The Art and Genius of Anne Hébert: Essays on Her Works : Night and the Day Are One

By Janis L. Pallister | Go to book overview

Card and Knot Imagery in
Anne Hébert's Enfants du sabbat

JANIS L. PALLISTER

It is unlikely that one can study the literature of the Renaissance for very long without finding some reference to the black arts. The nouërie de l'esguillette, or the "knotting of the point of the codpiece"1 was, for example, one of the most curious yet widespread spells treated by the intellectuals of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. Of no small importance is the use of this spell in Anne Hébert's Les Enfants du sabbat, and it is therefore interesting to trace its history and its psychological impacts; for it is clear that Anne Hébert researched such matters thoroughly and that her debts to classic literature are manifest in this use as in many other places throughout her work.

The origins of the charm itself are even more ancient: Plato speaks in Laws (book 2) of the troublesome nature of these "charms and ligatures" which imperil household harmony. Alphesiboeus in Virgil's Eclogue 8 gives the formula for casting a spell on one's rival; Pliny gives several recipes for knotting and unknotting the point. Such procedures are also to be found in the Petit and in the Grand Albert. From biblical times we find the incubus Asmodeus killing the seven successive grooms of Sara (Tobias 2:8), while among the church fathers there is concern over ligature and other forms of black magic. Saint Augustine speaks of such spells in the City of God; and in his "Seventh Treatise on the Gospel according to St. John" he speaks of "ligatures" as a way in which witches bedevil their subjects. That this same spell was in repute and dread during medieval times is demonstrated by discussion of it in the Malleus Maleficarum (Kramer and Sprenger 1971, 54–58, 117–22) and related works. We find further evidence of its existence in medieval and Renaissance society through condemnations of it pronounced by French provincial councils and synods over several centuries: Rouen, 1245; Autun, 1503; Perigueux, 1536 (Séguin 1978, 65, 79). Godefroy, under lier, cites a case of nouërie from the fifteenth century, while under ligatio DuCange gives the same reference.

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