When an overview of the witchcraft trials in France is made in an effort to derive an accurate picture of the extent of the persecutions of those alleged to be witches, the issue becomes clouded because of two great heretic hunts that had far-reaching repercussions. The first was the crusade launched against the heretical Cathars in the south of France in 1208, and the second was the trial of the Knights Templar for heresy and witchcraft in 1312. From the beginning of the thirteenth century to the end of the seventeenth century, neither the church or civil courts nor the common people were able to make clear distinctions between Cathars, heretics, and witches.
In 1246, Montsegur, the center of the Albigensian (as the Cathars were also known) resistance fell, and hundreds of the sect who had for so many years withstood the only crusade ever launched against fellow Christians were burned at the stake. In that same year, the headquarters of the Inquisition was established in Toulouse. In 1252, Pope Innocent IV (d. 1254) issued a papal bull that placed the inquisitors above the law and demanded that every Christian—from the aristocracy to the peasantry—assist in the work of seeking out witches and heretics or face excommunication. In 1257, the church officially sanctioned torture as a means of forcing witches and heretics to confess to their evil ways.
In 1305, the Knights Templar, who had for centuries been the bulwark of Christianity against those who would destroy or defame it, were themselves accused of invoking Satan, consorting with female demons, and worshipping black cats. While many clergy, including the pope himself, were reluctant to believe such charges against the Knights Templar, it soon became apparent that the order had become too wealthy and powerful to fit suitably into the emerging political structure of France and the aspirations of its king, Philip the Fair (1268–1314).
After years of persecution, many knights scattered and went into hiding throughout Europe and England. Those valiant Templars who insisted upon presenting a defense were finally brought to trial in 1312; and in spite of 573 witnesses for their defense, at least 54 knights were tortured en masse, burned at the stake, and their order was disbanded by Pope Clement V (c. 1260–1314).
Perhaps because of such large numbers of Cathars having been executed at Montsegur and other cities in the Albi region of southern France, along with reports of the mass burning of the Knights Templar, exaggerated accounts of mass executions of witches passed into the literature of the witch craze in Europe and remained there for centuries. For example, there are many reference books that document the burning of several hundred witches in Toulouse between 1320 and 1350. In one single terrible day during that time, according to the old texts, 400 women were burned at the stake. Historians have since determined that such mass executions of witches at Toulouse never occurred. Such claims are exaggerations or fictions.
The old records also reveal that the witch-hunters in France were not as gender biased as their counterparts in other European nations. Of the 1,300 witches whose appeals were heard by the French parliament, just over half were men. Also, contrary to popular supposition, in countries such as France, where the Catholic Church was firmly entrenched, the inquisitorial church courts were much more lenient than the civil courts in handing out death sentences to accused witches. Overall, in such Catholic nations as France, Italy, and Spain, the church courts executed far fewer people than the local community-based courts or the national courts. According to some statistics, in the period from 1550 to 1682, omitting the numbers of Cathars and Knights Templar executed, France sentenced approximately 1,500 accused witches to death.