Reading digitised newspapers last week I found a fraud case from 1884, when a man from Pouance was convicted of extorting money from rural men and women for magical cures.
It’s not an unusual case: there were hundreds of similar ones reported in the national press, and there must have been many more that went unnoticed.
What is unusual about it is what the defendant told the judge when asked to justify his behaviour:
It’s not my fault the peasants are so stupid and so easily tricked.
This answer is nothing if not resolute, but it is also rather surprising.
It can’t have done the fraudster any favours with the judge. What was he hoping to achieve? A feeling of solidarity from a judicial system exasperated with popular ‘superstition’? Or was he just angry and frustrated, both at being caught, and with his gullible or untrustworthy clientele?
This is the only time – so far – in my trawl of criminal trials in France involving witchcraft between 1791 and 1940 that I have encountered a fraudster brazenly admitting their crime. This exceptional status is important. Was it because many magical healers believed in their cures as much as their clients did? Or because they thought it safer to pretend so in front of the court?
When people ask about my current research, they often assume that many of the people I will come across being prosecuted for fraud or illegal medical practice will be brazen fraudsters of this kind. I am fond of telling people that this isn’t the case, but now I’ve found at least one.
How I found it is an interesting story. I found it first thing in the morning, during the one hour slot I have taken to using to do my own research before I begin the rest of my day’s work of preparing teaching, marking work, reading for teaching, copy-editing, writing reports, applying for funding, booking travel, and all of the tedious little jobs that come with being an adult with actual responsibilities.
So my resolution for 2016 is this simple thing: do some research every morning.
Now, I don’t hold much with resolutions. When I look around me at my colleagues, I am struck by how much resolve it takes to do a good job in a British university in 2015. We don’t need resolutions, we need resources.
But I thin this resolution for 2016 isn’t such a bad one: do more history.
Stories like the one about the man from Pouance are the reason I got into this game in the first place, and when I’m not doing work on them, I’m not enjoying the position I have been incredibly fortunate – and privileged – to earn.
Happy New Year, and may you have the opportunity to do as much history as your heart desires!
 Rather than thinking of the university system as a ‘market’ (maximize competition, regulate and manage from above), which has been the stated aim of several successive governments, it would be great if more people saw it as an industry (invest, facilitate, encourage cooperation).
 See La Lanterne, 10.12.1884.
 Not because I want to reflect on doing digital research, although I increasingly think this is a problem I need to address.