Will Pooley on Fortune-telling with Cards

In the latest post for our ‘Hors d’Oeuvre’ series on the new special issue of French History on material culture, we caught up with Will Pooley to talk about his new article.

Will Pooley is Senior Lecturer in Modern History at the University of Bristol. His research explores folklore, popular culture, witchcraft, and crime in France from the eighteenth to the twentieth centuries. He is also interested in creative forms of history, such as poetry, theatre, and creative writing.

Hi Will, thanks for joining us to talk about your new article on fortune-telling with cards. What do you think will most surprise readers in what you have to say?

Fortune-telling with cards has a history, and it’s not just the history of the famous occultists of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries (who were pretty much all men).

I find it astonishing that there isn’t more research into how a broad range of people used cards for fortune-telling, given that it’s such a dynamic, diverse, and widespread practice today.

I’ve already seen a few comments from Tarot practitioners who have come across the article and who are critical of some of the claims, but in a way I want the article to be a signpost to just how much material is out there, waiting for researchers to start taking it more seriously. It’s not about finding a definitive answer, it’s about doing some justice to that breadth of past practices.

Not a photogenic historian.

Do you have a favourite example or anecdote you came across in this work? What’s the thing you most regret having to leave out of this piece?

The example that always sticks with me is Françoise Gasté, femme Legeay, who was prosecuted in 1830. I mention her in the article as an example where it is hard to know what really happened between fortune tellers and their clients, but looking back at what I wrote, I left out some of the details that my thoughts often return to.

Although the femme Legeay was convicted of fraud, she strikes quite a pathetic figure in the short trial dossier I found about her in the archives in Laval. She didn’t make a lot of money from her card readings, and witnesses reported seeing her crying in the street. On one occasion, she told a witness that the bruising on her legs had been inflicted by the spirit or demon with whom she worked. I don’t know what to think about what must have been going on. But the court at the time didn’t care whether or how she was being victimized by a lover, or a rival, or a demon. She appears in the case, and then disappears from my view.

Judgement’ from BNF, Jeu de tarot à enseignes italiennes, dit ‘de Marseille’, c. 1734–53 <https://gallica.bnf.fr/ark:/12148/btv1b10537348r/f3.item>

Can we talk about the backstory to the article? How did you first get interested in this topic?

This was meant to be a spin-off piece from the book I’m writing about witchcraft in France from the French Revolution to World War Two.

Cartomancy is just a sidenote in the book, but I’m increasingly thinking it needs a lot more work…

Are you a ‘plan it all in detail’ writer, or a ‘start writing and see where it goes’ person?

I’m an unrepentant planner.

I can’t help it. I will quite often produce a ‘plan’ that is twice as long as the finished piece should be. As I write, I tend to radically reorganize the plan. I’ll quite often have to stop drafting from my long plan, and reorganize all of the material. And I almost always have to do what the journalist Roy Clark calls ‘reverse planning’, where I take what I’ve written, summarize what it says, and then reorganize and rewrite it to say what it should say.

Do you have a cure for writer’s block? We ask everyone this question because we live in hope.

Nora Ephron once told an interviewer that sometimes you have to ‘sit in a period called “not-writing” and write pages and pages of anything that crosses your mind. Or you can read things that will help you.’

I think there’s a lot of wisdom in the idea of thinking of ‘not-writing’ as being work in itself.

The kinds of history I want to practice require thinking.

It’s not just about collecting loads of material to prove ‘empirical’ points. The work of making history cannot just be getting all our facts in order. Writer’s block is really a word different people use to mean lots of different things, but in the sense of time spent thinking, I sometimes wonder if we shouldn’t celebrate ‘not-writing’ rather than raging against our own internalised goals of productivity.

There are many reasons to do with employment and career progression why you might need to produce something faster than you want to, but a lot of the pressure comes from our selves. Better, more interesting, and more important work takes time. It’s not time wasted.

(Everything I have just written could be filed under ‘academics are too good at rationalizing their own weaknesses: I should probably just finish things faster.)

Whose writing do you most admire and why?

Recent favourites include Saidiya Hartmans’ Wayward Lives, which is experimental in the literal, writerly sense of using words, grammar, chapters in ways that historians don’t often dare. I would die happy if I felt I’d ever written a few sentences as fresh or powerful as Hilary Mantel did in either her fiction and essays. And I’ve always admired the ability some historians have to borrow the wonder and imagination of novelists in the ways they write. I’m thinking here particularly of Arlette Farge, or NZ Davis.

What’s the word you can never type right?

Oh, just ones that I don’t need very often for my work on folklore and witchcraft, such as ‘folkore’ and ‘witchcaft’.

In the spirit of the principle that mistakes are just ideas you haven’t processed yet, I have managed to use a typo in some of my current work: I have a piece about ‘itchcraft’, or the sense that being cursed manifests in irritating and banal afflictions, including fleas.

What are you working on next?

The book on witchcraft in the very long nineteenth century is due with the publishers in 2024.

I think the ideas are coming together, and I hope it will be a book to introduce lots of readers to the continuing problems of sorcery in modern Europe, and that it will encourage more questions for researchers.

If you could see one change in academia in the next five years, what would it be?

Sector funding.

There are a thousand things going wrong with higher education in the UK right now, and almost all of them can be traced back to the simple fact that successive governments have choked funding for universities. Student fees are the worst part of this. Not only do students leave university now with huge debts, but the competition for home-student fees has directly led to a massive imbalance between universities in the UK. At the same time as some History departments now have hundreds of students in each year, others are being ripped apart or even closed because of the struggle to consistently recruit students.

This is one of the most obvious ways the current higher-education landscape in the UK is contributing to growing educational and social inequality.

Éclair or saucisson?



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