A Well Poisoner in Poster Form

A poster-style image of Jehannin Le Fournier: The well poisoner. With the limerick: "There once was a man from Dijon, Who went for a walk in t'region, Eight powdered packets, Brought coin to his pockets, And now he's blaming a demon."

As you can see, I opted for something a little different today. Quite simply, we have a poster showcasing the criminal Jehannin Le Fournier, our well poisoner. I have no idea what he actually looked like, but I’ve drawn him as a medieval traveler, marked by the pilgrim’s scrip and staff. For those who are having difficulty with the image, there’s a limerick included:

There once was a man from Dijon

Who went for a walk in t’ region

Eight powdered packets

Brought coin to his pockets

And now he’s blaming a demon.

If you missed the full story about Jehannin, I recommend clicking the link above and finding out what’s with the powdered packets (of poison) and how a demon figures into the story.

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.

How Men of God Made Me Poison People

I don’t know about you, but I’m wondering about those Dominicans Jehannin met–the ones who convinced him to toss some mysterious packets of poison into wells and fountains. In Jehannin’s first confession, he’s pretty darn certain they’re friars. Second time around, he’s not so sure, careful to state that the men were dressed as Dominicans.

Why the change?

The case doesn’t give us a lot to go on. Maybe Jehannin honestly didn’t know. Maybe I’m reading too much into a rather slight change in phrase.

I think it’s more than that, though. I think there’s an element of CYA that’s going on here.

First confession: the CYA is to say that he’d been doing what some Dominicans asked. And you know, Dominicans are men of God, so who is Jehannin to speak against them? After all, they encountered him when he was already on pilgrimage to Notre-Dame du Puy, so perhaps they were heaven-sent.

Picture of the cathedral Notre Dame du Puy
Notre Dame du Puy as it looks today

Except that tactic doesn’t work. The court at Tours, where he’s first interrogated, wants to see him executed for well-poisoning.

Pulling up his metaphorical pants, Jehannin tries again in Paris, in his second confession. He abandons trying to make his mistake the fault of divinely-oriented forces, and turns to the diabolical. In my next ruminations on Jehannin, I’ll tackle his claim that the Devil made him do it.

Jehannin Le Fournier: A Medieval Case of Stranger Danger and Well-Poisoning

If you, like me, were a child of the 80s, you had the admonition “Don’t Talk to Strangers” drilled into your head. It was the time of Stranger Danger, a fear that only ramped up in the 90s.

1984 boardgame Don't Talk to Strangers

I suspect that Jehannin Le Fournier, brought before the provost of the Châtelet of Paris in 1390, really wished Stranger Danger had been a thing in his own formative years. At 28, he was still young, yet old enough perhaps to have known better than to accept a package from peeps unknown. Even if those peeps were Dominican friars.

Jehannin’s story is enough to make me think that maybe the TSA was on to something when it started asking travelers if they’d been asked to carry anything onto flights for someone else. (As a kid, when the TSA asked me this, I always felt a little confused. My parents asked me to take lots of things. I suppose that’s why the language eventually shifted to mimic the vocabulary of stranger danger.)

In honour of my lost childhood and Jehannin’s lost life, I’ve subtitled this post Stranger Danger (or Danger Étranger). The case comes by way of the Registre Criminel du Chatelet, vol. II.

In July 1390, Jehannin had been living in Chartres. Around the feast of the Magdalene, he felt moved by the spirit to travel to Notre-Dame du Puy, in Anjou.

Not far outside town, maybe a quarter of a league give or take, two Dominican friars came up to him and asked if he wanted to earn some money.

And really, this is where he should have stopped. It’s like those spam calls that I get asking if I want to make lots of money by doing absolutely nothing from home. There’s always a catch.

Jehannin, not wise in the way of telemarketers, said, “Oh hell yes! Tell me what I need to do.”

In the mold of all good scams, it was a simple thing, really. No back-breaking work. No long hours. All he had to do was throw some small packets into the various wells and fountains he passed by on his way to Anjou. Do that, and he’d be paid handsomely.

Stranger Danger PSA Image
I’m sure this is how Jehannin imagines himself, sweet and innocent, as the friars show him the poison packets.

Jehannin may have been a bit too eager to make easy money, but he was also a curious man. “What’s in the packets?”

“Oh, just some poison, meant to kill certain men.”

Oh good. No biggie. Just a highly selective poison tossed into the common drinking water of the town. It will definitely only kill the right people. Sure.

Okay, organic chemistry was not yet on the roster of classes available at the University of Paris. But it was 1390, my dude! The Black Death is still having its way with the world and there have definitely been a lot of accusations of well poisoning floating around. Against Jews, against the poor, lepers… Lots. You’d think it’d give him pause.

You’d be wrong.

He was good to go, so long as he was well paid.

They gave him three blancs (in value about 10d. each) and promised him that he’d get more once he’d jettisoned the 25-30 packets they tipped into his outstretched palms.

It probably helped Jehannin that he wasn’t alone when he met with the Dominicans. There were more than a dozen people, none of whom he knew, whom the Dominicans approached and gathered together. Though they were all strangers to Jehannin, he does give quite the description of one of them, whom he names Gilet:

Dressed in blue and white, about 32 years old, with deformed legs, Gilet was a tall man. His hair was long and brown and he had been begging for bread along the road.

At last on his own, Jehannin continued on his way. That very same day, he threw packets into two wells and two fountains. And then somehow, amazingly, he thought better of it, realized he’d done evil, and tossed the remaining packets of poison in a bush.

Why does he have this amazing revelation? Probably because we have this story thanks to the fact he was caught. What I’ve just written his first go at a confession, given in Tours.

First go. There was a second, once he was transported to the Châtelet in Paris. He amends things a little.

We get the same opening, finding out he was born in Dijon in Burgundy and is about 28 years old in 1390. Once again, he’s off to Notre-Dame du Puy and just outside the town he encounters two Dominicans.

Or does he?

Because this time, he says they were two men dressed as Dominicans, riding horses.

The same conversation commences. Jehannin once again agrees, though this time he’s quick to point out it was thanks to the Devil’s temptation, and they again pay him three blancs and give him only 8 packets, each as big as a hazelnut, wrapped in a small white cloth.

Jehannin makes no mention of the other people these men propositioned. He also does not take his leave immediately. Instead, he spends the next three days in their company, eating and drinking and taking his ease beside them. Traveling together, they passed through various villages. Once more he “poisons” four wells. And then once more, he has a sudden realization that he’s done evil and tosses the remaining packets into a bush.

The officers of the Châtelet were none too happy with Jehannin’s revised tale. His attempt to poison people, whether specific or indiscriminate, amounted to lese majesty, the highest of high treasons. He had threatened the common good, as well as “the universal world and human creatures.”

Crimes against humanity, the Middle Ages sees you.

The provost and his councilors sentenced Jehannin to death as a traitor. On 27 December 1390, he was decapitated, then his corpse was hanged from a gibbet.