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  • The Green Devil of Quimper June 19, 2011

    Author: Beach Combing | in : Modern , trackback

    Beachcombing was taught many years ago not to trust Breton sources: there is (an almost Gaelic) tendency to colour over the terrible monotone of reality with illusory rainbow details. This rule probably holds good if you are dealing with a twelfth-century saint’s life written about a sixth-century saint (many other posts, many other days). But let’s say – for the sake of argument – that a fire took place in 1620 in a Breton town and that a document published in Paris in 1620 described how the town’s population had watched a green devil gallivanting in the flames. What do you do? Probably the best solution is to sit back, read the source and enjoy.

    *On Saturday a great disaster took place in the town of Quimper-Corentin; namely that a beautiful and tall pyramid covered with lead, being atop the nave of the great church, and over the cross of that said nave, was burnt by the lightning and fire from the sky, from the top down to the said nave, without any way to remedy it. And to tell the story from beginning to end, about seven and a half to eight in the morning, there was a clap of thunder and terrible lightning, and at that instant was seen a horrible and frightening demon, taking advantage of a great downpour of hail, seizing the pyramid from the top under the cross, the said demon of green colour, having a long tail of the same colour.

    Samedy premier jour de Fevrier mil six cens vingt advint un grand malheur et desastre en la ville de quimpercorentin c’est une belle et haute Pyramide couverte de plomb estant sur la nef de la grande Eglise et sur la croisee de la dite nef, fut toute brulee par la foudre et le feu du Ciel, depuis le haut jusques à ladite nef, sans pouvoir y apporter aucun remede. Et pour sçavoir le commencement et la fin, c’est que ledit jour sur les sept heures tendant à huict du matin, se fit un coup de tonnerre et éclairs terribles entre autres: et à l’instant fut visiblement veu un demon horrible et espouvantable en faveur d’une grande onde de gresle se saisir de ladite Pyramide par le haut et au-dessous de la Croix, estant ledit demon, de couleur verte, ayant une longue queuë de pareille couleur.

    Regulars will notice here a favourite Beachcombian theme: ‘fire from the heavens’, lightning insinuating its way into history. But what about the demon? Surely there is a rational explanation for what we are reading here? Did the lead pyramid – according to other sources, a bell tower in the centre of the cathedral – harness or provoke some strange form of ball lightning?

    No fire or smoke appeared on the said pyramid, until about one in the afternoon, when smoke started coming out from the top of it, and lasted a quarter of an hour, and from the same place fire appeared, while it ran higher and lower, so that is became so large and frightening that it was feared the whole church would burn, and not only the church but the whole town. All the treasures of the church were taken outside; neighbours had their goods transported as far as they could in fear of the fire. There were more than 400 men to extinguish the fire, and they could not do anything to stop it.

    Aucun feu ny fumée n’apparut sur ladite pyramide qu’il ne fust pres d’une heure apres midy, que la fumee commença à sortir du haut d’icelle, et dura fumant un quart d’heure: et du mesme endroict commença le feu à paroistre peu à peu en augmentant tousjours ainsi que il devaloit de haut en bas: tellement qu’il se fit si grand et si espouvantable que l’on craignoit que toute l’Eglise fust brulee, et non seulement l’Eglise, mais aussi toute la ville tous les tresors de ladite Eglise furent tirez hors: les voisins d’icelle faisoient transporter leurs biens le plus loing que ils pouvoient de peur du feu. Il y avoit plus de quatre cens hommes pour devoir tuer le feu et n’y pouvoient rien faire.

    So if the ‘demon’ was ball lightning it was ball lightning capable of creating a fire. In any case, the demon did not vanish and the fire-fighters resorted to seventeenth-century  ghost-buster antics, rolling out the hymns, the holy bread and a sanctimonious wet nurse.

    Processions went around the church and other churches, all in prayers. Finally, to end it, holy relics were placed on the nave of the said church, near and before the fire. Gentlemen of the Chapter (in the absence of Monsignor the Bishop) began conjuring this evil demon, which everyone could see clearly in the fire, sometimes green, yellow and blue. They threw Agnus Dei into it, and nearly a hundred and fifty barrels of water, forty or fifty carts of manure, yet the fire went on burning. For an ultimate resolution a loaf of rye bread worth four sols was thrown into it, within which a consecrated host had been placed, then holy water with the milk of a wet nurse of good morals [missing in this version of the French read comments below for solution], and all that was thrown into the fire; at once the demon was forced to leave the fire and before getting out of it made such trouble that we all seemed to be burned, and he left at six hours and a half on the said day, without doing any damage (thanks God!) except for the total ruin of the said pyramid, which is of the consequence of twelve thousand écus at least. This evil being out, the fire was conquered.

    Processions allerent à l’entour de l’Eglise et aux autre Eglises chacun en priere. Enfin ce feu alloit tousjours en augmentant ainsi qu’il trouva plus de bois. Finalement pour toute resolution on eu recours à faire mettre des Reliques sainctes sur la nef de ladite Eglise pres et au devant du feu. Messieurs du Chapitre commencerent à conjurer ce meschant Demon, que chacun voyoit apertement dans le feu, tantost vert tantost jaune tantost bleu, jetant des Agnus Dei dans iceluy, et plus de cent cinquante barriques d’eau, quarante ou cinquante chartees de fumier, et neantmois le feu continuoit. Et pour derniere resolution l’on fit jeter un pain de seigle de quatre solds, dans lequel on y mit une Hostie consacrée puis on print de l’eau beniste et la jeta non dans le feu, tout aussi tost le Demon fut contrainct de quitter le feu: et avant que de sortir il fit un si grand remu-mesnage, que l’on sembloit estre tous bruslex, et qu’il devoit emporter l’Eglise et tout avec luy: Et en sifflant il sortit a six heures et demie du soir dudit jour, sans faire autre mal (Dieu mercy) que la totale ruine de ladite Pyramide, qui est de consequence de douze mille escus du moins. Ce meschant estant hors, on eut raison du feu.

    Then, just in case you were wondering: ‘And shortly afterwards, the loaf of rye bread was found still intact, without any damage, except that the crust was somewhat blackened.’ ‘Et peu de temps apres ledit pain de seigle se trouva encore en la mesme essence qu’il estoit, sans estre aucunement endommagé, fort que la croute estoit un peu noire.’

    So there! God, breast milk and Quimper against the ball lightning. But, again, is there any way to make sense of what happened and was the demon’s changing colours perhaps a result of the melting lead in the bell tower? drbeachcombing AT yahoo DOT com

    Beachcombing borrowed (with small alterations) a loose translation (Wonders in the Sky) and has appended said translation and the two earliest versions in French in pdf: read at your leisure.

    It is certainly true that the 1620 account – an occasionnel – was a one off publication of the kind that lean easily towards the occult and scandalous. But it was published in the same year…

    Then again the fact that modern tabloids are published on the same day is not always a guarantee of veracity.

    Note too that there is a fascinating tradition of Breton ballads describing the Green Devil and the Lead Tower (French-language page).


    19 June 2011: Andrea starts off the attack: ‘The good people of Brittany may have seen a demon-changing colors because lead gives off those colors when it burns.  Google ‘lead spectra‘. Invisible then takes the detail a little further: ‘When I was a child it was a great treat to be allowed to throw pine cones treated with various chemicals into the fireplace and watch the fire flare up in different colors: red, green, and blue. I recall being told that green was made with copper. You can still buy such mystic fireplace powders today. My money’s on copper as the origin of the Green Devil. Lead burns blue–was there copper solder, trim or guttering somewhere in the mix? Or is verte possibly blue-green? Verdigris is often blue-green in color. If bells were present, as they almost certainly would have been in a church of this time, they would usually be made of an alloy of about 80% copper to 20% tin. Here is a page with a table that breaks down the colors and their metals.  Perhaps some architectural historian or structural engineer can offer suggestions as to specific metals liable to have been present in this church tower. I found this interesting fact about church bell towers: some churches have an exconjuratory in the bell tower, a space where ceremonies were conducted to ward off weather related calamities, like storms and excessive rain. The main bell tower of the Cathedral of Murcia has four. And this site with information on the deadly mix of church towers and lightning. Then a criticism of Beach’s translating powers (ahem): ‘Where in the French text does the milk from the wet-nurse of good morals appear?  I am not seeing this AT ALL – just water, manure, a loaf and a Host and holy water. And breast milk, no matter how moral the wet-nurse, is not a canonical requirement for exorcism. Incidentally, the agnus dei mentioned was usually a wafer of wax embossed with the image of the Lamb of God. Not, perhaps, the most effective fire-fighting tool except in a mystical sense.’ The translation was evidently made from the later text included in the source page and in the link above and the nursemaid is there, but she is a gratuitous if colourful addition: ‘Et pour dernière résolution l’on fit jeter un pain de seigle de quatre sols, dans lequel on y mit une hostie consacrée, puis on prit de l’eau bénite avec du lait d’une femme nourrice , de bonne vie, et tout cela jeté dans le feu’. Lesson: don’t be lazy and always write your own translations or at least check properly those you steal. Beach is contrite but probably won’t have time to put this into practice. Thanks Andrea, thanks Invisible!!

    21 June 2011: Kate remembers: ‘an American (possibly Maritime Canada) story that was similar; a church or other public building burned to the ground and the spectators noticing the melting lead or copper roof producing colored flames. No demons, though!’ Moonman writes: ‘I still think it was more than the mundane ball lightning.  You don’t dump 50 carts of manure in your church for nothing.  Doesn’t manure burn or at least stink to high heavens?  Nice way to desecrate a church, but then they already had a devil doing that.  Don’t know what it could have been without resorting to the paranormal.  Would be nice if there were artefacts left from the event though.  Isn’t this the kind of thing they made money from back then (‘Step up, step up, get your piece of devil-rid-church-pyramid, rids demons, succubi, rats and lice’)?’ Thanks Moonman and Kate!

    23 June 2011: Now it is Ole Jonny Brænne’s turn (via Moonman). The following extract comes from The Register, Adelaide, South Australia, Australia, 1906 June 19, page 7 and is entitled ‘A Fireball in Church’ and might be a warning of what we are not looking at here. ‘Terror overwhelmed the congregation at Wookley Church, near to Wells, on Sunday, not by reason of the fiery denunciation of the preacher, but by the prescence of a fireball which struck the building. The ball hit the steeple, broke it in two, and came crashing through the roof. The wrecked steeple fell on the church and did much damage. The ball of fire shot across the church, emitting a strong odour of sulphur. Several persons among the congregation fainted. Some were slightly burnt by the ball: but, after the service was concluded, hastily without a sermon, the clergyman induced the people to return, and offered special prayers thanking God for their marvellous escape from death.’ Thanks Ole Jonny Brae and, of course, Moonman again!