Count Roger de Bussy-Rabutin.

Roger de Bussy, Count of Rabutin, better known as Bussy-Rabutin, recounted this story in his Memoires.  An excellent General, an even better writer, the cousin of Madame de Sevigne, to whom he was very much attracted, had had a most tumultuous youth.  A man of wit and of the Court, he had actively participated in the Fronde and had been disgraced by Louis XIV.  He wrote songs and epigrams on the young Sun-King’s love affairs which landed him one year of Bastille and definitive exile to his lands.  But this story happened roughly twenty years before that, at the beginning of the reign, when the Duke d’Enghien, called “The Great Conde”, definitively removed the Spanish threat from France by taking back Dunkerque.

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The antique and noble city of Lerida – its university shines since the year 1300 – of course knew how to defend itself.  Since 49 before the present era, it is the padlock which blocks access to the heart of Spain.  After having to surrender to Caesar, it is then the Moors who beseige it for four centuries, conquer it and lose it again to the Christians.  If it victoriously resists the Great Conde, it succumbs a few years later to the Duke of Orleans, the future Regent, whose qualities of man of war are less well-known than his moral turpitude.  Suchet pillages it in 1810, and in 1936, followers of Franco and Republicans turn it into ruins from top to bottom again…  That said, more natural plagues than the malediction of the mummy could have come to help the good bourgeois of Lerida.  The thing that troubles Louis Pauwels, whose work I have translated, is that the plague which, since the middle of the XIIIth Century – when it killed 25 million people in Europe – was endemic on the Continent, is not signalled in these parts at the epoch when this story is situated…

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The Spanish city of Lerida in the XVIIth Century.

It is not possible to determine the exact nature of these terrible pandemics which, over the centuries and up until the XIXth Century, come for the most part from the Indies.  They surely cover very diverse maladies.  Louis Pauwels thinks that the beseiged knew how to break the seige by combining all the tricks of the art of defence with supernatural resources.

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Let us firstly say that on both sides of the walls, the fate of the combatants was equally unenviable.  Those who were camping outside, in their trenches and their canvas shelters, were even more roughed up than those inside.  Apart from rain, mud, cholera, we know that it is dangerous to sleep outside, at night.  The nocturnal hours in fact seem to accentuate the nocive effect of certain cosmic rays.  An American doctor in Patton’s army was able to verify, at the end of the last war [WWII], that sleeping under the stars could constitute a grave danger.  Out of 23 wounded that he had had to leave without shelter on the outskirts of Pfortzheim, more than half died, while those, more seriously wounded, but who had benefited from the simple protection of a sheet, survived at 95%.  At the epoch which interests us, the troops of mercenaries, notably, slept under the stars, while on campaign at least.

The number of wounded having succumbed like this could have been a first element of demoralisation…

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At Lerida, an epidemic was doubtless determining.  All begins by the death of La Valliere, probably killed by one of those snipers who rise up in Spain as soon as the country risks falling under foreign rule.  In 1808, they decimated the armies of Napoleon.  La Valliere, who was close to the Commander-in-Chief, was perhaps not buried fast enough, in the heat of this month of June.  Thereby carrying the contagion into the army.  More surely, the beseiged could have set off a heavy offensive, starting with this successful guerilla action, supported by the bacteriological weapons of the epoch, dead animal bodies abandoned near the places where food was to be found, poisoned fountains, rivers and wells.  As Catalina Fiosela used to do, 50 years before.  This Catalan woman went through Provence, Franche-Comte and Flanders, poisoning people and animals for whomever hired her.  She was burnt alive with three of her companions, in Bordeaux, on 1 March 1610.  At this epoch, the manufacture and use of redoubtable poisons was very well-known.  Bands of “greasers” collected them in the hospices, by removing the fat of plague victims, either dead or alive.  From the XVth Century, there exists real brotherhoods of poisoners, who exchange their magical incantations, their recipes and their antedotes right under the noses of the prevote.  Jean Le Francois, at the epoch of the seige of Lerida, is arrested carrying vials of belladonna, camphre, white lead and Peru Balm.  Tortured, he confesses that his colleagues, both male and female, spread the plague by coating doors and locks with a poisoned pomade.  In August 1628, the Lyon thieves succeeded in carrying out, inside their city, the operation that the beseiged of Lerida launched against the French.  They “greased” the doors of the inhabitants and, as the plague has already been declared, these people flee, abandoning their houses to pillage…

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It is probable that, once sober, the young officers regretted their unqualifiable conduct.  In his Memoires Bussy writes:

“This horrified me and I told them so many times to find that particular pleasure ridiculous, that finally they put the cadaver back in its coffin.”

Bussy perhaps wants to give himself the best role, for he was far from being a tender person, but he seems to suggest that the end of La Valliere could have appeared to his companions as the effect of the divine finger striking down the impious.  Or, as they believed in neither God nor the devil, as an effect of immanent justice, fallen from the empire of the dead.  Let us not forget that the XVIIth Century is a century that is totally delivered up to superstitions, to the belief in fate, to “Jettatura” as the Napolitans say.  The evil eye, charms and evil spells from the dead, strike firstly the sick, the wounded, and weak- or fragile-minded people.  As were without doubt the minds of our joyous officers, tormented by fear and remorse.  And what is the effect of the evil eye on those who are its victims?  For those who believe in it, it suscitates the “old man”, that is to say…  convulsions and fevers which are almost always mortal.

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