The beggars were travelling from farm to farm and asked for alms. People believed, that the beggars execrated those, that refused alms or treated the beggars badly. The Normans have been very superstitious, and maybe they still are.
The beggars were sorcerers; they were able to send rats, mice and fleas to those that refused to give alms. Some of them have still magical abilities. They knead argil to form rats and mice, then they recite spells and blow on the figurine. The figurine became alive, one of them produced thousand small rodents, that ran where the sorcerer sent them. They despoiled barns and granaries, ruined the farmer to punish him for his lack of charity.
A parson of Montsecret reproached a boy, who came too late to catechesis. The boy gave as a reason, that he had to help his father knead rats, to send them to a neighbour. “What? Rats? I can’t believe what you say!“, yelled the parson. „Okay! I’ll show you tomorrow.“, answered the boy.
Next morning the parson heard someone knocking at his door and opened. He flinched in surprise. The child was standing there amidst a mass of grey teeming rats. The rats entered the house and swarmed. The parson yelled: “Remove the vermin from my home.” ” Impossible,” said the boy: “I can only DO it, but can’t UNDO it. You have to ask my father.” The parson followed the advice and asked the father. During the following night all the rats disappeared and left his house.
The refusal to give alms does not only show a lack of charity but also incautiousness. If someone was cursed by a beggar, he had to ask the beggar to remove the curse. There was only one other possibility to get rid of the rats. The cursed person could catch a hexed rat, roast it and hang the leftovers on a joist in the granary. The other rats will be scared and leave the building. But it’s difficult to catch the sly rodents.
One of the most powerful senders of rodents was the Maréchal de Bréel. He gave up his name and his career to become a “traîneur de bâton” (someone who uses a walking stick, beggar). One evening an old tailoress used a shortcut to go home. She met the Maréchal de Bréel on that deserted path. The large brim of his hat shadowed his eyes, he was wrapped in a scraggy cloak and a band of rats followed him. The first of the rats nearly touched the heals of his sabots with it’s nose. The old woman drew scared aside to the fosse of the way. “Don’t worry”, mumbled the beggar: “they want nothing from you.” And the band of rats passed the tailoress without coming near.
On the next day she heard, that the rats invaded a farm in the neighbourhood. They devoured the grain, played with the straw and even gnawed at the horse-gear.
The miller of Cossesseville had not only refused to give alms, he even insulted a beggar. The beggar was a sorcerer and sent the miller an army of rats and mice, which devoured all the flour and grains in the mill. The miller was ruined. Just like the beggar he had to travel from farm to farm and beg, he became a “traîneur de bâton” himself.
The beggar who leads an army of rats warns passersby not to harm his rats. One evening a bold fellow didn’t follow the advice of the sorcerer. He hit a rat that was limping behind the others with his cane. The rat transformed into a horrible monster that launched itself on the man and tried to strangle him. The beggar heard the man scream, turned around and dragged the monster off him. Then he told the man to go away and never tell anything about it. The man held his promise until the beggar died.
Besides rats and mice, the beggars were able to send fleas. One day the Maréchal de Bréel asked a farmer’s wife to give him a bit fat for his soup. The woman refused, he went angry and menaced her, but left. On the next day the peasant woman was full of fleas, that had come to her during the night. Her little daughter had slept in the same bed and had no fleas at all. It was impossible to kill the fleas, those that got killed reappeard doubly. She couldn’t sleep anymore and suffered.
Eight days later the beggar came back and asked for a bit of fat for his soup. This time the farmer was there, he opened the door, let the man in, showed him a club and threatened him. The beggar asked for mercy and promised to “undo what he has done”. Then he ran away and never came back. During the following night the fleas left the farmer’s wife.
Life in Normandy in the 19th 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 purgatory or fear of rats and fleas, in the end that’s not a wide difference.
The text of this article is in the Public Domain because the author of the French original died over 100 years ago.
Archives de Normandie by Jacques Borgé and Nicolas Viasnoff, published in 1993 by Éditions Michèlle Trinckvel, page:171f, ISBN=9782851320285 (French) The book is a collection of articles about Normandy.