Rare Book Monthly

Articles - March - 2015 Issue

The Pear of Anguish, or the evil genius of Mr. Paioli

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The Pear of Anguish.

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


Posted On: 2015-03-02 06:41
User Name: sfjoseph

Sorry but the phrase "much cold water he had me drinking" is less a reference to the prison diet than to another excruciating form of torture. Large quantities of water were forced down the prisoner's throat until his stomach became painfully distended. It was quite a French speciality in the late medieval and early modern periods.
Steven Joseph, Brussels.


Posted On: 2015-03-02 17:53
User Name: EHRENGARDT

Dear Steven,
don't be sorry, every comment is welcome.
This one is quite relevant and you might be right. But for what I've come to understand, Villon was tortured while incarcerated a first time in Le Châtelet, in Paris; and the passage I quote in the article deals with his second incarceration, in Mehun (near Orléans), on orders of Jacques Thibault. We don't know what led him to prison in Paris but it was a serious case, as he was sentenced to death, and thus 'put to the question'; it was usually the case with criminals (to see if they had more to confess). That's when he wrote his masterpiece, "Fellow humans who are after us alive…" He appealed the sentence and was saved; hence his very joyful Epitaph about his appeal where he talks about a "drapel". The footnote of the quoted edition (1742) underlines that the torture of water (you force a man to drink five or six liters of water, the pain is almost unbearable) was "given in Paris with water, sent through a wet sheet to the stomach of the victim ; and that's what the poet means by the word "drapel" (sheet)" This is a straight reference to the torture.
The " had me much cold water drinking" might be too, to be honest. But as our poet was then in Mehun (near Orléans), where he wasn't tortured (for all I know), I chose the interpretation of the "prison diet'. Indeed, Villon also refers to his prison diet in another verse, talking about "the little loaf of bread and cold water" he was reduced to, while in jail (être mis au pain et à l'eau froide, a typical French expression). And according to Villon's lifestyle, the fact to be deprived of wine (mostly back in those days when it wasn't always safe to drink water) might have been a cruel "punishment" too. :)
Now, I'm no Villon specialist, and might be wrong; it might also have been more relevant to interpret it the way you did, since the article deals with torture.
Best
TE


Rare Book Monthly

  • <b>19th Century Shop:</b> Charles Darwin on sexuality and the transmission of hereditary characteristics: Autograph Letter Signed to Lawson Tait. Down, 17 January [1877].
    <b>19th Century Shop:</b> MILTON, JOHN. <i>Paradise Lost. A Poem written in ten books.</i> London: 1667. A very rare example with the contemporary binding untouched and with a 1667 title page.
    <b>19th Century Shop:</b> Hamilton secures the ratification of the Constitution: <i>The Debates and Proceedings of the Convention of the State of New-York, assembled at Poughkeespsie, on the 17th June, 1788.</i>
    <b>19th Century Shop:</b> The social contract “Man is born free, and everywhere he is in chains”: ROUSSEAU, JEAN-JACQUES. <i>Principes du Droit Politique [Du Contract Social]</i>. Amsterdam: Michel Rey, 1762
    <b>19th Century Shop:</b> “The first English textbook on geometrical land-measurement and surveying”: BENESE, RICHARD. <i>This Boke Sheweth the Maner of Measurynge All Maner of Lande…</i>
  • <b>Bonhams: September 25, New York</b>
    <b>Bonhams, June 12 results:</b> SHAKESPEARE, WILLIAM. <i>The Tragedie of Julius Caesar.</i> London, 1623. 1st appearance in print, Complete from the First Folio. Sold for $175,000
    <b>Bonhams, June 12 results:</b> Ernst, Max. <i>Mr. Knife and Miss Fork</i>. Paris, 1932. DELUXE EDITION. Sold for $15,625
    <b>Bonhams, June 12 results:</b> Cage, John. Autograph musical leaf from his Concert for Piano and Orchestra, NY, 1958. Sold for $18,750
    <b>Bonhams: September 25, New York</b>
    <b>Bonhams, June 12 results:</b> Einstein, Albert. Signed Passport Photo for his US citizenship application. Bermuda, 1935. Sold for $17,500
    <b>Bonhams, June 12 results:</b> Verard, Antoine. Illuminated printed Book of Hours. Paris, 1507. Sold for $7,500
    <b>Bonhams, June 12 results:</b> Wetterkurzschlussel. German Weather Report Codebook - for Enigma use. Berlin, 1942. Sold for $225,000
    <b>Bonhams: September 25, New York</b>
    <b>Bonhams, June 12 results:</b> Morelos y Pavon, Jose Maria. Autograph letter signed to El Virrey Venegas, February 5, 1812. Sold for $6,250
    <b>Bonhams, June 12 results:</b> Milne, A.A. Complete set of <i>Winnie-the-Pooh</i> books. 4 volumes. All first issue points. London, 1924-1928. Sold for $5,250
    <b>Bonhams, June 12 results:</b> A 48-star American Flag, battle worn flown at Guadalcanal and Peleliu, 1942-1944. Sold for $35,000
    <b>Bonhams, June 12 results:</b> Locke, John. Autograph Letter Signed mourning the death of his friend, William Molyneaux, 2 pp, October 27, 1698. Sold for $20,000
  • <b>Doyle, online only: Angling Books from the Collection of Arnold "Jake" Johnson. July 13-24, 2018</b>
    <b>Doyle, online only Jul 13-24:</b> Zane Grey, Inscribed photograph album depicting Grey and party at Catalina, fishing, and in Arizona. $700 to $1,000
    <b>Doyle, online only Jul 13-24:</b> Eric Taverner, Salmon Fishing...London: Seeley, Service & Co., 1931. $600 to $900
    <b>Doyle, online only Jul 13-24:</b> The Gentleman Angler. $300 to $500
    <b>Doyle, online only: Angling Books from the Collection of Arnold "Jake" Johnson. July 13-24, 2018</b>
    <b>Doyle, online only Jul 13-24:</b> Ken Robinson, Flyfishers' Progress. [London: The Flyfishers' Club, 2000. $200 to $300
    <b>Doyle, online only Jul 13-24:</b> G. H. Lacy, North Punjab Fishing Club Angler's Handbook. Calcutta: Newman & Co., 1890. $300 to $500
    <b>Doyle, online only Jul 13-24:</b> J. Harrington Keene, Fly-Fishing and Fly-Making for Trout, etc. New York, 1887. $200 to $300
    <b>Doyle, online only: Angling Books from the Collection of Arnold "Jake" Johnson. July 13-24, 2018</b>
    <b>Doyle, online only Jul 13-24:</b> Arthur Macrate, The History of The Tuna Club, Avalon, Santa Catalina Island, California, 1948. $400 to $600
    <b>Doyle, online only Jul 13-24:</b> Joseph D. Bates Jr. Streamer Fly Tying and Fishing. Harrisburg, PA: The Stackpole Company, 1966. $800 to $1,200
    <b>Doyle, online only Jul 13-24:</b> Paul Schmookler and Ingrid V. Sils. Rare and Unusual Fly Tying Materials: A Natural History. $300 to $500
    <b>Doyle, online only Jul 13-24:</b> Herbert Hoover, Fishing For Fun - And To Wash Your Soul. New York: Random House, 1963. $400 to $600
  • <b>Potter & Potter Auctions: Fine Books & Manuscripts. July 28, 2018</b>
    <b>Potter & Potter Auctions, July. 28:</b> Lot 372: Martin Luther King Jr. March for Freedom Now! Placard. Chicago, 1960. 28 x 22”. $3,000 to $6,000
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    <b>Potter & Potter Auctions, July. 28:</b> Lot 72: Mitchell, Margaret. <i>Gone With the Wind.</i> New York: The Macmillan Co., 1936. First edition, first issue. $4,000 to $5,000
    <b>Potter & Potter Auctions: Fine Books & Manuscripts. July 28, 2018</b>
    <b>Potter & Potter Auctions, July. 28:</b> Lot 468: Photo Archive Documenting the 1930s—50s Chicago Jazz and Night Club Scene. A significant collection. $2,000 to $4,000
    <b>Potter & Potter Auctions, July. 28:</b> Lot 143: Dr. Seuss. <i>Oh Say Can You Say.</i> 1979, First Edition, Signed. $200 to $300
    <b>Potter & Potter Auctions, July. 28:</b> Lot 285: [Maps] Thomas G. Bradford. <i>A Comprehensive Atlas, Geographical, Historical & Commercial.</i> Boston: William D. Ticknor, 1835. First Edition. $1,600 to $1,800
    <b>Potter & Potter Auctions: Fine Books & Manuscripts. July 28, 2018</b>
    <b>Potter & Potter Auctions, July. 28:</b> Lot 69: Herman Melville. <i>Moby Dick, or The Whale</i>. New York: Random House, 1930. First Kent Trade Edition. $400 to $600
    <b>Potter & Potter Auctions, July. 28:</b> Lot 295: John James Audoban. Group of 148 Lithographs from the Birds of America. Philadelphia: J.T. Bowen, ca. 1840s. $600 to $800
    <b>Potter & Potter Auctions, July. 28:</b> Lot 54: Langston Hughes. <i>One-Way Ticket.</i> New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1949. First edition. $300 to $500
    <b>Potter & Potter Auctions: Fine Books & Manuscripts. July 28, 2018</b>
    <b>Potter & Potter Auctions, July. 28:</b> Lot 7: Ray Bradbury. <i>The Martian Chronicles.</i> With a Wine Label Signed by Bradbury. Garden City: Doubleday, 1950. First edition $300 to $500
    <b>Potter & Potter Auctions, July. 28:</b> Lot 121. Frank L Baum. <i>The Wonderful Wizard of Oz.</i> Chicago: George M. Hill Co., 1899, 1900. First Edition. $4,000 to $5,000.
    <b>Potter & Potter Auctions, July. 28:</b> Lot 369. [Declaration of Independence] Peter Force Engraving of the Declaration of Independence. One page; 29 x 26”. From the "American Archives" 1837-1853 series of books. $15,000 to $20,000
  • <b>Swann Auction Galleries:</b> Luis de Lucena, <i>Arte de Ajedres,</i> first edition of the earliest extant manual on modern chess, Salamanca, circa 1496-97. Sold for $68,750.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries:</b> Carte-de-visite album with 83 images of prominent African Americans & abolitionists, circa 1860s. Sold for $47,500.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries:</b> Gustav Klimt, <i>Das Werk,</i> Vienna & Leipzig, 1918. Sold for $106,250.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries:</b> Man Ray, <i>[London Transport] – Keeps London Going,</i> 1938. Sold for $149,000.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries:</b> Thomas Jefferson, Letter Signed, to Major-General Nathanael Greene, promising reinforcements against Cornwallis, 1781. Sold for $35,000.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries:</b> Nicolas de Fer, <i>L’Amerique Divisee Selon Letendue de ses Principales Parties,</i> Paris, 1713. Sold for $30,000.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries:</b> Russell H. Tandy, <i>The Secret in the Old Attic,</i> watercolor, pencil & ink, 1944. Sold for $35,000.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries:</b> Ernest Hemingway, <i>Three Stories & Ten Poems,</i> first edition of the author's first book, Paris, 1923. Sold for $23,750.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries:</b> Walker Evans, <i>River Rouge Plant,</i> silver print, 1947. Sold for $57,500.

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