Tuesday, 9 November 2010

On Werewolves, Witchhunts and Cooks Source Magazine

Many of you may already be familiar with the story of Pernette Gandillon, as it is recounted in both Sabine Baring-Gould's The Book of Were-Wolves and Henri Boguet's Discours des Sorciers (Baring-Gould, in fact, draws his version of the tale from Boguet's earlier work). However, for those of you who are not, I will give a brief overview.

Pernette Gandillon was a young woman who lived in the Jura Mountains in the late-sixteenth century. As Baring-Gould and Boguet recount, Pernette was prone to running around the countryside on all fours, and apparently believed that she was a wolf. In 1598, she is reported to have attacked two young children, as a result of her "sudden passion for blood". When the male child, a four-year-old, attempted to defend himself and his sister, Pernette tore at his throat and fatally wounded him. When this was discovered, the people of the village tore Pernette to pieces in "rage and horror".

Following the lynching of Pernette, other members of the Gandillon family were rounded up for trial on charges of witchcraft. Pierre and Georges were alleged to have led children to the witches' sabbath, transformed themselves into wolves and attacked local animals. Antoinnette confessed to having had sexual congress with the devil at the sabbath. All three confessed, were found guilty and were hanged and burned.

While by no means isolated, the story of the Gandillon family is an interesting illustration of the complexities of werewolf belief in the sixteenth century. Note, for example, the connection between lycanthropy and devil worship, and the insistence on an unnatural bloodlust in the transformed wolf. Baring-Gould also reports that Pierre and Georges behaved like "maniacs" while imprisoned, and labels Pernette's "transformation" as an ostensibly misguided "belief she was a wolf". This suggests a link between madness and werewolfism.

The Gandillon story also tells us something about sixteenth-century justice and punishment for werewolves. Pernette is dealt with by mob justice - there is no question in any reports that she committed the murder, and she is never brought to trial. Her execution - or, more accurately, lynching - is a gruesome (and, one suspects, public) dismemberment brought about by "rage and horror", rather than by a desire to see justice done. It is interesting to consider, here, whether or not we believe Pernette to be as guilty as did the vigilante mob of executioners. If, indeed, she was a werewolf, do we feel the punishment met the crime? Was she mentally unstable? Was her crime due to "diminished responsibility"? How much evidence did the mob actually have to confirm her guilt?

Baring-Gould is rather coy on the subject of the other Gandillons' confessions, simply stating that they "readily admitted" to various charges. Our knowledge of sixteenth-century techniques of extracting confessions from heretics and witches may lead us to question how "readily" the Gandillons gave forth their stories. We may also wonder why the Gandillon family were arrested "directly after" the lynching of Pernette. Were they tainted by association? Was Pernette's crime too hideous to be an isolated instance? Do we, enlightened twenty-first-century readers that we are, really believe that the Gandillon family were guilty?

Fast forward to November 2010...

As I'm sure many of you will be aware, a social media storm erupted on Thursday 17 November. Food blogger Monica Gaudio blogged that an article she had posted on her blog had been printed (without permission or remuneration) in the now-infamous Cooks Source Magazine. For the sake of my eyes and yours, I will limit the hyperlinks in this post to the above (which links to the Guardian's analysis of the controversy). A simple Google search for 'Cooks Source Magazine' will let you fill in any blanks.

Gaudio not only blogged about the infringement of her copyright, but also published the condescending response she had received from Cooks Source's editor, Judith Griggs. Griggs' response revealed an arrogant disregard for Gaudio's intellectual property rights, and a distinct lack of understanding as to the role and function of the internet in the publishing industry. Other bloggers linked to Gaudio's piece, and the story began to be circulated via Twitter. The first tweet I received about the story appeared to be a cautionary tale to warn bloggers of potential danger. However, events soon started to move in a different direction.

Filled with "rage and horror" at Cooks Source's crime, and disgusted by Griggs' unapologetic attitude, social media users embarked upon what has been described by some as "frontier justice". The Cooks Source Facebook page was inundated with hostile, insulting and threatening messages. Fake Twitter and Facebook accounts were set up for the magazine, and for Griggs herself - who was, by now, the scapegoat being led to slaughter. As the mob grew, the phone number and address of Cooks Source magazine was circulated to literally thousands of people. People screamed across cyberspace for an end to Griggs' career and financial security - as well as for worse.

Directly after the figurative lynching of Griggs, people's attention turned to the advertisers who had paid for promotion in Cooks Source magazine. Many of these were small businesses, who received thousands of email - many angry and abusive - and phone calls which disrupted their working day. One company reported being told that "when you lie down with dogs, you're bound to get fleas". No advertiser publicly stood by the magazine. All "readily admitted" that they had paid for advertising in a publication that was beyond reproach, and accepted that they would not do so again.

While no-one (thankfully) was physically torn to pieces in this case, one is left pondering the similarities between the sixteenth-century lynching of Pernette Gandillon and the "frontier justice" administered to Judith Griggs.

At no point in the past week has anyone questioned Griggs' guilt. We know she was guilty of copyright infringement - we saw the email - just as those Jura villagers saw the child's body. Both Gandillon and Griggs committed crimes recognized and punishable by recourse to contemporaneous legal channels, and yet were dealt with outside of official channels. Both cases enabled further accusations to be levelled against those associated with the original 'monster', and resulted in further coerced 'confessions'. The punishments of both women seem somehow out of proportion to the crimes committed. It is possible that Pernette was, in fact, being punished for being 'different' (perhaps, mentally ill), while Judith Griggs was undoubtedly being punished more for her lack of knowledge of the how the internet works that for her initial plagiarism - consider the scorn poured upon Cooks Source when they claimed their Facebook page had been "hacked", when, in truth, it had simply been bombarded with comments. Pernette Gandillon and Judith Griggs were not, by the standards of their day and the environment in which they operated, 'one of us'.

Some internet users are very aware of the comparison to be made between early modern witchhunts and the Cooks Source Magazine debacle. Some have spoken of "pitchforks and burning torches", others directly referring to "witchhunts" and "lynchings". The Cooks Source Facebook page has become a repository of other 'humorous' charges levelled at the magazine and, more specifically, its editor. One ironic poster claims "Cooks Source magazine has commerce with the devil." Wasn't that what Antoinnette Gandillon was burned for?

Nevertheless, the majority of posters seem somewhat less aware. Their messages are crude, designed to cause cruel laughter and provoke further response. Those involved do not appear to be directly affected or concerned by Griggs' crime - in fact, many have ceased making any reference to it whatsoever. The initial transgression of the accused is no longer the issue, the point is to keep waving the pitchforks until you have someone to burn.

One wonders how the Jura villagers felt after the dismemberment of Pernette Gandillon. Were they relieved to have dispatched such a great threat? Were they fearful that such a thing might happen again? Or were they exhilarated in the wake of their "driveby justice"? There must be something quite compelling in the idea of being part of a mob baying for justice - after all, five centuries on, people are still pretty quick to pick up their pitchforks and lift up the torches. Reading the relish with which bloggers and online journalists have described the fate of Cooks Source Magazine, it would seem that people enjoy a virtual lynching. All that "rage and horror" has not gone away, it's just gone online.

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