I don’t need to tell you what today is. Halloween has become more commercialised in recent years in France and traditions such as trick-or-treating have taken root. I hope we live far enough off the beaten track not to encounter costumed children demanding friandises (sweets) tonight.
The idea of playing tricks on people on 31st October is not new. In Brittany in times past, children would hollow out beetroots, cut holes in them to make a skull-like or ghoulish face and place a candle inside. They then hid these grisly lanterns by lonely paths to frighten travellers. Or they placed them on their heads and paraded about after dark in a ghostly procession.
Many places in France are associated with celebrated ghost stories, and every château worth its salt has a resident spectre. When neighbours got together on winter evenings (les veillées) to carry out mundane tasks such as shelling walnuts, they told each other stories and folk tales. A lot of them concerned supernatural happenings.
In my search for ghostly stories in this region, I came across one linked to the château de Belcastel. Born into a noble but impoverished family, a young man left for the crusades in 1189, leaving his beautiful wife in his parents’ care. He had no scruples about massacring infidels, convinced that it was a just cause.
He was badly injured in an ambush and left for dead, but was nursed by an old Moslem woman. She told him he now had a son and said that her god and his deplored war and cruelty. Men used religion as an excuse for political and monetary gain. Despite her care, the young man’s wounds festered and he knew he would never see Belcastel again.
One day, infidel soldiers brought in the body of the woman’s son, who had been killed by Christian soldiers. In her grief, she put a curse on her patient. His bones would lie in her country forever, while his soul would be condemned to wander his Aveyron valley at night for as long as Christians and Moslems had not made peace.
Far from being a scary ghost, this unfortunate phantom tries not to frighten lone wayfarers, but foxes and bats flee at his approach.
Witchcraft in France is a big subject, but let’s dip a toe in the water as it’s Halloween.
The first witch trial took place in Toulouse in 1275, when a certain Alice was condemned. A papal bull issued by Innocent VIII in 1484 ordered that witches and black cats (their familiars) must be eliminated. Thousands of cats were burned in France well into the 17th century until the practice was condemned – but no doubt it continued after that.
In 1486, two German inquisitors published a manual that helpfully set out how to identify witches, e.g. from certain bodily marks, and then to burn them with due process. Surprisingly, witch trials in France were usually heard in secular courts.
By the reign of Louis XIV, the witch-finding frenzy was losing momentum. A royal edict of 1682 effectively dissociated witchcraft from demonism and prescribed more lenient penalties for some offences. The last female witch to be officially executed in France was put to death in 1689. A male sorcerer was officially executed for the last time in 1750. However, the government continued to prosecute people for illegal medical practice (e.g. laying on of hands or dispensing home-made potions) until well into the 20th century.
And local people continued to take matters into their own hands. There’s some debate about this, but the last recorded time a witch was burned at the stake in France was in July 1826 at Bournel in Lot-et-Garonne. Little remains of her story, but the local peasants seem to have been responsible. Was she blamed for a poor harvest? Was she a scapegoat for a series of local mishaps? Superstition and the idea of malevolent influences persisted – and not just in remote rural areas.
Belief in ghosts, witchcraft and the supernatural are interwoven into the social fabric of France. Beneath the fun and jollity of Halloween celebrations today lies a long cultural history.
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