“I like harboring lords no better than harbouring wizards.”
I’ll admit that I was disappointed when I began Balzac’s story The Exiles (Les Proscrits) and discovered, within the first sentence that it is set in 1308. I haven’t been that crazy about some of Balzac’s historical stuff as the stories seem fairly light on human character, and that’s really where Balzac excels. Then as the story progressed, I began to think I had been judgmental; perhaps this was going to be a decent story after all. It wasn’t. But even as I acknowledge that complaint, the story is not without merit for it gives us a wonderful glimpse of Paris–14th century Paris, superstitious, violent, grubby, and, actually, not very pleasant at all.
In the year 1308 few houses were yet standing on the island formed by the alluvium and sand deposited by the Seine above the Cite, behind the Church of Notre-Dame. The first man who was so bold as to build on this strand, then liable to frequent floods, was a constable of the watch of the City of Paris, who had been able to do some service to their Reverences the Chapter of the Cathedral; and in return the Bishop leased him twenty-five perches of land, with exemptions from all feudal dues or taxes on the buildings he might erect.
So who is this lucky home-owner? None other than Joseph Tirechair who is also rather charmingly known as Tear Flesh for rather obvious reasons. He rents out two rooms in his home to lodgers, and this situation is causing him no small amount of worry because he’s convinced that they “smell of scorching.” He suspects the older lodger with his dark complexion “scorched and tanned by hell-fires,” to be a necromancer (in reality he’s a swarthy Italian), and the younger lodger, Godefroid, is also suspect because he is “too pretty” and always seems to looking up at the stars. Tear flesh also thinks that his two lodgers were in cahoots with a “heretic jade from Denmark or Norway” who was recently burned at the stake.
A great scene takes place between Tear Flesh and his wife, and it’s amusing to see this man, one of the scourges of Paris get into a domestic tiff with his wife. He tells her that the tenants have to go, but she doesn’t want to lose the money they bring in to the household. At first she argues with her husband, and it’s amusing to read how she tells her husband to back off of her domain, but once she learns his fears, she too becomes concerned.
At around the story’s halfway mark, the two tenants attend a lecture at the Rue du Fouarre–specifically, the “old School des Quatre Nations.” Here Doctor of Mystical Theology of the University of Paris, Sigier gives a lecture. This makes for some dry reading–although the word Illuminati appears at one point. Wikipedia gives 1776 as the date for the founding of this secret society, and here’s Balzac writing it into the 14th century. The Exiles shows a dynamic yet primitive society in flux: there’s a vast contrast between the Constable recalling fond memories of the last witch burning along with his concerns that he’s harbouring a couple of sorcerers under his roof and the eager scholarship of Mystical Theology. Makes me glad I didn’t live in the 14th century.
The rest of the story includes what seems to be a lot of mystical rambling on the subject of heaven and hell by the older lodger as he tells his story to Godefroid. There seems to be little relevance to the story, but then Balzac finishes with a shocker of sorts. Anyway, not Balzac’s best by any means, and for this reader, the domestic scenes between Tear Flesh and his wife were the best part of the story.
Translated by Clara Bell and James Waring.