From The Art and Popular Culture Encyclopedia
The 1634 case of demonic possession in Loudun, France, is arguably the most famous case of multiple or mass possession in history. This case involved the Ursuline nuns of Loudun who were allegedly visited and possessed by demons.
Father Urbain Grandier was convicted of the crimes of sorcery, evil spells, and the possessions visited upon the Ursuline nuns, based on the words of possessed nuns. Until the Aix-en-Provence possessions of 1611, the words of the possessed nuns would have failed to become evidence.
Early trials and conspiracy
Urbain Grandier was appointed parish priest of St-Pierre-du-Marche in Loudun, a town in Poitiers, France, in 1617. Grandier was considered to be a very good-looking man, and was both wealthy and well-educated. The combination made the priest a target for the attention of girls in Loudun, one of whom was Philippa Trincant, the daughter of the King's solicitor in Loudun. It was believed by the people of Loudun that Grandier was the father of Trincant's child. In addition to Trincant, Grandier openly courted Madeleine de Brou, daughter of the King's councillor in Loudun. Most assumed that Madeleine was Grandier's mistress after he wrote a treatise against the celibacy of priests for her.
Grandier was also a very well-connected man, high in political circles. When he was arrested and found guilty for immorality on June 2, 1630, it was these connections that restored him to full clerical duties within the same year. Presiding over the case was the Bishop of Poitiers, a man who was known to dislike Grandier and admitted to wanting him out of the parish.
Two stories exist about what happened next. Either the Bishop of Poiters approached Father Mignon, confessor to the Ursuline nuns, and a plan was made to persuade a few of the sisters to feign possession and denounce Grandier, or Father Mignon was approached by the Mother Superior Jeanne des Anges (Joan of the Angels) for help.
According to the first story, Father Mignon readily persuaded the Mother Superior, Jeanne des Anges, and another nun to comply. They would claim that Father Grandier had bewitched them, falling into fits and convulsions, often holding their breath and speaking in tongues.
The second story claims that Jeanne had illicit dreams about Father Grandier, who appeared to her as a radiant angel. As an angel, he enticed her to sexual acts, causing her to rave loudly at night. Jeanne suffered flagellation and did penance for the night-time disturbances, but she was no less troubled and soon it was found that other nuns were being haunted by hallucinations and vulgar dreams. It was then, this version claims, that Mother Superior Jeanne des Anges called for Father Mignon to hear her confession and purge the convent of demons.
However it came about, Father Mignon and his aide, Father Pierre Barre, saw in the activity an opportunity to remove Grandier.
Fathers Mignon and Barre immediately proceeded to perform exorcisms on the possessed nuns. Several of the nuns, including Jeanne des Anges, suffered violent convulsions during the procedure, shrieking and making sexual motions toward the priests. Following the lead of Jeanne des Anges, many of the nuns reported illicit dreams. The accusers would suddenly bark, scream, blaspheme, and contort their bodies. During the exorcisms, Jeanne swore that she and the other nuns were possessed by two demons named Asmodeus and Zabulon. These demons were sent to the nuns when Father Grandier tossed a bouquet of roses over the convent walls.
Nearby and realizing the danger he was in, Father Grandier pleaded with the bailiff of Loudun to isolate the nuns; the bailiff's orders were ignored, and the exorcisms and denouncements continued. Desperate, Grandier wrote to the Archbishop of Bordeaux, who sent his personal doctor to examine the nuns. No evidences of true possession were found, and the Archbishop ordered the exorcisms to cease on March 21, 1633. The nuns were sequestered in their cells.
Having failed to remove Grandier, his contemporaries continued their efforts in earnest. One of these was Jean de Laubardemont, a relative of Jeanne des Anges' and favored by the powerful Cardinal Richelieu. Laubardemont and a Capuchin monk, Tranquille, visited the Cardinal with news of the unsuccessful exorcisms and added further evidence against Grandier by providing a copy of a libelous satire Grandier had written about Richelieu. Aware that a relative of his, Sister Claire, was in the Loudun convent, Richelieu asserted his power and organized the Royal Commission to arrest and investigate Grandier as a witch. Laubardemont was appointed head of the commission.
Public exorcisms at Loudun
When exorcisms resumed at Loudun, they were led by the expert exorcists Capuchin Father Tranquille, Franciscan Father Lactance, and Jesuit Father Jean-Joseph Surin, and they were held publicly; up to 7,000 spectators attended. The priests employed dramatic commands, threats, and rituals to both direct and encourage the nuns in their accusations against Grandier.
Adding to the hysteria prompted by the public exorcisms were the stories told by both nuns and Father Grandier's former lovers. As in both the Louviers possessions and the Aix-en-Provence possessions, the claims made against Grandier were overtly sexual and showed visible physical responses. Because they were public and dramatic, the citizens of Loudun and surrounding areas were set against Grandier.
In addition to the dreams that Jeanne des Anges and other nuns had related, Jeanne added a third demon to the array of possessors afflicting the nuns: Isacarron, the devil of debauchery. After admitting to this third demon possessor, Jeanne went through a psychosomatic pregnancy. In all, Jeanne and the other nuns claimed to be possessed by a multitude of demons: Asmodeus, Zabulon, Isacaaron, Astaroth, Gresil, Amand, Leviatom, Behemot, Beherie, Easas, Celsus, Acaos, Cedon, Alex, Naphthalim, Cham, Ureil, and Achas.
In an effort to clear his name, Father Grandier performed an exorcism on the nuns himself. He spoke to them in Greek, testing their knowledge of languages previously unknown to the nuns (a sure sign of possession). The nuns had been coached, and responded that they had been ordered in their pact to never use Greek.
In another exorcism, performed by Father Gault, the priest obtained a promise from the demon Asmodeus to leave one of the nuns he was possessing. Later, a devil's pact allegedly written between the Devil and Grandier was presented to the court. In this pact, stolen from Lucifer's cabinet of pacts by Asmodeus himself, was signed in blood by Grandier and various demons. Asmodeus had apparently written out the same promise he'd given to Father Gault on this pact:
"I promise that when leaving this creature, I will make a slit below her heart as long as a pin, that this slit will pierce her shirt, bodice and cloth which will be bloody. And tomorrow, on the twentieth of May at five in the afternoon of Saturday, I promise that the demons Gresil and Amand will make their opening in the same way, but a little smaller - and I approve the promises made by Leviatam, Behemot, Beherie with their companions to sign, when leaving, the register of the church of St. Croix! Given the nineteenth of May, 1629."
Later historians would prove that this note is written in Jeanne des Anges' hand. Please see the top of this article for an image of the pact.
Torture at Loudun
On December 7, 1633, Father Grandier was put in prison at the Castle of Angiers. His body was shaved and a successful search for devil's marks was made by inquisitors. Protests by the Dr. Fourneau, the physician who prepared Grandier for torture, and the apothecary from Poitiers were ignored. These protests claimed the inspection a hoax, and stated that no such marks had been found.
Nicholas Aubin's 1693 The Cheats and Illusions of Romish Priest and Exorcists Discovered in the History of the Devils of Loudun describes what happened next:
They sent for Mannouri the surgeon, one of [Grandier's] enemies, and the most unmerciful of them all; when he [came] into the chamber, they stripped Grandier stark naked, blinded his eyes, shaved him every where, and Mannouri began to search him. When he would persuade them that the parts of his body which had been marked by the Devil were insensible, he turned that end of the probe which was round, and he guided it in such a manner, that not being able to enter into the flesh, nor to make much impression, it was pushed back into the palm of his hand; the patient did not then cry out, because he felt no pain; but when the barbarous surgeon would make them see that the other parts of his body were very sensible, he turned the probe at the other end, which was very sharp pointed, and thrust it to the very bone; and then the abundance of people [outside] heard complaints so bitter, and cries so piercing, that they [were] moved...to the heart
Other people spoke in Grandier's defense, even some of the possessed nuns proclaimed his innocence. Laubardemont, fulfilling his duty to convict Grandier, explained that the nuns' reactions were a ploy by Satan to save Grandier. Jeanne des Anges appeared in court with a noose tied around her neck, violently stating that she would hang herself if she could not recant her earlier lies. All defenses were ignored, and some defense witnesses were pressured to keep silent. Publicly, Laubardemont announced that any citizens who testified in favour of Grandier would be arrested as traitors to the King and have their possessions confiscated. Many of these witnesses fled France.
While the defense witnesses were forced to flee, 72 witnesses swore evidence against Grandier, who was denied the normal procedure of trial by a secular court. Had he been tried by secular court, Grandier could have appealed to the Parliament of Paris. Instead, Richelieu's committee took charge of the legal proceedings.
Torture was a commonplace effort to extract confessions from accused witches during the seventeenth century, clearly recommended in the Malleus Maleficarum. Most accused witches immediately confessed, telling their torturers exactly what they wanted to hear. Father Grandier never confessed, maintaining his innocence even under the most severe forms of torture. He refused to name any accomplices, which drove Father Tranquille to break both Grandier's legs.
Nearly a year later, August 18, 1634, the Royal Commission found Grandier guilty of all counts against him and passed sentence - Grandier would be burned alive at the stake:
We have ordered and do order the said Urbain Grandier duly tried and convicted of the crime of magic, maleficia, and of causing demoniacal possession of several Ursuline nuns of this town of Loudun, as well as of other secular women, together with other charges and crimes resulting therefrom. For atonement of which, we have condemned and do condemn the said Grandier to make amende honorable, his head bare, a rope round his neck, holding in his hand a burning taper weighing two pounds, before the principle door of the church of St. Pierre-du-Marché, and before that of St. Ursual of this town. There on his knees, to ask pardon of God, the King, and the law; this done, he is to be taken to the public square of St. Croix, and fastened to a stake on a scaffold, which shall be erected on the said place for this purpose, and there to be burned alive...and his ashes scattered to the wind. We have ordered and so do order that each and every article of his moveable property be acquired and confiscated by the King; the sum of 500 livres first being taken for buying a bronze plaque on which will be engraved the abstract of this present trial, to be set up in a prominent spot in the said church of the Ursulines, to remain there for all eternity. And before proceeding to the execution of the present sentence, we order the said Grandier to be submitted to the first and last degrees of torture, concerning his accomplices.
All details of the sentence were carried out.
Burning at Loudun
Father Grandier was promised that he could have the chance to speak before he was executed, making a last statement, and that he would be hanged before the burning, an act of mercy. Instead, the friars who carried Grandier's crippled body to the stake had drenched him with large quantities of holy water so that his last words could not be heard, and the garotte used for hanging had no slip knot; it couldn't tighten. Grandier was left to burn alive.
Witnesses to the execution reported that a large fly buzzed around Grandier's head, symbolizing that Beelzebub, lord of the flies, had come to take Grandier's soul to hell.
Before Grandier perished, he did have the last word. Struggling, Grandier declared that Father Lactance, present, would die in 30 days. To the day, Lactance did die, reportedly crying out, "Grandier, I was not responsible for your death." Within the next five years, both Father Tranquille and Dr. Mannouri, the inquisitor, died in delirium. Father Surin became haunted by the exorcisms, eventually unable to eat, dress himself, walk, read, or write. He could not pray, instead seeing visions of demons and black wings. He tried to kill himself in 1645 and only recovered after the new head of the Jesuit College, Father Bastide, cared for Surin in 1648. Surin would not walk again until 1657, 8 years before he died.
The possessions failed to stop after Father Grandier's execution. The exorcisms had been so appreciated by the public of Loudun that they became a type of tourist attraction at the convent. Nuns would lift their skirts and beg for sexual attention, beat their heads, walk on their hands, and use obscene language. Public exorcisms would follow. These displays continued until 1637, when the duchess d'Aiguillon, niece to Cardinal Richelieu, reported the fraud to her uncle. Having achieved his original goal, Richelieu cut off the performers' salaries and ended the shows.
[The nuns] struck their chests and backs with their heads, as if they had their necks broken, and with inconceivable rapidity; They twisted their arms at the joints of the shoulder, the elbow, or the wrist, two or three times around. Lying on their stomachs, they joined the palms of their hands to the soles of their feet; their faces became so frightful one could not bear to look at them; their eyes remained open without winking. Their tongues issued suddenly from their mouths, horribly swollen, black, hard, and covered with pimples, and yet while in this state they spoke distinctly. They threw themselves back till their heads touched their feet, and walked in this position with wonderful rapidity, and for a long time. They uttered cries so horrible and so loud that nothing like it was ever heard before. They made use of expressions so indecent as to shame the most debauched of men, while their acts, both in exposing themselves and inviting lewd behavior from those present would have astonished the inmates of the lowest brothels in the country.
Some claim that it was actually Jeanne des Anges who had the public exorcisms stopped. Jeanne allegedly had a vision that she would be freed from the Devil if she made a pilgrimage to the tomb of St François of Assise. She went to Annecy, then visited Richelieu and King Louis XIII in 1638. The demons were gone.
Jeanne des Anges remained convinced of her saintliness until she died in 1665.
Contribution to Demonology
The demon Gressil is written of for the first time in the records of the Loudon possessions. Sebastien Michaelis would later assign Gressil the status of demon of impurity and uncleanliness, third in the order of Thrones.
In 1866, Jean-Martin Charcot analyzed the case of the Loudun Possessions. His belief was that the nuns were victims of hystero-demonopathy; sexually frustrated, they had turned their erotic desires into dreams of demonic possession by Grandier, a handsome, charismatic man who was known as a seducer of women.
As an opponent to Cardinal Richelieu, Grandier had made an enemy of the man when he wrote the libelous satire in 1618, but further actions by Grandier may have played a major role in gathering the cardinal's anger. While in Loudun, Jean de Laubardemont was to oversee the demolition of the town's fortifications, including the Castle of Loudun. Part of Richelieu's program to eliminate Huguenot strongholds by destroying local fortifications, and the success of his mission would have helped cement the cardinal's power both within the church and within France.
Protestant (Huguenot) and Catholic residents of Loudun were both against the removal of their battlements, which would leave them unprotected against mercenary armies. Grandier cited the King's promise that Loudun's walls would not be destroyed and prevented Laubardemont from demolishing the fortifications. Laubardemont promptly reported back to Richelieu with the tale of failed exorcisms, the libelous satire, and Grandier's recent hindering of Richelieu's plans.
Finally, another aim was achieved by the Loudun Possessions: conversion to Catholicism. Many of the Protestant townspeople converted to Catholicism as a result of the public exorcisms, further eroding any Huguenot sentiment in the region.
Historians today believe that the purpose of the injustice committed at Loudun was a mixture of political ambition, the need for attention, and a basic desire to dispose of political opponents.
As artistic inspiration
The 1952 book titled The Devils of Loudun by Aldous Huxley tells the story of the trial of Urbain Grandier, priest of the town who was tortured and burned at the stake in 1634. He was accused of being in league with the devil and having seduced an entire convent of nuns, in what is seen by many scholars as one of the most sensational cases of mass possession and sexual hysteria in recorded history.
Based on Huxley's book, in 1969, Krzysztof Penderecki created an opera of the same name. The following year, Ken Russell directed the film The Devils, also based on Huxley's book, and a play by John Whiting (although the expressionistic depiction of Loudun in the film bears no resemblance to the actual town). A Polish film, Mother Joan of the Angels (1961), transposes the story to Poland.
- Sexual hysteria
- Aix-en-Provence possessions
- Louviers possessions
- Malleus Maleficarum
- Urbain Grandier
- The Devils (film)
- Mother Joan of the Angels (film)
- Huxley, Aldous. The Devils of Loudun. New York: Harper & Brothers, 1952.
- Sidky, H. Witchcraft, Lycanthropy, Drugs and Disease: An Anthropological Study of the European Witch Hunts. New York: Peter Lang Publishing, Inc. 1997.
- Jean Bodin. The Witches and the Law. Witchcraft in Europe 1100-1700: A Documentary History. Ed. Alan C. Kors & Edward Peters. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press. 1991.
- Dumas, Alexander. Urbain Grandier, Celebrated Crimes - Available on Wikisource
- Michel de Certeau. The Possession at Loudun. University of Chicago Press. 2000. ISBN 0226100340, ISBN 9780226100340.