Of Rabbits, Hats, and Holes

There is a compulsion that anyone who has ever done historical research has felt. A need to chase down the loose ends, to follow the documentary trail as far as it will go.

I like research snacking – using spare time or setting aside short periods to look at new materials every day, even when I’m on deadline for other things. But that compulsion can turn a snack into a banquet.

I was looking this week at a trial from 1872 in the Loire-Atlantique. Jean Mourizeau was prosecuted for fraud and illegal medical practice, and the dossier of his prosecution was preserved by the archives in the département and was being recatalogued when I visited in 2019. It’s one among hundreds I know of. I have close to 150 judicial dossiers of criminal cases like this. But there are a few things that make this one unusual.

Mourizeau’s prosecution is slightly longer than average: 140 pages to the average dossier length of 100. In most examples where dossiers are longer, this is because there was a technical legal question to be resolved, such as establishing criminal responsibility through medical expertise, or – in one case – a forensic accountant’s report on the profits an unwitcher made.

Mourizeau’s prosecution is not long because of any technical question, but for two other reasons. First, the complexity and multiplicity of witchcraft disputes that he had become involved in. In many cases, trials of unwitchers or vigilantes might uncover one or two bewitched individuals or families, and sometimes identify the suspected witch, too. Mourizeau named three different witches who had all bewitched different households.

The justices of the peace investigating the case took this very seriously, and this is the second reason it is so long.

Every single witness invoked by the investigators was honoured with their own double sheet to record their testimony, meaning that the details of their lives and relationships are preserved much more precisely than in many similar cases. A network of intimates and enemies glints through these documents.

There’s one more thing that makes this case a bit different. 1872 was the census year.

Like many departmental archives, the Loire-Atlantique now make almost all genealogical sources from the nineteenth century freely available online. Because Mourizeau was prosecuted in the very same year as the census, the people carefully recorded by the justice of the peace are all still living in the named hamlets and villages recorded in their depositions. The precision of information about their lives in this investigation is an entry into a rabbit hole of linked documents.

From the census, I can trace these individuals into birth, marriage and death records. I can see which of their neighbours and kin acted as witnesses at these important moments in their lives. I can cross-compare the census to the cadastre, which maps the individual houses and plots of land within their communities. I can locate them in space and in this dense web of relations and begin to sketch out how ‘witches’ were related to those who suspected bewitchment.

Image shows screen capture of this 1809 map with the river running from left to bottom right. The village plots are laid out and numbered above the river. The image includes the screen capture of the image navigator from the archive website.
The 1809 cadastre, showing Liv(e)au, a village where neighbours turned against neighbours over suspicions of witchcraft in 1872.

I could probably spend the best part of a year doing that.

And for what?

There are wonderful examples where historians have strapped on their gear and taken a full plunge down similar rabbit holes. Emma Rothschild’s recent An Infinite History follows the scraps of information in notarised documents and similar birth, marriage and death records to trace out the relations of Marie Aymard, an illiterate widow living in southern France in the eighteenth century. Famously, Alain Corbin used similar techniques to write a biography of a ‘nobody’, an illiterate nineteenth-century clog maker named Louis-François Pinagot.

But Corbin’s conclusions were not very optimistic: a thousand rabbit holes, and – I paraphrase – not many rabbits to show for it. I often invoke that book, with its absent heart, because Pinagot remains a shadow, despite all the work Corbin did to sketch out his community through brief, impersonal archive records.

I know this.

I know that the urge to keep pulling at strings, to spread the connections outwards in an ever-expanding web… has no endpoint. It is also – as the metaphors I’m drawn to remind me again and again – a profoundly spatial research, and not just in the literal sense of the maps I scan through online.

It is more visual than narrative. It is incredibly hard to write about these networks in ways that make all of this work to reconstitute them meaningful. X was Y’s cousin, but their children also married. They both accused B of bewitching them, but to understand that relationship you have to know that B had accused A…

Impossible to keep track of such dense webs in writing. Worse, the details melt away in the face of making any kind of sustained argument. I’ve tried: it’s the research foundation in my first book, where I did exactly this kind of rabbit hunting for singers and storytellers whose words were recorded by a folklorist in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.

And there are no big surprises. No rabbits to pull out of the historian’s hat.

It does not turn out that the ‘witch’ was actually someone history still remembers. This doesn’t turn into ‘the surprising scandal involving that famous statesman or artist’. (Well, not often: there was a case in the 1920s involving the Catalan painter André Fons Godail’s wife, and politicians were occasionally implicated in witchcraft scandals, although rarely were they truly central to a dispute).

The revelation or denunciation of a witch is normally more like a confirmation of longstanding suspicions. All of that work to trace their loves and rancours, jealousies and distrust, and I’m left thinking of the Larkin poem ‘This Be the Verse’ with its famous expletive for parents, which ends:

Man hands on misery to man.
It deepens like a coastal shelf.
Get out as early as you can,
And don’t have any kids yourself.


And yet.

The compulsion to down the rabbit holes is not just – I sometimes like to think – self-indulgence. (Liking to think, of course, is what indulging the self is.)

The warrens, after all, are not empty.

There are the other seekers, for a start, and especially the genealogists and family historians who have done so much to reconstruct these networks and worked with archives to make these sources more easily available. I have long simmering hopes of a project on ‘Our Magical Ancestors’ where I would work with local genealogy associations to co-research magicians and witches and communities.

And there are the real people themselves, with their tender, sad, and ambivalent stories of family and community gone wrong. I often think about the torrent of words from François Bouttier, who was convicted of assaulting Louise Poilvillain, veuve Moineau in 1846:

I said to her that it is very unfortunate for you that you are thought to be a witch, everyone fears you like a rabid dog. So I too could accuse you you are the reason we can’t make butter and we are all sick the less you come to my house the happier I will be

Interrogation, 20th October 1846, in AD Sarthe, 1 U 862.

I think the reason I return to his words so often is their confusion, the combination of pity, fear, anger, and resentment he felt towards a poor woman, whose reason for coming to his house was to beg milk for her child.

There’s no big reveal, but there is something more banal.

The sense of real people with confused feelings about neighbours, family, and friends. The realisation that while their languages and structures of thinking might sometimes seem very strange to us, they are also profoundly… not strange.



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