Tag Archive: XIIIth Century

Charles IX of France.

In Spring 1574, there is plotting everywhere and the troubles which are shaking the kingdom demand an urgent solution for the future.  What is going to happen to the young monarch?  Will his mother, Catherine de Medicis, renounce all authority over the kingdom?

Cosme Ruggieri, the Queen Mother’s astrologist, convinces her, for whom her dynasty’s interests pass before all else, to hold the darkest of ceremonies of divination, the ceremony of the talking head…

On the night of 28 May 1574, we are at Vincennes inside one of the castle’s nine towers, the one still called today the Devil’s Tower.  The Queen Mother is there, with two of her inner circle and her son who, breathless, is shivering with fever and can barely stand.  An altar has been erected and is covered in a black cloth.  A statue, draped in a triple black veil, represents the Mother of the Shadows, the goddess of suicides and madness, the divinity for whom the Mass is to be served.

Catherine de Medicis.

Candles, also black, light this altar on which there is placed an ebony chalice, filled with coagulated blood and two communion wafers, one white, the other black.  The man who is going to say this Mass is an apostate monk, converted to magic…

Into the middle of this lugubrious meeting a little boy of ten advances.  He is a kidnapped Jewish child who has been prepared for a long time for this communion.  He has been dressed in a white gown, is as beautiful as he is innocent and is waiting to receive God.  The magician begins the service by planting on the altar a long dagger, the handle of which represents a snake, then he recites invocations to the Virgin, launches anathemae to the God of the Christians, and consecrates the wafers to Satan.  The child, who doesn’t know what is happening, joins his hands and closes his eyes to receive the white wafer on his tongue.  But he has barely taken  communion than one of the infernal priest’s assistants plunges a dagger into his neck.  Then it is the dull clang of a sword which rings on the altar stone:  the child has just been decapitated and the magician brandishes this poor, little, innocent head and places it on the black wafer in a big, silver paten…

Bewitchment seance organized before Catherine de Medicis by Cosme Ruggieri.

The young sovereign has been forewarned.  It is at this precise instant that he must lean over and ask the head a question.  The head would answer him, and reveal all the future to him.

Trembling, this unnatural Prince approaches and asks his question in an unintelligible voice.  They wait.  Appalling silence.  Finally, a sigh escapes the child’s dead lips and they think that they hear that this sigh signifies:

“I am forced to do it!…  I am forced to do it!”

That is all.  Then the sound of a body falling.  It is the King, already agonizing, who has just fainted.  Salts are applied and he is brought to his senses.  He struggles and lets out appalling screams:

“Take that thing away from me!  Take that thing away from me!… “

He is rushed back to his bedchamber.  He is now delirious, he sees blood everywhere, he is sinking into a river of blood.  He spends the next two days like this in terror and hallucinations then dies on 30 May.  He was barely twenty-five years old.  At the autopsy, it is seen that his heart was all shrivelled, as if it had been exposed for a long time to fire…


This is a true story.  The bronze bewitchment was reported by the Spanish Ambassador to France, Don Francis of Avala, who on 8 June 1569 told the story to Phillip II, with the precision that “every day, the Italian watches the nativity of the three persons and his astrolabe, then tightens and loosens  the screws”

As for the Mass of the decapitated head, it was related in detail by the great jurist Jean Bodin, the author of La Republique and founder of modern Economics.  He was also the Secretary of the Duke of Anjou, Catherine de Medicis’ last son, therefore well-placed to know about it.  Jean Bodin had only one fault:  he absolutely believed in witches and recommended that the most rigorous punishments be meted out to them…


The Saint-Barthelemy Massacre was basically only a big, ritual sacrifice.

Stories of talking heads have always been part of the florilege of magical beliefs, although we don’t know their origin.  It is also known that Gerbert, the Pope of the year 1000, was reputed to have built a talking head, which had the gift of revealing the future.  But this was, of course, only a legend founded on this pontiff’s vast knowledge in Astronomy and Mathematics.  In the XIIIth Century, Albert the Great is said to have also had such a head as well as an automaton, capable, it was believed, of human behaviour.  This belief was also part of the bewitchments of the Middle Ages and has its origin in the immense scientific knowledge of Albert, to whom Chemistry owes discoveries of the greatest importance:  gold refining, the treatment of sulphur, the action of acids on metals, etc.  Like Gerbert, he passed for a wizard and the confusion that was made at the time between science and magic also explains that were attributed to him the paternity of the Grand and the Petit Albert, the collections of popular magic, the success of which persisted , in the Occident, for half a millenium.


To conciliate evil powers, Catherine de Medicis wore permanently at her neck a big talisman made from human blood, billy-goat blood and metal which had been melted during a favorable astral conjunction.  She lived surrounded by magi, deviners and astrologists, and it is on Ruggieri’s indications that she had built in the Soissons hotel an octogonal tower orientated on the cardinal points, whence her favorite magician could observe the stars and do his horoscopes.  A column of this still exists, nearly thirty metres high, included in the walls of what is today the Bourse de Commerce in Paris…


Catherine de Medicis permanently wore this cabalistic talisman made from human and billy-goat blood.

Ruggieri would survive almost thirty years longer than Catherine de Medicis and would remain the unmoveable oracle of several great princes of the kingdom.  Charles IX’s brother, Henri III, also given to black magic, would use him to send spells to the ligueurs and their chiefs, the Guises.  Not without success, since the two most illustrious representatives of this Roman Catholic family, for a long time more powerful than the kings of France, are assassinated, at the end of numerous acts of bewitchment.  The Guises returned the favour:  every day, the faithful were ordered to Notre-Dame to pierce wax effigies representing the royal family, there…  Henri III had brought from Spain at great expense all the grimoires of magic which are in fashion at Phillip II’s Court…  to make counter-spells!

The whole of France would believe that the regicide dagger which killed him in 1589 had been placed in Jacques Clement’s hand by larvae, magically formed during hate ceremonies.


Hate ceremonies are one of the essential ingredients of black magic, the final goal of which is vengeance, the awakening of interior negative powers, with their cortege of unhealthy desires, as opposed to white magic, of which the aim is to heal and to uncover secrets which can transform life in a positive manner.


Ruggieri was to be found at the side of Concini and Marie de Medicis, after the assassination of Henri IV, who didn’t much like his magic which he called “effeminate foolishness”…  To Concini who would occultly govern France for three years, he taught magic and was even more popular at Court after he predicted Henri IV’s assassination, having already tried to bewitch him.  Implicated in a witchcraft trial, he once more survived, but was very wary from then on and would live from the sale of almanachs which were very popular with the little people, who were superstitious.  He wrote them under the name of  “Querberus”.

Finally, he died very old, and despite the insistence of his protector Concini, the Archbishop of Paris refused him a christian burial, having his body thrown into the road.  The wise man didn’t care anyway, for he believed in neither God nor the devil but only, as the good Florentine that he was, in the power of the greats, and in daggers and poison.


Ruggieri was the standard-bearer of that generation of clever adventurers who appeared in France, destabilized by the Wars of Religion.  But more than his magic, it was his intelligence and his strength of character, without counting his absolute cynicism, to which he owed his career.  More than any other, he was able to make his own these words from the frightening Leonora Galigai, Concini’s wife, who at the moment of being condemned to death, declared proudly to the judge:

“My spells were the power that strong souls have over weak souls!”…



The legend of the Easter bells that go to Rome from Good Thursday to the evening of Good Saturday is an enigma for folklorists and historians of traditions.

There exists, in the History of folklore, a mystery which has always intrigued the specialists of popular traditions.  It is the one attached to the origin of the “Easter bells”.  When, in the VIIIth Century, the Church, as a sign of mourning, forbids the ringing of the bells during the three days which precede the Festival of the Resurrection, the good people invented a very strange story.  They said:

“From Good Thursday to Good Saturday evening, the bells leave their belfries, fly away and go to Rome…”

With the knowledge that legends nearly always draw their origins from something that really happened, one could ask what strange phenomenon could have led our ancestors to imagine such a fable.  For no-one has ever seen any bells flying in the sky.

Or have they?…

Don’t laugh and let us have a look at a chronicle from the VIth Century which will perhaps furnish us with the explanation that we are seeking.

This chronicle’s author is the monk Gregoire de Tours.  Reporting all the important facts of his epoch in his Histoire des Francs, the worthy man writes that in 584,

“there appeared in the sky brilliant wheels of light which seemed to crash into each other and go past each other;  after which, they separated and disappeared into thin air”.

The following year, he notes:

“In the month of September, certain people saw some signs, that is to say, some of these wheels of light or cupolas that one is accustomed to see and which seem to run with rapidity in the sky.”

Two years later, the monk again writes:

“We saw for two nights in a row, in the middle of the sky, a sort of strongly luminous cloud which had the form of a hood.”

A cupola, a hood, those are objects which resemble bells a lot.  From there, could we not think that these mysterious apparitions, observed by the contemporaries of Gregoire de Tours, are at the origin of the popular fable?

For centuries, city and country children await the “return” of the bells which are supposed to bring them back from Rome eggs in sugar or chocolate.

But what then were these extraordinary engines which were circulating in the atmosphere?

Their description strangely resembles that of our modern UFOs some of which have, very exactly, the form of a cupola, of a hood, in a word, of a bell

Let us listen to a witness who, on 2 October 1954, saw one of these objects above Quinay-Voisin, near Melun:

“The engine passed in the sky at a fast pace.  It was coming from the North and had the form of a cupola…  It made no noise and was shiny like aluminium…  In a few seconds, it stationed over a wood.  I then saw it rocking for a long moment;  then it took off again at astounding speed and disappeared.”

Another testimony:  on 24 June 1962, around 3:00 pm, a man from a garage, who was running an errand in the vicinity of Nice, suddenly sees something luminous in the sky.  Let us listen to him:

“At first, I thought that it was round.  Then when the thing came closer, I saw that it had the form of an upside-down bowl.  This thing circled above the hill, as if it was looking to land.  Then it threw out flashes and rose vertically at great speed.  Then I lost it from sight.”

Third testimony, even more precious:  On 19 June 1971, a former American officer was driving along a road in Georgia when he noticed above a wood an enormous scintillating object slipping under the clouds.  He says:

“This object had the form of a German helmet or of a bell.  It was fairly high, but I think that its diameter could be equal to the width of a Boeing.  Intrigued, I stopped and turned off my engine.  The object continued to advance slowly without making any noise.  Then it began to circle around a point which seemed to me to be a little lake situated not far from the place where I was.  While it was circling, some red lights appeared on its sides, as if some windows were lighting up.  Then everything went out and the object suddenly took off and disappeared into some clouds.”

So, what do we conclude?

This very curious story that parents still tell children could have at its origin the apparition in the sky of a mysterious flying object.

That the men of the VIth Century had perhaps received the visit of an engine comparable to these UFOs which roam around our sky, the strange evolutions of which are periodically reported by the newspapers?

In this case, the “Easter bells” would have entered into our traditions because of an object in the form of a cupola which perhaps came from another world and had caused the men of the year 584 to marvel…


Guy Breton, whose work I have translated, underlines that this explanation is only an hypothesis which he submits to the folklorists, nothing more…


Flying bells are very often in legends and popular tales.  In all of the world’s folklores, bells have a magical character.  We see them as special objects – almost living beings – since we baptise them.  And we lend them strange faculties:  they ring on their own to announce a catastrophe, they make storms flee, they stop hail.  Finally – and we come back to our subject – they roam around the sky at fantastic speeds.  In certain tales, they are described, brilliant or glowing red, flying over fields or villages.  In others, they stop for a few instants in a point in the air before taking off again like a flash of lightning…  Which is, according to the witnesses cited by the newspapers, one of the characteristics of our modern UFOs.


There is an enormous amount of apparitions of unidentified celestial objects in the Middle Ages.  The chronicles are full of them.  They speak of mysterious round objects, flying shields, lances of fire, in other words, objects whose description again corresponds with what we read today in the press…  Listen to what Gregoire de Tours wrote in 590:

“During this year, a light so bright shone in the night that one could believe that it was noon;  one saw as well globes of fire travelling often across the sky at nighttime and illuminating the world.”

Here is what the chronicler Matthieu de Paris writes in his Historia Anglorum, on the subject of a phenomenon which occurred at twilight on 24 July 1239:

“While the stars were not yet lit and while the sky was still very light, serene and brilliant, a great star appeared like a torch.  It rose from the South and climbed in the sky emitting a very big light.  When it was high in the sky, it turned toward the North, slowly, as if it wanted to occupy a position in the sky.  But when it was about in the middle of the firmament, in our boreal hemisphere, it left behind it some smoke and some sparks.  This had the form of a big head, the front part was sparkling and the back part was emitting smoke and flashes…”

For the date 1290, one finds in the chronicles of William of Newburgh this text:

“As Abbot Henry, Prior of Byland Abbey, in England, was about to read the “Benedicite”, Joannes, one of the friars, came to announce that a prodigy was showing outside.  Everyone then went outside and there they saw a big silver thing, round like a disc, fly slowly above them, provoking the most lively terror…”

Thirty years later, Robert of Reading, who was a Benedictin at Saint Peter of Westminster, notes in his chronicle that in 1322,

“in the early hours of the night of 4 November a pillar of fire the size of a little boat, of pale colour, was seen in the sky above Uxbridge (Middlesex);  it rose to the South, crossed the sky in a slow, majestuous movement and left towards the North.  At the front of the pillar, a bright red flame was burning throwing out great rays of light.  Its speed increased and it disappeared into space…  Several witnesses saw a sort of collision and a noise like a fearsome combat was heard.”

Phenomena of this kind are signalled throughout the whole of Europe.  In Sicily, the Minor Brothers of Ragusa watched, on 8 January 1388, the passage of several “very luminous and aligned” objects above their convent.  And the Cronica Albertina indicates that in 1394,

“the second day of the month of September, at the second hour of the night, appeared to some men who were on the public square of Forli and to others, in other places assembled, a great asud [name given at the time to celestial objects] which traversed the sky very slowly and which stayed in space the time of two Pater Nosters, and which was as long as one step, and which, at its disappearance – the men who were on the square reported it – gave out an odour of burning wood, and we heard other people who assured that the said asud on fire travelled through the air in its own fashion, but after it remained motionless for a bit of time in space, and after this time it disappeared little by little leaving in its place a sort of cloud, and the rest of the vapours had taken the form of serpents, a rather admirable thing.”

Finally, here is another text that Guy Breton found in the Memoires of a bourgeois from Arras written by Jacques Duclerq, Counseller to Philippe le Bon.  He writes:

“In the night of the All Saints [31 October night] 1461, was noticed in the sky an ardent thing, like a very long bar of iron, very fat like half a moon.  For a quarter of an hour, we could see very clearly.  And then, suddenly, this strange thing twisted and climbed into the skies.  Each remained stunned by it.”

You see, the sky of the Middle Ages is criss-crossed by unidentified flying objects…  It is possible that these mysterious apparitions have given birth to other myths.  Which would perhaps explain why, when the Church forbade the ringing of the bells for three days, the good people found it quite natural to tell their children that the bells – which had the form of some of these objects circulating in the sky – had flown away.  And as they could imagine them better close to the Pope, they added that they had left for Rome…


Walking on fire

This Hindu, who is participating in a ritual ceremony, is walking on a carpet of red embers.

Seated near a fire with a few Hermit Brothers, Giovanni Buono, the founder of the Hermits of Saint Augustin, is exhorting his companions to persevere in their faith.  We are in the 1230’s, on a Winter’s evening, in an Italian convent in Botrioli.  Suddenly, as if to give more power to his words, Buono rises and goes towards the tall fireplace which is heating the monastery’s big room.  He steps over the grate and starts to walk with bare feet on the red embers.  He smiles as he says, while stirring the embers with his hands as if they are cool water,

“God is ready to perform prodigies for his friends”.

An edifying story coming from the depths of time for the use of the little catechists of the XIXth Century?…

It is not certain, for the life of Saint Giovanni Buono is filled with similar prodigies as is indicated in the Acta sanctorum published by the Bollandists, those men of science recruted mostly among the Jesuits, and given the task of writing the lives of the saints.

In what concerns Buono, they are inspired by the minutes of the procedure for beatification begun in 1251.  Under oath, his companions, notably Brother Salveti, bear witness…

Brother Giovanni remained with bare feet in the embers for exactly the time that it takes to say half of the psalm Miserere mei Deus.

Then he invites some of his Brothers, including Salveti, to join him in his cell.  Salveti says:

“I was very happy to receive this invitation for it would allow me to examine Buono’s feet which I expected to be considerably damaged.”

Salveti attentively inspects the Brother’s feet and has to believe the evidence:  they have escaped any burns, as has his long tunic which bears no mark from the fire…


This Macedonian fire dancer must absolutely look in front of her. If she turns to look back, she immediately burns herself.

In the XVth Century, Saint Francesco di Paola, the founder of the Order of the Minimes, is actively participating in the construction of the Paola Convent in Calabra.  Toward the end of the work, a chalk oven, which has been alight for twenty-four hours, cracks in several places.  As all the chalk risks being spoilt, Francesco asks the workers to go away, and patches up the cracks.

When the masons return, they find the stove repaired and the Franciscan in the process of washing his hands…  It is absolutely impossible, and this figures in the procedure for beatification, to repair such an oven…  without entering inside it.

Francesco di Paola shows several times that he is insensitive to fire.  As he likes a good laugh, he one day plays a joke on a high-born canon.

The canon estimed that Francesco’s austerity was normal since he was of very low extraction, and therefore used to difficult living conditions…  Francesco says:

“It’s very true that I’m a country bumpkin!…  If I wasn’t a real country boy, I wouldn’t be able to do this for example…”

Taking up handfuls of embers from the fire, he holds out two fistfuls of burning coals to the canon.  The canon finds nothing better to do than to throw himself at his feet and ask for his blessing.

Catherine of Sienna falls one day into the enormous fire of her father who was a dyer.  She was in ecstasy, and it is Lysa, her sister-in-law [or step-sister – it is the same word in French] who pulls her from the flames with no damage to her body or clothes.

As they concern saints, sceptics are always tempted to explain these prodigies by a few pious exaggerations by witnesses…  divine intervention, in their minds, paradoxically removing a great part of the mystery of these phenomena…

Things become complicated when it is known that a lot of human beings, never having heard of Christian mysteries, or not caring much about them, also present the same incombustibility characteristic.

In an article in Le Journal des savants in 1677, diverse exercises of a famous English side-show performer are described.  In front of the most trustworthy witnesses, he swallows sulphur and flaming coals, puts a glowing coal on his tongue and gently simmers a closed oyster on it until it opens, nicely cooked.

Not at all affected by this exercise, he swallows for dessert a flaming mixture of melted glass, flax fibres, sulphur and wax, in such a way that “this composition makes as much noise in his throat as a hot iron that it dipped into water”.

If he had lived at the same epoch in France, his prowesses would doubtless have led him straight to the stake, as happened to a certain Thomas Boulle, accused of sorcery because he could walk on embers without burning himself.  He is burnt alive in Rouen on 22 August 1647.

When the famous Marie Sonnet, known as the Salamander, appears less than a century later, sorcerers are no longer being burnt.  Anyway, it could be asked whether the flames would have gotten the better of this young woman, the Muse of the Saint-Medard Convulsionists.

Her talents explain, for a lot of people at least, the loss of control of the Fools for God who manifest themselves around this church in the Mouffetard quarter of Paris.

Minutes of extraordinary precision, dated 12 May 1731 and counter-signed by fourteen priests, Doctors in Theology, Sorbonne licencees, Parliamentary Councillors, Treasurers of the Chambre des Comptes, etc., indicate that:

“This day, between eight and ten o’clock in the evening, Marie Sonnet, being in convulsions, her head on one stool and her feet on another, the said stools being entirely inside the two sides of a great fireplace and under the mantel of the same, so that her body was in the air above the fire which was of extreme violence, and that she remained for thirty-six minutes in this situation, in four different times, without the sheet in which she was wrapped, having no clothing, burning, although the flame sometimes passed over it, which seemed to us totally supernatural.  In faith of which we have signed this day 12 May 1731.  Signed: (here follow different names of people in high places in Paris).  Plus, we certify that, while we were signing the present certificate, the said Sonnet put herself back on the fire for nine minutes, seeming to sleep above the brazier which was very ardent, having fifteen logs and faggots burnt during the said two and a quarter hours.”

So the Sonnet remained stretched over the fire for the length of time necessary “for roasting a piece of veal or mutton”.

To be continued.

On 28 December 1898, Father Chabrel, a Maronite monk from Lebanon, dies aged 78 in the Saint Maron Monastery.

Saint Maron is the best known Maronite convent in Lebanon.  It bears the name of the founder of the Maronite religion, a Catholic religion of Syrian rites;  its Head, the Archmandrite, has spiritual pre-eminence over all the other Lebanese convents and great moral prestige in the whole of Syria.

After his death, Father Chabrel’s body is placed in an underground tomb after a simple but moving ceremony.

From now on, his mortal remains will repose among the scattered bones of his brothers in religion.  Destined to an even more rapid disappearance because the tomb is dripping with humidity.

But, right from the night following the burial, and during 45 other nights, an intermittent light escapes from the tomb.  It is so bright that it lights up the monastery’s high cupola.  This light can be seen from very far away, as is indicated in a police report at the time.  After a few weeks of hesitation, the Archmandrite has the tomb opened in front of ten witnesses.

This cut hand, belonging to an unknown person, was found in a state of perfect conservation.

It is the morning of 15 April 1899.

When the heavy tombstone tips over, light engulfs a veritable bog…  on top of which floats the perfectly intact body of Father Chabrel.  There again, the skin has kept all its freshness and suppleness.  Not one hair of his beard, not one hair on his head has fallen.  But, even more stupefying, from this fresh and supple body which appears to be that of a sleeping man, fresh blood is flowing.

His clothes and linen are changed, he is placed back in a heavy coffin with a glass top.  This coffin is placed in an oratory.  The next day, and all the days which follow, blood, or at least a red liquid, seeps abundantly from the pores of his skin.  So that the “cadaver’s” clothes have to be changed twice a week…

This incredible phenomenon continues for years.

In 1900, the body is exposed for six months on the church’s terrace to dry it in the sun.  In vain.  For twenty-seven years, a liquid composed of water and blood continues to seep from the cadaver.

On 24 July 1927, the body is placed in a coffin covered in zinc, along with a metal cylinder containing a complete medical synthesis of the phenomenon from its beginning.  This report is signed by Professor Arnaud Jouffroy, from the Faculty of French Medicine in Beyrouth, and by Theophile Maroun, Professor of Pathological Anatomy at the same Faculty;  (we must remember that, at this time, Lebanon is placed under French mandate, and that a High Commissioner exercises the authority of the French Republic there).

In 1952, there is a new exhumation.

To the astonishment of the medical, theological, scientific and police authorities, the body bears not the slightest trace of decomposition and still exudes a liquid composed of water and blood.

This prodigy suscitates considerable interest, and the authorities are led to expose the body from 7 to 25 August to public view.  Then, it is put back into the tomb whose stones are carefully cemented.

We still don’t know the explanation of this double mystery:  the suppleness and integrity of the body and, above all, the uninterrupted flow of that perspiration of blood.

In half a century, the cadaver had in fact produced more than twenty litres of that humour, while the fluids contained in the living human body does not excede five litres.

For a quarter of a century, several scholars studied this prodigy.

The case of Father Chabrel has notably been carefully studied in France by Doctor Larcher, the author of a fascinating book:  Can Blood Vanquish Death? [Le Sang peut-il vaincre la mort?]


In 1204, when the Crusaders, who had just taken Constantinople, penetrated Justinien's tomb, the Emperor, who had died 639 years earlier, seemed to be sleeping in his coffin.

Such cases, historically repertoried and scientifically studied – or at least examined by well-balanced people worthy of trust – are fairly numerous.

Let us cite the story of Jean Le Vasseur, Seigneur de la Boutillerie, Mayeur de Lille and founder, in 1618, of the Chartreuse de Notre-Dame-des-Douleurs.

Brave Conventionnels took it upon themselves to profane his tomb in June 1793.  Under the great sepulcral stone in the Notre-Dame-des-Douleurs Church, they found a lead coffin which they pulled apart, displaying an oak coffin inside it.  They broke this with an axe, and the body of Jean Le Vasseur then appeared, perfectly conserved and looking exactly like the portrait which still decorates the fireplace of the monastery’s great hall.  Seized with fear, one of the authors of this profanation threw himself on his knees, imploring divine pardon.

One hundred and forty-nine years after the death, the flesh has, there too, escaped all decomposition and when a hooligan undertakes to cut a finger from it, vermilion blood wells from the wound.

After two army surgeons wash it, change it and leave it seated on a chair, its head wearing a bonnet garnished with a tricoloured ribbon, another surgeon comes along.  His name is Jean-Francois Degland and he practises an “autopsy” on the body.  Dark red blood pours out in abundance, and all of the organs are recognised to be intact.  Degland takes away the heart for a trophy, leaves the cadaver lying in the church, and announces in Lille that he has just opened the body of a saint.

Seventeen days later, the body is still in the same state of conservation, despite the very hot weather.

This prodigy suscitates corteges that the Revolutionaries will quash…  by throwing the Venerable Le Vasseur’s remains into the common grave.

Are these three cases miracles which bear witness to the reality of divine existence?  Perhaps…  although Roseline de Villeneuve and Father Chabrel did not leave the memory of a nun and a monk who were surely destined to enrich the Golden Legend of the Saints.  However, there are a certain number of cases of quite ordinary people, whose bodies have escaped what appears to be the destiny of all flesh in this life.


To be continued.

King Philippe-Auguste of France on a seal

Ingeburge of Denmark, Queen of France

Finally, after nine months of stubbornness, the King gave in to Rome, and sent away Agnes.  But he didn’t take back Ingeburge.  He had her locked up in a tower, near Etampes, where she would live in frightful conditions:  sleeping on a straw mattress amongst rats, covered in vermine, shivering with cold…  She remained like that for twenty years…  Twenty years because the King believed that he had had his laces tied…

And then, one day in 1214, Philippe-Auguste, who needed military aid from his ex-father-in-law, the King of Denmark, thought that it would be diplomatic to release Ingeburge.  He even went, himself, to collect her …

When she saw him appear in her cell, Ingeburge fell to her knees and kissed his hand, saying:

“My lord, my lord!”

In twenty years, she had had time to learn French.

The Queen had always hoped that this moment would arrive.  She cried, clutched the King’s arm, and tried to kiss him;  but, a chronicler tells us,

“Philippe-Auguste could not bring himself to do it the first day…”

Doubtless, he was still afraid for his virility…

The next day, Ingeburge once more became officially Queen of France.  And, as if nothing had happened, she lived with the King, her beloved lord, for ten years…  Ten happy years, for Philippe-Auguste had at last succeeded in untying his laces…


The laces in question were those used to fasten breeches.  They were iron-tipped, more or less like today’s shoelaces.  So, if a man was said to have had his laces tied (or knotted) it meant that he couldn’t undo the front of his pants, so couldn’t perform sexually.


Because men refused to believe that the problem came from themselves, the mentality of the time made them believe that it was the work of a demon or a witch/wizard.  Those who were accused of tying laces were tried and burnt alive…  The accused were usually women.  It was said that they did it to punish unfaithful men, or those uninterested in their charms.  In the XVIth Century, the number of men affected by impotence was so great that, in some provinces, marriages were celebrated in secret to escape these spells, and the Church included special prayers against knotted laces in its rituel…


There were many recipes for knotting laces.  Here’s one taken from a magic rituel of the time:

“Take the sex of a recently killed wolf;  take it to the front of the house of the man that you want to make impotent;  call this man by his name.  As soon as he answers, tie the wolf’s sex with a lace of white thread…  The man will have his laces knotted…”

There are many other recipes.  In Alsace, in the XVIIth Century, the witch or wizard, during the marriage ceremony, in the church, made three knots which, in virtue of the law of similarity, was supposed to tie the virile member of the young husband.  In Berry, the witch or wizard buried the heads and skins of snakes under the spouses’ doorstep.


At this epoch, people used love philtres, so it was normal to also employ magic to disunite couples.  The greatest minds have believed in these things.  Paracelsius, Rabelais and Montaigne, among others, absolutely believed, and Ambroise Pare wrote:

“There is no doubt that there are sorcerers who knot laces at the time of marriage to prevent the cohabitation of the spouses on whom they want to wreak nasty vengeance to sow discord, which is the true profession and office of the Devil…”

The tying of laces is a very old spell.  The Greeks and Romans called it “ligature”.  Plato, Herodote, Virgil and Ovid allude to it.  Those who did it used a little wax figure representing the victim which they wrapped in cords while pronouncing conjuration phrases.  It was a sort of bewitchment…

There were also strange recipes for untying the laces.  For example, it was recommended to wear a ring into which the right eye of a weasel had been set…  Or – Pliny gives us this recipe – rub wolf grease around and on the bedroom door.  But some exorcisms were even stranger.  Certain rituels advised men touched by the spell, to write seven times on a new parchment the psalm Eripe me de inimicis meis and attach it to their right thigh.  In some provinces, the “knotted” husband had to urinate through the hole in the lock on the door of the church where he was married.  Elsewhere, this act of unbewitchment was done through the wedding ring while saying In nomine Patris…  In Poitou, the conjuration ceremony became acrobatic:  the spouses who were victims of tied laces lay down naked on the floor.  The husband then kissed the big toe on his wife’s left foot while she kissed the big toe on her husband’s right foot.  They then had to make two signs of the cross together, one of them with the left hand, the other with the heel of the free foot…


People were known to tie laces up until World War II.  There are probably still some in country regions even today.


All historians seem to agree that Philippe-Auguste’s failure to perform was caused by his great emotion provoked by Ingeburge’s beauty.  It is well-known that there are some women so beautiful that they take your breath away and tie your laces…


The Inquisition is born in the XIIIth Century.  However, the Golden Age of Satan and his fiends and henchmen does not really begin until the XVth Century, with its accompanying fanatical persecutions.  There is no established distinction between black and white magic.

The Church does not always rely completely on doctors, whom it continues to watch closely, notably in the heart of the universities over which it has authority.  Arnaud de Villeneuve (1235-1311), master doctor of Montpellier, almost perishes by fire, but not because of any doubtful medical practices.  It is his theological treaties which incriminate him.  After his death, they are burnt publicly.

Christian customs strangely resemble the magical interventions of country healers.  The Church recognizes spells, because it practises exorcism ceremonies.

Rural priests, who share the peasants’ syncretic vision of the world, whose essence is amalgamation, read the Gospels over the heads of their parishioners to chase away illness.  The patient kneels in the same way before the priest and the conjurer.  Then there are the cults of saints and relics, practically animist, which are adored for themselves, instead of seeing in them, according to dogma, simple intercessors of the divine hand.

Thaumaturgic saints are smothered in prayers throughout the whole of the Middle Ages.  Pilgrimage historians estimate that 80% of the travellers who went to pray near sanctified relics, were sick people hoping to be cured.  The pilgrimage is a therapeutic institution, which produces many miracles, and brings a lot of money to the Church.  It also heals because everyone believes in it.

In the mentality of the people of the time, to be suddenly made to feel better after a rite, like the laying-on of hands or praying, seems no stranger than if it had happened after the incantation of the removal of a spell, after a blood-letting, or the taking of theriac.  The surnatural, above all Christian, ordered to deliver from divine punishment, has an obvious therapeutic place.

The saints are convoked in their multitudes for the narrative charms of healers.  We have already met Anne, Mary and Elizabeth for the pains of giving birth.  The haloed cohort is spread around in function of specialities due to circumstances of the life or death of its elected, but also in accordance with an analogical principle, because of a play on words with their names.

Saint Agatha, whose breasts were cut off, fights against the drying up of milk.  Saint Laurent, martyrised on a grill, attacks burns.  Saint Odile of Alsace, born blind, acts against eye diseases.  Saint Quentin is invoked for coughing fits [quintes de toux], Saint Cloud for nails [clous] or anthrax, Saint Meen or Saint Main [Hand] for any problems with hands.

However, it is not enough to call a saint to your bedside.  With any aggravation of the illness, the doctor, as well as the empiric, will advise going to a consecrated place.  Usually, near a fountain, a cave, at the top of a hill, near a tree, that the saint is reputed to have made to appear, or to have lived in its proximity.  A little chapel or a simple oratory welcomes the faithful.

In the immediate vicinity of these elements of Nature, which formerly served the cosmic cults of forgotten religions, the thaumaturgic powers of divine intercession are exacerbated.  The best day for praying there, is the day of the saint’s feast.  During these few hours of extraordinary collective piety, there is a multiplication of processions, parading of relics, benedictions of domestic animals, fields and visitors.

The most famous places are the most popular.  Whether devoted to Christ, to the Apostles or to the Archangels, the elite of Heaven’s armies, they must demand a certain effort from the patient to be successful.  It is at the tombs of highly venerated saints – James at Compostella, John in Rome, Michael on the mount that bears his name or in the Italian Pouilles, Christ in Palestine – that the therapeutic rituals are the oldest, the most surprising, often the most suspicious.

They repose on the principle of the “strength of contact”.  In the same way that health jewels, bones or animal teeth are supposed to protect those who wear them around their necks, touching relics has the immense power of curing illness.  The cult of Saint Martin of Tours, in the Middle Ages, gives us an eloquent example of this.

We shall look at this cult in detail in the eighth and last part of Remedies of the Middle Ages.

Everyone, from the top to the bottom of the social ladder, uses surnatural therapies at one time or another.  Bonesetters are called for Charles VI of France, to try to cure his madness.  They are unsuccessful, and are executed as sorcerers.

However, the same fate is reserved for the doctor who hasn’t done his work properly.  The doctor of Jean de Luxembourg (1296-1346), King of Bohemia, is unable to cure his sovereign’s blindness, and is sewn into a sack and thrown into the Oder.

Even in the XVIIIth Century, Louis XIV receives a village healer during his last illness.  The courtiers laugh at his appearance.  Saint-Simon recounts:  “A sort of Provencal manual labourer, very coarse, learned of the King’s extremity and came this morning to Versailles, with a remedy which he says cures gangrene.  The King was so ill and the doctors so at the end of their tether, that they consented with no difficulty.  The King was therefore given ten drops of this elixir in Alicante wine, at eleven o’clock in the morning… ”  It doesn’t work.

Louis XI

The warmest partisan of this magical medicine is definitely the rather frightening Louis XI.  He is as devout as he is superstitious, and an adept of therapeutic practices which frighten everyone.  Legend has amplified its darkness.

This King skips rather than walks.  He is hunched over, and his gaze is in turn cruel or stupid.  He usually wears a curious pointed hat with a long shade over his eyes.

At the age of fifty-five, he presents behavioural problems which are suddenly more serious:  suspicion, arbitrary measures, isolation, paranoia even, when he prefers the company of animals to that of his contemporaries, absence of auto-critique and overblown pride…

He has several strokes.  In 1480, he is unable to speak for several days.  In 1481, he has another attack.  Halfway through March 1482, he begins a pilgrimage to Saint-Claude, in the mountains of the Franche-Comte.  He wants to pray before the altar where he has been sending offerings for many years.

Then he locks himself up in Plessis-les-Tours Castle, where no person of note is henceforth allowed to enter, and devotes himself to experimenting with anything susceptible of prolonging his life.  His delirium takes sadistic forms.  He has iron cages made for his prisoners, although we don’t know if they are used.

During the last year of his life, he spends several hundreds of thousands of francs in offerings, which he distributes to favourite chapels and churches in France, but also in the whole of Europe, like Notre-Dame d’Aix-la-Chapelle or Saint Jacques de Compostella.

He adds sacred objects to the medicine, astrology and religion with which he treats himself.  He procures all of the relics and all of the remedies known in the West.

From the Pope, he borrows the caporal, the altar cloth on which Saint Peter is reputed to have chanted Mass.  From the Reims treasury, he claims the Holy Oil which is used at coronations and which, like everyone else, he thinks has preservative virtues.  Laurent the Magnificent sends him the pastoral ring of Bishop Zenobius, the patron saint of Florence, which is supposed to heal leprosy.  The King is convinced that he has caught this disease.

Suffering also from epileptic fits, he uses hematotherapy, on the advice of the doctors of the time who recommend bathing in blood for epilepsy.  The blood is from giant sea turtles which his best sea captain Georges Bissipal, known as Georges the Greek, goes to hunt, with three ships, as far away as the Cap-Vert Islands, at the edge of the then known world.

After the King’s death, it is frequently said that he also drank the blood of babies.  Was Louis XI an ogre?  It might be enough that he was depressive, hypochondriac, persecuted and, above all, seated in this state on the throne of France.

To be continued.

Most of the time, the natural medications of vegetal, animal or mineral origin, the potions that mix dozens of ingredients, even with the best astrological intentions added to them, are not sufficient for curing the patient.  If he is not cured by them, it means that the illness has other sources.  God, or the alignment of the planets, an evil being, possibly a demon, have already decided on an unhappy issue.  It becomes necessary to turn to other powers, to magico-religious practices tinted with Christian mysticism, or with an antique religion now transmitted as a superstition.

In a Limousin village, under the reign of the good king Charles VII (1422-1461), a piece of news is widely circulated.  It starts out as a banal dispute between neighbours.  For some time now, Pierrot de Merneres and his ten children have been suing Durant de la Planha and his family.  Both families are trying to prove their rights on a field of wheat, which they both claim to have sown.

One night, while the village sleeps, Pierrot de Merneres and his children, sensing that the case is turning against them, start to harvest the field.  Durant de la Planha’s people surprise them, and a fight to the death ensues.  Firstly blows and insults, then iron-tipped staffs, an axe, a spike and even a sword are drawn.  Men and women on both sides are wounded, and they all return home to patch themselves up.

It could have ended there, if they had all recovered from their wounds.  But there is a victim.  According to the minutes of the court case, Etienne de la Planha had “had his wound charmed” – it was a head wound – without using any “other remedy” – that is to say a “licit” remedy.  He was ill in bed for two weeks, then, “by his bad government or otherwise”, he died.  Because of this, the Merneres are considered to be murderers and are condemned to exile.

However, some time later, in 1444, a letter of remission allows them to return home.  Why?  Simply because, in this middle of the XVth Century, it is not acceptable for Etienne de la Planha to seek the help of the healer (or of the sorcerer) rather than that of the doctor, and it is preferable to accord a pardon to the accused.

The expression “charmed the wound” expressly refers to parallel medicine.  The word “charm” contains the double sense of its Latin origin carmen, which means both “charm” and “chant which casts a spell”, or incantation.  The best-known mediaeval magical medications are those where words are the most important.

While we possess very little reliable knowledge on other types of interventions, magical words are frequently used.  From the empiric to the healer, and probably also the sorcerer, therapists use these incantation formulae.  They are inherited from civilizations where words had a religious value, and who ritually practised sacred writing.  Runes by the Germans, ogham by the Celts.  In Northern Europe, the Finnish saga, the Kalevala, has kept a trace of the belief in the runnot of the bards, the magic power of words.

In the Middle Ages, that which seems to be senseless gabble is therefore often a lost language, copied and deformed.  To treat a man who has “swallowed a worm”, it is the custom to repeat:  “onomil, orgomil, marbumil”.  A Celtic speaker has recognized these words as perfectly understandable Ancient Irish, which mean :  “I wound the beast, I cut the beast, I kill the beast”.

Most often, the mediaeval conjurations are dressed up in new clothes.  The names of God or litanies of saints replace those of the demons of Antiquity, much too suspiciously pagan.  In the same way that the talisman has as much value as the medicine, and that the herb has just as many properties in a tea as carried around the neck, the treating person casts a spell when he delivers a medication, when he applies a remedy, to guarantee its future healing powers.

At the end of the XVth Century, Guillaume de Villiers, a specialist in veterinary medicine and the author of a treatise on hippiatry, assures us that these conjurations are “without danger for the soul and orthodox for the Catholic faith”.  He recommends the following formula, in Latin of course, which convokes all of the divine creatures:  “I adjure you, evil worms, by the Father and the Son and the Holy Ghost, and by the angel of majesty, and by the will of all of the saints, so that you will have no power to harm your servant N… “.

In the hope that an analogy can show therapeutic virtues, “narrative charms” recount a short pious story, whose sanctified heroes have suffered, or are particularly specialized in, the sufferings of the patient.  For women in labour, submitted to the powerlessness of the matrons, the village specialists, sometimes just the neighbours, as soon as Nature refuses to do its work without danger, saints are invoked for a successful delivery:  “Anne gave birth to Mary, Mary gave birth to Jesus, and Elizabeth John the Baptist.  Child, come out, for Jesus is calling you to Baptism” is supposed to shorten pain which goes on too long.

Sometimes, the life of the saints has nothing to do with the therapeutic act.  It doesn’t matter.  It sounds good to the ear.  A doctor from Liege in the XIIIth Century, gives us this delightful:  “Saint Nazaire, Saint Thecla and Saint Aquila were sitting on the sea.  Saint Thecla says:  Let’s go.  Saint Nazaire says :  Let’s go.  Saint Aquila says:  Make this stain leave the eye of N… , whether it be white, red or black… “.

To be continued.

The patients of the Middle Ages complain about the “blood-lettings, purges and clysters” which are continually inflicted on them.  It is firmly believed that the human body contains twenty-four litres of blood, and that it can lose twenty of them without risk.  Blood-letting is a cure for everything.  The act is so common that it can be found in a little poem from the XIIIth Century entitled The Tools of the Villain, a sort of catalogue of everything that is useful to the villain, or man from the country, to set up house.  Among the caldrons and bowls, we find the surgeon’s lancet, the blood-letting tool.

A German master doctor, observing his Parisian colleagues, reports a common opinion:  “Here are doctors who have administered so many blood-lettings to a patient, that he has died from them.”.

The more water that you take from a well, the purer will be the new water which rises from its depths.  This is the principle of blood-letting.  It stems from Talmudic thought, introduced into the West by Jewish medicine whose long tradition carries an obsessional fear of corporal impurety.  Letting the humours flow justifies the preventive blood-lettings practised at the change of each season.

But the surgeon and the barber, to whom these sorts of “lowly tasks” are abandoned, obey terrifying prescriptions which multiply evacuating treatments:  purges, enemas, dry or scarified cupping, leeches, setons installed in the neck, cauterisations with red-hot irons, “fontanelle”, that is to say, a scarifying incision maintained open by the introduction of a bean or pea between the lips of the wound.  The doctors of the Court of Charles V of France fostered a fistula on his arm like this for years.  It was supposed to be draining unhealthy humours and “venoms”.  The King’s death in 1380 was attributed to the closing of this wound, and the resulting accumulation of corruptions.

Official medecine is therefore of little help.  The doctor is mocked because of his obvious incompetence, particularly during epidemics.  In case of plague, he is the first to apply the only known medication, called “of the three adverbs”:  “flee fast, go far, return late”.  He is also mocked for his pretention, his treatments and his prohibitive tariffs.  People of modest means never enlist his help.  He rarely settles outside the big university cities, anyway.  In the country, whether field worker or lord, you rely on your own experience or the healer, the surgeon, the barber, and the matron for births, whose qualities are sometimes equivalent to those with diplomas, if not better.

The man who treats others inherits his skill for sewing up wounds, setting bones, excising… , and his recipes, from someone older than himself who has taught him his secrets.  Most of the time, this is his father.  And because illness does not yet have its own clear status – divine punishment?  demoniacal intervention?  breakdown of humours? – official medicine and parallel medicine prescribe identical remedies.  There are a few subtle differences in ingredients, the commonest being reserved for the smaller revenues of the people, the most exotic, imported from faraway countries, for the rich elite.

In town, the patient has to go to the apothecary’s boutique – a profession which is gradually reglemented and whose accounts are already proverbial – to obtain his drugs.  In the country, the healer collects his own gifts of Nature.

Continued tomorrow.

In the Middle Ages, many babies die at birth, or in the days or weeks that follow, as a result of a traumatising delivery.  Many young children die from childhood diseases.  Roughly one child in two grows to be an adult.

Having escaped childhood, he is prematurely worn out by his work, or a victim of malnutrition, if not of famine.  Or he dies from the insalubrity of the marsh lands or the banks of the Mediterranean Sea, where he catches “the fevers”, malaria, which provoked hecatombs for centuries.  Unless his demise is caused by the lack of hygiene, or contagion.

The illnesses of the time are atrocious and invincible.  We still suffer from some of them.  Rabies kills (see previous post).  So do the plague, leprosy, tetanos, appendicitis, peritonitis, tuberculosis, cancers, smallpox, among hundreds of other maladies.  The art of healing in the Middle Ages includes bizarreries, apparent illogicisms, mixed with natural and surnatural therapies.

It is difficult for us to enter the mentality of the Middle Age man.  What we call “science”, or the “age of reason”, only dates from the XVIIIth Century.  The man of the Middle Ages lives in resonance with a totally religious universe, in which his every gesture is of sacred importance.  Whether he is an ecclesiastic or a layman, his time is divided by the sound of bells, or the big passages of existence.  Birth, marriage, death demand consecration and divine consent.

Based on this, the task of understanding what illness represented in the minds of the scholars or the profane, involves a rather vast field of exploration.  Mediaeval medicine is firstly impregnated with God.  But, at the same time, it is the heir to multiple customs and traditions, boiling with exotic or “barbarous” importations, often no longer understood by the people of the time.  Antique knowledge, indefinitely transmitted without question, and repeated attempts to theorise irrational beliefs, add to the mix.

In the Middle Ages, there is no distinction between “official” medicine, stemming from scientific reasoning, and parallel medicine, which evolves in a magical and superstitious sphere.  From the XIIth and XIIIth Centuries, there are recognized professional doctors, with university diplomas, who try to claim supremacy over those whom they call “charlatans”.  However, the frontiers between their domains of intervention remain permeable.

Illness is seen as a divine warning or a punishment.  This is a credo of the Church, unanimously shared by its submissive herd of sinners.  The Old Testament already has this oriental vision:  “Whosoever sins in the presence of the Creator, let him fall into the hands of the doctor.”  Therefore, whomever receives this sort of punishment is receiving a salutary warning from his Creator to do penance and prepare for a good death.  Another idea is that he is a victim because the strength of his faith in God is not enough to protect him.  So, he has to strengthen it and follow the example of Job, who recognized the hand of God behind all of his suffering.  If the punishment is collective, an epidemic for example, God is punishing the sins of the whole community.

The Church’s traditional teaching is that, although one must first think of saving one’s soul, it is indispensable to immediately afterward engage all possible and licite means to beat the illness.  Theoretically, this means that surnatural means are excluded.  However, this theory fluctuates somewhat.

The Church weighs mightily on medicine.  Firstly, because it has the monopoly on it until the XIIth Century in the Christian West.  In the name of Charity, it has always made an obligation of coming to the aid of the poor and the suffering.  “Medical” assistance is therefore the business of monks and convents throughout the whole of the early Middle Ages.

From the VIth Century, the institution weaves a web of hospices destined to shelter those then known as “travellers”, on the pilgrim paths and near sanctuaries.  These places more resembled hotels than hospitals.  They offered a secure place to spend the night, or to go to bed in the case of illness.  The help brought to the patient was more spiritual and humane, with confessions and comforting words, than therapeutic.

However, it is in the hortulus of the convents – the garden of simples – that the medicinal plants necessary for a minimal infirmary are grown.  The monks found the symptoms and their treatments in the manuals of Antiquity.    Their brothers in the scriptoria – workshops where manuscripts were made – recopied Pliny, Columella, Celsa or Theophraste from one generation to another.

In the VIth Century, the Benedictine Cassiodore recommends to the other monks:  “Learn the properties of the simples and of the composed remedies, but place all of your hopes in the Lord who gives eternal life”.  In 820, the Abbey of Saint-Gall, in Switzerland, disposes of six beds, a pharmacy and a botanical garden.  The sixteen “sacred simples”,  which are supposed to dispense certain virtues, are planted in it.  They are sage, rue, iris, pennyroyal, rocket, cumin, levistica, fennel, white lily, rose, haricot, sarriette, mint, rosemary, cock-mint balsam and fenugreek.

Other remedies are popular.  They are health liqueurs and other specialities whose recipes are concocted in the heart of the convents and of which the monks are very proud:  the medicinal wine of Saint-Riquier;  the liquorice of the Benedictines of Wurtzbourg;  the rhubarb of the Franciscans;  the angelica root of the Chartreux of Fribourg-en-Brisgau.

The unique and considerable merit of convent medicine is to have transmitted, thanks to its manuscripts and horticultural practices, the heritage of Antiquity.  These pharmaceutical talents will be gathered later by the apothecary associations and by village healers.  The manuscripts will serve as the basis of laic medicine which ecloses in the universities of Salerno, Montpellier, Paris and Bologna during the XIIth and XIIIth Centuries.

However, doctors will always keep their teaching within the bounds of the Church.  God is the first cause of illness.  No-one will deny either his existence or his power.

Continued tomorrow.

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