Academic journal article Western Folklore

Can the 'Peasant' Speak?: Witchcraft and Silence in Guillaume Cazaux's "The Mass of Saint Sécaire"

Academic journal article Western Folklore

Can the 'Peasant' Speak?: Witchcraft and Silence in Guillaume Cazaux's "The Mass of Saint Sécaire"

Article excerpt

Why write, if not in the name of an impossible speech?

Certeau (1984:194)

The truth is that we cannot forgo anything, but merely exchange one thing for another, what seems like a renunciation is in fact the invention of a substitute, a surrogate.

Freud (2003 [1907] :26)


Much has been written on the relationship between the methodologies and source materials for the study of history and folklore, and yet, in many ways, the field is still underdeveloped. Social historians such as E.P. Thompson, Keith Thomas, Eugen Weber, George Rude, and Richard Cobb who wanted to rediscover the worlds of ordinary men and women had a natural interest in folklore sources. The problem with the attitudes that these influential writers had to popular traditions is a recurring tendency to see in them some kind of unified, although not necessarily static, culture. Eugen Weber's magisterial history of nineteenth-century rural France, Peasants into Frenchmen, is exemplary of this problem, often seeming to pit two irreconcilable worlds, that of the "peasant" and that of modern France, against one another (Gerson 2009; Weber 1976).

On the other hand, more recent writers have reacted against this "popular history" by declaring that the source materials for the study of rural folk traditions are essentializations. This distrust of the ethnographic encounter, a distrust perhaps bred more in libraries than in the field, obscures the complexity of the nineteenth-century folklore collecting projects as situations of contact,1 in which folklorists and rural individuals could, and did, speak to one another, and in so doing, not only reflected social realities but also constructed new ones. Historians could to do more to follow the lead of folklorists such as Bengt Holbek and Timothy Tangherlini, as well as popular historians such as Peter Burke and David Hopkin, who have all recognized the problems with nineteenth-century folklore collections, but striven to overcome them (Burke 1978:73-4; Hopkin 2004; Hopkin 2003; Holbek 1987; Tangherlini 1994). As Michaela Fenske has pointed out, both historians and folklore researchers suffer when they are unaware of developments in their adjoining fields (Fenske 2007) . Often, the questions they ask are similar, even if there are limitations on the kinds of ethnographic work historians can do (Fenske 2007, especially 87-8) .

A close reading of one narrative collected in the nineteenth century in France is offered here as a limited attempt to show what can still be learned from silent, dead texts. To simply put a text like this back into a "context," as Ruth Bottigheimer has noted, often teaches historians nothing, only offering them a "parallel source" to the archives and historical narratives that they already know (Bottigheimer 1989:346). Instead, this approach follows folklorists who have used performances to illuminate contexts, relationships, and issues of wider social significance, rather than the other way around (Bauman 2004:33; Stekert 1996; Thomas 2007:26).


In the 1850s and 1860s the local judge in die soudiwestern French town of Lectoure, Jean-François Blade, collected proverbs, folksongs, and oral narratives from a variety of local men and women (Blade 1881; Blade 2008 [1885]). One of the stories he collected, entided "The Mass of Saint Sécaire," was a description of witchcraft by an old man named Guillaume Cazaux (Blade 2008 [1885]:325-7). Cazaux has always been a slighdy enigmatic figure, even though he has long been treated as Blade's most important narrator (Lafforgue 1995). Pierre Lafforgue's research into his life for his standalone edition of Cazaux's stories, for instance, was only able to uncover his death certificate from 1868 (Lafforgue 1995). It seems that Lafforgue might have looked for Cazaux's birth in the wrong parish, because a birth certificate from 1782 also exists: Guillaume Cazaux was born to Mathieu Cazaux and his wife, Jeanne Bragayrat, in the small village of St Mézard (Archives Départementales du Gers) . …

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