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