The Mad Axeman In The Bell Tower

After the French Revolution, a law was passed that bells should be removed from churches and melted down to make cannons. “These monuments to the luxury of our cities and to the vanity of their inhabitants” explained one public prosecutor in 1793, “can be more usefully employed in bringing terror and death” to the enemies of the republic. Not all towns and villages co-operated.

In November 1793, the mayor [of Saint Cornier-des-Landes], a republican, decided to follow the letter of the law and take down the bells. The operation dragged on, however, as the patriots staying at the local inn shirked the task. The former “custos” of the church, a post that had been handed down within the same family for almost two hundred years, managed to persuade them to drink perry . . . which delayed the operation, since by then night had fallen. Pierre Duchesnay, the servant of the mayor’s aunt, was delighted to discover that the vehicle he had brought to move the bells was now quite useless.

In the following days the people of Saint Cornier prided themselves on having succeeded where neighbouring communes had failed so lamentably. A few weeks later, a commissioner from the revolutionary committee of Domfront, escorted by a “juring” priest and a wagoner, came to seize the bells in question. He seemed to be in somewhat of a hurry and remarked to the mayor that he should have razed the bell tower because it was an affront to the principal of equality. It was then that a former bailiff residing in the commune decided to “play a trick” on the authorities by installing in the bell tower one Gabriel Duchesnay, a journeyman woodcutter who was armed with an axe and instructed to feign madness. After a drink or two, the commissioner set out to capture the bells, whereupon he heard the woodcutter order him to go back down. “If you climb up and lay a finger on the bells, I’ll cut you right down!” cried the madman. The mayor, who had gotten wise to the trick, confirmed that it was indeed a genuine madman and the commissioner had to withdraw.

from Village Bells : Sound And Meaning In The Nineteenth-Century French Countryside by Alain Corbin (1998)

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