The Life and Times of Madamoiselle Lenormand

Mlle Lenormand leest het Grand Tableau

Although Madamoiselle Lenormand was famous (and infamous) in her time, many things about her life are shrouded in mystery. A number of biographies have been written but it is not certain whether they are reliable. She is mentioned in historical works about other “celebrities” of her time in which “The Sibyl of Paris” is either applauded or reviled. Mlle lenormand has also written a number of books herself, (of which only a few have been translated into English) and which unfortunately are not about her divination methods but, among other things, about the life and secrets of her famous clients… uhum… we will discuss ethics later.

Mlle Lenormand lived in Paris (and also for a time in Belgium and London) and is said to have had a wide range of divination techniques at her disposal: Astrology, palmistry, reading tea leaves, a Greek divination method with sticks, numerology and pendulum. She is also said to have been a member of a secret London society: “Members of Mercury”. Although some things are certainly exaggerated, it is certain that Mlle Lenormand used cards (the Tarot and playing cards are mentioned). She ended up in prison several times, for divination in general but also specifically for “Cartomancy”.

It is unclear whether Mlle Lenormand herself had a hand in adding to the mystery surrounding her person. “Opponents” think so: for example, there is a certain J.P. Jewett who writes in 1858 that Mlle Lenormand “did not seem to show great intellectual power, so little to be endowed or enlightened.” According to him, it was her cunning and unbridled self-confidence that underpinned her image and success. A marketing stunt 1.0 you could say. This only makes it juicier and even more rewarding to dive into the history of Mlle Lenormand…

Marie-Anne Adelaide Lenormand was born on May 27, 1772 in Alencon, a village in Normandy. Madamoiselle Lenormand probably lied a few years off her age at some point; According to one of her biographers, she was born in 1768. She came from a good family: her father was a cloth merchant from Failaise. He married Madamoiselle Guilbert of Alençon. Marie-Anne had a younger sister and a younger brother.

Marie-Anne’s father died when she was very young and her mother remarried.  Soon after, her mother also passed away, and her stepfather  found a new wife. This new family was now stuck with three children who were not theirs, so Marie-Anne and her sister were placed in a Benedictine convent. It was here, according to the stories, Marie-Anne attracted attention by predicting that the head of the convent would be dismissed in the not too distant future. Of course, she was severely punished for this, but that didn’t stop Marie-Anne from going ahead and predicting the name, age, and several other characteristics of the successor. A little later the head of the convent got fired and everything happened as Marie-Anne  predicted….

The village of Alecon was too small and conservative for a fortune teller with aspirations, so Anne-Marie persuaded her stepmother to send her to Paris where her stepfather worked. It is unclear whether this was Marie-Anne’s stepfather who worked far from home, the stepfather of her own stepfather’s new wife, or her stepfather’s father (because some of the stories mention a ‘father-in-law’). She set off at the age of 14 with six francs in her pocket and got a job as a seamstress in a sewing workshop.

Marie-Anne was not very talented in handling needle and thread, but she had a good time; Her stepfather was not a bad man, and she got along well with her coworkers. One of her new colleagues taught Marie-Anne mathematics and soon it turned out she was very good with numbers.

In the meantime, she was engaged in predicting the future for customers of the sewing workshop and handled some administrative tasks such as bookkeeping.  This administrative knowledge came in handy: after a while, she opened her own administration office, a so-called ‘bureau d’écriture’ in the Rue de Tournon.

The first 'office' of Madamoiselle Lenormand on the Rue de Tournon in Paris

This, of course, was a cover: in fact, this is where she received her clientele for whom she predicted the future. And this was very successful! Because more and more ‘important’ and high-ranking people knew where to find her and so she herself became an influential person.

Through her contacts, she ensured, among other things, that her sister could have a ‘good’ marriage and she also arranged for her brother to be promoted in the army.It was towards the end of the reign of Louis XVI and she sensed – perhaps like everyone else at the time – that turbulent times were coming.

One of her important clients was Princess Marie-Louise Thérèse of Savoy-Carignan. A high-ranking lady at court and BFF of Queen Marie-Antoinette. The story goes that Mlle Lenormand has predicted her unfortunate fate.

According to her biography, the Count of Mirabeau sent a letter to ask Mll Lenormand for advice, from prison, that is. (So the question was about when and if he would be released). Anyway, alarmed by all the events, many people from all walks of life rushed to Rue de Tournon to get advice from Mlle Lenormand; Some in disguise (disguises that, according to the writer of this biography, you could easily see through).

The story goes that around that time, two guards of the Bastille (who, by the way, had themselves taken part in its storming) went to visit Mlle Lenormand to receive a consultation. For one of them, she predicted a very bright future: a glorious career in the army! The flip side was that he would die a somewhat premature death because he would be poisoned. The other guy could also look forward to a succesful career: he would become a marshal (also a high rank in the army). The first was Louis Lazare Hoche, the second was François Joseph Lefebvre. Lazare Hoche was a famous general who officially died of tuberculosis. But the rumors were that he had been poisoned…

The younger brother of Louis XVI (Count of Provence and later Louis XVII) also consulted Mlle Lenormand before he fled Paris. And so she was being a busy bee on the Rue de Tournon, in the middle of the turbulent times of the French Revolution (which, by the way, she had predicted years earlier).

One evening she received a visit from 3 gentlemen who wanted to know something about their future. After inspecting their hands, they seemed a little uncomfortable. But the gentlemen urged her to speak honestly and without fear. They were not afraid to hear the truth. So Mlle Lenormand told them, and the gentlemen burst out laughing. They didn’t take what she had to say seriously at all. “The famous oracle of Paris has really failed this time,” remarked one of them. “She should answer to a tribunal for this blunder,” said the other. “If we are all doomed to be destroyed, then all at once and not one by one,” said the latter.

Well, when the first one (Jean-Paul Marat) died, Maximilien de Robespierre and Louis Antoine de St. Just, were not laughing anymore. . Both died a year later (at the end of July 1794) just as Mlle Lenormand had predicted.

Jean-Paul Marat, Maximilien de Robespierre and Louis Antoine de St. Just

The biographer cannot resist mentioning here that Mlle Lenormand was apparently so busy with the fate of others that she forgot to look into her own future. Her brother was badly wounded, and when this news reached her, she is said to have devoted herself all night to mysterious (kabalistic) studies, only to tearfully report the next morning that her brother was dead—something that was confirmed by letter a few days later.

After the storm of the French Revolution subsided, Mlle Lenormand’s reputation continued to grow. It was busier than ever on the Rue de Tournon and the visitors were without exception of high stature; One lady who would visit every week was Madame Tallien, a high-ranking noblewoman who had managed to escape the guillotine and who also had managed to get her BFF Josephine de Beauharnais out of prison. Josephine, too, became one of Mlle Lenormand’s staunchest “supporters” and firmly believed in her predictions. The main reason for Josephine’s visits to Mlle Lenormand was to inquire about the fate of and the dreams cherished by her lover Napoleon. Mlle Lenormand was particularly accurate in predicting Napoleon’s future, but also saw some (unfortunate) things in Josephine’s life;

Painting of Napoleon Bonaparte consulting Mlle Lenormand
Napoleon consulting Mlle Lenormand; Spanish school (painter unknown)

And one of those things was the divorce, of which she of course informed Josephine well in time, so that she could put her affairs in order. Unfortunately, Napoleon did hear about it and had Mlle Lenormand arrested. But not before she had laid out the cards in front of the high police officer (Joseph Fouche) and declared that it was “The Jack of Clubs”that showed up again and again (for the freaks among us: ‘knave of clubs’ this has a special meaning within Freemasonry and is in the Lenormand deck card #11 the Whip). Mlle Lenormand declared that it would be the Jack of Clubs who would get her out of jail in no time…

And so it goes on and on, one fantastic story after another. In the meantime, Mlle Lenormand had been an established name as ‘prophetesse de Paris’ or ‘the Sybille of Paris’ for 40 years and reportedly had an inscription placed above the door of Rue de Tournon: ‘Madamoiselle Lenormand, Bookseller’.

Everyone understood the code ‘bookseller’ and Mlle Lenormand, who had been arrested a few times, was since then left in peace as she was officially registered as a professional bookseller and everyone who had some power or authority belonged to her clientele anyway.

When you rang the doorbell at Rue de Tournon number 5, you were let in by a servant and you entered a room where there was nothing unusual. In the bookcases were many works, mainly kabbalistic but of course also works of her own. The biographer – who does not hold Mlle Lenormand in very high esteem despite the successes in predicting the future that he himself lists – describes what she looks like; A short, fat woman with a coarse face who wears a wig of wild curls with a kind of oriental turban on top but who is otherwise dressed as a kind of ‘butter woman’. She then asked the visitor how she could be of service to him/her. And when the visitor replied that he/she had come to consult her, she mentioned the prices of the various consultations : 6, 10, 20 or 100 francs.

Picture of Mlle Lenormand and of a gargoyle in the shape of a 'butterwoman' in the Netherlands
On the left a picture of Mlle Lenormand. On the right a gargoyle in the shape of a butterwoman in Amersfoort, Netherlands.

Then she took your left hand, looked into it, and asked a few questions. “What’s your age? What is your favorite animal? Which flowers do you love the most?”. After this, she shuffled the cards and asked you to cut the deck with your left hand. And then she would go wild and speak so fast that it was impossible at that moment to get a word in, as if she was reading the words from a book. She revealed striking things from the client’s past, but at the same time she predicted the future, something the accuracy of which would of course in many cases only be realized later.

Madamoiselle Lenormand, who is also mentioned to be a descendent of the old branch of the Bourbon family, eventually more or less retired. She bought plots of land and real estate in Alencon and also had a cottage built for herself there, which she called ‘The Little House of Socrates‘.  However, she refused to give consultations in this house, as if she wanted to forget that she had once been a fortune teller in Paris in a previous life. Madamoiselle Lenormand, according to her biographer, was fat and ugly, but she had an exceptionally smart and bright look. The biographer wonders why she was never married and mentions that Mlle Lenormand had a particular aversion to little children. Perhaps that was the reason, although the story goes that she adopted her sister’s two children after the latter’s death, a boy and a girl.

The girl died young, the boy joined the army and this is ‘the nephew’ spoken of at the beginning of the story and who inherited all her possessions. And these were considerable: Houses in Alencon and Paris, a country house in Poissy, money, paintings and a lot of letters and documents: letters from and diary entries about her famous clients, descriptions of what she had experienced during her lifetime. According to the biographer, there were also many kabbalistic writings.In addition to the books she had already published (including the one about the life of Josephine de Beauharnais), her nephew destroyed everything.

Oh, if only we could go back in time and save those notes! And the curiosities that were all related to fortune telling. What kind of cards would she have used? What kind of system?

Epilogue: Fact or Fiction?

Most of the events in Mlle Lenormand’s life story are fairly easy to check; As mentioned earlier, it has been officially recorded that she was arrested (several times) and that she was accused of ‘fortune telling’ and ‘cartomancie’. Her shop really existed and we can reasonably assume that she had connections in the ‘higher’ circles. And there was a biographer who apparently thought it worthwhile to include her in his book  ‘Remarkable women of different nations and ages’ in 1858

In any case, we can assume that it was not the ‘Petit le Lenormand’ cards that she used. But what is it? It could be that she was familiar with the work of the French occultists Jean-Baptiste Aliette (‘Etteila’) and Antoine Court de Gebelin, who had published a number of books (and tarot cards) between 1770 and 1790 which were very popular (this can be deduced from the reprints). Or that she used 1 of the other popular card decks (such as the coffee grounds cards).

Whether the stories are true or false, she has definitely been a “Remarkable Woman”!

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