Magical Emasculation, Popular Anticlericalism, and the Limits of the Reformation in Western France Circa 1590

Article excerpt

Although popular mentalities have become a subject of close scrutiny by historians of early modern France, few studies of the French Reformation have been rooted in the ethnography and folklore of the regions most affected by this epochal shift in religious comportments.(1) And while scholars investigating the scope of magical beliefs held by French people of the ancien regime have made signal progress in distinguishing variances among popular and elite conceptualizations of the supernatural, no similar precisions as yet capture the varieties of anitclericalism espoused and developed by different social groups in pre-modern France.(2)

In preliminary fashion, this essay seeks to bridge these gaps in the history of French mentalities by presenting a concerted study of indigenous folk magics and perdurable anticlerical attitudes characterizing the residents of La Rochelle and its hinterland, key actors embroiled in this important theater of the French Reformation. Exploring the magical basis of deep popular disdain for clergymen adds a vital dimension of contemporary cultural conflict to the political and material antagonisms between clergy and laity usually identified as the primary catalysts of anticlerical opinions among early modern Europeans.(3)

This method of inquiry moves away from critiques of the clergy propounded by highly literate elite participants in the controversy toward more common denunciations of churchmen inspired by tenacious, less articulate public fears of bewitchment. In the process, magical folkways and anticlerical attitudes can be better appreciated as interconnected components within unitary, popular systems of belief antedating, challenging, and dynamically interacting with more orthodox religious movements like the Reformations.

I

The pays of the French west country, like the environs of La Rochelle, have received comparatively little attention from scholars intent on describing the progress of Protestantism in France.(4) Standard histories of the French Reformation thus mistakenly refer to La Rochelle as a bastion of the new faith where a majority of citizens were united in their devotion to Calvinism and its agents.(5) In reality, this isolated, heavily fortified port town on the wild French Atlantic frontier was long a haven for heretics offensive to Rome and Geneva alike. Municipal archives and printed matter produced locally reveal a laity not only contemptuous of misbehavior by Catholic priests, but also persistently irreverent toward the teachings of Protestant pastors. In these parts, clerics of either confession were treated with deep and abiding suspicion by ordinary townspeople and country dwellers.

In and around La Rochelle, many westerners, within various ranks of rural and urban society, commonly regarded clergymen, Catholic or Calvinist, as devious practitioners of the blackest magic, as sorcerers capable of causing hailstorms, infesting fields with vermin, sickening farm animals, and sabotaging the vital consummation of marriages. Within La Rochelle and the adjacent provinces of Aunis and Saintonge, ministers of both faiths frequently became subject to popular decision, and not simply for the usual clerical sins of gluttony, greed, or fornication with trusting parishioners lampooned in polemical Reformation texts of the era. Here, native residents strongly suspected clergymen of more nefarious sexual tamperings: casting spells even within the rituals of church marriage intended to render grooms impotent and new households liable to discord, mockery, and dishonor.

Even many decades after the onset of the local Reformation, superstitious Calvinist authors published in La Rochelle commonly exhorted their brethren to scrupulous performance of private Protestant rites not purely as an obligation for salvation, but rather as a reliable means of protection against the conjurings of malevolent fellow dissenters subtly operating within the city's Reformed congregations. …