`You're the people who are looking for sorcerers? Well, here I am'

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The Independent Culture
Jean-Claude Duret greeted us, expansively but evasively, with a bottle of beer in his hand. His checked shirt was unbuttoned down to his waist. He denied that he was the man we were searching for. After a couple of minutes, he, skittishly, admitted it. "You're the people who are looking for sorcerers?" he said. "Well," he shrugged, "here I am."

Mr Duret, a youthful, sun-tanned 59 with a rakish grey moustache, claims a mysterious ability to cure sciatica, eczema, back and neck pains, nervous problems, burns and even, occasionally, to ease the symptoms of cancer. He treats both people and animals. The week before we met him, a paralysed Doberman was brought to his house. It walked out again but not before, ungratefully, sinking its teeth in his arm. Unfortunately, Mr Duret has no cure for dog bites.

He has never received any medical training; he never takes money. He has over a hundred patients, many of them, it seems, professional accordionists, relieved of career-threatening and medically untreatable back problems. Scores of their grateful messages and garish promotional posters line the walls of a little surgery in his cluttered home beside a canal in the green depths of the Berry region in central France.

Mr Duret is a mechanic by trade; he is also a "rebouteux" (literally a bone-fixer) and also a "panseux de secrets" (a secret curer). He is, in effect, despite his relaxed, banal, late-20th-century appearance, a witch doctor, a man who heals with the touch of his fingers but also through reciting secret prayers, handed down through the rural generations. People travel from all over France to see him. He is not a faith-healer. He does not require you to believe in his ability; he is mystified by it himself.

"When I was a child, I picked up a limping duckling in a farmyard and when I put it down again it walked away, cured. I knew I had a gift but thought nothing much of it. Ten years ago, a very old woman, who was famous in this area as a healer - she was even brought in once to treat (President) Mitterrand - sent for me. She said that she knew of my ability - I don't know how - and wanted to pass on her gift before she died. She just sat with me for a while (although she also gave him several old "prayers"). Since that day my gift has been three or four times more powerful."

"How? I don't know. I don't like to explain because I have no explanation."

Mr Duret is not an isolated freak; not manifestly a crank or charlatan; not especially famous. There are thousands of people - men and women - like Mr Duret all over rural France. They go by many names: rebouteux, panseux, magnetiseur, guerisseur. Their "gift", and certainly the words of the healing prayers, have passed down through the centuries: often from grandparent to grandchild; sometimes to complete strangers.

By one estimate, there are 10,000 rebouteux or panseux or magnetiseurs in France. They are numerous, but shy. My photographer, Gilles Crampes, and I located and spoke to maybe a score of them over the phone; all but three refused to talk to us. They preferred to work in silence, the majority said, because what they did could not be explained or understood.

The remains of an archaic religion or medicine? Superstition? Charlatanry?

Such people - "wise" men and women - existed in Britain until early this century. They can be found today only in the pages of Thomas Hardy novels. In France - the country of the TGV and the Ariane rocket, the home of the Cartesian tradition of logical thought - the phenomenon can be mocked; its claims can be doubted; but its survival cannot be denied.

Traditional healers are especially thick on the ground here in Berry, a vast, empty, fertile country of cornfields and forests within the sweeping left-hand bend of the river Loire. Berry is as much associated with sorcery in the French mind, as is central Lancashire in Britain, or Salem in the United States.

Until 30 years or so ago, you could see owls nailed over cottage doors to keep evil spirits away. The region's creepy reputation was first made by the novelist George Sand at the beginning of the last century, especially through her novel, La Mare au diable (The Devil's Pool). If you are ever passing through the centre of France, and you would welcome a five-minute frisson to break the journey, the place of the title can still be visited just north of la Chatre in the Indre departement. It is a small, round pond, the colour of coagulated blood, with a large wooden crucifix planted in one end.

In most other ways, Berry's reputation for eeriness has fallen victim to the rural prosperity (for some) and the depopulation brought by the EU farm policy and the invasion of weekend and holiday homes. The rebouteux are still here, however, even if they no longer look the part.

Another healer who received us in his home - but asked not to be named - was "Monsieur Jacques": a retired post-office clerk, aged 72, a grandfatherly man, with grey hair, grey trousers and grey jumper. He lived, not in a wind-swept hovel in the marshes, but in a smart bungalow, over-flowing with furniture.

M Jacques said that he had discovered his gift 30 years ago when he ran on to a football field, on a whim, after a goalkeeper dislocated his collar bone. He touched the writhing keeper and the bone popped back into place. After that, people started, inexplicably, to come to his house, with minor ailments and sometimes more serious ones. He has had great success with backs and ankles, and also burns. He avoids necks and knees. He refuses all payment. When he touches a sprained wrist or sciatica-afflicted back, he said, a heat passes between his hands and the patient. "Otherwise," he throws up his hands, "I can explain nothing."

For burns, he uses "prayers" given to him by another post-office clerk, revealed to her in turn by her grandmother. "If people come to me within a day, I can even cure quite serious burns," he said.

M Jacques - a down-to-earth man and a "non-practising catholic" - refused to divulge the words of his prayers. A book published on the subject in 1996 - Prieres et Secrets pour la guerison by Georges Vergnes (ATMA) - lists scores of them. Typical French healing prayers are part-religious, part-profane. They are spoken in a mixture of Latin, French and patois.

Here is an anti-burn "prayer" from the Ariege departement, in the Pyrenees: "Foc t'arresti. Al noum de Dius E de la Danto Trinitat... le foc n'a post fret. L'aigo n'a pas set. Le Pa n'a pos fam. La fourmigo n'a pas sanc. Le peich n'a pos rounhou. E Nostre-Senhe le pariou." (Fire, I stop you. In the name of God and the Holy Trinity... the fire is not cold. Water is not thirsty. Bread is not hungry. The ant has no blood. The fish has no kidney. And Our Lord is the same.")

Mumbo-jumbo? It is scarcely surprising that "panseux", or prayer-healers, are reluctant to reveal their magic words.

The numbers of rural healers of all kinds are thinning out rapidly, according to M Jacques, as France urbanises and suburbanises. The younger, rural generations are rejecting such arcane stuff and those who have "the power" prefer not to admit it. Paradoxically, the demand for rebouteux is growing. Even well-heeled people, educated people, city people, are turning to traditional healers, partly because of the fads for so-called New Ageism and partly through a puncturing of faith in all-powerful modern medicine and science. According to an official survey, more than 1,500,000 French people a year go to traditional healers; the numbers are growing for the first time in half a century.

Didier Franques, 48, is a rebouteux and magnetiseur (healer through magnetic powers) from south-western France and secretary of an association of traditional healers . "It is difficult for a young person today, even if they realise or suspect they have a gift," he said over the telephone. "They would be immediately mocked by their friends. The older rebouteux are not being replaced, as they die, except, in some cases by charlatans."

"At the same time, it is also true that the demand for traditional healers is growing, among all classes and types of people, especially in the cities. And if you look at the state of conventional medicine in France, you will know why. Our doctors are trained as mechanics to operate on bodies but not to show any interest, or awareness, of the people who own the bodies. Medicine of the heart is dead. It has been replaced by medicine of the bank account."

Mr Franques has a mystical explanation of "reboutisme" as an ability of the healer to clear his mind of all thoughts and preconceptions and achieve some kind of union with the body and spirit of the patient. He claims that all ailments - even viruses, even fractured legs - have a psychological cause. If you break a bone, it is because you are psychologically predisposed to do so.

Hmmm. Mr Duret and "M Jacques" are doubtless right: it is unwise to attempt to explain the unexplainable.

I spoke to a conventional doctor in the southern part of Berry, who sometimes refers patients to rebouteux. The doctor, who also preferred not to be identified, said that he had come to accept that some rural healers had a gift; or at least that they had a proven record of success with some ailments which defeated medical science, often intangible ailments which may or may not have a psychological cause - back pain, eczema, nervous problems. Burns were a bizarre exception, he said. On the other hand, rebouteux (bone-fixers) never, in his experience, mended broken bones.

As we left Mr Duret's home, a patient arrived, a plump woman in her 60s, who did not want to give her name because her daughter works for a local politician. She limped into the "surgery", a martyr to raging sciatica which "the doctors" could not cure. "For weeks, before I came here," she said. "I did nothing but "faire le canape" (take to the couch)." She emerged after less than five minutes, grinning. All pain had gone, at least for now. "It is impossible to describe the relief," she said. Pointing at Mr Duret (shirt-buttons now fastened), she added, cheerily: "He's a sorcerer, you know, a real sorcerer."