she was a witch, as she had clearly had sexual intercourse with a demon, such were her private parts torn and bleeding.
We examined her naked body for further signs of the devil, and found it. She was hung by her wrists to provide us access to her bare flesh in all places, however private, and we examined her body in great detail with an examining probe (a sharp iron knife capable of pricking the flesh easily). A brown mark, the mark of satan, was found on her inner thigh. This mark was numb, as proven when we plunged the sharp examining probe into her flesh. Thus equipped with confirmation of her witchery, she was condemned to the rack to extract a confession.
During the examination, Marie Roget attempted to deceive us by offering to confess to whatever we wished. No such confession can be admitted, as only a true confession of true crimes can be accepted. It is well known that witches will not truly confess without the use of torture which breaks their will and dedication to their demon masters, and lets the truth pour out in a torrent which purges the soul.
An interesting observation of how the rack effects the body of the victim; in virtually every other form of restraint or torture, the victim has some freedom of movement. They may be tied, chained or otherwise restrained, but there is always room for them to struggle, wriggle, strain and pull against their bonds, as the pain is applied. But with the rack, the extreme pressures on the limbs and body creates a form of peaceful stillness on the body.
Marie hovered in the rack, several inches above the table as her limbs were stretched beyond their capacity to withstand. Even when her joints slowly gave way to the unrelenting pull and separated, there was almost no movement in her body. Her head, yes... it struggled and moved from side to side, face showing the agony she was enduring. But no other part of her body moved even a half inch.
Placing my hand on her body, starting with her shoulders (which were by then torn asunder), I remember stroking her chest, breasts, ribs, stomach, and down to her hips, feeling her naked flesh stretched taught and unmoving under my hand. I marveled at the beauty of the rack, and how it inevitably brought such heretics to confess, unburden their souls, and renounce their evil.
Marie's execution was set for Saturday. I ordered that she be pulled out of the hole into which she had been flung in the prison dungeon. She would have died there within a day, and she needed to survive and be strong so she would not immediately succumb to the smoke and flames. She was placed in a warm cell and given food, water, and other simple items to help her recover, in anticipation of her execution several days hence.
The day came, and I decided to attend the execution. The ritual was to include more than one witch. Two others had been convicted and were to be burned that day.
The execution place was a large square in the center of the town, in front of the castle. It was ideal because of its size and central location. Most people do not realize that the human body does not catch fire, or keep burning easily at all. In fact, the human body does not burn at all; the process of burning a witch is actually more the act of applying intense heat and flames to the body to roast and burn the flesh. This takes a large quantity of wood, stacked high and packed well so that the flames are large, hot and cover the witch completely. Too little fuel and the witch's body is burned in some locations but the flames recede before the job is done. The witch continues to live in agony from her burned flesh for some time unless she has her head cut off or is hanged.
Three wood stakes, with three wooden ladders to hold the witch above the fuel and flames. Wood had been gathered and stored to the side of the square, in readiness. Crowds from the town were arriving to see the spectacle. As a visiting dignitary I was able to procure a seat in the front of the crowds, where all could be seen easily.
When Marie was brought in, she was still naked. Her clothes had long since been torn into rags, and used elsewhere in the prison. Her skin showed only minor scratches from being held in the prison, but there was much bruising and redness about her joints, the lingering effects her ordeal on the rack. She was completely unable to walk, though it appeared she had some movement in her arms. As with many witches about to be purified in the flames, she declared her innocence loudly as she was pulled toward the pire.
A heavy rope went around her waist, her arms tied above her, and she was attached to the rough wooden ladder that would hold her in place while she was burned alive. Her well shaped body hung from the ladder, legs dangling uselessly, ropes digging cruelly into her abdomen.
The crowd cheered as the ladder was moved into place - her naked form hanging above the heads of the crowd.
She was quiet, calm, almost accepting. I had seen this before, once a witch had been put through the trials they realize that they have been discovered and that there is no life left for them, they actually desire an end to their ordeal.
Bales of sticks were piled below her, in a circle. The bales were tied with twine, about two or three feet across. The sticks were no thicker than a finger or thumb. This was the inner core of the pire which would catch fire best and easiest, and would give life to the larger bundles of wood that were brought out to lay on top.
There were about 20 large bundles of wood placed below Marie. She hung naked above the activity, hardly noticing the wood being stacked below her. The pile of wood, when completed, was perhaps 5 feet high and 7 or 8 feet across.
A slight breeze rippled across the square, and blew the Marie's long hair slightly. The crowd was waiting now, anticipating, watching, observing her every reaction. She was sweating in the direct sunlight, her beautiful body slightly shiny from the moisture. Her bare breasts rose and feel in a slight jerks, as she appeared to be sobbing quietly to herself.
The prison master came forward with a torch, stood at the edge of the wood pire and looked at the condemned for a moment. With a single swift movement, he pitched the torch into the wood, where it lodged and slipped down. A small wisp of smoke curled up where the first sticks began to catch flame, and there was a collective murmur from the crowd as the execution began.
It took a few minutes for the flames to catch, during which Marie simply hung from her bonds, not reacting at all. Once the inner pile of sticks caught flame, smoke began rising and evoked a coughing fit. A ripple of heat could be seen rising, distorting the image of the smoke and her naked body as the flames from the kindling caught on for earnest.
Her naked body began to writhe at last, as the heat from below rose and enveloped her. She was sweating profusely, water trickling down all corners and surfaces of her body. Her breathing was rapid, and low moans were emitted from her lips. She struggled instinctively, the increasing heat demanding that she at least attempt to free herself. Her lower body could not move, paralyzed from the rack, but her arms pulled and shoulders yanked in attempt to free herself.
The flames from the kindling were not sufficient to reach her body. If that were all that was below her, she would roast to death in time, but the kindling was there to light the main bundles of wood. For about five minutes, she writhed and called out, crying for mercy as the heat began cooking her flesh. Her skin took on an angry red color, reflecting the tremendous increasing heat which rose from below.
At last the main piles of wood began to flame. This wood burned hotter, and higher. It also did not create as much smoke. I have seen witch burnings were the victim died of suffocation from the smoke long before the flames reached the body. This wood was excellent to the purpose. Marie's breasts heaved up and down as she breathed in the air desperately. The air might not have been filled with smoke, but it was very hot and her increasing cries and coughing were partially caused by her lungs cooking insider of her.
The flames licked her feet. Unable to move them, the struggles of her arms became frantic, as did her screams. She was screaming in earnest now, no longer pleading with words, which were beyond her. Simple animal panic emitted from her, long, agonized screams which alternated with shorter cries when the hot air seared the inside of her lungs. Her feet and lower legs appeared to be forming crackling blisters as the flames rose.
Once the larger wood caught flame, it was a short time before the flames reached up to envelop the victim's body. Her feet were blackened as the flames reached higher and covered her lower body. The flames reached up like fingers, running along her legs and hips, scorching the flesh, climbing up her body. Screams, such as they were, began to fail. Strength was leaving the witch, the purifying flames sucking life from her body in increasing increments. Her struggle had ceased by the time flames lapped at her breasts.
In a sudden whoosh, her hair caught fire, burning away in a matter of moments. A slight scream was heard at this, but she fell silent quickly after. The air was now so hot around her that breathing would no longer help her, as her lungs failed to function from the searing heat. Smoke from her flesh rose above the town square, and the smell of roasted witch filled the square.
Many citizens left the audience at this time, unable to watch the horror. I knew that this purification was necessary, expunging the evil within our midst could only be done in this way. And so I watched as her body blackened, her heaving chest ceased to move, and her flesh began to curl away from muscle and bone. The flames were so high now that little could be seen but a silhouette.
If Marie Roget was still alive at this point, 30 minutes into the burning, she was no longer a witch. Evil is consumed by fire, as her body was consumed. When the flames began to withdraw, the fuel below her consumed, her blackened body was once again visible. Emaciated, sagging, it sank down with the flames. Most of the flesh was burned away, with bone visible in many locations.
I did not stay to watch her remains taken down. It would take some time for the embers of the fire to recede and allow access to the center. In the meantime, the smoking corpse would remain as a reminder and warning to all who contemplated consorting with the devil.