The Enchanted Bicycle: Can Witchcraft be ‘Modern’?

Carnival Prints in Alsace
Carnival prints from nineteenth-century France. The one on the right shows a ‘witch’ costume.

I’ve been disappointed not to have much time recently to post here (see previous post: although I have now finished the article, submitted several job applications, and marked a load of entrance exams. Finally, last night I gave a paper on a pet project that I’ve wanted to talk about for a while: a murder trial from France in the 1920s where the victim was killed for being a witch.

I didn’t have as much time as I’d have liked to prepare the material, but I had a friendly audience, and came away with lots of ideas for what I’d like to do with it. Many of these suggestions involve doing a lot more work on the contexts of the case, so I had some good questions on who the judge and jury were, what the role of religion and some very important political changes during the period might have been, and generally how it fitted into local society (thanks @CarrolALISON and @smidbob and @HarryStopes and others). I hope to have time in the future to look at all these things, but it won’t be for a while.

There was one question from the historian chairing the paper, Dr. Rob Priest (@archivebeaver), however that was relevant to what I was trying to argue in the paper. Rob referred to the work of David Blackbourn on nineteenth-century Catholicism concerning the idea that the Catholic Church took on the forms of ‘modernity’ without assimilating the content (if I remember correctly). He asked if my witchcraft case wasn’t the same thing.

In the paper, I pointed out that the murderer and his allies, just like the friends and family of the murder victim, drew on traditional and informal authorities such as family, unwitching specialists, priests, monks, and the court of village opinion and reputation. Yet, along with these ‘traditional’ authorities, I argued that both sides also made calculated appeals to modern powers, invoking judges, policemen, doctors, mayors, lawyers, and science in the same breath as they talked of witchcraft.

After the murderer himself wisely decided to deny that he believed in witches, his wife, for instance, told the trial ‘I still believe in witches, no matter what my husband and his [lawyer and confessor] might say… As for our village priest: he also believes in witches. He never said it to me, and I never asked, but he said so to people who told me afterwards… I also forgot to mention that I spoke to Dr. M in the village of E who told me the only cure for witchcraft was to have mass said. So I still believe in witches.’ In the throes of their haunting, the murderer and his family invoked doctors, pharmacists, priests, local functionaries, and policemen as often as they had recourse to unwitching specialists or public insults.

In a rather cunning move, the murderer’s lawyer successfully employed a similar mingling of traditional and modern, arguing that the murderer may well have been under the influence of hypnotic suggestion, and who knows what other forces might have been at work? Had not a member of the Institute recently argued that ectoplasm might be real?

To return to Rob’s question about modernity, for me, these appeals to different scientific, judicial, and supernatural authorities are a sign that the farmers and day-labourers involved in this case, just like the cunning lawyer, were capable of using the ‘forms’ of ‘modernity’ in order to explain what they experienced, and in order to get what they wanted.

What, then, about the ‘content’?

The arguments of the case, just like the supernatural beliefs themselves, centered around what I called a ‘menagerie of recalcitrant objects’. In terms of proving the guilt of the murderer, this was a question of shotguns and cartridges, pitchforks and cudgels, as well as electric lights and automobiles. Where did the murder weapon come from? Did the murderer know how to load and fire it? Did he fire twice, did he tamper with the weapon afterwards? Did his adversaries throw a pitchfork before or after he fired the fatal shock? Who was armed with a cudgel, and who could see whom in the darkness of that April night? Whose car did the victim and his friend ride in that fateful night?

And these recalcitrant things, whether traditional (cudgels, pitchforks) or ‘modern’ (electric lighting, cars) were also the stuff of sorcery.

In the run up to the murder, one of the young men involved in the case declared in front of several witnesses in the village square that his bicycle was enchanted, since the wheels would not turn any more. The murderer’s own family described a series of bizarre and frightening night visits in their own home using technological metaphors, such as shadowy figures on the wall ‘like portrait photographs cut off at the chest’, or sounds ‘like an aeroplane engine’. The murderer himself said the apparition sounded more like a train.

This mixing of the traditional and supernatural, with the ‘modern’, legal, technological and scientific infuriated the judge, who thundered at one point: ‘The witness stand is not the place for preaching about witchcraft!’

The judge, I would argue, could not see that in a sense both the legal system and witchcraft system were arguing about the same details – details of proximity, bodily assaults, things, and perceptions – but interpreting them in subtly different ways. For instance, both the trial and the villagers themselves made a great deal of the electric lighting that illuminated the various scenes of hauntings and assaults. For the judge, this lighting was incontrovertible proof that the murderer must have been able to see his victim when he shot him, and therefore killed him in cold blood. But for the murderer and his family, electric lights were unable to illuminate the shadows in their bedroom.

As Dr. Courtney Campbell (@CJCampbell123) put it to me in the questions, these witchcraft stories sound strikingly empirical, factual, even (I might add) scientific, as if the people expressing a belief in hauntings, werewolves, and other kinds of magic have incorporated ‘modern’ ways of talking about it.

In the end, the murderer was sentenced to just two years, and a fine that would hardly have dented his personal wealth. The judgment reflected the way that as late as the 1920s, French citizens not only believed in witchcraft, but used it in modern ways, even talking of the limits of agency in cases of sorcery in a language of technology: the murderer said not that he acted that night under the influence of supernatural powers, but that he behaved ‘robotically’ (machinalement).

And for me, this suggests ordinary people taking on both some of the ‘forms’ and some of the ‘content’ of modernity, not simply in how they spoke, but how they used and interpreted their bodies.

4 thoughts on “The Enchanted Bicycle: Can Witchcraft be ‘Modern’?

  1. Wonder if that mix of logics was common to most crimes involving witchcraft or magic in the more scientifically literate societies of the time. Maybe the 1895 Bridget Cleary witch burning case, or the two cases British historian Owen Davies mentions in “Grimoires” (p. 206-10) of Pennsylvanians using magic books to guide them to murder (in 1916 and 1928) would show similar features.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Yes, it’s an interesting question. My impression from EDIT [Angela] Bourke* and Owen Davies’ books is that they dont think this is central, but reading through the evidence they provide a similar argument would be possible.

      *I don’t know why I consistently get Angela and Joanna Bourke mixed up! It’s hard to imagine two more different historians…

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Thanks again for a great paper Will — and a great follow-up post. I just wanted to use this opportunity to gloss my own question to you, for the sake of clarity. I tracked down the quotation I had in mind. It’s from David Blackbourn’s History of Germany: The Long Nineteenth Century (2002):
    ‘Anticlericals were wrong when they referred with distaste to “traditional” fanaticism and clerical tutelage. Much of what they disliked was the product of a religious revival that began in the 1840s. … The “machinery” of the church (Max Weber) showed how Catholicism adapted the forms, if not the content, of the age of progress. In the railway era, the new model pilgrimages to Kevelaer or Aachen were more disciplined than their often ragged predecessors: they were expected to run to timetable. And the church learnt from the great exhibitions of the period how to use electric lighting effectively in displaying bones and other holy objects.’

    I think it may actually have popped into my head through the association with electric lighting, which for me always evokes memories of watching crowds of tourists pump Euros into the relic-lights in Strasbourg Cathedral (these concerns haven’t gone away!). Since we’re on the subject, it’s worth adding that lighting was a more general concern of nineteenth-century Catholics: Gregory XVI strongly opposed the introduction of gas street-lights in the papal territories. When Pius IX introduced them it was seen as a symbol of his forward-looking liberalism. Of course that didn’t last very long; the moral of the story might be: never invest too much hope in enlightenment.

    What I like about Blackbourn’s quotation is that it boils down into the language of a student-level narrative some of the complexities that are at the core of the much broader historiography Blackbourn’s Marpingen was a part of (and I’m sure his own views are more nuanced than this represents). Obviously he is setting up a somewhat crude distinction, but it has the virtue of clarity and forces us to think: what precisely do we mean when we say that religion or traditional culture or superstition or whatever are counter-intuitively immersed in modern things or addressed to modern concerns? And you can do the same thing with religion or superstition in the other direction — what do we what precisely do we mean when we say that modern things (the Enlightenment, history, democracy…) are counter-intuitively immersed in religion or traditional culture or superstition or whatever? I think you did a really nice job of drawing out some of these issues in your paper, and again here.


    1. Great comment, Rob, and it also reminds me of other things you said on the day which I need to think about, especially the overlap with this well-established historiography of the religious revival. That comment from the Pope is particularly amazing. I find I’m always drawn to the most concrete, material, or bodily implications of things historians think of as perhaps quite abstract, and that kind of approach works so well with these witchcraft cases.


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