Anatole France: The Merrie Tales of Jacques Tournebroche

Anatole France’s Merrie Tales: The Miracle of the Magpie

While the previous chapter was about boasting, this one, ‘The Miracle of the Magpie’, which plays in the town of Le Puy-en-Velay in the beautiful Auvergne district of France, seems to be all about mocking. Mocking the beliefs of people “elbowing their way” to the place where they seek a pardon for their sins. Oh, it’s easy to do so. Popular with many, perhaps. Anatole France describes, as satire or entertainment, a cynical, broken man doing this. I’m a typical mocker of all sorts of ridiculous things from way back. Deeply Catholic Puy-en-Velay is very close to the area in which there is now Cathar tourism. The Cathars were followers of what could be described as an early Protestant religion, who simply wanted a church free of corruption, pomp and debauchery. They were hunted down, murdered, tortured or burnt alive for daring to oppose Pope “Innocent“. He told the King of France, who in turn ordered knight Simon de Montfort to exterminate them, by any means. Women, men and children were slaughtered for daring to have a faith which the corrupt Pope, who sent in the murdering thugs, didn’t approve of. A church which certainly had nothing whatsoever to do with any real religion and which was eradicating a threat to it’s gangland turf. Perhaps it was right to mock the falsely pious back then?

Anatole France, or his anti-hero, the cynical preyer upon the religious, mention a statue of a Black Madonna, the pride of the cathedral, carved by the hand of Jeremias (the prophet Jeremiah). The statue rests on the main altar in the Cathedral Notre Dame in Le Puy-en-Velay. And there I was, unaware that there was a Black Madonna there too, thinking it might have been the one I had heard more about, in Częstochowa, in Poland. There’s also one in Altiotting, in Bavaria. Actually, there are supposedly still more that 250 such statues and paintings in Catholic and Orthodox churches and chapels (once, there were more than five hundred), mainly in various parts of Europe. All Black Madonnas, although in some areas, local officials claim that theirs is not a Black Madonna, while the local name and appearance tell us that it obviously is.

Easy to get them mixed up I suppose. Some were already made as black, and it is commonly said that many of the other Madonnas became black from all the soot in countless thousands of candles over many centuries. Ah, the soot story. Any restorer of very old paintings will tell you that varnish blackens over time, especially in rooms full of sooty candles for many centuries. Just look at Rembrandts once the varnish is cleaned. More contemporary, somewhat elaborate theories however claim that this explanation is “wrong” and allegedly “easily disproven” and that they had been intended to be black, representing the “Earth Goddess” or “Mother Goddess” and that they are simply more modern representations of much earlier pagan goddesses, such as those of Isis in ancient Egypt.

Perhaps this is just a modern day interpretation or the sorts which people into alternate things of all kinds prefer? Who knows? They are called “Black Madonnas”, they always depict mother and child, the head of baby Jesus is also always black, yet nobody calls them “Black Jesus” or “Black Virgin Mother and Child”. I wonder why? The usual style is named “hodegetria“, after a very famous example that was once kept in the Monastery of the Panaghia Hodegetria in Constantinople.

Am I trying to make fun of this or that Black Madonna by saying such things, as Anatole France mocks? No, really. I’m just stating facts and trying to ask questions. Every one of these Black Madonnas is loved and revered, some by millions, that is also a fact. The one in Poland was even crowned “Queen of Poland“, I kid you not. Many of them have elaborate gowns and crowns full of gold and diamonds and have votives, little testaments of thanks, from countless people, thanking the Blessed Virgin. Many just saying thank you, some stating the reason.

One, dating from 1820, is from a servant named Leonhard in Altoetting, who was attacked by a pack of rabid dogs and survived. Another, along with a naïve painting of a young child taking something from a table, is from the father of little Hansi Suttner, who ingested eleven rheumatism tablets in 1981, causing his kidneys to fail, sending him into a coma. A hopeless case, the father was told, but the child survived. Another from 1987, in thanks for a child getting a Realschule Certificate. Easy to mock? The votive plaques for the Black Madonna Częstochowa are kept in a separate building. Perhaps not to distract from the mysterious old icon?

In Le Puy-en-Velay, there is now a gigantic red stone statue of Our Lady of France standing on top of the mountain overlooking the city. But the much smaller statue in the cathedral is the one that people pray to. Because standing in front of it seems a lot more intimate than yelling out a prayer to some whopping great two hundred foot red granite statue on a hill.

The present day Black Madonna at Cathedral Notre Dame in Le Puy-en-Velay (public domain)

The original Black Madonna was destroyed in the French revolution, a copy now takes its place: an ebony statue inside a heavy gown from which only the heads of the Madonna and baby Jesus poke out. It all looks to me, forgive me for saying so, as an Australian, a bit like a kangaroo with a joey in her pouch. Am I mocking it? No. Why would I, even if the ebony faces peering out of the heavy robe makes the statue look rather odd to me, as many of the rather rustic and even a bit spooky looking more primitive depictions do. I find prayers to religion icons or statues slightly less odd than people with hemorrhoids praying to St Fiacre, a seventh century Irish monk, who apparently specialises in that affliction, or people with carbuncles praying to St Cloud, the guy who cures those.

Many of the Black Madonnas have a style of sculpting, woodworking of painting that is identifiable as distinctly Byzantine. That is at odds with the somewhat dubious provenance of the Black Madonna of Jasna Gora in Częstochowa , which had reputedly been found in the Holy Land when it was already old and allegedly taken to Constantinople by none other than St Helena herself, mother of Emperor Constantine. However, that was many centuries before the original icon was apparently made.

The Jasna Gora icon was reputedly made by St Luke, the first religious icon painter, painted in tempera and wax on nothing less than the kitchen table of the Holy Family. St Luke must have been extremely busy, according to the sheer number of artworks attributed to him.

The odd looking statue in the cathedral of Puy-en-Velay is stylistically primitive. While Greek and Roman sculptors had already created very lifelike works, the style of the ebony Madonna is stodgy, artistically clumsy, possibly the reason for those sumptuous diamond studded robes, which hide all of that, except the heads.

Followers believe that the icon or statue itself has miraculous powers. Wouldn’t that be idolatry? Worthy of Anatole France’s apparent mocking? For Hansi Sutter’s father, the Black Madonna of Altoetting seemed to help him understand and have someone to be grateful for for the sudden and miraculous healing of his infant son. You can’t get more genuine and heartfelt than that. There is nothing to make fun of in this—it deserves only recognition of deep sincerity. If it were a gold embellished statue in Altoetting that helped him to cope or believe, the only way he could, then what would be so wrong with that?

In our story, at the end of all his scheming and mocking, cynical Florent Guillaume gets his reward. A meal of tripe. Maybe that’s all his mocking was really worth. While for many millions, the reverence for and mystery of the Black Madonnas endures. What about the magpie? Although mentioned in the title of the chapter, it plays only a small role in the tale. Unless you might consider Guillaume to be some sort of human magpie.

There’s an ancient Black Madonna in New York, in the Cathedral of St John the Divine. It was originally from the cathedral in Kursk, the site of enormous destruction in WWII, found in Munich in 1945 and taken to the US. But a new Black Madonna has appeared there as well. Our Lady of Ferguson, commissioned by an Episcopal priest of New York City. No question of candle soot here. It was created as a Black Madonna. The crosshairs above baby Jesus tell us it’s against gun violence. Earth Goddess? Depiction of the Virgin Mary? Anyone or anything who or that can perhaps give comfort and hope to mothers genuinely fearing for the lives of their children in a world of violence and hatred in which allegedly God-fearing “Christians” fight tooth and nail to keep automatic weapons like the AR-15 in the hands of everyone who wants them, including murderers, nutcases and extremists.

In such an evil, stupid or mad world, black mothers need all the help they can get. Would cynical and opportunistic Florent Guillaume mock them or try to take advantage of them? Tell us what you think of him, and of my impression of the tale being about mocking. Was Anatole France mocking false piety through him, or subtly and in reality only mocking Guillaume?


The Miracle of the Magpie

I

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ENT, of the year 1429, presented a strange marvel of the Calendar, a conjunction that moved the admiration not only of the common crowd of the Faithful, but eke of Clerks, well learned in Arithmetic. For Astronomy, mother of the Calendar, was Christian in those days. In 1429 Good Friday fell on the Feast of the Annunciation, so that one and the same day combined the commemoration of the two several mysteries which did commence and consummate the redemption of mankind, and in wondrous wise superimposed one on top of the other, Jesus conceived in the Virgin’s womb and Jesus dying on the Cross. This Friday, whereon the mystery of joy came so to coincide exactly with the mystery of sorrow, was named the “Grand Friday,” and was kept holy with solemn Feasts on Mount Anis, in the Church of the Annunciation. For many years, by gift of the Popes of Rome, the sanctuary of Mount Anis had possessed the privilege of the plenary indulgences of a great jubilee, and the late-deceased Bishop of Le Puy, Élie de Lestrange, had gotten Pope Martin to restore this pardon. It was a favour of the sort the Popes scarce ever refused, when asked in due and proper form.

The pardon of the Grand Friday drew a great crowd of pilgrims and traders to Le Puy-en-Velay. As early as mid February folk from distant lands set out thither in cold and wind and rain. For the most part they fared on foot, staff in hand. Whenever they could, these pilgrims travelled in companies, to the end they might not be robbed and held to ransom by the armed bands that infested the country parts, and by the barons who exacted toll on the confines of their lands. Inasmuch as the mountain districts were especially dangerous, they tarried in the neighbouring towns, Clermont, Issoire, Brioude, Lyons, Issingeaux, Alais, till they were gathered in a great host, and then went forth on their road in the snow. During Holy Week a strange multitude thronged the hilly streets of Le Puy,—pedlars from Languedoc and Provence and Catalonia, leading their mules laded with leather goods, oil, wool, webs of cloth, or wines of Spain in goat-skins; lords a-horseback and ladies in wains, artisans and traders pacing on their mules, with wife or daughter perched behind, Then came the poor pilgrim folk, limping along, halting and hobbling, stick in hand and bag on back, panting up the stiff climb. Last were the flocks of oxen and sheep being driven to the slaughterhouses.

Now, leant against the wall of the Bishop’s palace, stood Florent Guillaume, looking as long and dry and black as an espalier vine in winter, and devoured pilgrims and cattle with his eyes.

“Look,” he called to Marguerite the lace-maker, “look at yonder fine heads of bestial.”

And Marguerite, squatted beside her bobbins, called back:

“Yea, fine beasts, and fat withal!”

Both the twain were very bare and scant of the goods of this world, and even then were feeling bitterly the pinch of hunger. And folk said it came of their own fault. At that very moment Pierre Grandmange the tripe-seller was saying as much, where he stood in his tripe-shop, pointing a finger at them. “’T would be sinful,” he was crying, “to give an alms to such good-for-nothing varlets.” The tripe-seller would fain have been very charitable, but he feared to lose his soul by giving to evil-livers, and all the fat citizens of Le Puy had the selfsame scruples.

To say truth, we must needs allow that, in the heyday of her hot youth, Marguerite the lace-maker had not matched St. Lucy in purity, St. Agatha in constancy, and St. Catherine in staidness. As for Florent Guillaume, he had been the best scrivener in the city. For years he had not had his equal for engrossing the Hours of Our Lady of Le Puy. But he had been over fond of merrymakings and junketings. Now his hand had lost its cunning, and his eye its clearness; he could no more trace the letters on the parchment with the needful steadiness of touch. Even so, he might have won his livelihood by teaching apprentices in his shop at the sign of the Image of Our Lady, under the choir buttresses of The Annunciation, for he was a fellow of good counsel and experience. But having had the ill fortune to borrow of Maître Jacquet Coquedouille the sum of six livres ten sous, and having paid him back at divers terms eighty livres two sous, he had found himself at the last to owe yet six livres two sous to the account of his creditor, which account was approved correct by the judges, for Jacquet Coquedouille was a sound arithmetician. This was the reason why the scrivenry of Florent Guillaume, under the choir buttresses of The Annunciation, was sold, on Saturday the fifth day of March, being the Feast of St. Theophilus, to the profit of Maître Jacquet Coquedouille. Since that time the poor penman had never a place to call his own. But by the good help of Jean Magne the bell-ringer and with the protection of Our Lady, whose Hours he had aforetime written, Florent Guillaume found a perch o’ nights in the steeple of the Cathedral.

The scrivener and the lace-maker had much ado to live. Marguerite only kept body and soul together by chance and charity, for she had long lost her good looks and she hated the lace-making. They helped each other. Folks said so by way of reproach; they had been better advised to account it to them for righteousness. Florent Guillaume was a learned clerk. Well knowing every word of the history of the beautiful Black Virgin of Le Puy and the ordering of the ceremonies of the great pardon, he had conceived the notion he might serve as guide to the pilgrims, deeming he would surely light on someone compassionate enough to pay him a supper in guerdon of his fine stories. But the first folk he had offered his services to had bidden him begone because his ragged coat bespoke neither good guidance nor clerkly wit; so he had come back, downhearted and crestfallen, to the Bishop’s wall, where he had his bit of sunshine and his kind gossip Marguerite. “They reckon,” he said bitterly, “I am not learned enough to number them the relics and recount the miracles of Our Lady. Do they think my wits have escaped away through the holes in my gaberdine?”

“’Tis not the wits,” replied Marguerite, “escape by the holes in a body’s clothes, but the good natural heat. I am sore a-cold. And it is but too true that, man and woman, they judge us by our dress. The gallants would find me comely enough yet if I was accoutred like my Lady the Comtesse de Clermont.”

Meanwhile, all the length of the street in front of them the pilgrims were elbowing and fighting their way to the Sanctuary, where they were to win pardon for their sins.

“They will surely suffocate anon,” said Marguerite. “Twenty-two years agone, on the Grand Friday, two hundred persons died stifled under the porch ofThe Annunciation. God have their souls in keeping! Ay, those were the good times, when I was young!”

“’Tis very true indeed, that year you tell of, two hundred pilgrims crushed each other to death and departed from this world to the other. And next day was never a sign to be seen of aught untoward.”

As he so spake, Florent Guillaume noted a pilgrim, a very fat man, who was not hurrying to get him assoiled with the same hot haste as the rest, but kept rolling his wide eyes to right and left with a look of distress and fear. Florent Guillaume stepped up to him and louted low.

“Messire,” he accosted him, “one may see at a glance you are a sensible man and an experienced; you do not rush blindly to the pardon like a sheep to the slaughter. The rest of the folk go helter-skelter thither, the nose of one under the tail of the other; but you follow a wiser fashion. Grant me the boon to be your guide, and you will not repent your bargain.”

The pilgrim, who proved to be a gentleman of Limoges, answered in the patois of his countryside, that he had no use for a scurvy beggarman and could very well find his own way toThe Annunciation for to receive pardon for his faults. And therewith he set his face resolutely to the hill. But Florent Guillaume cast himself at his feet, and tearing at his hair:

“Stop! stop! messire,” he cried; “i’ God’s name and by all the Saints, I warn you go no farther! ’T will be your death, and you are not the man we could see perish without grief and dolour. A few steps more and you are a dead man! They are suffocating up yonder. Already full six hundred pilgrims have given up the ghost. And this is but a small beginning! Do you not know, messire, that twenty-two years agone, in the year of grace one thousand four hundred and seven, on the selfsame day and at the selfsame hour, under yonder porch, nine thousand six hundred and thirty-eight persons, without reckoning women and children, trampled each other underfoot and perished miserably? An you met the same fate, I should never smile again. To see you is to love you, messire; to know you is to conceive a sudden and overmastering desire to serve you.”

The Limousin gentleman had halted in no small surprise and turned pale to hear such discourse and see the fellow tearing out his hair in fistfuls. In his terror he was for turning back the way he had come. But Florent Guillaume, on his knees in the mud, held him back by the skirt of his jacket.

“Never go that way, messire! not that way. You might meet Jacquet Coquedouille, and you would be all in an instant turned into stone. Better encounter the basilisk than Jacquet Coquedouille. I will tell you what you must do if, like the wise and prudent man your face proclaims you to be, you would live long and make your peace with God. Hearken to me; I am a scholar, a Bachelor. To-day the holy relics will be borne through the streets and crossways of the city. You will find great solace in touching the carven shrines which enclose the cornelian cup wherefrom the child Jesus drank, one of the wine-jars of the Marriage at Cana, the cloth of the Last Supper, and the holy foreskin. If you take my advice, we will go wait for them, under cover, at a cookshop I wot of, before which they will pass without fail.”

Then, in a wheedling voice, without loosing his hold of the pilgrim’s jacket, he pointed to the lace-maker and said:

“Messire, you must give six sous to yonder worthy woman, that she may go buy us wine, for she knows where good liquor is to be gotten.”

The Limousin gentleman, who was a simple soul after all, went where he was led, and Florent Guillaume supped on the leg and wing of a goose, the bones whereof he put in his pocket as a present for Madame Ysabeau, his fellow lodger in the timbers of the steeple,—to wit, Jean Magne the bell-ringer’s magpie.

He found her that night perched on the beam where she was used to roost, beside the hole in the wall which was her storeroom wherein she hoarded walnuts and hazel-nuts, almonds and beech-nuts. She had awoke at the noise of his coming and flapped her wings; so he greeted her very courteously, addressing her in these obliging terms:

“Magpie most pious, lady recluse, bird of the cloister, Margot of the Nunnery, sable-frocked Abbess, Church fowl of the lustrous coat, all hail!”

Then offering her the goose bones nicely folded in a cabbage leaf:

“Lady,” he said, “I bring you here the scraps remaining of a good dinner a gentleman from Limoges gave me. His countrymen are radish eaters; but I have taught this one to prefer an Anis goose to all the radishes in the Limousin.”

Next day and the rest of the week Florent Guillaume,—for he could never light on his fat friend again nor yet any other good pilgrim with a well-lined travelling wallet,—fasteda solis ortu usque ad occasum, from rising sun to dewy eve. Marguerite the lace-maker did likewise. This was very meet and right, seeing the time was Holy Week.


II

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OW on Holy Easter Day, Maître Jacquet Coquedouille, a notable citizen of the place, was peeping through a hole in a shutter of his house and watching the countless throng of pilgrims passing down the steep street. They were wending homewards, happy to have won their pardon; and the sight of them greatly magnified his veneration for the Black Virgin. For he deemed a lady so much sought after must needs be a puissant dame. He was old, and his only hope lay in God’s mercy. Yet was he but ill-assured of his eternal salvation, for he remembered how many a time he had ruthlessly fleeced the widow and the orphan. Moreover, he had robbed Florent Guillaume of his scrivenry at the sign of Our Lady. He was used to lend at high interest on sound security. Yet could no man infer he was a usurer, forasmuch as he was a Christian, and it was only the Jews practised usury,—the Jews, and, if you will, the Lombards and the men of Cahors.

Now Jacquet Coquedouille went about the matter quite otherwise than the Jews. He never said, like Jacob, Ephraim, and Manasses, “I am lending you money.” What he did say was, “I am putting money into your business to help your trafficking,” a different thing altogether. For usury and lending upon interest were forbidden by the Church, but trafficking was lawful and permitted.

And yet at the thought how he had brought many Christian folk to poverty and despair, Jacquet Coquedouille felt the pangs of remorse, as he pictured the sword of Divine Justice hanging over his head. So on this holy Easter Day he was fain to secure him against the Last Judgment by winning the protection of Our Lady. He thought to himself she would plead for him at the judgment seat of her divine Son, if only he gave her a handsome fee. So he went to the great chest where he kept his gold, and, after making sure the chamber door was shut fast, he opened the chest, which was full of angels, florins, esterlings, nobles, gold crowns, gold ducats, and golden sous, and all the coins ever struck by Christian or Saracen. He extracted with a sigh of regret twelve deniers of fine gold and laid them on the table, which was crowded with balances, files, scissors, gold-scales, and account books. After shutting his chest again and triple-locking it, he numbered the deniers, renumbered them, gazed long at them with looks of affection, and addressed them in words so soft and sweet, so affable and ingratiating, so gentle and courteous, it seemed rather the music of the spheres than human speech.

“Oh, little angels!” sighed the good old man. “Oh, my dear little angels! Oh, my pretty gold sheep, with the fine, precious fleece!”

And taking the pieces between his fingers with as much reverence as it had been the body of Our Lord, he put them in the balance and made sure they were of the full weight,—or very near, albeit a trifle clipped already by the Lombards and the Jews, through whose hands they had passed. After which he spoke to them yet more graciously than before:

“Oh, my pretty sheep, my sweet, pretty lambs, there, let me shear you! ’T will do you no hurt at all.”

Then, seizing his great scissors, he clipped off shreds of gold here and there, as he was used to clip every piece of money before parting with it. And he gathered the clippings carefully in a wooden bowl that was already half full of bits of gold. He was ready to give twelve angels to the Holy Virgin; but he felt no way bound to depart from his use and wont. This done, he went to the aumry where his pledges lay, and drew out a little blue purse, broidered with silver, which a dame of the petty trading sort had left with him in her distress. He remembered that blue and white are Our Lady’s colours.

That day and the next he did nothing further. But in the night, betwixt Monday and Tuesday, he had cramps, and dreamt the devils were pulling him by the feet. This he took for a warning of God and our Blessed Lady, tarried within doors pondering the matter all the day, and then toward evening went to lay his offering at the feet of the Black Virgin.


III

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HAT same day, as night was closing in, Florent Guillaume thought ruefully of returning to his airy bedchamber. He had fasted the livelong day, sore against the grain, holding that a good Christian ought not to fast in the glorious Resurrection week. Before mounting to his bed in the steeple, he went to offer a pious prayer to the Lady of Le Puy. She was still there in the midst of the Church at the spot where she had offered herself on the Grand Friday to the veneration of the Faithful. Small and black, crowned with jewels, in a mantle blazing with gold and precious stones and pearls, she held on her knees the Child Jesus, who was as black as his mother and passed his head through a slit in her cloak. It was the miraculous image which St. Louis had received as a gift from the Soldan of Egypt and had carried with his own hands to the Church of Anis.

All the pilgrims were gone now, and the Church was dark and empty. The last offerings of the Faithful were spread at the feet of the beautiful Black Virgin, displayed on a table lit with wax tapers. You could see amongst the rest a head, hearts, hands, feet, a woman’s breasts of silver, a little boat of gold, eggs, loaves, Aurillac cheeses, and in a bowl full of deniers, sous, and groats, a little blue purse broidered with silver. Over against the table, in a huge chair, dozed the priest who guarded the offerings.

Florent Guillaume dropped on his knees before the holy image, and said over to himself this pious prayer:

“Lady, an it be true that the holy prophet Jeremias, having beheld thee with the eyes of faith ere ever thou wast conceived, carved with his hands out of cedar-wood in thy likeness the holy image before which I am at this present kneeling; an it be true that afterward King Ptolemy, instructed of the miracles wrought by this same holy image, took it from the Jewish priests, bare it to Egypt and set it up, covered with precious stones, in the temple of the idols; an it be true that Nebuchadnezzar, conqueror of the Egyptians, seized it in his turn and had it laid amongst his treasure, where the Saracens found it when they captured Babylon; an it be true that the Soldan loved it in his heart above all things, and was used to adore it at the least once every day; an it be true that the said Soldan had never given it to our saintly King Louis, but that his wife, who was a Saracen dame, yet prized chivalry and knightly prowess, resolved to make it a gift to the best knight and worthiest champion of all Christendom; in a word, an this image be miraculous, as I do firmly credit, have it do a miracle, Lady, in favour of the poor clerk who hath many a time writ thy praises on the vellum of the service books. He hath sanctified his sinful hands by engrossing in a fair writing, with great red capitals at the beginning of each clause, ‘the fifteen joys of Our Lady,’ in the vulgar tongue and in rhyme, for the comforting of the afflicted. ’Tis pious work this. Think of it, Lady, and heed not his sins. Give him somewhat to eat. ’Twill both do me much profit, and bring thee great honour, for the miracle will appear no mean one to all them that know the world. Thou hast this day gotten gold, eggs, cheeses, and a little blue purse broidered with silver. Lady, I grudge thee none of the gifts that have been made thee. Thou dost well deserve them, yea, and more than they. I do not so much as ask thee to make them give me back what a thief hath robbed me of, a thief by name Jacquet Coquedouille, one of the most honoured citizens of this thy town of Le Puy. No, all I ask of thee is not to let me die of hunger. And if thou grant me this boon, I will indite a full and fair history of thine holy image here present.”

So prayed Florent Guillaume. The soft murmur of his petition was answered only by the deep-chested, placid snore of the sleeping priest. The poor scrivener rose from his knees, stepped noiselessly adown the nave, for he was grown so light his footfall could scarce be heard, and, fasting as he was, climbed the tower stairs that had as many steps as there are days in the year.

Meanwhile Madame Ysabeau, slipping under the cloister gate, entered her Church. The pilgrims had driven her away, for she loved peace and solitude. The bird came forward cautiously, putting one foot slowly in front of the other, then stopped and craned her neck, casting a suspicious look to right and left. Then giving a graceful little jump and shaking out her tail feathers, she hopped up to the Black Madonna. Then she stood stock still a few moments, scrutinising the sleeping watchman and questioning the darkness and silence with eyes and ears alert. At last with a mighty flutter of wings she alighted on the table of offerings.


IV

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EANWHILE Florent Guillaume had settled himself for the night in the steeple. It was bitter cold. The wind came blowing in through the luffer-boards and fluted and organed among the bells to rejoice the heart of the cats and owls. And this was not the only objection to the lodging. Since the earthquake of 1427, which had shaken the whole church, the spire was dropping to pieces stone by stone and threatened to collapse altogether in the first storm. Our Lady suffered this dilapidation because of the people’s sins.

Presently Florent Guillaume fell asleep, which is a token of his innocency of heart. What dreams he dreamt is clean forgot, except that he had a vision in his sleep of a lady of consummate beauty who came and kissed him on the mouth. But when his lips opened to return her salute, he swallowed two or three woodlice that were walking over his face and by their tickling had deluded his sleeping senses into the agreeable fancy. He awoke, and hearing a noise of wings beating above his head, he thought it was a devil, as was very natural for him to opine, seeing how the evil spirits flock in countless swarms to torment mankind, and above all at night time. But the moon just then breaking through the clouds, he recognised Madame Ysabeau and saw she was busy with her beak pushing into a crack in the wall that served her for storehouse a blue purse broidered with silver. He let her do as she list; but when she had left her hoard, he clambered onto a beam, took the purse, opened it, and saw it contained twelve good gold deniers, which he clapped in his belt, giving thanks to the incomparable Black Virgin of Le Puy. For he was a clerk and versed in the Scriptures, and he remembered how the Lord fed his prophet Elias by a raven; whence he inferred that the Holy Mother of God had sent by a magpie twelve deniers to her poor penman, Florent Guillaume.

On the morrow Florent and Marguerite the lace-maker ate a dish of tripe,—a treat they had craved for many a long year.

So ends the Miracle of the Magpie. May he who tells the tale live, as he would fain live, in good and gentle peace, and all good hap befall such folk as shall read the same.


Notes and References

Note on France’s text and the illustrations: Translation is by Alfred Allinson (London: John Lane, Bodley Head, 1909). Woodcuts by British artist Marcia Lane Foster (1897–1983) confirmed as Public Domain Mark 1.0 (free of known restrictions under copyright law). Acknowledgement to David Widger for his digital edition.

Eliza A. Foster, “Out of Egypt: Inventing the Black Madonna of Le Puy in Image and Text”, Studies in Iconography 37 (2016) 1-30.

Vincenzina Krymow, “Black Madonnas in Various Countries: Still Black and Still Venerated“. University of Dayton.

Introduction © 2020 Furin Chime, Oliver Raven

2 replies »

  1. While I enjoy Oliver’s reflections, and definitely his fascinating coverage of the Black Madonnas, my reading of the tale is rather different. I see in it strongly humanistic themes: sceptical of religious superstition, but at the same time activating superstitious mechanisms, such that one may observe them in a unique aesthetic light.

    Guillaume comes over to me, rather than a mocker and exploiter, as a suffering, starving artist, trying to survive. He is devout, lives in the steeple, prays to the Madonna, and was once a great scrivener, though now ‘his hand had lost its cunning, and his eye its clearness’ (from too much merrymaking–those artists!)–as Oliver suggests, ‘cynical and broken’ perhaps.

    He seems to me concerned about what may happen to the fat pilgrim, and honestly tries to assist him. One may well read underlying hints of irony. I note, for instance, reference to the pilgrims as targets, with ‘well-lined travelling wallet[s]’.

    I think that the magpie has a critical role to play in the tale, albeit an efficient, economical one. Its fragmentary representation is wonderfully poetic. She is personified as ‘Madame Ysabeau, his fellow lodger in the timbers of the steeple,—to wit, Jean Magne the bell-ringer’s magpie’; and at other times actually beatified. When, coming out of sleep, Guillaume hears the beating of her wings, he thinks it is the devil. But it may as well be the sound of the Holy Spirit doing the will of the Black Madonna, in answer to Guillaume’s prayer.

    I love how, with a sublime play of irony, France sets the possibilities at play, in such a way that a reader actively engages in the narrative process, having to piece together the fragments of action, as in a montage sequence, by which Jacquet Coquedouille’s purse is conveyed to the steeple. Such a stunning climax in Part III, where Madame Ysabeau enters ‘her Church’ and hops up to the Madonna–here too, the ‘mighty flutter’ of her wings.

    Hence we may re-enact a superstitious recognition of Madame Ysabeau (in Hebrew, ‘God’s promise’) as an agent, if not avatar, of the Black Madonna herself. Alternatively, the magpie is the ‘true divinity’, the true spiritual symbol, the Madonna a mere object.

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  2. Perhaps it is after all I who am the mocker… I really liked your very different perception of the story, so very different to mine. Was it France’s style of writing that made me see things the way I had seen them? Odd, even after reading it twice, I had barely taken any notice of the magpie in the story, apparently, even though I just so happen to care for a wild magpie as if he were a family member. Perceptions…

    My derision of Guillaume’s reward of a bowl of tripe also stands at odds with TV celebrity chef Rick Stein’s insistence that it truly is a delicacy. Of course, people in that area of France also say that it is. The result of many centuries of offal eating, mainly by the poorer people? My only encounter with it induced an intense urge to vomit however and I won’t be back for seconds, that’s for sure.

    The segment of the photo of the Black Madonna you had chosen lets me see her with far less inclination of being reminded of a kangaroo with a joey in her pouch, mainly due to the effect of the eleborate robe. This Black Madonna, a copy also, after the destruction of the original in the French Revolution, is crafted from ebony. So it, like the original, was also definitely intended to be black at creation. It had been brought back from the Middle East by St Louis (King Louis of France) after the seventh crusade. An Arabic craftsman, correctly depicting a darker skinned woman? Or that curious Earth Goddess theme again, but in the mind of a Middle Eastern craftsman in or before the ninth century? Hmmm… There certainly is a lot of mystery surrounding her.

    The story definitely is worth a read.

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