The devilish “poire d’angoisse” (pear of anguish, or choke pear) is an iron instrument of torture invented by Palioly, a French villain of the 17th century, who sure had a big bag of tricks. One or two of those pears are displayed in some museums nowadays, but there’s a fishy smell about them. Let’s torture one or two books to make them sing.
The French poet François Villon was a villain; as such, he was sent at least twice to prison, and even sentenced to death once. At one point, he was incarcerated on orders of Jacques Thibault, the Bishop of Orléans, whom he ironically thanks in one of his poems: “Thank God, and Jacques Thibault / Who so much cold water had me drinking, (...) / Eating of anguish many pears (...)” The cold water is a reference to the prison diet; the pear of anguish, though the actual name of a variety of pears, is an expression. “That is to say,” reads the footnote of the 1742 edition of Villon’s works (Adrien Moetjens, La Haie), “who kept me in great despair, in sad affliction.” The Dictionnaire Historique of Alain Rey (Le Robert, 1998) traces the expression back to the 15th century, when it meant having great displeasure. Originating from Central Asia, pears have been praised since a very long time. Homer called them the gifts of Gods and Pliny already listed sixty varieties! In the Middle Age, French people mostly cooked them, at first; but as they became more refined, they soon ate them the way we do today. It was a custom to offer a pear to the Kings of France during their crowning, and Louis XIV ordered his gardeners to cultivate some in Versailles. As a matter of fact, pears are to be found in many French expressions such as “couper la poire en deux” (to split the difference), or “se fendre la poire” (to have a good laugh); the fruit flesh being quite soft, pears are also a negative symbol like in the expression “être une bonne poire” (to be a good egg) or “se payer la poire de quelqu’un” (to make fun at somebody)—not to mention the “pearish” caricature of Louis-Philippe of 1834 (see previous article).
The French author Ménage explains that the name “doesn’t come from a bitter taste, but from Angoisse, in Limousin; the village where it originates from.” In 2 500 Noms Connus (2014) Georges Lebouc giggles: “I don’t understand why Ménage invented this village, which is nowhere to be found on a map of Limousin.” Mr. Lebouc should have widened his researches; he would have found Angoisse, now included in the region next to Limousin, Dordogne. “Ever since the Middle Age,” reads Rey’s Dictionnaire..., “the village of Angoisse has been producing a highly rated variety of pears; it is cooked as a winter-pear, dried, or turned into Cidre, a lightly alcoholised drink.” At one point, though, the village changed its name; probably to be more attractive.
The aforementioned footnote featured in Villon’s works continues: “A partisan, or adventurer, in the time of Henri IV, turned this metaphorical expression into a devilish reality, inventing a diabolical machine that he stuck into his prisoners’ mouths, and which is described in d’Aubigné’s Histoire Universelle (Genève, 1626).” Let’s jump to d’Aubigné’s book. Year 1595, near Villefranche-sur-Meuse, as war raged on: “There was (...) one Captain Gaucher, a womanizer, not so steady in his enterprises. (...). Our gallant had too many prisoners who forced him to regularly go back to his place. Consequently, he invented a sort of lock in the shape of a pear. He called it the pear of anguish. He stuffed the mouths of his prisoners with it, opening out the branches that couldn’t be placed back but with a key. Thus he could order his prisoners to go to such or such place, warning them that they would die of hunger in case they would disobey. Not only were these poor prisoners forced to comply, but they also had to pray for the safe return of their master.” This is one of two known origins of the “pear of anguish”. The other one, much more frequently quoted, is a nice little book entitled Histoire Générale des Larrons (Rouen, 1639), written by François de Calvi.
The History of the Villains
L’Histoire Générale des Larrons, or The General History of the Villains, is quite an entertaining reading. The author describes some 73 murders, robberies or misdeeds committed between the reign of Henri IV and the early 17th century. The book was quite popular and the National Library of France lists 14 editions between 1629 and 1709; in fact, the book is divided into three parts, and the original edition consists of the first one, which came out in 1623—followed by the two others in 1625. It’s still a sought-after book and the first edition appears to be quite rare. One chapter is entitled Of Life and Strange Actions of Palioly, from Toulouse, of his evil deeds in Paris, and of the diabolical invention of the pear of anguish.
As an introduction, Mr. de Calvi gives a few words of warning about the education of children. Just like the trees, he writes, they grow wild when not properly tutored. Such was the young Palioly, who grew up in Toulouse (south of France). His father, who loved him too much, never spanked him in due time, and that led him straight to perdition. Chased from his birthplace over a few misdeeds, he sought refuge in Paris where “he soon mingled with the purse-robbers.” Palioly was a bright man, responsible for a striking trick that made the English comedian Benny Hill famous, the wax hands! Longing to hear a famous preacher, many people of quality swarmed the church of St Mederic one day. Our villain slipped into the crowd. “He had very well executed hands of wax, which he tied to his neck; he got them through the sleeves of his coat, and with the said hands held a book, pretending to read.” Thus absorbed in his pious reading, he came close to a Dame of quality who “didn’t imagine he had another pair of arms.” He didn’t let his wax hands know what his flesh ones were doing, and surreptitiously stole the Dame’s silver watch; he got away with it.
Benny Hill, the English comedian, was a more inconsistent man; he reproduced the trick, but only to touch the bottoms of beautiful girls at the bus stop; the man next to him got the blame, and the slap. Palioly’s friends were more down-to-earth people; but one of them eventually got caught red-handed (or should we say waxed-handed?). The trick being revealed, more inventiveness was now required. “They carved some wooden hands, and covered them with gloves and springs.” What they exactly did with the springs is not clearly stated here—did they make the wooden fingers move under the gloves? If so, then it probably inspired Palioly for his next invention, the pear of anguish.
The Tribulations of Mr. Eridas
“He met a locksmith, quite subtle and handy, from whom he ordered an instrument he called the pear of anguish, a diabolical one really, which made many ills in Paris and all over France; it had the shape of a small ball, which, thanks to some springs, could open and enlarge itself; and nothing could close it back but a key made for that purpose.” Mr. Calvi explains that the key was bringing the spring back to its original size, thus closing the pear. The first victim to experience this “loathsome invention” was a “fat bourgeois from the Place Royale, whom I’ll call Eridas.” Palioly entered Eridas’ home with two accomplices, pretending to be a merchant; but he soon made it clear that he had come for money. As he was about to shout “Thief!”, the three robbers assaulted Eridas, and stuffed his mouth with the metallic pear; “it opened at once, turning the poor Eridas into a statue, his mouth wide opened, able to shout or talk with his eyes only.” The more the victim tried to close his mouth, the more the pear painfully opened out. Once the robbers had left with their booty, Eridas ran to his neighbours; “they tried to file the pear, in vain; they tried to extract it, but the more they insisted the more it hurt its victim, as there were some points outside that injured his cheeks.” Our fat bourgeois spent the whole night in despair. Fortunately, “as cruelty doesn’t dwell forever in one’s mind”, one of the robbers sent him the key with a short note: “Sir, I didn’t mean to hurt you, or to cause your death; here is the key for you to open the instrument inside your mouth. I know it must have been painful; nevertheless, I am still yours truly.” Mr. de Calvi underlines that the pear was used several times afterwards, in various places.
Palioly soon made his name so formidable in Paris that he had to run away. “He went to war in Hungary and Germany,” says Mr. de Calvi, “where it is said he met his death.” That’s it—end of the story of the pear of anguish. The few books that ever mentioned it afterwards actually quote Calvi’s work. A few pears of anguish are to be seen in some museums today. But to tell the truth, they smell fishy.
The Horror Bid
Executioners die as well; so did Mr. Fernand Meyssonnier in 2008; he was one of the last French executioners, and he left a huge collection of instruments of torture behind him. When the famous auction sale house Cornette de St Cyr announced the sale of these items, it created a national controversy; the Minister of Culture himself publicly opposed the sale that was eventually cancelled. One of these lovable items was described as follows: “Poire d’angoisse. Iron made, ornaments on the sides. To be forced in orifices (vagina, rectum). Length when closed, 22 centimetres.” The Museum of the Renaissance, in Ecouen, near Paris, owns a “pear of anguish”—“but it’s not currently displayed,” confesses the curator joined on the phone. “To be honest, though it was once introduced as dating from the 16th century, we’ve come to the conclusion that it might in fact date from the 19th century.” So reads the caption of the photograph, “maybe fake.”
There’s another pear in the somewhat dubious Museum of Torture in Carcassonne (south of France); but no one could be reached there. I came across a very critical article about the pear, a few years ago; the author had access to a pear, and conducted a few experiments, finding it improper to any brutal use—too fragile. Unfortunately, I didn’t keep any record of this work that has apparently vanished from the Internet. I didn’t know him personally, but people like Palioly usually choose the simplest and quickest way to do their business. What’s the use of making such a complicated object when a mere piece of tissue is enough to silence a victim? Plus, such a complex iron object must have cost a little fortune; was it profitable to leave it with the victim? Furthermore, as long as some air is circulating inside your mouth, you can make some noise! According to the historical rumours, the Inquisition used these pears to “punish women who had had sex with the devil.” Of course, the instrument wasn’t forced in their mouths, on that occasion! The Inquisition was at least as inventive as Palioly, as far as causing pain was concerned; but people whose imagination was running wild have forged a lot of the instruments of torture from the Middle Age—could the “pear of anguish” be one of them? The San Gimignano Museum, in Italy, displays one—it was even featured on their promotional posters at one point. But they haven’t answered my questions yet. The Inquisition, purse-robbers, wannabe historians—it’s frightening to see how inventive people can be when it comes to inflicting pain or anguish upon their fellow men. To be honest, I prefer those who use their imagination to make us laugh—Thank God, and Benny Hill, as Villon would say.
(c) Thibault Ehrengardt