Ghost Stories by Pierre Le Loyer: A Look at a Rare Book from the Museum’s Collection
In Canada and the rest of North America, the month of October is often synonymous with Halloween. At this time of year, we dress up, eat candy and scare ourselves silly. A black cat crossing your path means trouble, walking beneath a ladder leads to misfortune, and breaking a mirror results in seven years of bad luck. We have all heard these types of superstitions at one time or other.
Popular interest in the supernatural is not a recent phenomenon. Over the centuries, many intellectuals studied sorcery, malevolent spirits and other non-corporeal beings. French scholar Pierre Le Loyer of La Brosse, born in Huillé, a village in the region of Maine-et-Loire in Western France, was a true demonologist, devoting a significant portion of his life to the study of demons and related beliefs. In 1586, he published his first book on spectres, in which he presented his ideas on demonology. In 1605, he wrote a revised and more complete version of the book, called Discours et Histoires des Spectres, visions et apparitions des esprits, anges, démons et âmes se montrant visibles aux hommes [A Treatise of Specters or Straunge Sights, Visions and Apparitions appearing sensibly unto men].The Canadian Museum of History’s rare book collection includes a copy of this important work on demonology, which is considered one of the classics on the subject. According to what we know, it is also the oldest book in our collection. The work in question, divided into eight chapters, deals with extraordinary visions and other phenomena over the centuries. Using a number of ancient authors as sources, both religious and secular, Le Loyer details the causes of apparitions, the natures of spirits and demons, magicians and sorcerers, and how they communicate with spirits, among other things. In the first chapter, the first page of which is reproduced above, Le Loyer attempts to define the nature of spirits — which the author calls “spectres” — while also developing a scientific approach to this human phenomenon, which he distinguishes from the study of ghosts. In Le Loyer’s opinion, there is a real difference between “on the one hand, an apparition that is the product of the human imagination (insane or not), which he calls a ‘fantasm’ and, on the other hand, the apparition of a Spirit who, of its own accord takes shape in the human imagination as a spectre.” (Huot, p. 578). Was Le Loyer’s work read in New France? There is no clear answer to this question. What we do know is that demons held an important place in the collective consciousness of French settlers, some of whom didn’t escape demonic torments. For example, French canoness Mary Catherine of St. Augustine went into trances, a young girl from Beauport was exorcised and a miller accused of sorcery was executed.
Huot, Hervé. “Spectres ou pas Spectres : telle était la question” In Ethnologie française, nouvelle série, T. 33, no 4, VOIX, VISIONS, APPARITIONS (October-December 2003): 575–582.
Demougin, Patrick. “Étude sur l’œuvre démonologique de Pierre Le Loyer (1550-1634).“, Bulletin de l’Association d’étude sur l’humanisme, la réforme et la renaissance, n°41 (1995): 143–146.