It’s a busy time of year in the universities. As I near the end of an intense period of marking and related work, I’ve been saving myself a treat: more work on French witchcraft, 1791-1939.
Well, ‘French’ in its broadest sense.
Like many historians over the past few years, I’ve been forced to engage with the inadequacy of the nation state as historical category. As popular culture, as intellectual preoccupation, as social upheaval, and as a widespread practice, witchcraft does not respect political boundaries, nor cultural and linguistic ones.
One thing I quickly realised from French newspaper reports was that domestic cases involving witchcraft were mixed in with, and reported alongside cases from other European countries, and cases from European colonies.
These cases are my dangerous territory.
Take the events of Cholon in what was then known as Saigon, in French Indochina in 1914. According to French daily Le Temps, the population were stirred into revolt by local ‘witches’, who promised, among other things, that the magic beans they provided would grow into soldiers, and that any men wearing special amulets would be endowed with powers such as invisibility, or invincibility.
Great story, but does it belong in my research?
The part of me that says it does points to the connections between a case like this and domestic witchcraft cases in France: the fact that the same criminal justice system (at least in theory) judges these cases, that the same concerns about lack of education are raised to explain witchcraft, that similar ideas (such as amulets) are discussed, and that these ideas could, and did, have reciprocal influences with other witchcrafts in France and the French colonies. It became a staple of newspaper advertisements for supernatural specialists to claim authority related to their ‘Hindu’, ‘Native American’, or ‘Egyptian’ backgrounds (although I have not yet noticed any magicians claiming to be from French Indochina).
The part of me that thinks this is dangerous territory is worried about several things.
Is this actually ‘witchcraft’? The French newspapers made cavalier use of this term to refer to practices and beliefs as diverse as fortune-telling, healing, and treasure-hunting, which historians might not feel comfortable simply lumping in as ‘witchcraft’. In fact, in one particularly depressing case, the first black deputy to the National Assembly since 1793, the Guadeloupian socialist Hégésippe Légitimus (1868-1944) was repeatedly accused of being a ‘witch’ by hostile (rightwing) newspapers in France.
But ‘witchcraft’ is actually quite a specific form of supernatural belief, which Ronald Hutton, for instance, has defined in a reasoned way as 1. a ‘person who uses non-physical means to cause misfortune or injury to other humans’ who are 2. ‘neighbours or kin rather than strangers’ and that 3. this behaviour ‘earns general social disapproval’ and is 4. not considered ‘an isolated or unique event’ but 5. witches and witchcraft can nonetheless ‘be resisted by their fellow humans’.
This definition – from what little the story in Le Temps suggests – clearly does not fit the ‘witches’ of the Cholon case, who sound more like charismatic religious leaders. (Nor of course does it fit Légitimus).
And the problems don’t stop there.
French newspaper reports on domestic witchcraft are unreliable enough: as my research into trial records from one specific case has shown me, there is a (perhaps unsurprising) tendency to embellish and distort the events and beliefs of witchcraft crises, even when those events are close to home. With the colonial cases, the temptation becomes overwhelming, as journalists and colonial administrators face cultures from which they feel even more estranged. To call these beliefs ‘witchcraft’ is a shortcut that avoids exploring what they meant to the Cholon rebels.
Did their leaders really promise magic beans, a story which sounds a bit too fairy-tale to me? And how important were these supernatural beliefs to why these people acted?
Beyond French, I have none of the language skills to do research in Vietnam, and I am fundamentally not a historian of French Indochina.
And yet I can’t resist going there. For the moment, the journey is figurative, but if anyone else knows anything else about these ‘witch’ rebels, I’d be fascinated to hear more.
 Ronald Hutton, ‘Anthropological and Historical Approaches to Witchcraft: Potential for a New Collaboration?’, The Historical Journal, 47:2, 2004, pp.421-3.
 I have, for instance, a sneaking suspicion that the 1914 article could refer to the same events as a series of articles in 1908.