Category Archives: Salon

ODD TRUTHS: BONA LONGOBARDA, COMMANDRESS OF IMPERIAL VENICE

  “As an expert in military discipline…This valorous woman, with sword in hand, commanded troops of soldiers like a captain…”

 -from Gynevera de le clare donne by Giovanni Sabadino degli Arienti, eds. C. Ricci and A. Bacchi della Lega (1888).

“From her earliest years she hunted wild beasts in the woods, and almost like another Diana, she led many companions along the way, coursing through the countryside…”

-from Della officina historica libri quattro: nella quale si spiegano essempi antichi e moderni by Giovanni Felice Astolfi (1622).

The conquest of Constantinople in 1453 by Mehmed II sent shockwaves across Western Europe. While Christendom struggled to come to terms with the Ottoman victory, scores of Byzantine intellectuals scrambled and fled south to the courts of Italian elites, such as the Medici. Meanwhile, forces loyal to the Church expected the Venetians (then the custodians of one of the oldest regimes on the Italian peninsula) to defend their interests in the Aegean and check the expansion of the Ottoman navy. For commercial reasons, the Ottomans and Venetians managed to enjoy a short-lived peace. However, war eventually broke out in the 1460s.

Venice in the fifteenth century. Image via Internet Archive.

During this period, The Venetian Republic commissioned a married couple to defend Negropont (modern-day Chalkis) a Greek city of considerable strategic importance. One of these officers was Captain Pier-Brunero Sanvitale, a seasoned soldier and scion of the Sanvitali, a noble family from Parma. The other was a battle-hardened woman named Bona Longobarda (or Bona de Vultulina). Each was a decorated warlord, but Bona, unlike her highborn husband, had none of the advantages of a formal education.

Excerpt from De memorabilibus et claris mulieribus (1521). Edited by Johannes Ravisius.

Bona Longobarda. Image via Internet Archive.

Born in Valtellina (then part of the Duchy of Milan) to a peasant family, Bona was entirely self-made, an autodidact when it came to the art of war. Like Joan of Arc and countless other commandresses, she became something of a living legend in her own lifetime, and her accomplishments did not go unnoticed. Thus, when Venetian senators charged her with the protection of one of the republic’s most important maritime cities, they were making a decision based on Bona’s undisputed track record of military prowess. At the time, she had all the necessary skills down pat: castle-sieging experience, horsemanship, diplomacy, and hand-to-hand armoured combat. These she had acquired after spending a number of years in the company of condottieri, the for-hire martial enforcers or men-at-arms employed by Italian lordlings and despots.

Image of Bona from De Claris Mulieribus (1497) by Jacobus Philippus Bergomensis. Image via Internet Archive.

Excerpt from Gynevera de le clare donne by Giovanni Sabadino degli Arienti (written circa 1490; first published in 1888).

Bona was first discovered by her future husband Pier-Brunero while he was stationed near her home in Morbegno in the 1430s. According to Jacobus Bergomensis and Giovanni Sabadino degli Arienti, Bona originally worked as a herdswoman who routinely walked around the woods and countryside with her mules and hunting dogs. At some point during Brunero’s tour of duty, so the story goes, Brunero and Bona struck up a relationship of some kind and became paramours. Brunero, attracted to Bona’s masculinity, vivacity, and confidence, took her under his wing and she, disguised as a soldier, accompanied him on his other military campaigns for Francesco Sforza.

Excerpt from the Dictionnaire Royal, françois et anglois by Abel Boyer (1702).

Brunero’s peers were rapscallions and freebooters, true adventurers in the original sense of the word (i.e. men who hazard all in the pursuit of some risky enterprise). From these armed picaroons who possessed both the guile of Mercury and the bellicosity of Mars, Bona learned the business and politics of conflict in the Italian city-states. Mercenary artifice differed greatly from the stratagems openly espoused by imperial rulers. Bribery, intimidation, sabotage; these were the kind of strong-arm tactics that Bona likely picked up from her fellow soldiers and employed in battle.

Francesco Sforza and his wife, Signora Bianca Visconti. Image via Internet Archive.

Bona put her skills of persuasion to use in 1443, when Alfonso I, King of Naples jailed her partner in Valencia for intrigue. In actuality, Brunero’s former employer Francesco Sforza had orchestrated Brunero’s imprisonment by sending letters that questioned his allegiances. Bona spent the following years soliciting letters from European potentates to persuade Alfonso to secure Brunero’s release. Finally, in 1453, Alfonso pardoned his prisoner and Bona arrived in Valencia to meet him. In his Commentaria rerum gestarum a Jacobo Picinino, Porcellio de’ Pandoni, one of Alfonso’s court humanists praised her as an “incredible woman” who had “traversed the ocean many times to secure her lover’s freedom”. Like some kind of earthbound Diana, Bona appeared in full Amazonian dress, equipped with a helmet, bow, arrows, and calf-length boots.

Title page of Commentaria Rerum gestarum 1452-53, by Porcellio de’ Pandoni (edited by Ludovico Antonio Muratori in 1751).

Excerpt from Commentaria Rerum gestarum.

After the prison reunion, Brunero and Bona made their relationship official by getting married, and Bona helped her husband to gain a lucrative contract (20,000 ducats to be exact) with the Venetian Republic. Under the command of their new patron, Brunero and Bona laid siege to a Sforza fortress in Brescia. Bona swiftly became the rallying spirit of the Venetian troops and attacked the walls with matchless bravura. Apparently her ferocity and courage impressed the Venetian doge Pasquale Malipiero, who then sent Bona and her husband east to fight the Turks.

At Negropont, Bona and Brunoro fought in what would be the most important conflict of their shared military career. Tragically but not unexpectedly (as both warriors were over the age of fifty) Brunero was slain in battle and Bona fell victim to disease. She died in Modon (modern-day Methoni) in 1468 while en route to see her children in Venice. Negropont was eventually captured by the Ottomans in 1470. The defeat signalled the beginning of Venice’s waning influence as the dominant sea power in the Greek isles.

Map of Greece with Negropont highlighted. Image via Internet Archive.

Like all folk heroes, Bona’s demise failed to tarnish her larger-than-life reputation. Renaissance moralists gushed about her virtues and ethics, and historians—hundreds of years after her death—continued to extol her exceptional valour and intrepidity. But her life was not the typical rags-to-riches moral tale. Given the nature of her profession as a woman-at-arms , Bona encountered adversity at every turn. She excelled because she was an adventurer at heart, one who could dominate fortune and adapt to the rolling tides of fate. Uprooted from the peasantry, Bona ascended to the world of geopolitics and became one of the many military leaders chosen to engage the seemingly indomitable Ottoman navy. In every way she exemplified the old Latin adage: “Fortune favours the bold.”

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ODD TRUTHS: DOCTOR TORRALVA, THE ARCH-MAGICIAN OF CASTILE

 “Remember the true story of the licentiate Torralva, whom the devils carried through the air, riding on a cane…”

 -from The life and exploits of the ingenious gentleman Don Quixote de la Mancha, vol. II, by Miguel de Cervantes, translated by Charles Jarvis (1749).

According to tradition, the first person on the Iberian Peninsula to make a name for himself in the dark arts was none other than Hercules, the barrel-chested son of Jupiter. Apparently medieval fabulists thought that the demigod was unsatisfied with one-upping Atlas and erecting pillars at Gibraltar—not to mention ridding the earth of monsters. They therefore added an extra “oomph” to his curriculum vitae and he became a first-rate professor of magic. In retrospect, the move was probably an attempt to reimagine the hero as an intellectual or scholarly icon. Indeed, Hercules is described in one Renaissance epic as “the wisest Clerk in the world”.

View of Toledo. Image via Internet Archive.

The academy of Hercules, which was said to run out of a cave or grotto near Salamanca or Toledo, also functioned as a magical laboratory. There, amid an array of miraculous class supplies, such as gilded automata, Hercules delivered lectures on the occult sciences:

Excerpt from the English translation of Raoul Lefèvre ‘s renaissance epic, The Destruction of Troy (1708).

  In the Renaissance, this cavern of wizardry (sometimes described as a “fatal palace”) developed its own folklore and became, in essence, the sum of all fantasies about magical education. Its arcana were hermetically sealed off to bar the uninitiated from entering. Few could penetrate its recesses. Those who ventured too far into its depths either lost an empire, such as the Visigothic monarch Roderick who ceded the kingdom of Hispania to the Umayyad Caliphate; or fell victim to mysterious diseases, like the company of Cardinal Juan Siliceo. 

Illustration of Toledo. Image via Internet Archive.

Legend has it that this unfortunate party of adventurers descended into a vault in Toledo in 1546 and discovered bronze statues and an altar. The explorers cautiously delved deeper into the cave but eventually turned around and fled in fear. Pedro Salazar, the recorder of the tale notes that immediately following the expedition, many of the men became ill and died. Whether these effects were the result of devious elementals or natural causes like hypothermia or dehydration is a question perhaps best left to the imagination. Regardless, “Cave of Hercules” legends like this, many of which originated in the early Middle Ages, fuelled Spain’s magical reputation. Spanish magic schools gradually became elite institutions who counted alleged magicians like Michael Scot, Pope Sylvester II, and Virgil among their most revered alumni.

Excerpt from the English translation of Eusèbe Salverte’s The Occult Sciences (1846).

Yet, in the sixteenth century, a new adept appeared in Castile—a curious doctor who kept a familiar spirit. As opposed to Hercules and the other mythical or semi-mythical magi of Spanish extraction, this man’s existence is attested by court documents. He was Eugenio Torralva (or Torralba) and he was destined to become one of Castile’s most memorable personages.

A View of Cuenca. Image via Internet Archive. 

Doctor Torralva was a physician and licentiate from Cuenca. Juan Antonio Llorente, in his History of the Inquisition of Spain, says that Torralva initially served as a page to the bishop of Volterra, Francesco Soderini. In Rome, Torralva struck up a friendship with a Jewish converso and amateur philosopher named Alfonso. Under Alfonso’s tutelage, Torralva became a Pyrrhonist or a sceptic. Everything changed after Torralva received a fateful proposition from his friend Pietro, a Dominican friar. Pietro offered to transfer his familiar spirit Zequiel to Torralva gratis. Torralva accepted—and did not regret it.

Doctor Torralva communicating with spirits. Image via Internet Archive.

Zequiel (who, interestingly enough, bore the same name as the prophet in the Bible most known for his surrealistic visions) was quite literally a “free spirit”. He heeded no contracts, loved only friendship, hated charging money for miracles, and praised the Christian religion. He also regularly appeared as a dashing gentleman and wore a red suit and black overcoat. Although he forbade Torralva from earning money through magic, the daemon was not in the least against helping his human friend advance his career. He had two ways of doing this: political forecasting and social broadcasting.

Excerpt from the English translation of Juan Antonio Llorente’s History of the Inquisition of Spain (1826).

A natural intelligencer, Zequiel acquired information about far-off political events and encouraged Torralva to relate the information to the right people. He also assisted Torralva in his dealings with ghosts and haunted houses. Torralva and Zequiel made sure to spread the news of their capabilities and, over time, their strategy dramatically increased Torralva’s reputation and gained him patronage from friends in high places, such as the Infanta Eleanora of Portugal, the Admiral of Castile, and various members of the episcopate. Despite his controversial powers, Torralva did not come onto the radar of inquisitors until 1528. Like other adepts, Torralva was also said to have the power of transvection, or supernatural flight, and it was this ability and the diplomatic consequences associated with it that probably led to his downfall.

Illustration of the Colosseum in Rome. Image via Internet Archive.

Llorente records that in 1525, Torralva foresaw the Sack of Rome during a nocturnal time-travel flight (Torralva witnessed the sack in 1525 even though the historical event occurred in 1527). He accomplished the transcontinental flight to Rome with the aid of a “knotted stick” or “cane” given to him by Zequiel. This was probably the nail in the coffin for the self-made prophet, and Torralva soon found himself in the hands of befuddled inquisitors. Considering the horrid treatment of witches elsewhere in Europe at the time, Torralva’s four-year imprisonment was comparatively mild. In the end, prosecutors failed to prove that Zequiel was a corrupting influence. Torralva’s captors effectively let him go with just a slap on the wrist in 1531.

Was this a win for the reputation of magic in Spain? Not exactly. Torralva was most likely shielded from severe punishment by his powerful friends, some of whom were Castilian policymakers. Still, this illustrious heir to the tradition of Herculean magic in Spain should not be forgotten. His creative partnership with a benevolent and liberal-minded spirit was, in its own way, a restructuring of the typical sorcerer-familiar spirit dichotomy. Like Hercules, the pagan god who gained renown as a magic teacher in Western Christendom; Zequiel who fundamentally resembles a Socratic daemon, was implanted seamlessly into a predominately Christian culture. As Spain was then the centre of Muslim, Christian, and Jewish learning, this marrying of ideas could not have happened at a better place.

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ODD TRUTHS: THE SECRET ARTS OF EARLY MODERN TREASURE-HUNTERS

“It is well known that until the nineteenth century, treasure seeking was steeped in magic.”

-Professor Johannes Dillinger

“A very deep meaning lies in that notion, that a man in search of buried treasure must work in utter silence ; must speak not a word, whatever appearance, either terrific or delightful, may present itself.”

from Characteristics of Goethe, vol. II, by Sarah Austin (1833)

The treasure-hunters of early modern Europe were a wild bunch of interloping rogues, antiquaries (crudely speaking), and scholars. They probably had more in common with adventurers in pulp fiction serials than with modern-day archaeologists. Some had criminal backgrounds and honed their skills as grave-robbers and fraudsters. Others were essentially middle class “everyman-types”, burghers such as notaries and merchants who saw prospecting as a profitable hobby. One thing brought these thrill-seekers together, whatever their vocation: the desire for fortune and glory.

The Discoverers of Antiquities (detail) by Hubert Robert. © Musée de Valence, Art et Archéologie.

Illustrations for Walter Scott’s novel, The Antiquary. Images via Wikimedia Commons.

Excerpt on divining rods from Isaac D’israeli’s Amenities of Literature, vol. II (1842).

Equipped with trowels, dowsing or “Mosaical” rods, and (sometimes) a treasure-hunting licence, they plundered necropolises, abbeys, and caves hoping to find some rare artefact. To keep evil spirits at bay, the excavators usually had certain spells on hand that could be recited on the fly. These, and other secret arts and rituals were solemnly performed on an ad hoc basis. The spirits were not easily appeased, and this reality, in addition to the dangerous working conditions (loose stones, decrepit ceilings, etc.) meant that every precaution needed to be taken to avoid casualties.

Description of the scholastici vagantes in Viktor Rydberg’s The Magic of the Middle Ages (1879).

  While it is tempting to assume that treasure-hunters only wanted a chest of coins or gems, this was not always the case. Indeed, some prospectors, such as the infamous scholastici vagantes (wandering scholars)  were said to hunt for magical objects. For example, one popular legend from the Middle Ages features a “learned Englishman” who obtains permission from Roger II of Sicily to dig on Virgil’s gravesiteHe ultimately recovers Virgil’s magic book on the ars notoria and spirits it away, angering local Neapolitans in the process:

Excerpt from the essay Virgil in the Middle Ages, which appeared in volume 139 of The London Quarterly Review (1875).

  Another fascinating thing about the treasure-hunters was that sometimes women took part in their expeditions. One such woman was Mary Middlemore (or Midlemore) a maid of honour to Queen Anne, the royal consort of King James I of England. In a special patent granted in 1617, King James himself gives Mary exclusive licence to hunt for treasure troves in various abbeys and monasteries within “the Realme of England”. Unfortunately however, Mary died before she could start her quest.

Excerpt from Foedera, Conventiones et Cujuscunque generis Acta Publica, edited by Thomas Rymer and Robert Sanderson, vol. VII (1727).

English history is full of stories about these kinds of sponsored excursions and misadventures. Continental Europe however, had its own treasure-hunting cultures which were just as quixotic. In fact, the literary romanticisation of treasure-hunting likely owes its origin to a farrago of German folktales and anecdotes. At the time, “Germany” as we know it today was non-existent. The region was composed of loose-knit principalities headed by burgomasters, princes, and councillors. It was however, for various geographical and political reasons, a land of buried mysteries.

To get a better grasp of this history, we spoke to Professor Johannes Dillinger of Oxford Brookes University. Dillinger has written extensively on magic and witchcraft in early modern Europe and (in addition to being the descendant of suspected witches) is the author of a book that has been described as the “first comprehensive history of magical treasure hunting from the Middle Ages to the twentieth century”.

 The Custodian: Can you tell us more about the average treasure hunter’s skills and social background? What were his or her tools? What magical rituals or incantations could this person be expected to perform or have on hand?

Professor Johannes Dillinger: Early modern treasure hunts were magical ventures. In every group of treasure hunters there was an expert magician. He used magic to locate the treasure and to communicate with the spirits that supposedly guarded the treasure—mostly ghosts, at time demons or fairies. Treasure magicians used a variety of tools that could be combined in various ways: An extreme example would be a treasure hunt that took place in Swabia in 1679. The treasure magician discovered the treasure site with a divining rod over which he had said a secret spell. He drew a magical circle with some symbols in it on the ground with a ceremonial sword. He put birch twigs on the edge of the circle. After that he said a lengthy conjuration. Only after this ceremony the other treasure hunters were allowed to start digging in strictest ritual silence.

Early modern British treasure hunters spent considerable sums of money on magical equipment like lead tablets with mysterious characters and spellbooks. There was clearly a market for magical texts and objects.

In contrast to the victims of the witch trials, apart from a very few exceptions, treasure magicians were male. Catholic clergymen and monks were said to be the best treasure magicians, but we also find a great number of vagabonds among them. There were professional frauds who made their living posing as experts for treasure magic.

Dragon image via Internet Archive.

C: You’ve written some fascinating things about the treasure-finding Drache, a household “domesticated” dragon. How did one become a Drache owner? What other things were Drachen supposed to be capable of doing?

J: The connection between dragons and treasures seems to be obvious. The dragons we know best, the dragon in Beowulf or the dragon Fafnir in the Sigur/Siegfried tales possess huge treasures—Tolkien’s Smaug is a parody of that kind of dragon. In early modern sources, especially in witch trials, we find dragons that are quite unlike the medieval monsters. These dragons (called “Drache” in German or “Żmij” in Polish) are household spirits. This kind of dragon was said to look like a fiery snake or just like a ball of fire with a long tail that throws sparks. These dragons served witches: They brought them money, grain, milk or other readily usable or saleable goods. The owner of such a dragon became rich very quickly and effortlessly. The dragon was said to steal everything it brought to its master or mistress from somebody else. In a way, the dragon was the embodiment of transfer magic.

A wizard and his dragon. Image via Internet Archive.

This might sound like a quaint story. However, in the early modern period, persons who were economically more successful than their neighbours could be said to have a dragon. As only witches had dragons, such rumours could turn into very serious accusations of witchcraft. In the witch trials, the dragon is clearly a demonic figure. It was sometimes said to have sex with witches. You became a dragon owner simply because the dragon or rather the demon had approached you in the first place. Folktales tell a somewhat different story: Here, the dragon might first come to its owner’s house in the form of a little dirty chicken that eventually turns into a monster. Dragons as household spirits seem to occur only in the magical culture of the Baltics, the West Slavic countries and Eastern Germany.

C: To what extent did politics play into the “application process” for obtaining permission to dig in the German principalities? How much leeway did treasure hunters have in negotiating the terms of their excavations?

J: The laws concerning treasure trove are rather complicated. There was a heated and unending debate among early modern jurists about them. In practice, governments were open to negotiations. Treasure hunters enjoyed some considerable leeway. Some governments issued official permits for treasure hunts without demanding a fixed share of the find. Obviously, they did not believe in the existence of the treasure—and their scepticism proved to be justified.

There was—in theory at least—one basic rule: Treasure hunters were not allowed to use magic. Of course, this rule was ignored all the time. If a government or a prince believed in the existence of the treasure, as a rule it or he looked the other way when the treasure hunters used magic. Some treasure hunters said very clearly that a ghost had alerted them to the treasure when they applied officially for a permit to search for treasure trove. Even though this rather smacked of magic—especially in Protestant countries because Protestantism officially maintained that all ghosts were really demons—the authorities would as a rule still issue the permit.

C: Elsewhere you’ve stated that “witch-hunting” institutions in early modern German provinces contributed to state-building and diplomacy. Would you say that treasure-hunting had a comparable role as an organising or revenue-generating force?

J: There was never a full-fledged treasure hunt administration that I am aware of even though some people—Goethe for example—seem to have toyed with the idea. Still, we have to thank the financial interest in treasure trove for the very first steps some rulers took toward what we would call monument protection.

We should see state-sponsored treasure hunts or at least treasure hunts that had officially been permitted by the authorities as rough equivalents to mining or alchemy. My favourite example is duke Friedrich of Württemberg (1557-1608) who tried to improve the economic situation of his impoverished country: He was very interested in mining, he permitted treasure hunts and he invested huge sums of money in alchemical experiments. From our point of view, the money spent on treasure hunts and alchemy was wasted. However, Friedrich and his contemporaries could not yet know that for sure. Princes eagerly competed for the services of the most talented treasure seekers and alchemists. This caused some serious diplomatic frictions from time to time. Again, Friedrich is a good example: At times, the somewhat quick-tempered duke caused considerable irritation when he demanded rather harshly that other princes should extradited alchemists who had not yet fulfilled their contract with him. At one point, Friedrich was accused of kidnapping the favourite alchemist of the king of Poland—a major scandal and a diplomatic disaster.

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ODD TRUTHS: THE CAMISARDS, REBEL PROPHETS OF LANGUEDOC 

“…the sect of the Inspired became so numerous that the valleys swarmed with them, the mountains were covered with them, and the dioceses…were overspread with such a number of prophets, that in the Cevennes and the lower Languedoc only, they were computed at eight thousand souls.”

-from Enthusiastick Impostors no Divinely-inspired Prophets, vol. I, by Richard Kingston (1707).

After the revocation of the Edict of Nantes (a law that formally provided for the civil rights of French Protestants) in 1685, Catholic forces escalated their persecution of Huguenot communities. At the time, the most infamous of the remaining strongholds of Protestantism in France was located in the Cévennes mountains of Languedoc. In response to the king’s threats, Cévenol enthusiasts defiantly mounted a clandestine resistance and assembled in caves, woodlands, and canyons. Their “autonomous zones” became the stuff of legend and helped foster a homegrown culture of syncretised prophetism and anti-authoritarianism.

Cover page of A Cry from The Desart (1707).

In a word, their conventicles became crucibles of charismatic power, turning out illuminates at an incredible rate. As far as the Camisards (as these Cévenol rebels would later be called) were concerned, God was indiscriminate. Heaven doled out its spiritual gifts to men, women, and children and confirmed them with demonstrations of miracles. But the Camisard prophet-rearing programme could not last forever. Like the “neo-Gnostic” Cathars (or Albigensians), whom church-supported crusaders had mercilessly exterminated in Languedoc centuries earlier, the Camisards were no match for the entrenched strength of the Catholic establishment. Some turned violent and died engaging their enemies in guerrilla warfare. Others influenced leaders such as Paul Rabaut and Antoine Court (the father of Tarot theorist Antoine Court de Gébelin). These pastors went on to downplay ecstatic experience and promote the spread of open air assemblies.

The most celebrated of the eighteenth-century revival congregations was called the “Church of the Desert”. It met in rural areas near Nimes, and helped to change the face of French Protestantism. Still, some mystical movements continued to thrive underground—that is, according to researcher and cicerone Dr Lionel Laborie. Laborie, who has been scouring European archives for the past five years, has found evidence of flourishing transnational “millenarian networks” that interacted with the long-persecuted Camisards. We caught up with Laborie to find out more about his research and findings.

A meeting of the Church in the Desert. Image via Internet Archive.

The Custodian: On Valentine’s Day, you wrote that you had recently completed a five-year “grand tour” of European archives. Can you tell us more about your “Millenarian Networks in the Eighteenth Century” project and tease us with some of your findings/upcoming publications (without giving too much away)?

Lionel Laborie: My tweet on Valentine’s Day was a coincidence, but I like to think of it as a sign of my love story with the archives. I started this project a little more than five years ago when it became clear to me that the Camisards had capitalised on pre-existing underground networks to spread their prophetic movement. I began following their missions across Europe to study their encounters with other religious groups, reconstruct their network for the first time and shed light on the inner workings of their influential movement. This is a piecemeal project. Like most millenarian communities of this period, the Camisards never founded a Church, but tried instead to reconcile Christendom in preparation for Christ’s Second Coming and his thousand-year reign, the Millennium.

Nineteenth-century map of the Cévennes region. Image via Internet Archive.

They constantly travelled and left no centralised archive, hence their lack of visibility. The sources for my project are scattered over several countries. They consist mostly on individual letters that are not identified as part of a particular community. So far, I have worked in over forty libraries and archives across Europe to put the pieces of my puzzle back together and reveal the bigger picture. Chronologically, I now trace this “French connection” into the 1760s, when it is generally assumed they had disappeared by 1710.

Prosopographically, I have discovered connections to prominent eighteenth-century figures, including Newton, Defoe, Leibniz, Voltaire, Rousseau, Hume, Franklin, Gainsborough and Swedenborg. I aim to publish my findings in my second book. I also have a forthcoming article (in French) that will give a preview of my project and I am currently writing another article (in English) that reveals overlaps between millenarian, commercial, and diplomatic networks in the eighteenth century.

C: How did you first come across the Camisards? Did they really believe that they were related to the Cathars?

L: My background is actually in English and American studies. I wrote my MA dissertation The Treatment of Insanity in Eighteenth-Century England and became more and more interested in the notion of “enthusiasm” in this period and its medicalisation into a religious madness. While researching the topic at the British Library, I came across the controversy around the Camisard Prophets, which rapidly became the focus of my PhD. I suppose there is also a personal dimension to it. I come from a dynasty of peasants from the south of France and I was about to move to England when I discovered their story.

Detail from William Hogarth’s engraving, Credulity, Superstition, and Fanaticism (1762). Image via Wikimedia Commons.

As for their Cathar ancestry, this was simply a case of oral history used for propaganda purposes. There is no evidence to support it outside of the fact that Languedoc had been a hotbed of heresies and revolts for centuries. The supposed Cathar heritage became a prominent argument to rally foreign support at the height of the Camisards’ uprising in 1703-1704, but disappeared from the sources soon afterwards as the rebellion was crushed.

A gathering of the Church in the Desert. Image via Internet Archive.

C: Have you found anything that suggests the French Prophets experimented with hallucinogens?

L: Actually, yes. As I show in my book, there is evidence that the French Prophets drank posset–a hot drink made of curdled milk, ale and spices– during their assemblies. Other eye witness accounts suggest they consumed some sort of “magic” bread, liqueur and powder before falling in ecstatic trances. Like many devout Christians of the period, they also fasted regularly, sometimes for weeks, which certainly contributed to their religious experiences.

C: How were the French Prophets generally received in eighteenth-century England?

L: A short and simplistic answer would be to say: “very negatively”. However, it all depends on the sources you look at. Like most religious movements of the early modern period, we only know them through polemical literature. I was fortunate enough to have discovered many manuscript records written by the Prophets themselves, which gave me a better idea of who they really were and what they believed in. It turns out that the Prophets were socially respectable and counted clergymen, lawyers, physicians, teachers, merchants and even noblemen and fellows of the Royal Society among their followers.

Surprising as it may seem to the modern reader, this is consistent with other groups of the period like the Pietists and Quietists, for example. We should bear in mind that people knew their Bible inside out in the eighteenth century and that believing in the imminent Second Coming of Christ was not crazy. So there is plenty of evidence to suggest that the French Prophets, and millenarian groups more generally, also had many supporters, including among the elite, throughout the eighteenth century. My job as a historian is to consider this inconvenient reality and not to sweep it as “superstitious” dust under the Enlightenment carpet.

C: Have you found any substantial connection between the Prophets and intellectual occultists in nineteenth-century France? Eliphas Levi, for example was supposed to have been mentored by a cross-dressing, politically-conscious “prophet” named Simon Ganneau (also known as Mapah). Likewise, Eugene Vintras (another priestly occultist) is said to have been influenced by a visionary and royal pretender named Charles Naundorf.

L: I haven’t looked into this yet, so I can’t really say. However, there was definitely a renewed interest in the Camisards’ revolt among French and German Romantics in the nineteenth century.

C: You’ve written for The Conversation about the “progressive” and egalitarian role some prophets and millenarians have played in society by challenging the rationalism of the Enlightenment. Elsewhere you’ve also written about a correlation between “severe conditions” and prophetic leaders.  In light of this enduring history, what do you think we can say about the future of messianism and fanaticism?

L: The point I was making in this article was that the notion of “fanaticism” is a relative one. Giving women a public voice, opposing slavery and capital punishment, claiming freedom of conscience or engaging with Jews was widely considered as “fanatical” ideas in early modern Europe. Today it is normal and even enshrined in law because radical dissenters first challenged religious and secular authorities, forcing Western societies to reform themselves and evolve over time. Such challenges are healthy. That is not to say, of course, that all radical beliefs are necessarily good. Sadly, there are plenty of violent and hateful ideologies around today, and we should certainly not ignore them. Utopian and dystopian ideologies tend to thrive in times of conflict or crises because they offer hope for a “better” –another relative term– future either on earth or in an afterlife.

In this sense, I regard prophecies as an emotional genre that gives insight into the hopes and fears of their time. Whilst political and social activists continue to challenge dominant values in our secular societies today, I also think that religion will play a more important part in the twenty-first century than it did in the previous one. Don’t expect me to predict a war, market crash, natural disaster nor the next messiah – I’ve read enough prophecies to know that they almost always fail! – but I think new religious movements and charismatic spiritual leaders certainly have a future ahead of them.

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ODD TRUTHS: JOHN EVANS, THE SINISTER ASTROLOGER OF FETTER-LANE

“He was the most saturnine person my eyes ever beheld…”

-from History of His Life and Times by William Lilly (1715)

There is a guilty pleasure in picturing the Early Modern era as a time of dynamos and charismatics who brazenly disregarded cultural taboos. Personalities like Giovanni Pico, Paracelsus, Giordano Bruno, and John Dee are arguably the best known exemplars of this trope. Humanistic and aspirational, they pursued knowledge using any means necessary. In some sense their actions were self-sacrificial. They were prepared to cede all for their ideas. Each inspired generations of freethinkers to come, but it was Paracelsus the reactionary physician and critic of Scholasticism, who became a kind of forefather to chemists and theosophers.

Paracelsus. Image via Google Books.

 Among other things, Paracelsus infamously declared that true knowledge was obtained, not by book-learning but by direct experience. Even though Paracelsus antagonised the Academy, his most ardent followers, such as Jan Baptist van Helmont and Robert Fludd, became highly respected collegians. But the Paracelsians were not all shining examples of scientific enquiry. Many, such as Reverend John Evans of Gunpowder Alley (near modern-day Fetter Lane in Farringdon) took the Swiss adept’s advice about creativity and self-reliance a little too literally.

Reverend John Evans, The “Ill-Favoured Astrologer”. Image via Internet Archive.

Advertisement from John Evans’s almanac of 1625.

The Palace of Profitable Pleasure by John Evans (1621).

John Evans was an opportunist with a mystic side. In the early 1600s he was an everyman,  an Oxford graduate and Church of England preacher who lived with his family on a quiet plot of land in Enfield. From here he published almanacs and taught the liberal arts to worthy students who could afford it. At some point, Reverend Evans crossed the line in his pastoral duties and was reprimanded for his “disreputable conduct”. He then moved to Gunpowder Alley in East London, where in 1632, he took on William Lilly (the future parliamentary magician and “prince of prognosticators”).

William Lilly. Image via Wellcome Collection.

Lilly studied with Evans for several weeks. In his autobiography Lilly describes his teacher as mad, bad, and dangerous to know—much like Paracelsus. Evans liked to get drunk, and his house was like “the wilderness”. Nevertheless, Lilly refrains from denying that Evans was a wizard. On the contrary, Lilly admits that the former preacher was “well-versed in the nature of spirits and had many times used the circular way of invocating”.

Excerpt from William Lilly’s History of his Life and Times.

Overall, Lilly’s description of his mentor creates a picture of a man both shrewd and manipulative. Evans eventually went on to start earning money through more deceptive means.  Delving into the dark recesses of his mind, which were already full of astrological and alchemical notions that he’d known since his university years, he hatched up an idea that would ultimately lead to his downfall: Antimonial cups.

Excerpt from Sketches of Imposture, Deception, and Credulity by R.A. Davenport (1840).

Antimonial cups or (Antimony cups) were the “alternative medicine” of Early Modern fringe medical practitioners. They were advertised as purgative cure-alls that used magnetic power to remove toxins from the body. Essentially the treatment involved ingesting wine that had been left overnight in a goblet of pure antimony. Evans set up shop in the 1630s and got away with his scam with impunity until 1635, when he officially became a persona non grata in the eyes of the Royal College of Physicians after publishing The Universal Medicine; or, the virtues of the Antimonial Cup. The medical body, having received a number of complaints about the poisonous treatment, informed the Archbishop of Canterbury, William Laud. Laud in turn ordered the remaining copies of Evans’s book to be destroyed.

Excerpt from the 1635 edition of The Universal Medicine by John Evans.

 The official censure probably dealt a significant blow to Evans’s business, but it certainly didn’t stop him from writing. He re-published his book a few years later and, in quite an immoral fashion, stuffed the book with endorsements from prominent physicians, such as Richard Napier and Robert Fludd. Evans’s later life is a mystery, and to this day, the number of casualties he caused through the sale of his “life-saving” treatment, much like the details of his “under the radar” way of life, remains unknown. On this point Bernard Capp, writing in the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography has highlighted the fitting words of Anthony Wood, Evans’s biographer:

“…he lived in several places, and in obscure conditions.”

Still, Evans was one who took Paracelsian doctrines to an extreme, combining unaccountability,  narcissism, and hocus-pocus to better his own livelihood. His life, like the lives of countless other quacks, shows the darker heritage of the “high culture” of Renaissance idealists. It also illustrates how easily sublime concepts can be distorted and exploited by frauds and charlatans.

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