Sunday, 29 September 2019

1750: The last homosexuals executed in France

On 18th October 2014, the Socialist Mayor of Paris Anne Hidalgo ceremonially unveiled a memorial plaque to Bruno Lenoir and Jean Diot, the last men to be executed in France for homosexuality.  The plaque is embedded into the pavement at the corner of rue Montorgueil and rue Bauchaumont, on the exact spot where the two were arrested over two hundred and fifty years ago, in January 1750.

Hommage à MM. LENOIR & DIOT from ALSG on Vimeo.

The commemoration is something of a political hot potato.  The memorial was the initiative of  the Communist and Left Party of the Conseil de Paris (groupe PCF-PG) and is seen as a piece of anti-clerical propaganda (see for instance, the articles by Olivier Marchal).  It has already been subject to two acts of vandalism in 2018 - a wreath  burned in May,  the plaque smeared in soot and covered with homophobic tracts in July.

Who were Lenoir and Diot?  

The case in itself was unremarkable.

On the night of 4th January 1750, at about eleven o'clock two men were arrested in the rue Montorgueil, between the rue Saint-Sauveur and the former rue Beaurepaire.  They had been caught in flagrante by the sergeant of the watch, "in an indecent posture and a reprehensible manner", details of which "propriety does not allow us to explain in writing". One of them was drunk.  Several days later, Bruno Lenoir, a garçon cordonnier of twenty three, admitted that he had been propositioned by Jean Diot.  He had taken off his breeches but they hadn't "concluded the business" because they had been surprised and arrested.  Jean Diot, forty years old, was a servant (garçon domestique) in a nearby butchers. He continued to deny everything.  He maintained that he had simply found the young man asleep in the doorway, definitely with his breeches firmly in place.  Diot was illiterate and could not even sign his name to the deposition.

The trial lasted six months.  On 11th April 1750 the procureur advised that Lenoir and Diot should be  burnt at the stake, a method of execution reserved for heretics, witches, and sodomites. They were found guilty by the Châtelet on 27th May 1750. The Tournelle of the Parlement of Paris confirmed the sentence on appeal.

The arrêt of the Parlement, published on 5th June, condemned the two men to be "burned alive, with their trial records, and their cinders then scattered to the winds, and their goods confiscated by the King." However, a retentum stipulated that they were to be "secretly strangled before they felt the flames".  Apart from this decree, few references have come down to us.  In June 1750 Barbier reported that the sentence of execution by burning was "fort singulier", but it was rumoured that it had been commuted "for prudence" to life imprisonment in the Bicêtre.  On 6th July, however, the execution finally took place:  Barbier gives the following account:

Barbier Journal, vol. 4, June 1750, (p.441) and July 1750 (p.447).  English trans. from Crompton (2009) p.450.


Why did they suffer the full rigours of the law?

As Barbier's comments suggest, it was highly unusual for homosexuals to be executed at this time.

Although burnings for sodomy were rare, the possibility existed and the threat was kept alive by a a handful of well-publicised cases.  However, until now there had always been serious additional charges involved.  Philippe Basse and Bernard Mocmassess, who went to the stake in 1720, were also convicted of blasphemy,  itself a capital crime. In 1726 Benjamin Deschauffours  was condemned for murder,  having been engaged in the traffic of young boys for rich and high-born patrons. This was a notorious case. The government wished to hush up the affair, but the lieutenant de police Hérault, insisted on making an example of Deschauffours, who was publically burned in the place de Grève. (See Crompton, p.449-50)

Some historians have emphasised the humble social origins of Diot and Lenoir.  Maurice Lever in Les Bûchers de Sodome (Fayard, 1985) pointed out that Diot and Lenoir had "no protection" as they were men of the people.  Homosexuality was tolerated in aristocratic circles but not among the working classes.  As Barbier observed, it was easy to make an example of men of no social consequence.  In normal circumstances, however, punishments were still a lot less severe, even for ordinary people.  In the case of a first arrest, the guilty parties usually spent only a few hours, a few days at the most, in prison.  The affair would be resolved by a formal reprimand, a "mercuriale".  A second offence would bring a more prolonged imprisonment, but nothing more.  Only seventeen cases are known to have been brought to formal trial in the whole century (see Courouvre, "Procès de sodomie")

There is not enough circumstantial detail to really explain the sudden harshness shown on this occasion. The scandal and execution of Deschauffours had no doubt reanimated homophobia, but that had taken place twenty-five years previously. The executions have also been linked to the particularly volatile situation in Paris where, in the Spring of 1750, serious unrest was sparked by an over-zealous police initiative to clear vagrants from the streets. There were rumours that children were being kidnapped to be sent to Louisiana or even sold to paedophile rings. The burning of the two sodomites might have been calculated to intimidate the populace and restore order (Crompton, p.450).  Marion Sigaut (somewhat implausibly) proposes a specific link between the Diot/Lenoir affair and the execution a month later, in August 1750, of three rioters named Lebeau, Charvat and Urbain, whom the police were supposedly anxious to silence.

Antoine Courouve, historian of the case, has pointed out that the dates do not really fit: the first riots occurred on 19th May, whereas the death sentence had been recommended for Lenoir and Diot on 11th April.  Courouve suggests a more contingent crackdown by magistrates.  He thinks it may be significant that the men had been formally arrested and reported by an officer of the guet, the ancient royal watch which operated in the region of Les Halles; this did not conform to the usual police practice; extensive manuscript dossiers show that the meeting places of homosexuals, "Les Assemblées de la manchette" were characteristically subject only to covert surveillance.

In 2008 the legal historian Benoît Garnot devoted a chapter to the case in his book On n'est point pendu pour être amoureux ["You don't hang someone for being in love"]. Garnot emphasises that by  1750 magistrates no longer really believed in the exemplary value of the death sentence and would have hesitated over whether to give a case like this publicity.  The condemned men might normally have expected a prison sentence.  Perhaps advisedly,  Garnot  declines to speculate on the reasons behind the execution.   He contents himself with noting that this was last execution for sodomy.  It marks the laicisation of  crime, and paved the way for much less harsh punishment.   Homosexuality was decriminalised by the Revolutionary government in 1791.

The plaque, at 67 rue  Montorgueil  ("just across from the popular La Fermette fromagerie").  Google Streetview, April 2019


Ian Brossat, "Affaire Diot-Lenoir:  briser le silence, 250 ans plus tard", L'Humanité, 10 January 2014

A detailed account of the case and its context can be found on the blog of Claude Courouve, who has also published a book on the affair:
A. Claude Courouve, Connaissances ouvertes [blog]:
-  "L'Affaire de Lenoir et Diot (Paris, 1750)" , 27.08.2014.
-  "Les Assemblées de la manchette" 21.04.2016
-"Procès de sodomie", 14.08.2016

See also:
Louis Crompton, Homosexuality and civilisation (Harvard U.P.,2009), p.449-50.

Olivier Marchal, Mon XVIIIe [blog]:
- "Marion Sigaut : l'homosexualité sous l'Ancien Régime" 18.11.2014
- "Benoît Garnot à propos de l'exécution des homosexuels Diot et Le Noir" , 09.01.2017 [On Garnot's book On n'est point pendu pour être amoureux (Belin, 2008)]

Saturday, 28 September 2019

The Sorcerers of Lyon

The affair of the "sorcerers of Lyon" was a further, far more extensive trial involving magic quests for treasure.  Proceedings took place over a three-year period, from 1742 to 1745, and involved the arraignment of no less than twenty-nine individuals.

This episode is fascinating, not only for the insights into legal practices and attitudes to witchcraft but also for the details of the lives and hopes of  ordinary people that it revealed.

The trial is unusually well-documented: the library of the Château Grosbois-en-Montagne in Bourgogne preserves a comprehensive manuscript dossier, including full transcripts of the many interrogation.  This  compilation was the work of the commissioning magistrate for the case Jean-Claude Perreney de Vellemont (1718-1810), conseiller, and later  Procureur-général  in the Parlement of Dijon.  According to family tradition Perreney was an austere and conscientious man, who got up at four in the morning to attend early mass and habitually spent his days in study. This is borne out by the manuscript, which amounts to 400 folio pages, laboriously transcribed in small neat handwriting.

The fortified manor house of Grosbois en Montagne, much embellished by the Perreney family in the 18th century.
A full account of the case, based on the dossier, was published by Henri Beaune  in 1868.  More recently, in 2001, the evidence has been revisited in an article by Mathias Dupas Didier.  

The events unfolded in a number of distinct phases:

Benoît Michalet, his capture and confession

On 21 July 1742, two members of the maréchaussée of Bourg-en-Bresse, on patrol in the hamlet of Caluire on the outskirts of Lyon, heard rumours of strange-goings on in a property in the village.  When they investigated, they found a young man asleep on mattress on the floor with a gun at his side.  Under the mattress was an assortment of magical paraphernalia  - grimoires, ecclesiastical vestments and books, a crucifix, a stone, candles and a candle stick, plus a knife engraved accipe gladium manus a Deo datum.  Also found were nineteen parchment fragments inscribed with mysterious red symbols.  The individual was promptly arrested and imprisoned. He identified himself as Benoît Michalet, aged 19, a fabric designer, from the parish of St Paul in Lyon.

When brought to testify before the prévôt of the bailliage of  Bourg-en-Bresse, Michalet naively confessed his involvement in a magic quest. 

It seemed that the Lyon sorcerers wanted to awaken the Archangel Uriel and put him in a bottle:

that at the moment of his arrest he was working to summon the angel Uriel, who would reveal the whereabouts of hidden treasures;  that a group had been formed to search for these treasures;  that the 19 fragments of parchment were the pentacles of Solomon, with the aid of which they would summon the angel;  that the angel would be forced to descend in the form of a cloud of smoke into a phial of water placed on the sacred stone, between two torches, at the instant that the evocator, armed with his knife, recited the gospels; that the sacred vestments were necessary for the success of the operation. (quoted Beaune, p.21)

Michalet revealed, equally ingenuously, that he had learned this ritual from a  book entitled Cornelius Agrippa - but, despite his best efforts, it had not proved successful. He was part of a group of treasure-hunters who had been prompted by rumours that five million silver pieces had been found near the Saint-Just quarter in Lyon.  A letter from a certain Charbonier to Michalet was produced, but the latter now refused to say more.

The local Procureur now set in motion a formal investigation; over forty witnesses were heard in Caluire and several of Michalet's  accomplices were arrested.  

From this first instruction it emerged that Michalet was not a designer at all, but  a penniless drifter, sometime clerk or choir boy at the church of Saint-Paul in Lyon. He had been shown the grimoire by François Charbonier -  given at his subsequent conviction as merchant and "ex-doctor", aged 42 - who claimed that he had bought it from a noble priest in Saint-Just.   With the aid of this book, Charbonier claimed, many wonders were possible: he was convinced that they could summon a demon and force him to reveal the whereabouts of  hidden treasure.

The grimoire in question was clearly  the Philosophie Occulte d'Agrippa (See Baune, p.24, nt.1)

Michalet, Charbonier and their companions had rented the house in Caluire under the guise of theology students;  after a few nocturnal essays, they had soon decided they needed the services of a priest.  At the  seminary at Saint-Pothin in Lyon, their advances were rejected with horror. However, a disaffected churchwarden provided them with a chalice and other ecclesiastical accoutrements.  Spells to summon inferior spirits were deposited in various places - woods, the side of roads, inside the house itself.  These demons were supposed to appear at given days of the week in allotted disguises - as a cloud, a bat and so on.  Finally, an unscrupulous priest was prevailed upon to celebrate mass on the belly of a girl who was laid out as an altar.  But all this activity had absolutely no result.  Some individuals claimed to have seen a red man appear or to have heard unearthly voices - but the majority doubted this.  The company had reached the end of their hopes when the arrest of Michalet raised the alarm and led to their dispersal.

At this point the investigation in the bailliage court of Bourg stalled. Nine individuals were arrested, but three, who were not gravely implicated, were later released.  Among those held in addition to Michalet and Charbonnier, were  Philibert Tissot a clerk of the court of the sénéchaussée in Lyon.  and Jeanne Godefroy, the wife of  François Bernard, a satinaire from Lyon (who fled). On 14th February 1743 the  lieutenant criminel ordered the hapless Michalet to be put to the torture. However, he made no effort to secure material evidence by seizing the books and magical instruments. The priests who were implicated were not troubled,  and nor were the bookdealers who were said to have sold the grimoires.

The execution of Bertrand Guillaudot

 The saga was now complicated by the arrest at the beginning of 1742 in Gergy, a small town in Chalon-sur-Saône of a priest called Bertrand Guillaudot.  Although the case at first seemed unconnected, it soon became clear that Guillaudot was part of the same circle of treasure seekers centred in Lyon.  Evidently the group was more extensive than previously appreciated. 

Guillaudot was another cleric of humble origins.  Although he had been born into abject poverty, Guillaudot had been educated thanks to Languet de Gergy, Bishop of Soisson, and had entered holy orders.  After an initial period of religion fervour, he had spent most of his life dabbling in alchemy and magic, chasing chimerical fortunes.  By the time of his arrest he had already been condemned to banishment and was celebrating masses in Lyon under an assumed name.  He was found to possess several  books of magic, including the Cavicula Salomonis, as well as manuscripts transcribed in his own hand.

In his extensive final confession Guillaudot  related how he had been  approached at the end of a service in the Jesuit chapel in Lyon by two magicians Guillaume Janin, a silkworker, and Jean Feroussat, a former potter:  they had formed a society to"find ancient treasures with the aid of aerial spirits" and needed the assistance of a priest.  With the aid of  Feroussat he had sanctified a host and stole various sacred vessels. The group got up to many shenaningans. They held a nocturnal gathering in the bois de Limonnet, where Janin and a woman named Simonne la Borgne, solemnly promised to give themselves to the devil.  A few days later Guillaudot, Janin and Feroussat had gone to a castle in the parish of Bois-d'Oingt, outside Lyon where Guillaudot had celebrated four sacrilegious masses .

These invocations too had failed to result in riches, or any other magical benefits.  Having lived on bounty of his congregation, Guillaudot was eventually forced to return to Gergy, where took up post as vicaire and secured further dupes.  There was even a project  to perform a black mass and call up Beelzebub.  However, the situation soon began to unravel.  Back in Lyon, Guillaudot  was betrayed sent back to Gergy  and imprisoned.

After a protracted instruction, Guillaudot was condemned by both the ecclesiastical and the bailliage courts.  He duly appealed his case to the Parlement of Dijon, but to no avail.  On 3rd April 1743 he was sentenced to be burned at the stake.  He was taken to the place du Morimont (now place Emile-Zola) in Dijon, where he entered the famous antichambre du bourreau, a chapel next to the scaffold, to dictate his last testament.  Between 9 and 10 in the evening the Dijon executioner  maitre Chefdeville, strangled him, then consigned his body to the fire together with his seized papers and books of magic.  

Trial in Dijon

The magistrature now had little choice but to take action. Three days after the execution, on 6th April 1743, an arrêt was issued by the Parlement of Dijon ordering the  arrest of thirteen inhabitants of Lyon identified by Guillaudot, including  Feroussat, Janin, the hatters Motet, Saive and Lambert and a priest named Rodier. A new full-scale information was launched, with the commissioner Verchère d'Arcelot despatched to Lyon to publish monitoires; in all 120 witnesses were heard.  Fifteen months were necessary to collect  the depositions, which filled Perreney's immense dossier.  Finally on 10th November 1744 twenty-nine individuals were formally accused.

The confession of Michalet was at the heart of this second investigation.  He described how "naked, dying of hunger, without lodging or resources", he had fallen in with the treasure seekers.  He identified the ringleaders as Janin, Feroussat and Tissot and named Guillaudot and several other priests. It seems that members were recruited in all sorts of locations:  sacristies, courtrooms, shops, bars, on the streets.  No-one was considered too humble or disreputable; each had their place at the "great banquet" where Uriel would dispense his largesse. Their contributions ranged from mixing wax to consecrating their unborn child to the Devil.  Virgins gave their blood and the dust of the dead was collected and baked in a cake to be broken at the moment of the spirit's apparition. Lack of success did not discourage the treasure-seekers; on the contrary their number increased daily.

The most grave of the charges involved sacrilegious masses:

As at Lorient, the magical practices described gave a central place to elements borrowed from Catholicism. The ritual was reconstructed roughly as follows:

The magician, with the aid of the grimoire, was first charged with determining the exact time and ideal site in which to summon the spirits. Although  spells could be simply written down and deposited, for more serious conjurations, the  presence of a priest was considered indispensible; only an ordained priest had the power to  purify the equipment, carry out the ritual and cast the summoning spells.   According to Michalet, the ceremonies took place in a variety of locations, sometimes indoors, sometimes out in the woods, but almost always at night.  A circle, five feet in circumference, was traced or laid out in hazelwood as a defence against demons. The participants also set out pentacles or "seals of Solomon", which were sacred signs intended to protect participants, and enable them to attach and destroy demons, or to attract and mollify the angels.  In Guillaudot's account  the Four Names of God were inscribed at the cardinal points of the circl. Candles of wax and asafoetida were  lit. The priest would then begin the mass more gnosticorum.  The sacrament was pronounced, but, at the moment of  consecration, the celebrant would place the grimoire (or in some versions the parchments bearing the seals of Solomon) under the altar cloth, and hold the host reversed.  He would then begin the  conjuration, calling on the spirit to appear in the name of the living god. The incantations might go on for an hour or more and were not without risk, since the spirit might resist or attempt to possess the conjurer.  

Judgment and condemnation

The case was formally referred to the Tournelle for judgment in early February 1745.  Judicial indiscretion and popular rumour stirred the curiosity of the people of Dijon ; from first deliberations until the executions, a dense crowd filled the little place du palais and the adjacent streets, undeterred by the glacial North Wind (Baune, p.57). The Tournelle was presided over by the marquis de Bourbonne. As was the custom, the accused were interrogated separately, in secret, without defence. No record was made of their responses.

The commissioning magistrate, Perreney de Vellemont, now read his carefully prepared report. The guilt of the accused was self-evident: the only point at issue was whether or not an individual had committed sacrilege and was therefore liable to the death penalty.  A carefully graded set of penalties was meted out, ranging from execution to simple fines. Janin as the ringleader was sentenced first and found guilty of sacrilege and profanation.  On 10th February he was condemned to be hanged and his body burnt on the place du Morimont.  First he was to be put to the ordinary and extraordinary question using the moine de camp and have his right-hand cut off. The sentence was read to him at midday; by three thirty in the afternoon, his lifeless body was taken down from the scaffold. On 12th February Feroussat suffered a similar fate.  In all six death sentences were meted out. A second priest, Louis Debaraz, was "burned at the stake and his ashes scattered to the winds", and the priests Carat and Lambert were hanged.   Michalet, Tissot and Charbonnier were sentenced to the galleys, Tissot for life and the other two for nine years. The rest of the accused were condemned to banishment or fines.

The fate of the accused

Mathias Dupas Didier in his 2001 article reserves his final comments for the miserable fate of these poor deluded treasure seekers. Even after the 1682 Edict, the theoretical punishments for blasphemy and irreligion were harsh: but, a time when torture was falling into disuse, the sentences seemed unnecessary brutal.  Indeed Louis Debaraz is generally cited as the last person in France burnt at the stake for sorcery.  The case was exceptional in scope, and the magistrates involved were conservative. It also attracted an element of exemplary punishment: Jean-Claude Perreney de Vellement, feared a recrudesence of sorcery which might put the kingdom in danger.  Nonetheless, Didier is right: in the Century of Light it was still possible to burn men alive for magical practices.


Henri Beaune, Les Sorciers de Lyon (Dijon 1868)

Mathias Dupas Didier, "Un procès de magiciens au XVIIIe siècle",  Histoire, économie et société, 2001, 20(2):p. 219-229.

Clément-Janin, Le Morimont de Dijon : bourreaux et suppliciés (1889)

Friday, 27 September 2019

Some treasure-seekers

Magical treasure-seeking featured prominently in 18th-century grimoires, and seems to have become a particular preoccupation of the time.  Perhaps it can be viewed as one more aspect of the quest for riches and upward mobility so prominent in all walks of life during this period. From time to time the antics of the treasure-hunters surface in detail in the judicial or police record.  As Professor McManners observed, these cases reveal "something of the popular superstition and the judicial ferocities underlying the crystaline wit and sophisticated adventures of thought of the Enlightenment" (p.237).  

Here are  two well-documented examples from the earlier part of the century.

1. The  sorceress Marie-Anne de La Ville

Like many earlier examples witchcraft and sorcery, this case,  centred on a adolescent girl with unusual psychic powers.  Marie-Anne de La Ville was the neglected daughter of a widowed and impecunious lawyer from Bordeaux.  In earlier times she might have claimed demonic possession, but instead she turned to the newer tradition of the grimoires. According to her own testimony, when  only twelve years old,  she had discovered a copy of Cornelius Agrippa and successfully conjured up an angelic spirit  "in the shape of a beautiful child of seven, wearing a white robe and brodequins" (Coynard, p.13)

Antoine-François Saint-Aubert First experiment (detail) 
In 1698, after several years at the the convent of the Visitation in Paris, Marie-Anne joined up with a band of chercheurs de trésors, led by a certain Divot, an archer in charge of a police patrol.  Divot had collected around him a colourful group of followers - a hunchback known as "le Chevalier"; la femme Damour, a repairer ("ravaudeuse") of military tunics; Picot, a shepherd; Acmet, cardinal de Fürstenberg’s African page; Cuxac, guard of the king's paintings; Frémont, a surgeon's boy; also the noble, adventurer and alchemist, Antoine de Saint, seigneur de Bréderodes. There were also priests - the curé Piéton, who claimed to be the godson of Madame de Maintenon, and, most prominently, the abbé Pinel de la Martinière, a dabbler in dark arts who enjoyed a comfortable living as prieur of Noyen-sur-Seine in the diocese of Sens. 

For three years Anne duped them all into searching for treasure rumoured to be buried near Arcueil with the aid of a spirit known as “le prince Babel”. To encourage their credulity, she carried out innumerable invocations, sold grimoires, prepared magical perfumes, and conversed with the illustrious dead, notably the poet Santeul and the painter Lebrun.  For a short time she became a fashionable sorceress.  The comtesse de Grancey, mistress of Monsieur,  the marquis de Feuquières, the abbé Baillet, principal of the collège de Narbonne, M. Destouches, the nephew of Le Camus de Beaulieu - all these consulted her.

Both Pinel and Marie-Anne De La Ville featured prominently in d'Argenson's report of October 1702:

The abbé Pinel is prieur in the diocese of Sens... a benefice we are assured is worth 2,000 livres in rentes. He last lived on the Ile Notre-Dame, rue des Deux-Ponts; but he has been in hiding for two months.

The abbé Pinel is a professional scoundrel, who having ruined himself by a succession of debauches, wanted to treat with infernal spirits, to reestablish his fortune...he...lives in public disorder, composes bad books, attempts to establish himself as a bel esprit, but has only succeeded in acquiring a reputation as a knave and a parasite.  ...It is in the Priory that spirits care to communicate with men.  If the abbé is to be believed,  he and others have worked on conjurations for more than three years....However, he did not make great progress in this art before he met a young woman called Marie-Anne Laville...This girl comes from Bordeaux; it is said that her father ran a riding academy and one of her uncles, a priest near Moulin, took charge of her education.  She assures us that at the age of 12, having opened at random a grimoire prized by that curé, she read several evocations which had immediate effect;  a Spirit appeared in human form and demanded to know what she wanted...Since then Marie-Anne  has claimed that this spirit, called Babel has obeyed her;  but this obedience is not so fixed and general that she has not been troubled by caprices.  It often happens that the Spirit beats her until the blood flow, throws her to the ground....    

In February 1703 d’Argenson made his move and the the band was arrested by lettre de cachet.  Fourteen people were implicated.  Marie-Anne was condemned to perpetual imprisonment, and the miserable Pinel vanished into the ecclesiastical prison at Bordeaux on bread and water for life.  In 1717 she was was freed by the Regent after fourteen years in her cell, shaven and in sackcloth,but was later reincarcerated on suspicion of forgery. It was not until 1725, on the occasion of the wedding of Louis XV and Marie Leczinka that she was finally released from the Hôpital,.

2. The sorcerers of Lorient

The second case of treasure-hunting took place in the 1730s, far away from Paris, among the working people of  the port of Lorient  on the Breton coast. Some twenty-five individuals were eventually implicated. Rumours circulated of nocturnal sorcery and in the fields around Ploemeur and near a ruined chapel in the Faouëdic, individuals had been seen frantically digging.   There was talk of magic ceremonies, pacts written in blood, invocation of demons.  The  rector of Saint-Louis, François Cohalan learned of the suspected involvement of a disreputable priest from Ploërmel, the abbé Le Rouzic. Accompanied by the  commandant de place and four fusiliers, he entered the cabaret reputed to be frequented by the treasure seekers. The tenant, Fanchon Bellaire, had just died, but had left with her neighbour Jacquette Morvan a "cahier de papiers", together with two sachets, one containing a mysterious white powder and the other, more sinisterly still, three consecrated Hosts. 

The local authorities preferred to keep the matter low key, but on 26th June 1736 the cour royale d'Hennebont  was instructed by the Parlement of Bretagne to open an investigation.   Monseigneur Fagon, the bishop of Vannes, was constrained to address a monitoire to his parishioners  which brought in an avalanche of witnesses: ropemarkers, coopers, carpenters, laborers; also great numbers of women - laundresses, serving girls etc., many of whom spoke only Breton. The infamous "cahier" - not part of the voluminous dossier in the archives, since it was burnt by the hangman -  apparently contained a grimoire "half in Latin, half in French" featuring prayers to "Lucifer, Belzebuth, Astraroth"; still more incriminating was a diabolical pact with several signatures written in blood (of a mole, La Rouzic later specified).   A number of suspects were  rounded up, including La Rouzic himself, who was found hiding in Quimper.   The core members of the group were five ropemakers.   The cordier Lafontaine, the husband of Jeanne Morvan, was said to have promised his accomplices and their dupes "a shower of gold". Almost 500 people had apparently made the journey to  Faouëdic at nightfall in the hope of making their fortune.  Those involved were mainly working people, though there was a smattering of  more respectable citizens: three bored widows, a naval officer and his wife who had experimented with divining, an aging notary, who had spent three days drinking in the cabaret with the ringleaders.  In May 1737 a local noble Marc-Antoine de Cosnoal, sieur de Cartier, was  also arrested, under suspicion of being one of the signatories, though, after much deliberation, he was  finally exonerated.

It is clear that the group had strayed into deeply sacrilegious waters. Lafontaine  was even said to have tried to buy an unborn child for 700 livres to offer it up to the devil.  The abbé Le Rouzic had been approached to acquire the necessary ecclesiastical vessels and to perform the mass of invocation laid down in the Solomonic rite.  He now stood charged with  having invoked "demons, abusing the words of Scripture" and of having made "consecrations by night to find treasure". 
Witnesses testified that a priest had promised "persons greedy for money" unlimited wealth if they furnished him with "the means to say mass and consecrate hosts."

Le Rousic, a man of 38,  was himself from peasant stock. He  was formerly a priest at Mendon and Ploemel,  but had been deprived of his ministry by the Bishop of Vannes due to  dissolute living;  he had even spent time in the austere couvent des Carmes déchaussés in a vain effort to correct “ses exces dans le vin”.  Having failed to become a chaplain with the Compagnie des Indes, he subsequently  returned Ploëmel where he no longer exercised any ecclesiastical function. Unlike the comfortably placed abbé Pinel, he was not drawn to magic by intellectual curiosity. Like the rest of the treasure-hunters he lived an impoverished existence and was tempted by the prospect of riches. Through repeated interrogations, he stoutly denied the more serious charges. He had initially been enticed to Lorient with promises of employment as a tutor; he had drunkenly copied down some exorcisms and signed his name in blood; he had even gone out a nocturnal treasure-hunting, but he had refused to consecrate any hosts or invoke the devil.  Whatever, the truth of the matter, he was found guilty. 

The final judgement was not given until 10 January 1738, almost nineteen months after the trial had begun. Six of the treasure-seekers were condemned in absentia to five years in the galleys;  other participants were mostly banished for varying terms.  Le Rouzic escaped with his life, though his punishment was harsh; he was obliged to perform an amende honorable,  then was branded and condemned to the galleys for twenty years.


John McManners, Church and society in eighteenth-century France, vol.ii (1998) p.236-238.

Charles de Coynard, Une sorcière au XVIIIe siècle, Marie-Anne de La Ville, 1680-1725 (1902)

"1736. Les faux sorciers de Lorient" , Le Télégramme , 14.05.2006.

G. de Closmadeuc, "Les sorciers de Lorient: procès criminel devant la sénéchaussée d'Hennebont, en l'année ". Bull.Soc. Morbihan (1885) 11-33.

Wednesday, 25 September 2019

The Extravagant Imaginings of Monsieur Oufle

Nothing is so easy as to persuade the Credulous into a belief of whatever one pleases; especially when what is propos'd to them falls in with their Prejudices.
(Bordelon, A History of ..M. Oufle, p.195)

By the opening decades of the eighteenth century, belief in magic and the supernatural was already becoming an object of ridicule. The landmark text is the splendid Histoire des Imaginations Extravagantes de Monsieur Oufle, a comic novel by the abbé Laurent Bordelon published in 1710.

Laurent Bordelon (1653-1730), the chaplain of St. Eustache in Paris, was a literary abbé who moved in aristocratic and intellectual circles which enjoyed royal favour after the Affair of the Poisons.  He was the author of forty acknowledged works and many more anonymous ones. His style was generally not well regarded.  He is said to have declared that "his works were mortal sins";  if so, a wag replied, "it is the public who does penance".  His detractors were quick to condemn his comparison between Monsieur Oufle and Don Quixote.  Nonetheless the work was popular: a  pirated version appeared almost immediately in the Netherlands. There was a reprint in France in 1712 and  a second edition in 1753-54. Translations were also published:  in English in 1711, in German in 1712, and in Italian in 1757. Finally, an abridged version appeared as late as 1789 in volume 36 of La Collection des Voyages imaginaires, songes, visions et romans cabalistiques... edited by Charles-Georges-Thomas Garnier.

 The central character of the novel is Monsieur Oufle (an anagram of "Le Fou"), a well-to-do and gullible bourgeois merchant.  A series of episodes lampoon Oufle’s naivety and the absurdity of his superstitious beliefs: he convinces himself he is a werewolf;  he takes on the role of seducer to fulfil his horoscope; he supposes himself tormented by ghosts, demons, and sorcerers. His family repeatedly attempt to bring him to his senses, but never quite manage to shake his irrational convictions.

Monsieur Oufle's credulity is fed by a splendid assortment of books of occult science and demonology:  he "spent a great part of his Life in reading a vast Number of Books which treat of Magick, Witchcraft, Spectres, Phantoms, Hobgoblins, Wanton Spirits, Elves, Fairies, Judicial Astrology, Divinations, Apparitions, Charms, and, in a Word, whatever the most Celebrated Authors had written in favour of a great many Superstitious Practices"  Bordelon even supplies the catalogue for a fictitious library (pp. 19-27 of Part I) in which the  works of the witchfinders jostle incongruously with an array of grimoires, including the Clavicles of Solomon.  

The text includes several digressions against superstition, voiced either by Oufle's brother Noncrede or directly by the author himself.  Ample footnotes testify to Bourdelon's erudition.

A series of finely engraved plates, by Jean or Louis Crépy, depict the various adventures of the hapless Oufle, who is always shown with a fool - a Court jester - in tow.



              Frontispiece to vol. 1: M Oufle and the astrologers
 M. Oufle and his family

We meet the family.  M. Oufle and his wife have four children, all with suitably silly names: Ruzine, la rusée,  Camèle, who changes her mind as often as a chameleon changes colour, the abbé Doudou, as superstitious as his father; Sansugue, a bank clerk who is greedy like a leech, but for money rather than blood.  There is also an unscrupulous valet and a  sceptical brother, aptly named "Noncrede". 

M Oufle imagines he is a werewolf
 He doubts the fidelity of his wife 

One evening, during the carnival season, M. Oufle drunkenly dresses up in a bear costume;  having reread Bodin's Démonologie he imagines that he has been transformed into a werewolf (above left)

Popular folklore
 M. Oufle tests his wife's fidelity using a popular superstition involving thistles( above right)  He trims three thistle heads, labels them with the names of his wife and two other women and places them under his pillow. The thistle belonging to his beloved is supposed to"jet out a fresh Sprout and fresh Prickles"   (Mme Oufle substitutes a whole new thistle plant to allay his suspicions.) 

M.Oufle learns that "Children born on the Fifteenth Day of the Moon, naturally love Women".  He pursues various pointless gallant adventures to prove his horoscope correct.

              A package appears down the chimney
 Tirade of M Oufle's brother Noncrède

M. Oufle  believes profoundly in ghosts - indeed he delivers a whole disquisition in their defence (left). His daughter Ruzine takes advantage of this credulity to tricks him out of a sack of gold, blaming the theft on phantoms. 

Astrology ("Judicial astronomy")
 Ruzine wishes to marry but M. Oufle believes she is predestined by her horoscope to enter religious orders.  A magic apparition is staged to make him change his mind and agree to the match (left)

       Frontispiece to vol.2:  Visions of M. Oufle 
   M. Oufle and the carpenter's dog

Devils and demons
M. Oufle supports his belief in devils in another long speech. Despite the efforts of Noncrede, he persists in his imaginings and even mistakes a carpenter's black dog for a demon (right)

Treasure hunters
M. Oufles avaricious son Sansugue wants to make a compact with "le Démon barbu" to acquire the philosophers stone: "When they spoke to him of Devils that could find treasures, his mouth watered so much that he would not send them away".  When his father refuses to help, Sansugue tries various spells, but in the end reconciles himself to making money in an ordinary way through a career in finance.

M. Oufle has a constant fear of witchcraft .He imagines his horse has been bewitched and to counter the magic steals the "witch"'s watch.  His explanations earn him the pity of his entire family.

A Witches' Sabbath
At the end of the novel, M. Oufle sets out all that he has read on the subject of witches' Sabbaths. This section is accompanied by a splendid unfolding plate, in which Jean Crépy parodies earlier depictions of the Sabbath, by Bartholomaeus Spranger and the Polish engraver Jan Ziarnko.  It would seem  that the most fearsome of images was now fair game for ridicule...... 
Notice from the Wellcome library:
See also, Charles Zika, "The transformation of Sabbath rituals by Jean Crépy and Laurent Bordelon.." in Emotion, ritual and power in Europe, p261-84.

Histoire des imaginations extravagantes de M. Oufle (2 vols. 1710)

English translation (1711)
A later translation published in Harper's Weekly for 1865,  was used for a reading by Timothy Bateson on Radio 4 Extra

Reproductions of the engravings on the website Utpictura18

Entry for Bourdelon on Dictionnaire des journalistes

Post by Stéphanie Daude on BiblioDeL blog [University of Poitier], 12.04.2017.

For a lowdown on all the references in the text:
Sarah Nègre - Master's thesis, University of Lyon, 2014

Sunday, 22 September 2019

Some books of magic

According to the historian of the grimoire, Owen Davies, books of magic spells and incantations circulated widely in 18th-century France.  Police reports from the opening years of the century reveal a lively trade in manuscripts and clandestine texts among enterprising Parisians, most of them humble members of society: priests, prostitutes, abortionists, chemists, labourers and tradesmen.(Davies p.96)  

France rapidly became the European centre for the production of popular books of magic.  In the course of the late 18th and 19th centuries, tens of thousands of illegal cheap editions, part of the so-called Bibliothèque bleue, were distributed throughout the country by colporteurs.  The centres of production were in Troyes, Rouen and Paris, places of high literacy where standard French was spoken. (Davies, p.98)  The earliest title, the Grand Albert was mainly a compendium of "natural magic",  but true grimoires, which included methods for the invocation of demons and spirits, became increasingly available - no doubt  in response to a growing demand.  

As Owen Davies notes, exact bibliographic details are not easy to trace.  It is often not clear in the police reports, which works are being described, or whether they are manuscripts or printed texts.  The books in question were in any case usually destroyed. Paradoxically, the  cheap ephemeral editions of the Bibliothèque bleue are now quite rare.  Even when  they do survive, origins remain uncertain, since publishers commonly gave false dates and hid behind fanciful imprints -  such as Beringos Fratres of Lyon, whose premises were located "at the sign of Agrippa".  

Le Grand Albert 

The Grand Albert, the oldest magical staple of the bibliothèque bleue,  was a heterogeneous compilation of herbalism, household hints and popular superstition.  Principally, it  gave instructions for the esoteric use of natural materials - to change the properties of inert or living things;  or for divination.  The contents covered such subjects as  gynaecology, physiognomy, alchemy, medicine, and from 1703 it included an almanac of propitious days.

Although the Grand Albert did not contain spells, curses or  incantations, its proliferation still generated concern;  in 1709 it was listed by censors as a book to be condemned and confiscated,  along with a whole range of religious and pseudo-religious works printed in Rouen. (See Davies, p.98)

The text  may date in part to the 13th centuries.  Almost sixty manuscript copies survive from the 14th to 16th centuries. The work subsequently diffused widely in print, in the original Latin, then in Italian, German, French and English translations. It was was not officially proscribed until 1604 when the first part, Les secrets des Femmes, was placed on the Index;  this section was then reproduced only in Latin editions. By the later 17th century cheap French editions were being published regularly in Troyes by Jacques Oudot.

The "classic" French version, which includes Les secrets des Femmes,  appeared for the first time at the beginning of the 18th century under the title Les Admirables Secrets d’Albert Le Grand.  The first edition, of which Bibliothèque nationale possesses a copy, dates from 1703 and is a high quality publication, with five fine engravings.  Almost certainly it originated outside France.  

There were many subsequent editions, following this same basic format.  The earliest examples have the imprint "Cologne chez le dispensateur de secrets" and the later ones "Lyon Beringos Fratres".   As time passed, the quality tended to decline - for instance the use of contrasting red type was dropped.

General references
Full text of 1895 edition on Gallica
Encyclopédie du Paranormal:

Bernard Husson, preface to Le Grand et le Petit Albert, modern edition of 2008.

1703 edition -  Bibliothèque nationale

List of  18th-century editions on the website La Chouette-noire:

Copies of Le Grand Albert and Le Petit Albert in the Priaulx Library in Guernsey

Plates on BIU Santé Médecine, image bank:

Article from the Bibliothèque municipale in Lyon: Godefroy and Marcellin Beringen were real Lyon printers of the 16th century, but the 18th-century imprints are fictitious.

Le Petit  Albert

The "Little Albert" symbolises the huge cultural impact of the cheap print revolution of the early 18th century. The flood gates of magical knowledge were opened during the so-called Enlightenment and the Petit Albert became a name to conjure with across France and its overseas colonies.
Owen Davies, giving his "top 10 grimoires" in The Guardian in 2009.

The Petit Albert, attributed to the entirely fictitious "Albertus Parvus Lucius",  combined assorted practical advice and magical knowledge with extracts from Paracelsus and Agrippa.  Its most notorious piece of magic featured the "Hand of Glory" which allowed thieves to enter houses at night by stupefying the inhabitants.  

It would seem it was the success of the Grand Albert that encouraged the production of this second work.  The first examples probably appeared in the late 17th-century. The earliest reference found by Owen Davies is in d'Argenson's report of 1702. The first known French edition was published in 1706 under the imprint of Beringos Fratres. The work rapidly became notorious and successful in the Paris area and then throughout France. (Davies, p.99-100)

General references
Encyclopédie du Paranormal:


1752 edition on Google books

1782 text, edited by Joseph H. Paterson, available on Esoteric Archives

List of editions from La Chouette-noire:

Oeuvres magiques  / Philosophie occulte de Henri Corneille Agrippa  

A classic of Renaissance magic, the "hidden philosophy" of Agrippa circulated through much of Europe in the 18th century, and is often mentioned in French inventories and police reports.  The three initial books concern natural magic, angelic communication and Kaballah.  There was also a fourth apocryphal book which contained details of summoning rituals.  

French and English translations were available in print by the mid 17th century; the Bibliothèque nationale and several other libraries hold copies of a comparatively well-produced version printed in the Hague in 1727.   Multiple cheap Bibliothèque bleue editions appeared in the course of the 19th century.

On Gallica:  "La Haye, chez R. Chr.Alberts 1727"

Illustrations from an edition by Simon Bocquel of Lille, c.1830

Clavicules de Salomon

Unlike the Grand and Petit Albert the various Solomonic texts represented an underground and esoteric tradition.   The Clavicles de Salomon describes a series of elaborate magical rituals intended  to harness the powers of spirits and demons for various ends - love, protection, the recover of treasure.  Strictly speaking, this is not black magic  since the  summoning rituals are performed through the power of God.   The spirits are compelled using prayers,the  names of God and other words of power, as well as talismans, the Pentacles of Solomon.  A large number of ritual implements must be carefully prepared:,  sword, staff, lancet, arctave or hook, bolline/needle, hazel wand, dagger, knives with white and black handles.  The Pentacles must be written on ritually consecrated parchment (or metal plates).  The books themselves characteristically formed  part of the ritual;  magicians might be required to transcribe them by hand, or have them elaborately blessed.

18th-century ms. posted on YouTube by L'Oeil de Mercure bookshop in Paris

Variants on the Key of Solomon (Clavicula Salomonis) dates from 15th and 16th century Italy. The first full version in English was edited by S.L. Mathers in 1889. There are various surviving manuscripts.  The French ones, originally from Arsenal, are all 18th-century.  The text seems to have been a favourite among Parisian sorcerers in early 18th century and features prominently in police reports - quite possibly the Arsenal copies, which belonged to the marquis d'Argenson, found their way into his collection through his grandfather's policing activities (Davies, p.97)  Cheap printed editions appeared in France only very late in the century. The earliest known example is a compact version, La véritable magie noire in the Bibliothèque nationale, which has the imprint "Rome 1750" but is thought to date from the 1790s.  Solomonic books later featured prominently in the output of Simon Blocquel, a printer specialising in magic works and almanacs who was active in Lille in the first half of the 19th century.

Elizabeth Butler's classic 1949 account of Solomonic Ritual Magic is available on Internet Archive:

Details of manuscripts and early print versions are supplied by Joseph H. Peterson, who has edited various texts:
- Introduction to his edition of The Key of Solomon (Clavicula Salomonis) based on the 1889 text established by Mathers.  Available on Twilit Grotto Esoteric Archives.
- Introduction to his edition of La véritable magie noire [included in publisher's preview]


La véritable magie noire "Rome 1750" [c.1790?]
"Audio version" - watch the pages turn with atmospheric music accompaniment (??!!):

Illustrations from early 19th-century texts on La Chouette-noire: 

 La véritable magie noire ou le secret des secrets - " Rome 1750" (Lille:  Blocquel, 1830)
Les véritables clavicules de Salomon  "A Memphis, chez Alibeck l’Egyptien" [Lille:  Blocquel, 1830]

Grimoire du Pape Honorius

The Grimoire of Pope Honorius  probably dates only from the 17th  century. A copy was found in the possession of sorceress La Voisin, during the "Affair of the Poisons" in the 1670s and in the police reports, it is second only to the Clavicles of Solomon. Again, cheap printed editions began to appear only at the very end of century.  The publication dates given ("1670" and "1760") are spurious, but at least a few examples can probably be dated to the late 1790s on typographical grounds.

According to Owen Davies the basis of the book's popularity was  as a magical aid to treasure-hunting; it provided "pentacles to discover treasures" and elaborate measures to deal with resistance from the spirit world (Davies, p.100).  However, even in 19th-century popular versions, this was one of the most frankly diabolical of the texts.  It contained a series of hair-raising spirit conjurations, including invocations to the most fearful of demons, Lucifer and Astaroth.

The other disturbing feature of this work was its explicit use of Catholic priestly ritual. According to Joseph H. Peterson, the amalgamation of elements from other grimoires such as the Clavicle of Solomon  and Grimorium verum with Catholicism is "completely bizarre".  The text is specifically designed to be used by a priest -  a panoply of ecclesiastical accoutrements was required and the ceremonial invocation took the form of a Mass.  In theory, this was not  an obscene parody - the sacred paraphernalia were required for their magical power.  The celebrant was required to go through an elaborate process of spiritual preparation involving fasts and prayers - as well as more dubious activities such as the slaughter and mutilation of a black cock.  After a month, he was allowed to proceed to the actual invocation.  A circle was traced "with charcoal or holy water, sprinkled with the wood of the blessed Cross" and the  Conjuration was pronounced; the spirit was constrained to appear by the Eucharist, by the name and power of the members of the Trinity; including the recitation of the "72 names of God".  

Since the ceremony involved the use of consecrated wine and part of the host, plus recourse to the oblation prayer, the proceeding were sacrilegious by any reasonable definition. Those who took part in them would have been aware that they ran considerable risk - from the judicial authorities, if not from the Devil himself.

General references

English version ( from A. E. Waite's Book of Ceremonial Magic, 1889)

Introduction by Joseph H. Peterson (who has produced a modern edition)
Elizabeth M. Butler, Ritual Magic (1949), p.89-99.

There are several 19th-century examples on GoogleBooks
Details and illustrations on La Chouette-noire:

Enchiridion Leonis Papae

This magic handbook or enchiridion, was ascribed to the 9th-century Pope Leo III.  The work originated in Italy; the claim was made that it was first published in 1523 but the earliest known print edition is 1633.  Latin editions were available in France by the beginning of the eighteenth century. Several manuscript copies were found in the possession of those arrested in the course of the "Affair of the Poisons" and found their way into the collection of the marquis d'Argenson in the Arsenal.  It appeared as part of the Bibliothèque bleue at about the same time as the Grimoire du Pape Honorius, that is in very late 18th / early 19th centuries. (Davies, p.101)

The Enchiridion featured various exorcisms and charms  as well as detailed instructions for the construction of amulets and pentacles.  The defining content was a series of talismanic protective prayers - hence its appeal to treasure-seekers and those in danger of confronting evil spirits.  Some of its overtly diabolical;  to counteract impotency, for instance, one had to write appeal to Satan in blood on two pieces of paper;  one to be swallowed and the other wore around the neck. (Davies, p.102-4)

La Chouette Noire  [Bibliothèque.- Different editions - 1660 (c.1840); 1740 (1813) and 1777 (1823)]

Grand grimoire

Although a publication date of 1702 is sometimes given for the Grand grimoire, the earliest versions probably appeared in France around 1750.  Essentially, however,  it was a phenomenon of the early 19th-century  Bibliothèque bleue rather than an 18th-century text.  According to Owen Davies, the Grand grimoire represents a new stage in the popularisation of the occult,  "the first explicitly diabolical mass-market grimoire"(p.101). 

The text is largely derived from the Keys of Solomon. There are explicit instructions on how to call up and make a pact with the Devil's prime minister in Hell, Lucifuge Rofocale, who was held to have powers over all the riches and treasures of the world; the "Great Call" of Lucifuge allowed direct communication with Lucifer, Beelzebub and Astaroth.  Mere possession of the book came to be seen as an act of pact making; in 1804 the trial took place in Amiens of a man who claimed he could call up the Devil merely by touching the book.The Grand Grimoire was the precursor of a number of similar 19th-century works, notably the famous Dragon rouge. (See Davies, p.101-4)


Owen Davies, Grimoires: a history of magic books (O.U.P., 2010)
Chapter 3 "Enlightenment and treasure" is available as a GoogleBooks preview:

Grimoire Encyclopaedia

Joseph H. Paterson, Twilit Grotto - full text of grimoires

La Chouette Noire:  grimoires et bibliothèque occulte

On the Bibliothèque bleue:

ARTFL - Bibliothèque bleue
Full text and page images of 284 Bibliothèque bleue titles from the Médiathèque du Grand Troyes.

Geneviève Deblock, " 'Impressions populaires': La collection de livrets conservée au MuCEM et la diffusion des savoirs par les livres de colportage (XVIIe-XIXe siècles) " -collection of the Musée des Civilisations de l’Europe et de la Méditerranée, Marseilles:
Documents pour l’histoire des techniques, 16(2), 2008.
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