The following remarks are related to a French canard entitled Discours au vrais des terribles et espouvantables signes apareus sur la Mer de Genes, first printed in 1608 in Lyon.
Recent researches made by Diego Cuoghi in the Genoan archives have shown that the story related in the above French canard does not seem to reflect any attested historical event that might have been used as a basis for the Genoan apparition narration. This was a much needed and precious verification but does not yet provide an answer as to the motives of the author. A close study of the canard literature shows that their authors very rarely invented a story from the beginning to the end but rather preferred to draw upon a less spectacular event which they embellished with fabulous details and extrapolations. This had the clear advantage of giving more credence to their narrations. Moreover, it is undeniable that some canard narratives were actually based on real phenomena. It was not unusual however to see authors re-heating older stories, or changing locations, dates and proper names in order to re-actualize a story.
With these remarks in mind and with the observation based on Diego’s own researches in the Genoan annals showing that the story cannot be linked to any recorded historical event, thus making it very dubious, the problem remains to understand why the author of the canard would choose to invent such a story and locate it in Genoa. It would seem pointless to think that the author did this without any purpose.
I recently found out that another canard published shortly after the 1608 one could bring some new information and hint as to the motives of the author.
The document entitled “Le terrible et espouvantable dragon apparu sur l’Isle de Malte… le 15 Decembre 1608” and printed in 1609 (National Library, Paris, BN K-15938) relates the story of the apparition of a seven-headed dragon in the island of Malta followed by an earthquake in December 1608.
As far as the factuality of the story narrated in the 1609 canard is concerned, as is the case for 1608 Genoa, no clear factual event can be linked to it. There is a strong symbolical element in the description of the seven-headed dragon which is reminiscent of course of the dragon of the Apocalypse and which hints toward the non-factuality of the story.
One cannot rule out however that the Maltese seven-headed dragon story was built upon a less fabulous one, eventually drawing upon local lore. Extensive research would need to be done but a first look at Maltese annals of the period, most notably the one originating from the Order of Malta, shows no mention of anything particularly wondrous in or around December 1608, even less an earthquake as is mentioned in the canard. Worthy of note however, there is a Maltese tradition of a dragon that is linked to a local place called Dragonara. This is how M. Miège describes the tradition ascribed to this place:
“Chark el Hamien est un abîme profond, situé près la cale de Saint-Georges, et là se trouve un grand réduit d’eau appelé Dragonara, à cause du bruit qui en sort, et que le peuple crédule attribue à un monstre: ce retentissement est occasionné par les évolutions de grosses anguilles qui s’y multiplient à l’infini.” (M. Miège, Histoire de Malte, tome I, Bruxelles, 1841, p. 87).
We can note that the three expressions in bold somewhat parallel the description in the canard: a monster, a terrible noise and the great number of eels which, together, might have given rise to the belief in the existence of a multiple-headed monster. But, as oral-tradition has it, it is hard to tell whether this tradition already existed in the 17th century and whether it has anything to do at all with the story related in the canard, even if the parallel is, I must admit, highly tempting.
So, as is also the case for the Genoan story, there is nothing, or almost nothing, to corroborate the factuality of the event. But, whether the stories were completely made up or whether they re-used elements from other stories, eventually relocated and re-dated, the question of the author’s motives still remains to be answered.
While the 1609 canard does not really compare to the Genoan apparitions in terms of description, many elements in the text lead to the belief that both documents may have been authored by the same person, or at least that the latter was strongly and directly influenced by the former.
In support of this view are the following extracts from the introductory matter of both documents:
« Les prodiges qui nous apparoissent sans doute ce sont courriers et postillons célestes, qui nous denoncent les malheurs advenir, et semble qu’ils nous provoquent de courir aux remedes des prieres et aux jeusnes à celle fin d’appaiser l’ire de ce grand Dieu, lequel nous offençons journellement. Les Romains aussi tost qu’ils appercevaient des prodiges ils faisoient sacrifice aux Dieux pour appaiser leurs coleres par victimes et idolatrie. Et nous qui sommes Chrestiens nourris en une meilleure escole il faut que saintement nous presentions nos cœurs contriz, et repentans et humblement prier le Tout Puissant de nous pardonner nos fautes, et vouloir appaiser sa juste colere a celle fin que les malheurs qui nous sont preparez par la justice soyent destournez et chassez loing de nous par sa saincre misericorde. » (1608 Genoa).
« Les prodiges & miracles que nous appercevons journellement, ce sont postillons de ce grand Dieu, qui nous denonce par ces avant-courriers ce qu’il nous donne à l’advenir : Mais pour appaiser l’ire de ce Tout-puissant, il faut que nous nous mettions en bon estat, pour jeusner, & le prier d’un cœur penitent, à celle fin que par nos devotes prieres il detourne de nous l’influence de ses flots & autres dards calamiteux. Au temps passé les Payens faisoient sacrifice aux Dieux lors qu’ils appercevoient des prodiges. Et nous qui sommes Chrestiens nourris en une meilleure escole, devons nous presenter à ce grand Dieu, & l’invoquer souvent avec prieres lamentables, d’un cœur contrit & humilié, pour impetrer sa grace, à celle fin qu’il nous delivre de ces tribulations qui nous preparez par sa justice. » (1609 Malta).
The similar succession of arguments as well as the use of an identical terminology betrays either a single authorship or a direct influence. The fact that both documents were printed in a very short interval from one another seems to favor the former hypothesis.
But I believe that the most interesting and instructive element of comparison between the two documents does not reside in its introductory matter and can be found inside the narrative of the apparition itself. In effect, both documents involve the intervention of Capuchin monks as the resolving factor: in the Genoan as well as the Maltese story, it is by way of Capuchin intervention that the problem is resolved.
This detail is in my opinion a possible and plausible hint as to the real motives of the author(s) of both stories.
We have to consider that Capuchins which were already influential in Italy, and well-implanted in Genoa, were at that time trying to gain influence in France. The Capuchin intervention in both stories plausibly hints to the fact that the author might have been a Capuchin sympathizer or a Capuchin himself who exploited miraculous stories in order to forge a favorable image of the Capuchin order among a French readership when it was most needed. On more speculative grounds, we can propose that the stories have been located purposely in far away regions to render them less verifiable to their French public.
In our case, it thus seems plausible to think that the author(s) intentions were to stress out to the French public the wonders of the Capuchin monks in a time when most prodigious events were interpreted as apocalyptic warnings. And even if they objectively do not bring any more factuality, or non-factuality, to the events themselves, the parallels we can draw from both documents when studied conjointly, can at least help us to understand the motivation or part of it, which led the author(s) to spread these stories and what there was to understand from them.
But, while understanding the context can offer a better comprehension as to the motives of the author, it must be stressed that it offers just that, an understanding of the perspective the text was written in. It does not offer us any definitive evidence as to the factual or non-factual nature of the events described; in effect, one could always argue that the context offered an oriented interpretation but that the events themselves had factual roots, even if these were modeled around and transformed by the interpretation and orientation the author wanted to give to his text. But while the context does not explain the nature of an event, it still offers some keys to decrypt the subjective elements of a narration.
Whether a real dragon ever roamed out the island of Malta or whether apparitions were really seen in 1608 in Genoa is obviously dubious from the absence of other sources corroborating the stories, but let’s not forget that a good number of the readers receiving such stories, believed in them, or more precisely, thought about them as believable. And that alone, was sufficient to give materiality to the narration.