Cannibalism in the Kitchen: Jean de Léry’s L’Histoire mémorable de la ville de Sancerre (1574)

By Stephanie Shiflett

In 1573, at the height of the Wars of Religion in France, Catholic forces besieged the Protestant town of Sancerre. The author Jean de Léry found himself caught there, watching as supplies dwindled and the populace grew increasingly desperate. He published a first-hand account of life inside the besieged city the next year. In this text, L’Histoire mémorable de la ville de Sancerre (The Memorable History of the Town of Sancerre, 1574), Léry does not spare his readers the horrific details of what he saw.(1) At one point, he encounters a couple who, ostensibly at the urging of an old woman,  proceed to eat the body of their two-year-old daughter who had died of starvation:

And certainly, having passed near where they lived, and having seen the skull and the scalp of this poor girl, cleaned, and nibbled, and the ears eaten, having also seen the cooked tongue, as thick as a finger, that they were ready to eat, when they were surprised: the two thighs, legs and feet in a cauldron with vinegar, spices and salt, ready to be cooked and placed on the fire: the two shoulders, arms and hands put together, with the chest split and open, seasoned also to eat, I was so frightened and appalled that it moved all of my entrails.

–291, my translation

From Léry, Histoire mémorable de la ville de Sancerre. Included in Nasheli Jiménez de Val, “Seeing Cannibals: European Colonial Discourses on the Latin American Other,” PhD diss. (Cardiff University, 2010), 189. (If anyone has more information on the exact source of this image, she requests that you email her.)

 

The way that the Potards have dressed their daughter’s body in this account recalls other common forms of meat preparation at the time. A recipe for roast kid from a fifteenth-century cookbook says to “fle him, And larde him, And trusse his legges in the sides, and roste him, And reyse the shuldres and legges, and sauce hit with vinegre and salte.” The family has prepared the young girl’s body in the way that one might dress a baby goat. Why did Léry feel the need to share the cannibal recipe with his readers? 

Léry’s work judges cannibalism differently based on who is committing the act. In this case, Léry places the blame for the Potards’ cannibalism squarely on an elderly woman living with them at the time. He recounts that, after the girl had died of starvation, the old woman told the girl’s father that “it would be a shame to let this flesh rot in the ground: and besides, liver was good for curing her inflammation” (292). 

Francesco Maria Guazzo, Compendium Maleficarum, ed. Montague Summers, E. Allen Ashwin, and John Rodker (Suffolk: Richard Clay and Sons, 1929), 89.

 

Several scholars have pointed out Léry’s association of cannibalism with femininity. Frank Lestringant sees Léry as retelling the story of Adam and Eve, with the old woman playing the role of Satan.(2) Starvation does not excuse their behavior, as Léry writes: “In short, not only famine, but also a disordered appetite made them commit this barbaric and more than bestial cruelty” (292, my translation). By invoking the art of cooking along with cannibalism, Léry locates the latter in the feminine sphere, portraying the Potards’ cannibalistic domesticity as an outgrowth of the demonic nature of women.


References

  1. Jean de Léry, L’histoire mémorable du siège et de la famine de Sancerre (1573): Au lendemain de la Saint-Barthélemy, Géralde Nakam, ed. (Geneva: Slatkine, 2000), 291.

  2. Frank Lestringant, Le cannibale: grandeur et décadence (Genève: Droz, 2016), 140.

About

Stephanie Shiflett earned her PhD in French at Boston University, where she now teaches. Her current book project explores the spiritual and occult motivations behind cordiform, or heart-shaped, maps of the sixteenth century. She maintains a research blog at www.mapsandmuscle.wordpress.com.

Pächter Torte

By Simon Newman

Mina Pächter’s recipe book. Credit: Stern and Pächter family papers, Collections of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum.

15 dkg Zucker (15 decagrams sugar)

Many of the recipes we use are filled with memories. I use pastry recipes that go back to my grandmother, probably even further. As I make them I remember her and my mother, I remember them making pies and tarts, and I remember our family eating them together. Many of my family memories, I realize, are centred around food.

15 dkg butter (15 decagrams butter

Mina Pächter scribbled this recipe down sometime in 1943 or 1944. It had been years since she had made this recipe, years since she had shared it with her family. And Mina knew that she would never again make chocolate hazelnut torte.

15 dkg ger. Haselnüsse (15 decagrams ground hazelnuts)

It is remarkable that this recipe survives. Mina wrote it down and included it with several dozen others that she and some other women wrote while incarcerated in Terezín. Also known as Theresienstadt, Terezín was in Bohemia and Moravia, a German-speaking region of Czechoslovakia. During its early years, the Nazis described it as a ‘model’ camp for European Jews they deemed worthy of special treatment. It was part ghetto, part concentration camp and, despite the Nazi propaganda, conditions were dire and few survived. 144,000 people were sent to Terezín: 33,000 died there, 88,000 were sent on to Auschwitz and only 19,000 survived.

10 dkg erweichte Schokolade (10 decagrams softened chocolate)

For as long as they could, the residents of Terezín tried hard to maintain some kind of life for themselves, teaching children, composing and performing music, painting, and writing poetry. But every day, people died and everyone was malnourished. Hunger was constant. Why would anyone who was surviving on watery vegetable soup and little else remember recipes for rich and wonderful food, let alone write them down?

Oder 2 Eßl. Cakau (or 2 tablespoons cocoa)

Mina and women in this and other camps did remember, and when they could procure paper and pencils or pens, they secretly recorded recipes. Survivors of the camps remember women talking amongst themselves, recalling and comparing recipes, sometimes even arguing about the best ways to create certain dishes.

Zitronenschale (lemon rind)

One survivor of Terezín and Auschwitz remembered that camp residents referred to these kinds of discussions as “cooking with the mouth.”(1) Remembering recipes and foodways was comforting, a reminder of family and culture.

3 Eßl. Starken schwarzen Kaffee (3 tablespoons strong black coffee)

Before she died, Mina entrusted the cookbook to a friend and made him promise that if he survived, he would pass it on to Mina’s daughter Anny, who was in Palestine. The manuscript changed hands several times, but almost a quarter-century after Mina’s death, it came to Anny, by then living in the United States.

2 ganze Eier (2 whole eggs)

For Mina, talking about and writing down her recipe for Pächter Torte was not just an exercise in memory, but a longing for the food of yesterday and the life and family it embodied. It was also preserving that memory for family in the future, an act of faith and hope enshrined in handwritten recipes.

2 Dotter (2 egg yolks)

Written on cheap paper in a faded pencil script, the recipe represented family, culture, and heritage. It allowed Anny to connect to her mother and to remember the foodways that had bound them together during her youth.

Warden ¼ Stunde lang fest gerührt (are stirred vigorously for 15 minutes)

Mina Pächter’s recipes are preserved in the collections of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum. 

Dann den Schnee von den 2 Eiweiß (then [add] the snow from the two [stiffly beaten] egg whites

These recipes are evidence of gentle yet powerful resistance to the horrors of genocide. If the Nazi’s Final Solution was intended to erase a people and their culture, then recording, preserving and handing down recipes defied that destructive intent.

20 dkg Mehl (20 decagrams flour)

I believe there is no better way to honor these women than to make their recipes. Weighing out the ingredients and guessing the techniques that were so familiar to Mina that she did not even bother to record them, it is impossible not to think about the suffering of those in the camps. How painful and yet how life-affirming it must have been to remember favorite recipes and the joyful memories of food shared with family and friends. And we can only marvel at these women’s desperation to ensure that at least some of their recipes would survive.

Mehl, geben 1/2 der Masse…

Mehl, geben 1/2 der Masse in eine ausgesch[?mierte] u[nd] ausgestreute Form geben darauf eine feste Marmelade, geben die andere Hälfte der Masse darauf, belegen es mit ein [?] der Hälfte geschnittene Mandeln und backen es 1 Stunde lang. Hält sich 4 Wochen.

Flour, put half of the mixture in a greased and strewn tin [i.e. dusted with sugar] add some firm jam on top, add the other half of the mixture[.] on top, cover it with one [?] of the half cut [i.e. split] almonds and bake it for 1 hour. Keeps for 4 weeks.

Credit: Simon Newman.

References

  1. Susan E. Cernyak-Spatz, quoted in Cara de Silva, ed., In Memory’s Kitchen: A Legacy From the Women on Terezín (1996), (Lanham, Maryland: Rowman and Littlefield, 2006), xxix.

About

Simon P. Newman is Sir Denis Brogan Professor of History (Emeritus) at the University of Glasgow, and Honorary Fellow at the Institute for Research in the Humanities at the University of Wisconsin, Madison. He is completing a book on enslaved people in early modern London but hopes to spend more time cooking, thinking and perhaps writing about historical recipes.

He is grateful to Meg Munck for help translating the recipe instructions. The original recipe can be seen as Image 4 of Cookbooks, Stern and Pächter family papers, Collections of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum.