“As we see from the Scriptures, it had become a common and proverbial expression that if someone wanted to refer to a prophet, he called him a fool” – Martin Luther
Nostradamus was such an attention whore. He scribbled down some vague quatrains, established a certain mystique, and we’re still talking about him today. He more or less set the standard for 17th Century prophecy. Thus, nobody remembers his distant relative (on his mother’s side) Francois Michel. It appears that prophecy might have been a family business, but Francois, a blacksmith by trade, was a little more modest. That’s the thing about prophecy. Few are called, and fewer want to be bothered by the whole thing. I mean, Jonah had to get swallowed by a whale before he went to Tarshish. Now, I haven’t personally received enlightenment from on high as of yet, but I’m not looking to volunteer for any divinely inspired marketing. That’s the sort of nonsense that gets you burned or martyred. Francois Michel was similarly disinclined to involve himself in the divine messenger racket. Sadly, the universe had other plans. Freaking universe just can’t be trusted. It’s always looking for interns.
In the year 1697, Francois Michel was thirty-five years of age, a relatively devout Catholic, minding his own business and merrily hammering out horseshoes in Salon, France. Every once in a while, Francois would visit the local Chapel of St. Anne to make the appropriate obeisances, but on one particular night those pesky celestial powers decided to press-gang him, and earmarked him for some extracurricular prophetic work.
Going one evening to the chapel of St. Anne, just without the town of Salon where he lived, he asserted that while he was alone in the chapel, addressing his private devotions to the saint, suddenly he heard heavenly strains of music, when on looking up, he observed that the statue had disappeared and that a lovely being stood in its place, having apparently come out from the panels of the church. She was playing a guitar; she ceased playing and spoke to him, ordering him to take a journey to Paris, to say something to the king of very great importance, and only to be communicated by him personally to his majesty (Day, 1848, p18-20).
Humble blacksmith that he was, Francois Michel was obviously taken aback by this official visitation, and in the grand tradition of reluctant prophets decided to ignore it, although he casually mentioned the appearance around town. The problem with the powers that be is that they don’t really have gainful employment, except maybe maintaining the balance of good and evil in the universe, so they can afford to be persistent. And they certainly don’t respect your reputation or day job. In fact, one finds that celestial apparitions often behave like mafia bosses, making you offers you can’t refuse and threatening you with unsavory outcomes like horses’ heads in your bed should you opt not to do them a solid. Adding insult to injury, there are some indications that poor Francois was a prophetic benchwarmer, rather than the official first string divine messenger from Salon, the apparitional taskmaster appearing to two other individuals in Salon before it got around to the unfortunate blacksmith. Another sad soul was tapped first by a pushy apparition.
It charged him, in the first place, on pain of death, to observe the most inviolable silence respecting what it was going to communicate, and then commanded him, in its name, to demand a letter of recommendation of the intendant of the province, which should enable him, on his arrival at Versailles, to obtain a private audience of the king “What you are to say to the king,” continued the ghost, “you are not to know till the day before your arrival at court, when I will appear to you again and give you the necessary instructions; but forget not that your life depends on the secrecy which I enjoin you to observe respecting what has passed between us, with everybody except the intendant.” With these words the spectre vanished, and left the poor man half dead with fear. Scarcely had he come to himself, when his wife entered, observed his uneasiness, and inquired the cause. The threats of the ghost, however, had made far too powerful an impression for her to obtain from him a satisfactory answer. The evasions of the man excited the wife’s curiosity still more, and the poor fellow, that he might have peace, was at length, weak enough to reveal the whole matter, and the next moment paid for his indiscretion with his life. The woman was exceedingly affrighted at this unexpected catastrophe, but persuaded herself that what had happened to her husband was merely the effect of an imagination confused by a dream, or some other accident, and thought fit, both for her own sake, as well as out of regard for the memory of her deceased husband, to communicate the secret to none but a few relatives and friends (Goodrich, 1822, p247).
When a specter tells you to keep a secret and threatens you with death, divulging said secret is playing with fire. Undaunted, this messenger from on high found another patsy, a gentleman who had the imprudence to disclose the bizarre visitation to his brother, and was reprimanded with sudden death. Having discarded two prophets, the apparition moved on to Francois, who initially tried to ignore it. But these preternatural critters can be persistent.
The same thing occurring three evenings successively, and the last time the spectre uttering the most terrible menaces against him if he did not obey his orders, he began to think more seriously about it, and consider what was to be done. The whole neighbourhood rang with. nothing but this wonderful story; and at length Michel, having consulted with some of his neighbours, determined on going to Aix to impart the matter to Monsieur Lebret, then intendant of the province. The intendant treated him as a visionary; but Michel replied, “I am far, sir, from being what you suppose: the whole town of Salon would testify for me, if you would take the trouble of inquiring, that I have always been a perfectly sober minded man, attending diligently to my business” (Hone, 1819, p80).
Francois Michel was clearly looking for a reason to recuse himself from this whole prophecy business. It didn’t end so well for Joan of Arc, so it’s understandable that he might be reticent to step into the role of divinely-inspired oracle. Obviously, by consulting Monsieur Lebert, he was trying to pass the buck, hoping he might call him a loon and send him packing back to his hammer and anvil. Lebert preferred to hedge his theological bets, and send the purported divine revelations up the food chain.
Monsieur Lebret thought that there must be something extraordinary in this matter. He saw that the man had no appearance of being insane, or a religious enthusiast; and that, he himself firmly believed i’ having seen the spectre, and received the order to make some communication to his majesty. Since, moreover, he said he was strictly charged not to reveal it to any other person, it seemed at least worthwhile to write to the court for instructions how to proceed, that the mystery, whatever it was, might be thoroughly investigated. He accordingly promised Michel to write and obtain him the permission he desired, on which the latter returned peaceably to Salon to wait the event. Monsieur Lebret lost no time in acquitting himself of his promise, and received for answer a commission to authorize Michel to repair to Paris without delay. Michel no sooner received the commission than he hastened to Aix to make his acknowledgement to the intendant; when, having received his instructions from him, he set out on his journey. He was followed to a considerable distance from the town by a vast concourse of people, who were all eager to see the man who had seen a spectre, and who were also not a little anxious for the development of a circumstance which appeared so extraordinary. All the way he went he was followed by like crowds, for the rumour of the affair spread from town to town like a contagion, and a universal eagerness pervaded all ranks and degrees to get a sight of one who now appeared something above the ordinary level of mortals (Plumptre, 1810, p364).
So, Francois was off to Paris. An audience with the king is not an easy thing to secure. Royalty doesn’t make a habit of hobnobbing with the unwashed masses, so it was far from a foregone conclusion that Louis XIV would receive a common blacksmith. Monsieur Lebert arranged for Francois’ travel to the court at Versailles.
For the transport of Francois Michel he adopted measures at once sure and inexpensive. He confided him to an officer who was taking recruits in that direction. After having received the communion in the church of the Franciscans, who were edified by his pious bearing, the farrier set out on February 25 with his Majesty’s young soldiers, with whom he travelled as far as La Fert-sous-Jouarre. On his arrival at Versailles, he asked to see the King or at least one of his Ministers of State. He was directed to M. de Barbezieux, who, when he was still very young, had succeeded his father, M. de Louvois, and in that position had displayed some talent. But the good farrier declined to tell him anything, because he was not a Minister of State. And it was true that Barbezieux, although a Minister, was not a Minister of State. But that a farrier from Provence should be capable of drawing such a distinction occasioned considerable surprise. M. de Barbezieux doubtless did not evince such scorn for this compatriot of Nostradamus as would have been shown in his place by a man of broader mind. For he, like his father, was addicted to the practice of astrology, and he was always inquiring concerning his horoscope of a certain Franciscan friar who had predicted the hour of his death. We do not know whether he gave the King a favourable report of the farrier, or whether the latter was admitted to the presence of M. de Pomponne, who was then at the head of the administration of Provence. But we do know that Louis XIV consented to see the man. He had him brought up the steps leading to the marble courtyard, and then granted him a lengthy audience in his private apartments (France, 1909, p408-409).
Nobody knows what Francois Michel and Louis XIV discussed, as the interview was never made public. Francois was entertained at court for three or four days thereafter, He was presented to Madame de Maintenon, and received considerable presents from her, from the king, and many great people about the court. His picture was taken at the king’s desire by one of the best painters in Paris, and an engraving made from it, of which several thousands were sold, and it was dispersed all over the kingdom. Francois then took his leave with the king’s permission to return to Salon. The Royal courtiers were deeply puzzled by these events, and rumors abounded. The King remained vague.
It was asserted that on this occasion the duke de Duras, the captain of the life guards on duty, said aloud: — “Sire if your majesty had not expressly commanded me to permit this man to approach you, I should never have allowed him, for he is certainly a madman” — The king with a smile replied: “Dear Duras, how falsely we often judge of our fellow creatures! He is more sensible than you and many others may suppose”. These words of the king made a deep impression. The courtiers used every endeavour, but in vain to discover the subject of the smith’s interviews with the king, and the minister Baobesieux. The people ever credulous and consequentially partial to the wonderful, imagined that the taxes occasioned by the long and oppressive wars, were the real motives of them, and hoped for a speedy alleviation of their burdens, but they continued till the peace (Marvellous, 1822, p258-259).
Unfortunately, once you get designated as a prophet, nobody leaves you alone, hoping to glean some future insights or a little divine mojo. Francois Michel was inundated with requests, visits, and questions from across France. It got annoying. He had to bail from Salon. He took an alias and settled anonymously in Lancon where he died peacefully at the age of sixty-five. Years later, a possible conspiracy emerged to which Francois Michel may have been the unwitting accomplice. Following the death of King Louis XIV’s first wife Maria Theresa (a wedding consummated to end the War with Spain), and relationship characterized by the King’s near continuous infidelity, Louis secretly married former governess to some of his illegitimate children, Madame de Maintenon. This marriage was never publicly acknowledged, but Madame de Maintenon no doubt would have appreciated a little official recognition or maybe a Queenship.
Endless were the conjectures to which this extraordinary affair gave rise; but the real truth was not known till many years after, when a priest, who had been a principal agent in the imposture, made a full confession of it. He was himself of Salon, but used to go sometimes to Carpentras, where he had connexions, and here he became acquainted with a Madame de Rus, who had some property in that neighborhood, an intimate friend of Madame de Maintenon’s, and a woman of great intrigue. It was always a favorite object of Madame de Maintenon to get the king to declare his marriage with her, and this scheme was projected as a means of accomplishing it. The priest was confessor to Michel; and being won over by Madame de Rus, under the promise of a great reward if the scheme should succeed, he fixed upon him as the person upon whom to practice the deceit; because, not being a fanatic, he would be the more likely to obtain credit when he asserted that he had seen a vision. Michel having been guilty of some trifling fault which he confessed to the priest, the latter ordered him as a penance to go alone every evening for a certain time to the chapel, just as the dusk came on, and there address such prayers as he directed to the saint. The priest had had the requisite machinery made to conceal a young girl (his own private mistress) and she it was who appeared in place of the statue of the saint, which was removed within the wainscot on each occasion. The pretended spectre ordered Michel to go to the king, and strictly enjoin him, under pain of the severest displeasure of Heaven, to declare his marriage with Madame de Maintenon; at the same time giving him a ring, which he said had belonged to the late queen, and which the king would immediately know as such: that it had been miraculously transported from Paris, in order to be delivered to him as a testimony of the truth of his mission, but he must on no account mention the having received it, to anyone but the king himself. The imposture, however, did not succeed with the king; though inclining toward dotage, too much of the native vigor of his mind still remained not to see through it at once: yet he chose to keep the discovery to himself, probably because the disclosing it would have led to his making in some sort the avowal which he wished to avoid, or else to his asserting a palpable falsehood in disclaiming the marriage: and he showed that he had still no small degree of soundness of judgment remaining, by the manner in which he knew how at once to silence the inquiries of the courtiers. It does not appear whether Michel himself ever knew of the trick that had been passed upon him (Day, 1848, p18-20).
Being a prophet, false or otherwise, is a tough gig and it’s no wonder why so many are reluctant to pursue it as a career choice. It’s the one’s that embrace the role that you should eye with suspicion. It’s a human conceit that something out there wants to meddle in our affairs. Sometimes the prophecies come to us, and sometimes we come to them. As Ursula K. Le Guin said in The Left Hand of Darkness, “Legends of prediction are common throughout the whole Household of Man. God speaks, spirits speak, computers speak. Oracular ambiguity or statistical probability provides loopholes, and discrepancies are expunged by Faith”. Poor Francois just wanted to make horseshoes.
Day, Clarence S. Remarkable Apparitions and Ghost Stories, or Authentic Histories of Communications (Real or Imaginary) with the Unseen World. New York: Wilson and Company, 1848.
France, Anatole, 1844-1924. The Life of Joan of Arc. London: J. Lane, 1909
Hone, William, 1780-1842. Sixty Curious And Authentic Narratives And Anecdotes Respecting Extraordinary Characters: Illustrative of the Tendency of Credulity And Fanaticism: Exemplifying the Imperfections of Circumstantial Evidence: And Recording Singular Instances of Voluntary Human Suffering, And Interesting Occurrences. London: Printed for William Hone, 1819.
Goodrich, Samuel G. 1793-1860. Cabinet of Curiosities: Natural, Artificial, And Historical. Hartford, 1822.
Plumptre, Anne, 1760-1818. A Narrative of Three Years’ Residence In France, Principally In the Southern Departments, From the Year 1802 to 1805: Including Some Authentic Particulars Respecting the Early Life of the French Emperor, And a General Inquiry Into His Character. London: J. Mawman [etc.], 1810.
“Remarkable Apparition”. The Marvellous Magazine, Or, Entertaining Miscellany: Recording Occurrences In Providence, Nature, And Art. Dublin: Printed by James Charles, 1822.