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Maple Family Treehouse

Episode 18: Sorcery, The Devil’s Handiwork in New France February 18, 2022

The historical record indicates that casting spells or curses that effect fertility were considered the most damaging applications of witchcraft. Now add a context in which fertility was one of the main strategies for the success of New France, and a fertility curse takes on a whole new level of criminality. You were not only a danger to the public, but a threat to national security. This is the position my eighth great-grandfather Rene Besnard dit Beaujoli found himself in when he used sorcery to exact revenge for his broken heart.

Welcome to the Maple Family Treehouse, I am Kael. Bringing you another story from my family tree. In doing so, I hope to understand my settler past, and my current role as a treaty person during the reconciliation process here in Canada. So, I am here telling the stories of my settler ancestors and the reasons they chose to come to Canada. And Rene Besnard is an interesting case study. In many ways Rene Besnard was the ideal immigrant for New France because of his abilities as a gunsmith and his age, he was 28 years old - perfect for military service, clearing land and raising a family – he was the ideal settler because he could produce arms, serve in the military, and help build a settled population in New France. But his story also reminds us of the tender hearts and egos of ancestors that can be easily stereotyped as rough and rugged.

1625 - René Besnard dit Beaujoli joined the army in his hometown of Saint-Pierre, Villiers-au-Bouin, France, where he was born and baptized on February 6, 1625. He joined the French army and was posted to New France in 1653.

The fact that Rene migrates to New France in 1653 was not happenstance, or a mystery.

According to historian, Marcel Trudel, 1653 is the year of the Great Recruit. A year in which France would make a systemic effort to attract ideal settlers to New France. In this year 3 ships brought permanent settlers and military reinforcements that changed the quality of life and increased security in and around Fort Ville-Marie, or what is now present-day Montreal. Rene Besnard came across on a ship called the Saint-Nazaire.[i]

1653 - He arrived at Ville-Marie (Montréal) on November 16, 1653, as Corporal of the garrison at Fort Ville-Marie.

1656 – 3 years later, in 1656, Marie Pontonnier arrived in Montréal at the young age of 13 years old. The arrival of eligible single women would have been welcome by the male dominated colony. For every 7 men in the settlement, there were 3 women. Suffice it to say that the dating scene inside the colony could be a little tense. It goes without saying that women in Ville-Marie would have had multiple suitors.

1657 - Marie married Pierre Gadois, but Rene Besnard was also a suitor and did not take the news that Marie had chosen Pierre Gadois over him very well.

In reaction, Rene threatened that if Marie did not abandon her marriage plans with Pierre Gadois. that he knew how to tie the knots or, tying the codpiece string, intended to render a man impotent.

This curse was a well-known import from France. The curse would have been carried out by secretly knotting a cod string 3 times during the marriage ceremony. This simple curse would render the couple sterile until the knots were untied and potentially lasting up to 17 years.

1657 - Marie Pontonnier spoke to her fiancé and the parish priest, about this threat and they decided to proceed with the marriage, on August 12, 1657. As a precaution Pierre was instructed by the priest to recite the words Have mercy on me, O God backwards during the ceremony to ward off Rene Besnard’s curse.

After trying unsuccessfully for a year to get pregnant, the couple was advised to go to Quebec City and get a second nuptial blessing from Bishop Laval. When the Bishops blessing proved ineffective, Besnard was accused of making Pierre Gadois sterile.

1658 – Father Claude Pijart pronounced the marriage to be “nulloque Legitimo impedimento detecto”, meaning an obstruction was placed on the relationship.

On November 2, 1658, René Besnard dit Beaujoli was summoned and appeared before the Lord Justice of Montréal. This was the first trial for witchcraft in New France. Faced with the possibility of being burned alive, Rene Besnard denied the charges of sorcery. Rene claimed instead that Marie had approached him with an offer of sex if he would acknowledge the curse and break the spell, and not the other way around as Marie had testified.

When faced with testimony that he had boasted suggestively in public of “knowing how to tie the knot,” Besnard again explained that there had been a misunderstanding, he was talking about lacing up corsets or shoes, not casting a spell. Because cursing people and putting on clothes are easily mixed up you know.

When multiple witnesses testified that Rene boasted about knowing how to “tie the knot”, Rene had no recollection whatsoever of the discussions.

Of course, with his life potentially on the line, Besnard denied all the accusations. Even when Rene does finally admit to boasting about having magical powers, Besnard asserts that he was kidding, the statements were only intended to scare Pierre Gadois.

In the end, the court does not seem to believe the statements made by Pierre that this was a misunderstanding. Besnard is exonerated in part from the accusation of sorcery but is found guilty of spells and malice.

On November 4, 1658, Besnard was fined 300 “livres” by the Seigneurial Justice of Montréal for having attempted to destroy the virtue of Marie.

Just so we can grasp here the relative value of this fine today. 300 Livres converts roughly to $518.00 CAD in 1658, but by today’s standard that fine would be more like $35,000. When I searched for fines today that are set at $35,000, I got several examples of fines given to unruly passengers on airlines. It is a good comparison. Many of these cases also included jail time and being banned from flying for at least a year or more. It is behaviour that effects public safety of the other passengers. And well these fines seem harsh, I think that is the point. They are meant to be effective deterrents. Both examples as ways for our society to deter behaviours that are seen as a very real threat to public safety and well being.

Sieur de Chomedey de Maisonneuve, who officiated as magistrate on the case, condemned René Besnard to prison, and then expelled him from Ville-Marie. Rene left town as ordered and settled in the nearby town of Trois Rivieres.

1660 - Bishop Laval repealed the marriage after an ecclesiastical investigation and on Aug. 30, 1660, after the three-year waiting period was complete, Marie and Pierre could both remarry, he declared the marriage null “because of permanent impotence caused by witchcraft.” Both Marie and Pierre went on to have very “fruitful” marriages, adding a final layer of mystery and intrigue to the idea that Rene Besnard was a sorcerer.

The efforts to start her life over again, sent Marie Pontonnier on a roller coaster ride of joy and tragedy. Two months after marrying Pierre Martin dit Lariviere, on November 3, 1660. Marie became pregnant. Their happiness was to be short lived though.

1661 - Pierre was killed on March 24, 1661, during a fight with the Iroquois. His decapitated body was found on June 22, 1661. He was buried in Montreal 6 days later.

Their daughter Marie was born and then baptised on November 9, 1661.

On December 5, 1661, Marie married Honore Langlois. Things settled down for Marie after this point and the couple had 10 children together.

1661 – As for René Besnard, he married Marie Sédilot widower of the rich landowner, Bertrand Fafard, and mother of four children. René and Marie Sédilot had six children together including my 6th great grandmother Marie-Anne Besnard.

1665Pierre Gadois married Jeanne Benard (no relation to Rene) in 1665 and they had 14 children, with twins as a final testament that the curse used by Rene Besnard no longer had power!

1665 - René managed to carve a living for himself as the substitute for the king’s prosecutor, even though, Rene Besnard was often prosecuted for non-payment of money owed. Again, this supports my idea that Rene held some power and privilege in his community, I can’t imagine many other people getting away with this. Marrying into a wealthy landowning family probably helped.

1689 – Renes Besnard and Marie Sédilot both died in 1689 in Trois-Rivières. Bringing and end to the story of Rene Besnard, sorcerer of New France. It is a story with a relatively happy ending given the fates of other witch trials. Albeit the notion of punishing witches through the courts was waning in France and other parts of Europe at the time, here in North America though there would still be some deep-seated fear of the power of witchcraft.

1692 – The now famous Salem Witch Trials took place just 3 years later. The notion of curses and spells would linger in Canada for a while too.

1703 – In a published record entitled, Ritual of the Diocese of Quebec, 1703, an article was included that stated “, It sometimes occurs…that married persons are prevented by an evil spell or charm from consummating the marriage”. Historian and genealogical researcher, Peter J. Gagne, explained that “the afflicted couple was to pray for release from the spell, confess their sins and take communion. If this remedy did not work, they were to seek the assistance of priests, who would determine if Church prayers or an exorcism were necessary. Under no circumstances were they to ask the person who cast the spell to undo it with another or to renounce the first contract and start another, because, in the words of the report in 1703, “would cause insult to the sacrament, and could only come from the Devil.”

Conclusion - I have relayed a migration story of my 8th great-grand father Rene Besnard. A gun smith and military man in New France during the Great Recruitment of 1653. The year that turned New France from a frontier trading post confined within the Fort at Ville Marie, to a colony whose settlers could build cottages to live in and tend fields. Iroquois raids were the feared threat. Keep in mind, at this early stage in contact there were no treaties in place yet. The Treaty that calms relations between the French and Iroquois is the Great Peace of Montreal, and that did not occur until in 1701[ii]. So, in many ways this is a stereotypical early colonial settler migration story involving gun violence, economic trade, and land. Seems textbook on the surface…

But the documented life of Rene Besnard brings into focus the complexity of daily life complete with love, heartbreak, and of course sorcery.

I mean here is a guy who makes guns for living. Now, I have never owned a gun, and have no plans of ever owning a gun. But I have no doubt that ownership of a gun comes with an awesome sense of power. I can’t even imagine being a person who makes guns. And if the actual ability to make the guns is not enough to establish that Rene has power in his new frontier community, put Rene Besnard in a context in which trade, and military presence depends on the very skill he brings to the table. Rene Besnard was a skilled man in uniform who had economic, political, and physical power in his community. All at the age of 28 years old.

Rene is also a military man on the frontier. He is a tough guy who is used to hard work.

Well as they say, with power, comes responsibility, lives depended on Rene’s product, and work duties. Between military service, and building a homestead on uncleared land Rene had a lot on his plate, but…

Is it the move to a new continent that stresses Rene? No!

Is it the clearing land and building a homestead from ground up what pushes Rene over the edge? No!

Is it military defense from Iroquois raids what does Rene in? No!

What gets the goat of Rene Besnard is rejection from a woman he wanted to marry?

And what is even more surprising, is that this man, so steeped in the physical violence of colonial expansion chooses sorcery to even the score.

In the end, Rene faced justice, his curse was quashed and the effort to populate the colony continued. Once the curse was broken, Marie and Pierre went on to have 24 children between the two of them.[iii][iv]

Rene Besnard and his wife, Marie Sedilot also had several children, one of whom was a daughter Marie-Anne Besnard was born on 1661, my 7th great-grandmother. After her in my direct line to Rene Besnard there were:

2 generations of Pierre Barbeau’s; Jean-Baptiste Barbeau; Louise M. Barbeau; Louis Gervais; Eveline Gervais; Yoland St. Amant, and finally my mother, Marie Rodrique.

And there you have it, a migration Story, one of the many ways I came to be here in Canada.

Thank you for joining me, Kael Sharman at the Maple Family Treehouse. Show notes can be found at Until next time. Cheers!

[i] [ii] [iii] Gagne, Peter J. (2002). Before the King’s Daughters: The Filles a Marrier, 1634-1662, 257-260. [iv]

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