When you hear the phrase "a witch trial," you probably think of 17th-century villagers in Salem, Massachusetts or Samlesbury, England deciding a local woman is a witch, capturing her, and inventing hopeless tests for her to try and prove herself otherwise in order to save her own life. The persecution of witches and other societal outsiders has cast a dark shadow on cultural history around much of the world.
But have you ever heard of a trial where the witch was the plaintiff?
In rural France in 1850, only some 160 years ago, a priest blamed a local male witch – part of a group called les rebouteux, or bonesetters, who acted as nurse-practitioners in the neighborhood – for causing unexplained loud noises that had started in the priest’s parsonage. The priest was living with a poltergeist, in other words, and this one was loud: some reports said it could be heard from two kilometers, over a mile, away.
The priest, Father Jean Tinel – driven slightly crazy, as we all would be by the noise – blamed the witch, Felix Thorel, and said so to several members of his parish. He allowed a visiting marquis to hold a séance in the parsonage to quiet his house. When nothing happened, he grew even angrier with the witch. After a member of his household claimed to have seen the witch in a dream, the priest sought out the witch and beat him until he was unconscious. Father Tinel must have thought he had solved his problem, gone home, washed his hands and waited for the noises to stop.
But Felix Thorel stood up for himself, literally and figuratively. After recovering from his injuries, he sued the priest for slander and assault. In 1851 in the court of Yerville, near Cideville a witch trial was held –the only one in history where a witch was the plaintiff, not the defendant.
This fact makes the Cideville witch trial unique (although it’s pretty special for being about a poltergeist as well). Both the witch and the priest brought lawyers and witnesses to lend credence to their versions of events while the poltergeist continued to rage at the Cideville parsonage miles away. A French account of the trial called Le Diable sera it-il dans le Canton? seemed, despite its supernatural focus, to take the unusual position of Felix Thorel as plaintiff for granted. There is a very French explanation for this: Felix Thorel was a French citizen 70 years after the first Revolution, and he as well as any other Frenchman were considered to have the right to sue whomever they pleased. A contemporary 1850 book by essayist Frederic Bastiat affirmed it. In The Law, Bastiat stated about the French: "each of us has a natural right — from God — to defend his person, his liberty, and his property.”
The Cideville trial therefore should not be imagined as a 17th century witch trial: no duckings, no soakings, no floatings or other soggy and sorry pursuits. It proceeded with affidavits and witnesses as if it were an ordinary suit over a quarrel. To the court he was a citizen whose employment happened to be witchcraft – just as was shepherdry, his day job. Although the fact that he was a French witch may have worked slightly in his favor. According to Oxford historian Robin Briggs’ excellent book on the cultural aspects of witchcraft, “France . . . displayed persistently low levels of persecution. Jurists and clerics . . . plainly disagreed over the scale and nature of the danger.” It should be noted that although whether Thorel was a witch or not was irrelevant to his suit, it would become relevant during the course of the trial.
Poor, shunned and uneducated, Felix Thorel was courageous, definitely, but privileged compared to some courageous plaintiffs in history such as Dred Scott, an American slave from the same time as Thorel. In 1857 Scott sued for his freedom after he was taken briefly to a non-slave state, and lost, although his case was one of the sparks for the Civil War. But it’s their courage that lingers, and in Thorel’s case what it must have taken for an outsider, an odd man, a witch, to tell a local priest, the community leader – and, briefly, his bully – that he’d had enough.
Barbara Wade Rose is a former investigative journalist and the author of The Priest, the Witch & the Poltergeist, a novel about the Cideville witch trial, available as a soundtracked ebook from Booktrack.com and as a paperback on Amazon.