Norman superstitions: special abilities of country parsons

The author Jules Lecœur (aka Louis-Jules Tirard, 1818-1893) wrote in 1883 the “Esquisses du bocage normand” (sketches of the Norman bocage) about the Norman country parsons of his time.

The country parsons were accredited with special powers, that had little relation to Christian religion. It was his task to rive thunderstorms, that menace villages and harvests, and to charm fires, or better… to stop them.

Today (august 24) I woke up to the metallic sound of thunder, followed by heavy rain. I jumped out of bed to close the door. My sleeping room has a door to the garden and in summer I leave it open at night. The thunder went on for nearly an hour. We really have a lot of thunderstorms here.

Von Donner, Hagel und Ungewitter, von Erasmus Francisci 1680, aus der Deutschen Fotothek, bescheuerterweise mit CC by SA lizenziert, glaub kaum dass Erasmus das noch würdigen kann, ist eigentlich gemeinfrei

Von Donner, Hagel und Ungewitter (On thunder, hail and storm) by Erasmus Francisci 1680, stupidly licenced CC by SA, don't think Erasmus lived over 220 more years, should be public domain

If a thunderstorm menaces a region, the people turn to a parson, who is supposed to exorcise it. It happens, that the priest refuses to use his powers, because they are sinful and the exercise of them requires heavy penitence.

A parson in the area of Harcourt had the reputation of a mighty splitter of thunderstorms. One day, while he visited his colleague in Pont-d’Ouilly, a thunderstorm appeared on the horizon, with dreadful noise, spreading terror, accompanied by two ravens. The people searched the parson, surrounded him and begged him with folded hands to fend the plague off the land. At first he refused, but then he gave in. He put on his rochet and his stole, kneeled in front of the altar and prayed ardently to God. He uttered mysterious words, that gave him control of the storm.

When he stood up, the two ravens flew away as swift as arrows. The dark clouds, filled with rain, hail and lightning, followed the ravens, like an obedient flock follows the shepherd, and vanished. On the next day they learned, that the lightning and hail fell on the forest of Cinglais.

Benoît-Agathon Haffreingue (1785-1871), Pfarrer von Boulogne-sur-Mer in Nord-Pas-de-Calais, Foto von Giano, public domain/gemeinfrei

Benoît-Agathon Haffreingue (1785-1871), parson of Boulogne-sur-Mer in Nord-Pas-de-Calais, photo by Giano, public domain

There’s a similar story about a vicar of Falaise (Calvados). One day a thunderstorm menaced his city. He redirected it and made it fall on the dry heathland of Noron-l’Abbaye, where it didn’t cause any damage.

A parson of the bocage, went by foot to Caen. On his way back he got caught in a thunderstorm near Saint-Laurent-de-Condel. He had no umbrella, and though the rain fell like torrents he had no drop on his cassock when he reached the village. At the first house he saw one of his parishioners waiting in the front door, for the end of the downpour. The parson invited the man to accompany him. The man hesitated, then he followed the priest and no drop of rain fell on him though the road was already inundated.

Thunderstorms destroy the harvests and the houses of the peasants. There is an infallible way to protect the house. When the farmer hears the thunder, he throws a tiny piece of holy “bûche de Noël” (Yule log) in his open hearth and God will spare his house. By now the custom is rarely practiced. In many places people are content with placing elder branches under the doorstep to protect the house from lightning.

hauling of the yule log, from The Book of Days (1832), p. 734, by Robert Chambers, public domain

hauling of the yule log, from The Book of Days (1832), p. 734, by Robert Chambers, public domain

The superstitious belief in fire-charmers is just as common as the belief in splitters of thunderstorms. Der Glaube an Feuerbeschwörer ist genauso verbeitet, wie der an Gewitterspalter. It is generally agreed, that parsons know the words that stop the fire.

The parson can stop the fire by secret incantations that go along with special prayers. The belief in fire-charmers is just as old as the belief in “tempestaires” (tempest-summoners). In the 10th and 11th century it was forbidden in Christian countries, to throw crosses in the fire to charm it.

To stop the fire is not always unperilous. The parson of a village on the banks of the Orne visited the parson of Pont-d’Ouilly. By the time the vistor wanted to leave some villagers came and told them about a fire in the neighbour village, that threatened to burn the whole village down. The visitor jumped on his horse and rode to the burning village. He had the reputation of a mighty fire-charmer. The villagers begged him to stop the plague and he couldn’t resist their requests.

He started an incantation, prayed and crossed himself. Then he jumped on his horse and gallopped quickly away. The people saw a swirl of sparks and flying firebrands disengaged from the thatched roofs, rose in the air and followed the parson. The priest saw the sparks and ran his horse. He crossed himself and the distance between the whirl of sparks and the horse increased. With one hand he held his handkerchief on his head, which protected him from sparks. If the sparks would burn him he would be devoured immediately and his soul would be condemned without the possibillity of forgiveness.

The whirl of sparks caught up with him, the parson crossed himself again and prayed louder. The distance increased again. Finally he reached the church of Pont-d’Ouilly. He jumped off his horse and in the church, slammed the door behind him and kneeled in front of the altar. Just in time, because his clothes already smelled burned. The sparks scattered and went out on the door of the church.

Fire on the hill, painting by Anchise Picchi (1911), photo by Lido Pacciardi, public domain

Fire on the hill, painting by Anchise Picchi (1911), photo by Lido Pacciardi, public domain

Creative Commons License
The text of this article is in the Public Domain because the author of the French original died over 100 years ago.

Source:
Archives de Normandie by Jacques Borgé and Nicolas Viasnoff, published in 1993 by Éditions Michèlle Trinckvel, page:166-169 , ISBN=9782851320285 (French) The book is a collection of articles about Normandy.

One thought on “Norman superstitions: special abilities of country parsons

  1. […] century must have been complicated. Though… an easy solution for every problem was violence. If a thunderstorm menaced a village, the inhabitants beat a parson up, if they had fleas, they beat a beggar up. Charity seems to be connected with fear, fear of […]

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