nonsense matters

Julie Langois, femme Vigneux told investigators in 1846 that she had called on the healing services of Jerôme Nicolas Lenfant to treat the ringworm her two children were suffering from.

Lenfant’s cure included putting boiled onions on the children’s heads, rubbing them with butter, and blowing in their ears. Although this method had nothing in common with the ingredients and methods in prescriptions that Lenfant made to other clients, it did share one feature: it didn’t work.

Faced with half a dozen similar disgruntled customers, Lenfant was prosecuted for fraud and illegal medical practice, and sent to prison for a year.

The investigation into Lenfant is recorded in a sixty page dossier in the Archives Départementales de la Seine-Maritime.

What can a historian do with the stuff of magic in these cases, the boiled onions and butter?

What do we make of ritual as simple as blowing in a child’s ear?

Picture shows the original witness deposition from the femme Vigneux, discussing the onions, soup, and butter.
Julie Lingois’s witness statement describing the treatment Lenfant prescribed.

Many anthropological accounts of magic have drawn on the idea of ‘sympathetic magic’ first popularised by James George Frazer. Frazer suggested magic normally worked in one of two ways: ‘first, that like produces like, or that an effect resembles its cause; and, second, that things which have once been in contact with each other continue to act on each other at a distance after the physical contact has been severed.’

In popular magical practices in nineteenth-century France, sympathies of this kind are everywhere. The two commonest ways to deal with witchcraft, for instance, both involve a kind of metaphorical action, defensive… and aggressive. For those who wanted to defend their household against harmful magic, a common solution was to physically close off buildings and farms. Sealing doors and windows shut for a set number of hours or even days was, as Jeanne Favret-Saada pointed out in her ethnography of Norman witchcraft, a way to repair the holes in the symbolic unity of the household.

Those who wanted to take a more confrontational approach were often advised to pierce a bull’s heart with needles or pins, and to boil it. If an explanation was needed, healers told their clients that the witch responsible for their misfortune would feel the needles in their own body, and suffer like the heart boiling on the hearth.

But what about the onions, the butter, and the blowing? How do I decode the meanings of these methods?

I might start by noting the obvious fact that Lenfant’s healing seemed to focus on food and drink. This was common to many similar cases, where healers used wine, bread, salt, cheese, cider, beer, vague soups or unspecified ‘cooking’ in their attempts to heal the bewitched.

If there is meaning to be decoded in this choice of methods it is perhaps basic, yet deep. Hunger stalked the lives of working families like the Vigneux (Julie’s husband was a weaver).

But it has to be said that these deep meanings are hardly very clear. Is the point that food was valuable, so wasting it was significant? Or that the onion and butter were somehow feeding the children symbolically?

It almost sounds like rather than treating the children with food, they were treated like food, basted with butter and garnished with an onion.

And what about the blowing?

I can easily imagine that this was meant to blow the malady away, or perhaps to signify to the family the breath of life.

Easy enough to imagine but Lenfant said none of this, and Julie Vigneux was not much in the mood to explain what she understood by it to the police, either.

Medical historians might reach for other sets of comparative tools to make sense of Lenfant’s prescriptions. Healing methods like this were often a tangled mess of recipes and ideas picked up from cheap print, including popular collections of herbal remedies and grimoires.

(I know Lenfant drew some of his ideas from books, as he lent a grimoire to Julie’s brother, Pierre Aimé Lingois. Lenfant told Pierre that Le Chateau de Belgarde had a secret in it that would allow him to work his horses just as hard, but without feeding them. Pierre, like his sister, was willing enough to give it a try, but soon soured of Lenfant’s methods and also testified against him when the police came knocking.)

More broadly, many historians have noticed that popular healing practices in the nineteenth century (and beyond) seem to implicitly draw on ideas from the Galenic tradition which attributed illness and health to the balance of the four elemental humours in the body. But clients like Julie Vigneux rarely talked in explicit terms about yellow or black bile, or phlegm, or even blood.

If Lenfant’s methods were humoral, his clients didn’t seem to know or care.

As with the symbolism of food, the overwhelming impression is that the methods of Lenfant’s cure were close to arbitrary, in the structuralist sense.

Onions, butter, and blowing in the ear could mean many things… or they could mean nothing.

Part of the appeal of magic is the absence of meaning, the non-sense.

Lenfant was a devin – a word that dictionaries usually translate as ‘soothsayer’, but which historians would probably call ‘cunning man’ (or woman), or ‘service magician’. I’ve been thinking about neologisms that get readers closer to the sense of what a devin did. Deviner – to guess: the guessers. Deviner – to solve a puzzle: the unpuzzlers.

Giving evidence against such unpuzzlers, former clients like Julie often emphasized that they knew how slippery and unreliable such guesswork was. In fact, they called on the cunning folk as one option among many to deal with illness or misfortune. They might see doctors, midwives, surgeons, priests, empirics, as well as the less-reputable healers like Lenfant.

What these different specialists offered was different. Doctors and surgeons came with an official stamp of medical authority. Priests could draw on the power of faith and an appeal to God’s mercy.

Men like Lenfant sometimes poached and borrowed both faith and medical expertise, but I am left wondering if their real appeal wasn’t precisely the bits that didn’t add up, where guesswork borders on nonsense.

I wouldn’t sneer at the appeal of nonsense in healing. For all of our attempts to understand and come to terms with our own bodies in sickness and health, embodiment is constituted by alienation and misunderstanding. It is hard to find meaning and sense in the hazards of biological misfortune.

Rather than pinning all their hopes on the cures of doctors or the prayers of priests, I don’t find it outrageous for people to be interested in playing along with the most basic fact of being alive and of suffering: it doesn’t add up.


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