Belief as Action, Belief as Event

I recently tried out some new thoughts on what it means to ‘believe’ in witchcraft at the first of two online workshops on ‘The Decline of Magic?’

I argued that – when it comes to witchcraft – ‘statements about belief are not necessarily good evidence of belief. There are grounds to be sceptical even of what individuals say about their own beliefs, let alone what those of others.’ ”Belief’ in witches was not a coherent system of faith, but a patchwork of ideas often based on personal experiences, and often admittedly inconsistent, doubtful, or paradoxical.’

Instead of only considering what people say about their beliefs, I proposed that we should consider belief-in-action, and offered the examples of people who assaulted or killed suspected witches, who slandered them or tried to bring legal cases against them, or who paid to lift spells.

In a response to my paper Professor Sasha Handley asked a couple of questions: aside from legal cases, what other evidence might we take as good evidence of belief in action?

And – if belief is partial, paradoxical, inconsistent – then what kinds of situations are conducive to belief?

The following story from a fraud trial that took place in Mayenne and Maine-et-Loire in 1816 provides some answers to these questions, by extending my idea from belief-actions towards belief-events.

The case was brought against two brothers, both weavers, named Réné and François L., and a third man, initially known as ‘Lacroix’, who seemed to be the ringleader of the group. By the time the trial concluded, the court judged that enough evidence had been presented to prove that Lacroix was, in fact, a close friend of the two weavers, named René B (although the men’s attempts to deny this are quite entertaining in themselves). The men were accused of several separate frauds, but the two most important concerned a bewitchment and a hidden treasure.

Who ‘believed’ in the magic involved in these cases? Not the fraudsters themselves, it seems, given that both frauds involved conscious deceptions.

In the case of the hidden treasure, the two brothers told the victim to come out into his garden at night with them, and hold one end of a white thread. When he did this, he heard the ‘menacing’ voice of a ‘spirit’ who instructed him to sell his property if he wanted to uncover the gold hidden there. The spirit was very specific: he had to sell the land to René B. – the third, absent member of the gang. On reflection, the victim noted that the voice of this spirit did rather resemble René B.’s voice…

In fact, even at the time, he had said to the brothers: ‘Is that not the voice of René B.?’ But they had reassured him with the flat denial ‘No, no, that is the voice of a spirit!’ And the sale went ahead.

It was apparently later, on reflection, that their victim’s doubts grew stronger, and he eventually took his complaint to a notary, whose entangled with the other participants in the frauds (which I discuss below) prolonged the uncertainty around what had really happened.

The other fraud was similarly cynical.

The victim was a man suffering from a ‘nervous illness’. Again, it was the brothers who made the initial approach, telling the man that they knew a very talented healer. When René B. arrived to administer to the patient, he quickly concluded that the symptoms were the sign of witchcraft cast by four different men, and a woman.

René B. told the man to come to the L. brothers’ house – again at night. When the patient arrived, René B. was there with one of the brothers, and offered to cure him for a fee of 500 francs, a proposal that the nervous patient accepted. This was the moment at which René B. drew a bottle from his pocket, and poured a ‘liquid’ into a dish, which he then lit. A ritual was performed around the house, and the patient was shocked to hear shouts and cries from outside. He was given to understand this was the noise of the witches being punished for their spell.

As if this were not enough, on his way home that night – accompanied by one of the two brothers – he saw terrible sights, including a man having a fit by the road, and a rider who tried to push him from his path.

By the time he got home, he believed himself ‘possessed by demons’.

The first thing to note about how belief worked in the frauds perpetrated in this case is the importance of material culture.

Rather unusually for a trial this early in the 19th century, the investigation focused on the objects and paraphernalia of the frauds, largely because of the uncertainty over the identity of the ringleader. To try and prove that the man ‘Lacroix’ was none other than René B. himself, the police seized his clothes, and a range of objects which they presented to the witnesses. Could this be ‘Lacroix’s waistcoat, they asked them?

These objects also included the bottle of liquid – which turned out to be turpentine – as well as a series of small paper packets containing dried plants and sand.

Although this material culture was preserved – and described – as part of these legal proceedings, it is a reminder of the power of objects to stand in as evidence of belief in supernatural forces, such as witchcraft. When clients payed for such objects, or made them themselves, or hid them in buildings, or wore them on their person, they were taking actions that suggest a belief in the possibility of witchcraft, whatever they might (later) say about their attitudes to sorcery.

The second thing to emphasise from this story is that belief – and doubt – are events.

These frauds provide particularly striking evidence of how belief is a product of ongoing work and effort, a kind of social performance. This is close to the arguments that Thomas Waters has made in his recent book Cursed Britain, that belief is a conscious effort.

But I would emphasise how hard this effort is to maintain, how persistent doubts are even among the ‘dupes’ in the cases, and how the actors in the drama falter. In both cases, the fraudsters successfully took advantage of their victims by introducing an idea, and building on it until they were willing to pay for magical services. But in both cases, the victims remained dubious about what was really going on – didn’t that sound rather a lot like René B.’s voice?

The supposed victim of witchcraft’s doubts grew after the second time he was squeezed for money, and he refused to go along any further. The victim who had been promised a hidden treasure only had second thoughts after he had sold his property, but it would be fair to say that as events, their beliefs were not timeless: they expired.

Third, this work of creating belief-events required stage managing.

To reinforce the reality of the supernatural phenomena they described, the fraudsters became amateur dramatists. Not only did they play the roles of ‘concerned friend’, ‘healer’, ‘spirit’, and ‘witch’, they set the scene, creating a sensory situation in which witchcraft felt real.

They used dramatic displays, such as the burning paraffin, and they insisted on operating at night (sight). In both cases, they provided a series of props that reinforced the sense that something was really happening (touch). And in both cases they relied on sounds and voices offstage to authenticate their claims (sound).

In the case of bewitchment, they even made use of smell. One of the turning points in the witness statement by their victim included a reenactment by the authorities. Having shown him the bottle of paraffin, the judge had a shovel heated on the fire, and poured some of the liquid on, where it burst into flames.

The witness declared that it smelled exactly the same!

Fourth, and finally, if belief is an event, it depends on networks of other people. Not simply networks of believers – although the fraudsters did succeed in persuading their victims partly by strength of numbers, and by emphasising that they were ‘friends’ to the victims.

As an event that changes over time, belief also involves doubters, and the relations between them can be complex and contradictory. This was not a case of an outsider to the community duping a local. All three men were locals themselves, and more or less well-known. And one of their victims was actually the brothers’ uncle.

As a historian, I know about the case because it leaves a trace as a trial dossier in the archives in Laval.

But before it was ever a judicial investigation, it was first a dispute between neighbours and relations. When a local notary found out that the brothers had defrauded their own uncle – also a relative of his – he proposed to them that they restitute the money and he would not report them. They agreed, but never followed through. It was this failure to resolve the case informally that led to their prosecution, and imprisonment for a total of 14 years between the three men.

Belief is an unfolding event, during which a man such as the bewitched weaver or the treasure-hungry farmer might change their minds, based on – and recorded in – a series of material objects and specific situations. And it is an event that enlists diverse actors, who do not necessarily behave consistently.

And this is why the ringleader of the 1816 fraudster gang was able to sow so much doubt in the minds of his victims: even the identity of the actors in the drama remained uncertain to other participants.

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