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Take Santa, Christian Christmas and add pagan ritual

Dr Tim Blakemore, a former senior law lecturer at the University of Northampton, finds some magic in the air and water of modern-day France where he now lives

There are some mysterious goings-on in France. In an article in July’s Connexion it was reported that the number of exorcisms in France has tripled over the past 10 years. The title to the piece (‘Booming number of exorcisms in France’) seems to suggest this is some sort of economic miracle rather than a religious issue, but a priest is quoted as expressing the concern of the Catholic church: “There’s a growing paganism so the Devil is more at home”.

Your acceptance of that explanation will depend upon your personal beliefs, but it is also possible that people are becoming more interested in such ancient mystical practices.

Certainly in rural France there seems to be a stock of traditions which at first sight appear to be in conflict with the entrenched Catholic Christianity, but with which the people themselves seem quite at ease. Perhaps it is offensive to describe these as “pagan”, but they certainly seem to be outside the framework of the established Christian church.

At this time of year, with Christmas approaching, this mix of beliefs becomes clearer and demonstrates that humans have a remarkable capacity to hold two contrasting and conflicting ideas in their heads with complete equanimity.

As a Christian religious celebration, many will go to church for perhaps the only time in the year barring weddings, funerals and christenings. Christmas cards with Nativity scenes are exchanged. Christmas carols are sung with gusto and carol singers welcomed. Yet an alien visitor would be excused for thinking that Jesus was a rosy-cheeked elderly man dressed in a red gown, as that is the image which dominates displays and decorations.

What that visitor would think of the ubiquitous groups of reindeer is difficult to comprehend, and let’s not start to speculate about his thoughts concerning the one with a red nose.

A little thought brings to mind some strange things all year round in France.

There are various customs which lie on the boundary between belief and tradition, such as the ‘Saints de Glace’ (ice saints). Nothing to do with snowmen or ice sculpture of course, but the belief that it is best to wait until after May 11-13 (the days dedicated to saints Mamert, Pancrace and Servais) to plant out seedlings.

Gardening according to the phases of the moon is also very popular, with several books on sale in local garden centres.

Such little quirks have their counterparts in every country’s culture of course, but in rural France there seem to be practices of a different nature altogether.

On a recent visit to our local museum I saw a selection of engravings from the late 19th century depicting folk healers in Corrèze. For example, one depicted a blacksmith apparently in the act of smashing his hammer into the stomach of a young boy being held on the anvil by two women. The text explained that the blacksmith was believed to have the power to remove stomach problems by pretending to use his hammer in this fashion, and the women were the boy’s relatives.

Marvellous pictures but surely the activities depicted were medieval superstitions which had just survived into the twentieth century in remote rural villages? A short video in an adjoining room showed that this was far from the truth.

It was a recording of an interview with a middle-aged Limousin woman of undistinctive appearance who was a modern-day folkhealer.

Not being the sharpest needle in the pincushion, it took a few minutes for me to realise that the sub-titles I was reading were in French, and that she was in fact speaking in patois, a local dialect derived from the Occitan language. She specialises in working with the 15 local springs known as ‘bonnes fontaines’, or ‘fontaines de dévotion’.

A person suffering from a malady (physical or mental, such as depression or an irrational fear of something) would bring a piece of clothing which had been in contact with the relevant body part, or was otherwise connected in some way to the problem. A particular spring would be selected by the lady depending on the type of malady, and the item of clothing would be soaked in the spring and then left to dry nearby, while the lady recited a prayer.

A very limited customer-base, one would have thought, except that photos of the springs show them festooned with hundreds of items of clothing.

For those of us who hate ironing it is like a nightmare vision of the drying rack from Hell. The bonnes fontaines themselves have clearly been Christianised, but the traditions must surely be pre-Christian in origin.

I have more personal experience of folk-healers. A French neighbour told us, very matter of factly, that he was taking his wife to the house of M. - so that he could treat her for some discomfort from which she was suffering. He went on to explain that M.- could “withdraw the heat” from an area of discomfort simply by passing his hands over the affected area.

Our neighbour is a former deputy mayor and his wife a very robust and no-nonsense character, certainly not the sort of couple to be susceptible to unrealistic or spurious treatments.

We thought nothing of it, passing it off as one more of the eccentric traditions of the locality. A few weeks later, relating this to a local couple from the UK but resident in France for many years, we heard a similar tale which was more remarkable still.

A couple of years ago, when suffering considerable pain over his face from the after-effects of an attack of shingles, the husband had been persuaded by a French neighbour to visit an elderly French lady who also specialised in “drawing out heat”.

Highly sceptical but in such discomfort that he would try anything, he described how the lady passed her hands lightly over his face while muttering something incomprehensible under her breath. But his wife (taking over the story) described how in the car on the way home, he suddenly said, in a tone of wonderment, that the pain had disappeared. The husband is a retired pharmacist and not the sort to fantasise or indulge in wishful thinking on medical matters.

You cynics out there will be thinking that taking advantage of the gullible and desperate has always been a way for the unscrupulous to make a living. But none of these healers would take any payment whatsoever, in the belief that it might detract from the efficacy of the treatment.

The fact that people still consult the practitioners of these ancient rituals, despite the availability of modern medicine and the wonderful French health service, is an indication that there is a range of beliefs around us. Whether these are isolated examples or restricted to the rural Limousin is another matter, and it would be interesting to hear from readers about their experiences in other parts of France.

We do indeed live in a magical country, in more senses than one.

Note: The engravings of Corrèzien folk-healers are by Gaston Vuillier and the video of the Limousin woman who specialises in bonnes fontaines can be viewed on the Limoges public TV channel

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