Blaming the Devil in the Middle Ages

The first time Jehannin Le Fournier confessed to dropping packets of poisons into wells, he blamed God. The second time, he blamed the Devil.

A winged devil with spiky head and clawed feet tempts Christ
Detail of a miniature depicting the First Temptation of Christ. Psalter, England, c. 1200–1225. Arundel MS 157, f. 5v

Let’s talk about blaming the Devil, shall we?

The language Jehannin used in his confession, which is pretty standard for the time, is “tempted by the enemy.” No one was going to be confused about who the enemy was. It was a fairly common way of referring to the Devil at the time. Moreover, Jehannin was neither the first criminal, nor the last, to finger the infernal.

Of course, it doesn’t work. It’s not like the court says, “Oh, Lucifer was the ring-leader, you say? Well, we’ll just haul him in here and you can go about your day with a slap on the wrist. Choose your friends more wisely next time, okay?”

Definitely not happening.

Leaving aside the supernatural question of whether a summoned Devil would actually appear in court (to be fair, pre-modern courts were known to attempt to summon mischief of mice for trial, so…), the court was never likely to buy Jehannin’s argument.

Jehannin: I suggest to the court that I am less guilty because I succumbed to temptation.

Court: You are responsible for your own fall into temptation. Guilty!

That seems pretty straightforward, honestly, given we’re still in the midst of a hegemonically Christian society. The fundamental thing you’re not supposed to do as a Christian? Sin. Actively following the Devil’s instructions? Very much sinning!

So far, none of this is that surprising. So why am I bothering to write about this at all?

Because two questions struck me while reading his trial.

Why does Jehannin mention the Devil at all if it’s such a dumb idea, as I’ve just suggested?

and

Why does Jehannin’s invocation of the Devil fail where for others it works?

That’s right! Sometimes invoking the Devil’s the right thing to do! In fact, I’d suggest that the second question is itself the answer to the first. Sometimes, invoking the Devil can get you off the hook. Maybe you’ll still be a bit torn up, what with barbs and the near suffocation of being fished out of your river, but unhooked all the same. So why doesn’t it work for Jehannin?

Naturally, I can’t give you a definitive answer. I can, however, point to when blaming the Devil in the Middle Ages had a positive result. Then, we can compare.

It is by far more common for Devil-blame to succeed when a person is petitioning for pardon. That is, after having been found guilty, and usually after languishing for a few months in prison. Then, you or your family decide to beg for mercy. So with the help of a lawyer, or at the very least a practiced notary, you compose the petition. Key things a petition needs:

  1. your humble origins (it’s great if you’re poor and have a wife and kids depending on your return),
  2. your simple life going about your business,
  3. the sudden appearance of an aggressor,
  4. then your momentary lapse of judgment,
  5. followed by your fear and contrition.

It’s a good idea to blame the Devil around point 4. The aggressor has pushed you too far and in then, after you’ve already been victimized (nevermind if you’ve actually been convicted of murder), the Devil swoops in and tempts you to retaliate. Petitions for pardon that follow the above formula are winners, if the record of successful petitions is anything to go by.

Caveat: No idea what the unsuccessful ones look like. I’ve never seen any preserved in the archives.

Okay, so in petitions for pardon, blaming the Devil can work. May not be a guarantee, but its inclusion is definitely not an automatic failure.

So why doesn’t it work for Jehannin?

My Theory

Jehannin was in the midst of confessing, which is a different beast than the petition. He had not yet taken responsibility (through punishment) for his misdeeds. There was nothing that forced his hand, either. The Dominicans he says approached him with the opportunity of making money by poisoning wells never coerced him, even by his own account. For all we know, he could have said no and walked away. So he’s struck out on points three and five, above.

The confession is also not structured. Sure, he’s telling a story, but as a genre it lacks intra-genre coherence. Each prisoner tells the confession in their own way. Whereas the petition had a definite formula to follow. You can see it if you read enough of them, or read the work of people who have (like me! or Natalie Zemon Davis). So the Devil isn’t being put necessarily to the best use. He could be doing a lot more work in the story. For example, he could have appeared in both versions of the confession.

Context matters. So does audience.

The petitions I’ve seen where blaming the Devil goes over well come from Lancastrian Normandy during the time the English occupied it during the Hundred Years War. But Jehannin is in front of officers of the Châtelet in Paris. Maybe the Parisians just weren’t as in to the whole Devil thing.

I have a theory on that, too. Well, more like why the English would like the idea of blaming the Devil. It has to do with the French, the war, and war songs that claimed the English soldiers had tails.

Oh, one final point. Did I mention Jehannin was poisoning wells? In the midst of the Black Death?! Yeah, not a good look, my dude. Devil can’t help you with that one.

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