Witchcraft in Normandy

on: DUBOSC, Georges (1854-1927) : La Sorcellerie normande (1922).

George Dubosc died over 70 years ago, thus his text is Public Domain. The translation is not very close to the text, mostly because I am lazy and sometimes because I cut things that didn’t seem to be important for me. I don’t believe in witchcraft btw, it would be fun if it existed, but it doesn’t. 😉

The people in Normandy have been very superstitious and maybe still are. I bet my older neighbours think I am a witch myself, I have sheep, I talk with animals and my cat Miniputz likes to jump on my back.

Oh, and just for the record… I am German and I translate stuff for fun.

the Mass of the Holy Spirit

On the road that winds through the plain walks an old man slowly back to the sheep pen, his flock around him. He throws malicious glances to the left and to the right. He stops sometimes to gather some herbs and puts them in his lunchbox. Finally the bell tower of the village is visible and he approaches the village.

Public Domain

Ausschnitt aus dem Bild: Shepherd, vby Claude Lorrain (1655-1660), licence: Public Domain

Two or three countrymen greet him and turn back, trembling, after he passed by. A gossip follows him with her eyes and crosses herself, another one, standing on her doorstep at the entrance of the village, points at the old man while she talks with her neighbour. The doors are closing, the dogs are barking. He approaches the farm and groups of children congregate and they spread the rumour: “the wizard” Everywhere one can hear this word, enunciated with anxiety and anger, sometimes with respect and fear, seldom ironic… And the crimes and maledictions of the wizard are told.

These stories about witchcraft inspired two artists of Normandy, the writer Francis Yard, author of l’An de la Terre (the Year of the Soil) und des Chanson des Cloches (Song of the Bells), and the painter Jean Laurier, especially his cycle of paintings “La Messe du Saint-Esprit” (Die Messe des Heiligen Geistes), with depictions of rural customs. The paintings have a strong mysterious atmosphere, they focus the attention on the old Norman witchcraft.

The Witch, von Salvator Rosa (1646), Public Domain

The Witch, by Salvator Rosa (1646), Public Domain

The rural wizards didn’t have the class of the wizards that swarmed the 17th century, spreading terror on frightened people. Wizards whom one had to make disappear by ferocious persecution. Nowadays something like the trial on the Sorciers de Carentan (sorcerers of Carentan 1671) or on La Haye-du-Puits (1669), or the trial on the “Petits Sorciers” (little sorcerers) in Rouen, wouldn’t be possible anymore. The rural witchcraft is less impressing, but it still has a home in a lot of naive and gullible minds, and sometimes there are people still believing in magic and it’s influence on the concerns of men, as a strong arbitrary power.

It is difficult to determine the limits of the occult practices and the effectiveness of the magic. On account of the pact which the wizard signed with Satan, damaging his eternal soul, the wizard has a frightening capacity which he can exert in thousand different ways. He can evoke the spirits of the dead to question them, to send them to torment the living ones, to make them penetrate the body of a man or a woman, to possess them.

Cover des Buches Demon Lovers, Bild von Nicolai Abildgaard (Nightmare), Public Domain

Cover of the book Demon Lovers, painting by Nicolai Abildgaard (Nightmare), Public Domain

He can put a jinx on humans and animals; to make cattle die by diseases; to spoil harvests; to send plague of rats, grasshoppers or caterpillars like in medieval times. The wizard can interfere with the peasant’s work and send those, which are the object of its animosity, disease, madness and even death. He has the power, said AmĂ©lie Bosquet, in La Normandie romanesque (romantic Normandy), to order certain hideous and alarming appearances, particularly demons. He can also become invisible and torment nightly wayfarers and play nasty tricks on them, but he often delegates this work to the spirits he controls. Because of hatred he lets snow fall, or hail, or endless rain, to spoil the fruits. When wizards congregate on the shore of lakes they can produce thunderstorms. The “meneurs de nuĂ©es” (leader of the clouds), aka “Tempestaires” (tempesters) existed in the time of witch-hunt. They knew the secret of the “corde Ă  tourner ou Ă  dĂ©tourner le vent” (rope to turn or redirect the wind). To fight this kind of wizardry the corsairs of the Pays de Caux were plunging a statue of Saint Anthony of Padua in the sea and praying.

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Cliff in Etretat, Pays de Caux, by Urban, licence: Gnu free documentation

For revenge on the farmers, the wizards, not content to make only the cows sick, made also the sheep sick and contaminated the water of wells and ponds. Even stranger than that, the wizard can discover his secret enemy and offenders, by evoking the image of the culprit on a mirror or a bucket of water. When the conscription was invented and assigned by lot (after 1688 in the Ancien Regime), the wizard was able to free those from conscription that had a toad, the animal of wizardry, in their pocket. By potions and “charms” (talismans made of feathers, plants, ink and so on) the wizard gained power over the subtleties of love. He had all the rights on the whole principle and law of nature.

Where is the origin of these enthusiasts of sorcery, these casters of curses and evil spells, these “leaders of clouds”, these enchanters, that in Normandy are often called caras or carimaras? They are shepherds, quiet thoughtful people, slowly driving their herds from plain to plain, from mountain to mountain, from slope to slope, along the edges of forests and the edges of cliffs, only assisted by the sagacity of their dogs. Shepherd means “wizard”, is a norman proverb. They know and observe the sunsets, the brightness of the beautiful summernights and the course of the scintillating stars, the changing of the seasons which proceed. Isolated in their travelling huts, the shepherds read books to acquire basic knowledge of medicine and test it on their herds. They know the effect of herbs and the plants that they gather. That’s all the shepherd needs to own the keys of magic, the dark practices of sorcery, and alliance with all the defected spirits of the celestial order.
The novel L’EnsorcelĂ©e (the Bewitched), of Barbey d’ Aurevilly, is an admirable analysis of the shepherds of Basse-Normandie, “contemplative, wandering and mysterious”.

Jules Barbey dAurevilly (1860-1865), von Nadar (1820-1910), Public Domain

Jules Barbey d'Aurevilly (1860-1865), by Nadar (1820-1910), Public Domain

“When they are driven out, they do not say word, turn their head and walk away. A finger raised behind the peoples back is their only and dark threat and almost always, a misfortune, either death of the cattle, or rotting or withering of the flowers, the plants or apple trees, or the contamination of the water of the fountains, follows soon to demonstrate the threat of the silent and terrible raised finger. ”

Aurevilly was Catholic btw.

By means of his magic powers the wizard reigns over all the lower fantastic beings which haunt the countryside, the deserted places, the crossroads, the corners of the cemeteries and the edges of the forests. He requests crimes of them and tells them to misdirect travellers that wander trembling under the nocturnal sky. In Normandy he rules, for example, over imps, phosphorescent, malicious and wandering spirits, which fly in the shades. Those will-o’-the-wisps, aka “fourolles” in popular norman superstition, are the souls of women or young girls, thus expiant, in eternal straying some kind of love sacrilege. The Fourolle, Forlore, in English Forlorn, Faulau, whose name seems identical to that of the “falot” (luminous lantern), is a dancing gleam, misdirecting men or animals in twilight or during the night.

Creative Commons by SA

Ghost light, by Jeroen Kransen, licence: Creative Commons by SA

In certain corners of Normandy the Fourolle is not only a wandering soul, it is the soul of a woman that a wizard has driven out of the woman’s body, she has to wander for ten years, becomes the toy of the thousand indefinite powers of nature, being drifted within space and mystery. The Fourolle is carried by the winds, reflected in the water of the ponds, leaps on the rider which passes by until the day when the Fourolle takes again its human form.

The Norman wizard controls many other beings, of night and terror: hanss, revenants, tarannes (phosphorescent gnomes, which haunt especially the places inhabited by men) and laitices, which often take the shape of small white animals like ermines, which appear and disappear, and, according to Pluquet in his Essai on Bayeux, would be the souls of dead unchristened children.

Among all these chimerical beings, imaginary creations of the spirit of our ancestors, most known, which seems also to obey to the orders of the wizard, is the Goblin, widespread in Normandy and England. The Goblin is a kind of imp, agile and capricious, more naughty than evil, small, grotesque and grinning, but vindictive when it is taunted. It is basically a little familiar devil, who behaves good and helps with chores. He likes children and horses. He grooms the horses, carries water for them, rides them, and plays and laughs in the stables.

Hauskobold in Gestalt eines Kindes hilft einer Frau, von Gustave Doré, Public Domain

Familiar goblin in shape of a child helps a woman, by Gustave Doré, Public Domain

of small imps a band,
dances the saraband,
many laps of rogues they did,
laughing like a goblin kid.

The Goblin, which became sometimes malicious under various metamorphoses, was certainly, the true Norman imp and the proof is that there was a fortified tower in Rouen, close to the Porte Cauchoise, which was called the Tower of the Goblin, and where the vagrants and beggars were imprisoned. There is also a Tour de Gobelin in the Bretagne, which means it’s no proof for goblins being Norman.

In this immense forest which was once the Plateau of Caux, on the clearings and in the thickets, lived the “Ladies of the forest”, the “ green Ladies”, the “white Ladies”, all the woodland Fairies, which appear gracious, pleasant and inviting, but which, by the order of the wizard, transform into pitiless shrews, and follow the logger or the poacher with their irate revenge.

O Grave, Where Is Thy Victory, von Jan Toorop (1892), Public Domain

O Grave, Where Is Thy Victory, by Jan Toorop (1892), Public Domain

All the villages of the Haute- and Basse-Normandie have their Fairies. In her book about La Normandie romanesque et merveilleuse (romantic and marvellous Normandy), Amélie Bosquet told us about the Fairies of the Bessin, the strange Fairy of Argouges, of the Fairies of the chùteau de Pirou, which transform into wild gooses; the bad tricks of the Lady of Aprigny, close to Bayeux, which, stopped the nightly travellers in a narrow valley, led them in a ravine, then, seizing them abruptly, threw them in impenetrable ditches with inextricable brambles and spines.

Other beings that obey the wizard are the Milloraines or banshees, they are often neglected by the folklorists, because they seem to have Scandinavian origins, like the Wagnerian Valkyrie. (That’s not very likely, valkyries are tall, but the rest of the description doesn’t fit.) They are tall, stand motionless, and hardly show their face. If someone approaches them, they disappear in the trees with a loud noise. Sometimes, they stand on branches of oaks and jump on riders or wanderers that pass by, a sudden intolerable weight on their shoulders. The Milloraines of la Hague and the Demoiselle of Tonneville, are the sisters of the Russian “rusalki” of Pushkin and of Turgenev. In the novel “an old mistress” Barbey d’ Aurevilly allots to Milloraines the task of washer women which murmur their song, squatting on the polished stones of the laundrettes, washing the shrouds of the dead with moonbeams. If someone crosses the meadow where the laundrette was located, the Milloraines forced him to wring out their linen, and if the terrified human did bad work, they broke his arms.

Creative Commons by

Banshee of Philippe Semeria, licence: Creative Commons by

How did the wizards make all these fantastic beings obey? How did they transmit their wills to these demonic entities? Via invocations, with spells, of which most famous is “Abraxas”; thanks to the grimoire, which is a collection of magic formulas to subdue bad spirits, evoke ghosts and discover the hidden treasures. How often was the Grand Grimoire or the Clavicle of Solomon republished? Just like the Secrets of Albertus Magnus, inspired by the famous scientist but transformed by the shepherds of the countryside into a book for experts in high sorcery.

How does the wizard bind the crowd of low spirits of the air or water? With the magic Circle and the Pentagram or Pentacle. It is the cabalistic sign, the talisman of power par excellence, the old rallying sign of the Pythagoriciens.

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Pentagram, golden ratio. By Wolfgang Beyer, licence: Gnu free documentation

Against all those initiations to the occult mystery, the only power of the Christian Church is the force of the prayer, in the form of the exorcism. The people of the countryside, especially in Normandy, often claimed, that the Mass of the Holy Spirit would put an end to the magic spells. Before the Revolution, one believed that the Mass of the Holy Spirit, recited with a particular ceremony, was of a miraculous effectiveness and that the divine was not obstructed. But the regular priests often refused to celebrate the Mass of the Holy Spirit. In support of this opinion, Miss Amélie Bosquet quotes an incident which proceeded in Rouen, at the coast of the Holy Catherine, and where a young fiancé died.

All these strange beliefs derive of the primitive lore of humanity in a time when ignorance and mystery ruled. Francis Yard and Jean Laurier form impressively new interest by the works which are devoted to Norman sorcery.

original text by: GEORGES DUBOSC