When you hear the phrase “a witch trial,” you probably think of a group of 17th-century villagers in Salem or Samlesbury deciding a local woman is a witch and inventing hopeless tests for her to prove herself otherwise.
That’s not the witch trial of The Priest, the Witch & the Poltergeist. First of all, we’re in 19th century France, not 17th century colonial America or rural England. You might think witches ceased to exist in Europe by the 19th century. It was the Industrial Revolution, after all. But covens existed here and there, performing the kind of medical services today performed by nurse-practitioners or naturopaths, and throwing in a hex if they could get paid for it.
Furthermore, the coven in our story was all composed of men. I’ve imagined their natures for the novel, but they are men because for some reason in France male witches were more common. The witch at the centre of our story, Felix Thorel, was certainly male, and a shepherd for his day job.
But that’s not the most unusual aspect of our witch trial. What is unique about the Cideville witch trial is that in it, the witch was the plaintiff. Think about that. He was slandered and beaten by the village priest — nothing unusual in a witch being treated this way, although in this case the priest was being driven to distraction by a poltergeist he thought the witch had caused — but his response was: I’ll sue. I’ll see you in court. Lawyer up, Father, because you’re going to need it.
As far as I have been able to discern that makes the Cideville witch trial utterly unique. A witch trial where the witch was the plaintiff. I was able to secure a French account of the trial called Le Diable sera it-il dans le Canton? in which it seems the unusual nature of the witch trial was taken utterly for granted. Felix Thorel was a French citizen 70 years after the Revolution, and he had the right to sue whomever he pleased. The trial was therefore not conducted as a 17th-century witch trial, but as a French civil trial with affidavits given before a judge.
And what happened? Aah . . .that’s something you’ll have to read The Priest, the Witch & the Poltergeist to find out.