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 band was arrested by lettre de cachet.  Fourteen people were implicated.  Marie-Anne was condemned to perpetual imprisonment. The miserable Pinel vanished into the ecclesiastical prison at Bordeaux on bread and water for life.  In 1717 Marie-Anne  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 Leszczyńska 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.

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