At the time when Guillaume d’Ecublens occupied the episcopal throne, from 1221 to 1229, eels so cruelly infested Lake Leman that the bishop was obliged to relegate them to a particular place, which they did not dare to leave.
Later, in the neighbourhood of the town of Coire, there was, according to Felix Hemmerlein, author of a treaty on exorcism, a sudden irruption of larvae with black heads and white bodies, the size of a little finger. They went underground at the beginning of Winter, attacking roots, and at the return of warmer weather, the plants dried up.
The inhabitants had these destructive insects cited before the provincial tribunal, with three successive edicts. They gave them a lawyer and a procurator, thereby observing the judicial formalities, then proceeded against them with all of the required solemnity.
In the end, the judge, considering that the larvae were creatures of God and that it would be unjust to deprive them of subsistence, relegated them to a wild, forest region, so that they no longer had a pretext to devastate cultivated lands.
The next judicial procedure is even more peculiar. The case was opened, in the XIIIth Century, against a species of scarab (beetle) or cantharis (Spanish fly) designated in German idiom as Iager.
By public edict, the said insects were called to appear before the magistrate of the province. The bugs having defaulted, the judge estimed that because of their youth and their small size, they should profit from the benefits which the law accords to minors. Therefore, he gave them a curator or syndic to defend them.
This curator conscienciously performed his function, and it was finally ordered, by tribunal sentence, that the cantharides could only be obliged to leave if somewhere else were found for them to live. For many decades after this ruling, the inhabitants drew up a good, annual contract with the cantharides and abandoned a certain stretch of land to the insects, who remained happy with the arrangement and never tried to leave the agreed limits.
Sometimes insects – or rather their lawyer – did not accept the offer made to them. During a case, around 1587, brought against a species of weevil which was desolating the vineyards of Saint-Julien, in Maurienne, after several speeches for the defence, the inhabitants, through their procurator, had offered the beasts a terrain into which they were supposed to retire.
The insects’ defender declared, in their name, that the offer made to them could not be accepted, because the terrain was sterile and produced nothing. He said that this would therefore condemn the beasts to die of hunger. The opposite party having protested, experts were called in. Unfortunately, we will never know the outcome of this trial because the documents which could have informed us have not been found.
We know how much our ancestors used and abused processions. They paraded to invoke divine grace because of prodigious signs in the air. They paraded to celebrate the king’s return, to ask God to cure highly-ranked people, to have water during times of drought, or to stop the rain, if it fell for too long.
Victories and defeats were also pretexts for a procession. The plague, the big epidemics were motives for religious marches. They were for everything or nothing. It is therefore not surprising that there were processions to chase away undesirable creatures.
La Biscaye and Spanish Tarragonaise having been infested by insects which had ravaged all the fruits of the earth, the inhabitants of these two provinces sent a deputation to Rome, to consult the Holy See on what they should do. The Pope, touched by their poverty, sent them a legate, named Gregoire, Bishop of Ostie, a man of great prudence and great sanctity.
This legate, once in Spain, exhorted the people, by frequent preaching, to seriously repent of the crimes or sins which they might have committed. Then he prescribed public processions of penitents, who roughly whipped themselves on the back, in the presence of everyone.
He also ordered alms, fasting and prayers, over several days. He concluded with a pontifical Mass on a mobile altar, in the middle of the fields which were the most damaged. He chased away a multitude of insects by this method.
Things of this nature are also found in Germany and America. A Frenchman, who spent a lot of time in Canada around the end of the XVIIth Century, reported that the number of turtledoves was so great in this country, that the bishop had been obliged to excommunicate them several times because of the damage that they were causing to the goods of the earth.
Fifth part tomorrow.