The death of a child is one of the most painful experiences imaginable. In 584, Queen Fredegund and King Chilperic experienced this grief when their two-year-old son, Theuderic, died of dysentery. The royal couple had experienced the loss of a child before—a son named Samson had died around 577—but the death of Theuderic hit the couple, particularly Queen Fredegund, especially hard. As can be common with those experiencing grief, Fredegund began lashing out in anger, and she scapegoated others for her son’s natural death. Fredegund’s paranoia infected King Chilperic, and unfortunately for the city of Paris, the royal couple’s grief-stricken outbursts would reportedly lead to the deaths of several Parisians.
According to the 6th-century bishop and chronicler, Gregory of Tours (c. 539-594), Queen Fredegund somehow became convinced that a coven of Parisian witches were in some way responsible for young Theuderic’s death. As dysentery was prevalent at that time, folk healers apparently flocked to the city to provide dubious potions and herbal remedies for the illness. The existence of these healers was brought to the attention to the royal court by a certain Mummolus, a Parisian prefect, who in a conversation with some courtiers admitted to buying an herb or potion that could cure dysentery. When news of this folk cure began circulating around the royal court, a dastardly conspiracy theory emerged that accused the healers of creating or spreading the dysentery outbreak in order to create a demand for their curative product. Queen Fredegund was said to have full-heartedly embraced this theory and, in her hysteria, she reportedly began rounding up suspicious Parisian women for questioning under torture. As would happen in later witch-trials, many of the tortured people confessed to whatever the torturers asked, just to make the pain stop.
Gregory of Tours’ description of what happened in this bizarre witch hunt ranks among the most gruesome passages in his war-riddled and execution-filled text. On the fates of the women who confessed to being witches, Gregory stated that “Fredegund then had these poor wretches tortured in an even more inhumane way, cutting off the heads of some, burning others alive and breaking the bones of the rest on the wheel” (History of the Franks, VI.35). The prefect, Mummolus, who had brought the healer women to the attention of the court, was also brought in for questioning. He was charged, first, with buying potions from the folk healers, but as the torture continued, the inquiry eventually evolved into accusations that he was a sorcerer. According to Gregory of Tours, “Mummolus was extended on the rack and then flogged with treble thongs until the torturers were quite exhausted. After this splinters were driven beneath the nails of his fingers and toes” (History of the Franks, VI.35).
Despite the excruciating tortures that he experienced, Mummolus apparently confessed to nothing but buying remedies from the healers. As they did not have an admission of sorcery, his life was subsequently spared. Yet, just because he was allowed to live does not mean he was treated well after being let go by the torturers. Instead, according to Gregory of Tours, poor Mummolus was informed that “his property was sequestered; and he was placed on a cart and packed off to Bordeaux” (History of the Franks, VI.35). As a tragic end to this dark tale, the tortured and banished man reportedly died of his wounds not long after reaching Bordeaux.
Written by C. Keith Hansley
Picture Attribution: (Inquisitors and torturers depicted in the Story History of France by John Bonner, published c. 1919, [Public Domain] via flickr.com and Creative Commons).
- The History of the Franks by Gregory of Tours, translated by Lewis Thorpe. New York: Penguin Classics, 1971.