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From the archives

The Path of Poetic Resistance

To disarm Canada and its canon

Are Interests Really Value-Free?

A salvo from the “realist” school of Canadian foreign relations

Going It Alone

The marvellous, single-minded, doggedly strange passion of citizen scientists


He put a spell on her

Kayla Penteliuk

The Possession of Barbe Hallay: Diabolical Arts and Daily Life in Early Canada

Mairi Cowan

McGill-Queen’s University Press

296 pages, hardcover and softcover

If you embark upon a ghost tour of Old Quebec, you might hear the fabled history of Barbe Hallay, remembered for her unfortunate encounters with witches and demons. Though her possession is mythologized in the dimly lit back alleys of Place Royale, few scholarly publications exist on her life. Who was Barbe Hallay, and why is her story so often recounted by actors in face paint and period dress? What, exactly, was demonic possession, and how was it treated in the seventeenth century?

A bewitching tale of Old Quebec.

Bewitched, 1971; Ashmont Productions; Alamy

The historian Mairi Cowan began thinking about such questions several years ago, while on vacation to Quebec City, where she read a contemporary account of demonic infestation in New France written by an Ursuline nun named Marie de l’Incarnation. “I was hooked. Riveted,” Cowan explains in The Possession of Barbe Hallay: Diabolical Arts and Daily Life in Early Canada. “One might even say (if one were thinking in technical terms of demonology) obsessed.” The result of that fixation is a comprehensive narrative of migration, possession, and deliverance — one that offers a rare glimpse into the larger world of witchcraft and demonology in early Canada.

Because Hallay herself could neither read nor write, Cowan draws on the perspective of the nuns, missionaries, and others who treated the young woman at the Hôtel-Dieu hospital in Quebec. Today’s average reader is likely to be incredulous at what they reported centuries ago. “What is a scholar to do,” Cowan asks, “when faced with claims that are, frankly, difficult to accept in a plain reading of the texts?” She answers with highly accessible language, punctuated with moments of gentle reassurance. “Little to no prior knowledge of seventeenth-century New France is presumed,” she explains. All one must know is that “most early modern Europeans believed in demonic possession” and that this belief was heightened by the anxieties of the colonial project. (If one does become lost along the way, a well-organized glossary provides helpful context.)

The Possession of Barbe Hallay is structured around five concise chapters, which mirror the stages of its subject’s life. In the first chapter, Cowan imagines Hallay disembarking from the ship that brought her and her family from rural northern France to the banks of the St. Lawrence in the summer of 1659. The songs and bright colours of blue jays and northern cardinals would have been unfamiliar to the young teenager. She would have observed the stone and half-timbered houses of the still relatively new settlement, heard a great range of dialects, breathed in the freshness of the air, and experienced the taste of North American game meat and freshwater fish for the first time. By evoking sight, taste, sound, smell, and touch, Cowan almost allows us to walk alongside Hallay.

After she arrived, Hallay went to work as a domestic servant for Robert Giffard de Moncel, at his seigneurie six kilometres northeast of Quebec. There she met Daniel Vuil, a local miller and one of the many European men in the St. Lawrence Valley in desperate search of a wife. When Hallay rebuffed his proposal of marriage, he grew “irrité,” Marie de l’Incarnation recalled, and promised to “avenge himself for this refusal.” This is when a “demonic infestation” began. “Phantoms were seen,” Cowan writes of witness statements, “and a drum and flute were heard. Stones detached themselves from the walls and flew here and there.”

Vuil’s line of work might have helped fuel suspicion that he was a witch, because, Cowan explains, “both literary and real millers were negatively associated with exploitation and dishonest work.” But exactly what he did to Hallay, who was admitted to Hôtel-Dieu in December 1660, was unclear even then. At times it appeared she was “possessed,” or controlled from within. Other times it seemed she was “obsessed,” attacked from the outside. Her symptoms included visions of demonic forms —“men, children, beasts, and spectres of hell”— and of Vuil himself. At one point, nuns sewed their patient into a sack, “to cover her from the insistent visitations of a magician who kept himself invisible to all except Hallay.”

Ultimately, Hallay’s treatment at Hôtel-Dieu failed, and, after one or possibly two years, she returned to work, where things got worse. Then in March 1663, the seigneur’s wife, Marie Regnouard, took a holy relic, a rib bone of the Catholic martyr Jean de Brébeuf, and attempted to save her afflicted servant. Though she did not follow the official Rituale Romanum, Regnouard successfully performed what was, more or less, an exorcism. Hallay was finally freed from her torments —“Entierement delivree,” as one observer put it.

Vuil, for his part, was executed at Quebec in 1661, well before Hallay recovered. The miller‘s capital offence may have been blasphemy or illegal liquor trading; the record isn’t clear. Nonetheless, as The Possession of Barbe Hallay details, we can count Vuil among history’s rarely discussed or identified male witches. (Another, René Besnard dit Bourjoly, was banished from Montreal after he was tried in 1658.)

Cowan quotes the American historian Brian Levack, who has written that people afflicted with demonic possession were “playing roles and following scripts that were encoded in their respective religious cultures.” Whereas famous witch trials played out in places like Salem, Massachusetts — three decades after Hallay’s ordeal — no comparable spectacle occurred in what became Canada. Perhaps it was the lack of a popularized press, the small size of the communities, or the harshness of the living conditions that forced settlers to focus on other things. Cowan presents numerous plausible theories, but she ultimately allows us to formulate our own.

While Cowan’s narrative begins with warnings of demons and witches, it ends by acknowledging the relative peacefulness Hallay experienced in New France for the thirty-three years she lived after her deliverance. She eventually got married, established a family farm, and had children. “If one were to put together a composite figure of a female French settler in later seventeenth-century Canada,” Cowan concludes, “that person could closely resemble Barbe Hallay.” Only a small portion of this woman’s fifty-year life was affected by demonic possession, which is presented here with integrity, reverence, and page-turning vigour.

Kayla Penteliuk is working on her doctorate at McGill University.