The Devils Of Loudun
Loudun is a small town in France about midway between the ancient and
romantic cities of Tours and Poitiers. To-day it is an exceedingly
unpretentious and an exceedingly sleepy place; but in the seventeenth
century it was in vastly better estate. Then its markets, its shops, its
inns, lacked not business. Its churches were thronged with worshipers.
Through its narrow streets proud noble and prouder ecclesiastic, thrifty
merchant and active artisan, passed and repassed in an unceasing stream.
It was rich in points of interest, preeminent among which were its
castle and its convent. In the castle the stout-hearted Loudunians found
a refuge and a stronghold against the ambitions of the feudal lords and
the tyranny of the crown. To its convent, pleasantly situated in a grove
of time-honored trees, they sent their children to be educated.
It is to the convent that we must turn our steps; for it was from the
convent that the devils were let loose to plague the good people of
Loudun. And in order to understand the course of events, we must first
make ourselves acquainted with its history. Very briefly, then, it, like
many other institutions of its kind, was a product of the Catholic
counter-reformation designed to stem the rising tide of Protestantism.
It came into being in 1616, and was of the Ursuline order, which had
been introduced into France not many years earlier. From the first it
proved a magnet for the daughters of the nobility, and soon boasted a
goodly complement of nuns.
At their head, as mother superior, was a certain Jeanne de Belfiel, of
noble birth and many attractive qualities, but with characteristics
which, as the sequel will show, wrought much woe to others as well as to
the poor gentlewoman herself. Whatever her defects, however, she labored
tirelessly in the interests of the convent, and in this respect was ably
seconded by its father confessor, worthy Father Moussaut, a man of rare
good sense and possessing a firm hold on the consciences and affections
of the nuns.
Conceive their grief, therefore, when he suddenly sickened and died. Now
ensued an anxious time pending the appointment of his successor. Two
names were foremost for consideration--that of Jean Mignon, chief canon
of the Church of the Holy Cross, and that of Urbain Grandier, cure of
Saint Peter's of Loudun. Mignon was a zealous and learned ecclesiastic,
but belied his name by being cold, suspicious, and, some would have it,
unscrupulous. Grandier, on the contrary, was frank and ardent and
generous, and was idolized by the people of Loudun. But he had serious
failings. He was most unclerically gallant, was tactless, was overready
to take offense, and, his wrath once fully roused, was unrelenting.
Accordingly, little surprise was felt when the choice ultimately fell,
not on him but on Mignon.
With Mignon the devils entered the Ursuline convent. Hardly had he been
installed when rumors began to go about of strange doings within its
quiet walls; and that there was something in these rumors became evident
on the night of October 12, 1632, when two magistrates of Loudun, the
bailie and the civil lieutenant, were hurriedly summoned to the convent
to listen to an astonishing story. For upwards of a fortnight, it
appeared, several of the nuns, including Mother Superior Belfiel, had
been tormented by specters and frightful visions. Latterly they had
given every evidence of being possessed by evil spirits. With the
assistance of another priest, Father Barre, Mignon had succeeded in
exorcising the demons out of all the afflicted save the mother superior
and a Sister Claire.
In their case every formula known to the ritual had failed. The only
conclusion was that they were not merely possessed but bewitched, and
much as he disliked to bring notoriety on the convent, the father
confessor had decided it was high time to learn who was responsible for
the dire visitation. He had called the magistrates, he explained, in
order that legal steps might be taken to apprehend the wizard, it being
well established that "devils when duly exorcised must speak the truth,"
and that consequently there could be no doubt as to the identity of the
offender, should the evil spirits be induced to name the source of their
Without giving the officials time to recover from their amazement,
Mignon led them to an upper room, where they found the mother superior
and Sister Claire, wan-faced and fragile looking creatures on whose
countenances were expressions of fear that would have inspired pity in
the most stony-hearted. About them hovered monks and nuns. At sight of
the strangers, Sister Claire lapsed into a semi-comatose condition; but
the mother superior uttered piercing shrieks, and was attacked by
violent convulsions that lasted until the father confessor spoke to her
in a commanding tone. Then followed a startling dialogue, carried on in
Latin between Mignon and the soi-disant demon possessing her.
"Why have you entered this maiden's body?"
"Because of hatred."
"What sign do you bring?"
"Who has sent them?"
A moment's hesitation, then the single word--"Urbain."
"Tell us his surname?"
In an instant the room was in an uproar. But the magistrates did not
lose their heads. To the bailie in especial the affair had a suspicious
look. He had heard the devil "speak worse Latin than a boy of the fourth
class," he had noted the mother superior's hesitancy in pronouncing
Grandier's name, and he was well aware that deadly enmity had long
existed between Grandier and Mignon. So he placed little faith in the
latter's protestation that the naming of his rival had taken him
completely by surprise. Consulting with his colleague, he coldly
informed Mignon that before any arrest could be made there must be
further investigation, and, promising to return next day, bade them good
Next day found the convent besieged by townspeople, indignant at the
accusation against the popular priest, and determined to laugh the
devils out of existence. Grandier himself, burning with rage, hastened
to the bailie and demanded that the nuns be separately interrogated, and
by other inquisitors than Mignon and Barre. In these demands the bailie
properly acquiesced; but, on attempting in person to enforce his orders
to that effect, he was denied admittance to the convent. Excitement ran
high; so high that, fearful for his personal safety, Mignon consented
to accept as exorcists two priests appointed, not by the bailie, but by
the Bishop of Poitiers--who, it might incidentally be mentioned, had his
own reasons for disliking Grandier.
Exorcising now went on daily, to the disgust of the serious-minded, the
mystification of the incredulous, the delight of sensation-mongers, and
the baffled fury of Grandier. So far the play, if melodramatic, had not
approached the tragic. Sometimes it degenerated to the broadest farce
comedy. Thus, on one occasion when the devil was being read out of the
mother superior, a crashing sound was heard and a huge black cat tumbled
down the chimney and scampered about the room. At once the cry was
raised that the devil had taken the form of a cat, a mad chase ensued,
and it would have gone hard with pussy had not a nun chanced to
recognize in it the pet of the convent.
Still, there were circumstances which tended to inspire conviction in
the mind of many. The convulsions of the possessed were undoubtedly
genuine, and undoubtedly they manifested phenomena seemingly
inexplicable on any naturalistic basis. A contemporary writer,
describing events of a few months later, when several recruits had been
added to their ranks, states that some "when comatose became supple like
a thin piece of lead, so that their body could be bent in every
direction, forward, backward, or sideways, till their head touched the
ground," and that others showed no sign of pain when struck, pinched, or
pricked. Then, too, they whirled and danced and grimaced and howled in a
manner impossible to any one in a perfectly normal state.[A]
For a few brief weeks Grandier enjoyed a respite, thanks to the
intervention of his friend, the Archbishop of Bordeaux, who threatened
to send a physician and priests of his own choice to examine the
possessed, a threat of itself sufficient, apparently, to put the devils
to flight. But they returned with undiminished vigor upon the arrival in
Loudun of a powerful state official who, unfortunately for Grandier,
was a relative of Mother Superior Belfiel's. This official, whose name
was Laubardemont, had come to Loudun on a singular mission. Richelieu,
the celebrated cardinal statesman, in the pursuit of his policy of
strengthening the crown and weakening the nobility, had resolved to
level to the ground the fortresses and castles of interior France, and
among those marked for destruction was the castle of Loudun. Thither,
therefore, he dispatched Laubardemont to see that his orders were
Naturally, the cardinal's commissioner became interested in the trouble
that had befallen his kinswoman, and the more interested when Mignon
hinted to him that there was reason to believe that the suspected wizard
was also the author of a recent satire which had set the entire court
laughing at Richelieu's expense. What lent plausibility to this charge
was the fact that the satire had been universally accredited to a court
beauty formerly one of Grandier's parishioners. Also there was the fact
that in days gone by, when Richelieu was merely a deacon, he had had a
violent quarrel with Grandier over a question of precedence. Putting two
and two together, and knowing that it would result to his own advantage
to unearth the real author to the satire, Laubardemont turned a willing
ear to the suggestion that the woman in question had allowed her old
pastor to shield himself behind her name.
Back to Paris the commissioner galloped to carry the story to Richelieu.
The cardinal's anger knew no bounds. From the King he secured a warrant
for Grandier's arrest, and to this he added a decree investing
Laubardemont with full inquisitorial powers. Events now moved rapidly.
Though forewarned by Parisian friends, Grandier refused to seek safety
by flight, and was arrested in spectacular fashion while on his way to
say mass. His home was searched, his papers were seized, and he himself
was thrown into an improvised dungeon in a house belonging to Mignon.
Witnesses in his favor were intimidated, while those willing to testify
against him were liberally rewarded. To such lengths did the prosecution
go that, discovering a strong undercurrent of popular indignation,
Laubardemont actually procured from the King and council a decree
prohibiting any appeal from his decisions, and gave out that, since
King and cardinal believed in the enchantment, any one denying it would
be held guilty of lese majesty divine and human.
Under these circumstances Grandier was doomed from the outset. But he
made a desperate struggle, and his opponents were driven to sore straits
to bolster up their case. The devils persisted in speaking bad Latin,
and continually failed to meet tests which they themselves had
suggested. Sometimes their failures were only too plainly the result of
For instance, the mother superior's devil promised that, on a given
night and in the church of the Holy Cross, he would lift Laubardemont's
cap from his head and keep it suspended in mid-air while the
commissioner intoned a miserere. When the time came for the fulfilment
of this promise two of the spectators noticed that Laubardemont had
taken care to seat himself at a goodly distance from the other
participants. Quietly leaving the church, these amateur detectives made
their way to the roof, where they found a man in the act of dropping a
long horsehair line, to which was attached a small hook, through a hole
directly over the spot where Laubardemont was sitting. The culprit
fled, and that night another failure was recorded against the devil.
But such fiascos availed nothing to save Grandier. Neither did it avail
him that, before sentence was finally passed, Sister Claire, broken in
body and mind, sobbingly affirmed his innocence, protesting that she did
not know what she was saying when she accused him; nor that the mother
superior, after two hours of agonizing torture self-imposed, fell on her
knees before Laubardemont, made a similar admission, and, passing into
the convent orchard, tried to hang herself. The commissioner and his
colleagues remained obdurate, averring that these confessions were in
themselves evidence of witchcraft, since they could be prompted only by
the desire of the devils to save their master from his just fate. In
August, 1634, Grandier's doom was pronounced. He was to be put to the
torture, strangled, and burned. This judgment was carried out to the
letter, save that when the executioner approached to strangle him, the
ropes binding him to the stake loosened, and he fell forward among the
flames, perishing miserably.
It only remains to analyze this medieval tragedy in the light of modern
knowledge. To the people of his own generation Grandier was either a
wizard most foul, or the victim of a dastardly plot in which all
concerned in harrying him to his death knowingly participated. These
opinions posterity long shared. But now it is quite possible to reach
another conclusion. That there was a conspiracy is evident even from the
facts set down by those hostile to Grandier. On the other hand, it is as
unnecessary as it is incredible to believe that the plotters included
every one instrumental in fixing on the unhappy cure the crime of
Bearing in mind the discoveries of recent years in the twin fields of
physiology and psychology, it seems evident that the conspirators were
actually limited in number to Mignon, Barre, Laubardemont, and a few of
their intimates. In Laubardemont's case, indeed, there is some reason
for supposing that he was more dupe than knave, and is therefore to be
placed in the same category as the superstitious monks and townspeople
on whom Mignon and Barre so successfully imposed. As to the
possessed--the mother superior and her nuns--they may one and all be
included in a third group as the unwitting tools of Mignon's vengeance.
In fine, it is not only possible but entirely reasonable to regard
Mignon as a seventeenth-century forerunner of Mesmer, Elliotson,
Esdaile, Braid, Charcot, and the present day exponents of hypnotism; and
the nuns as his helpless "subjects," obeying his every command with the
fidelity observable to-day in the patients of the Salpetriere and other
centers of hypnotic practice.
The justness of this view is borne out by the facts recorded by
contemporary annalists, of which only an outline has been given here.
The nuns of Loudun were, as has been said, mostly daughters of the
nobility, and were thus, in all likelihood, temperamentally unstable,
sensitive, high-strung, nervous. The seclusion of their lives, the
monotonous routine of their every-day occupations, and the possibilities
afforded for dangerous, morbid introspection, could not but have a
baneful effect on such natures, leading inevitably to actual insanity or
to hysteria. That the possessed were hysterical is abundantly shown by
the descriptions their historians give of the character of their
convulsions, contortions, etc., and by the references to the anesthetic,
or non-sensitive, spots on their bodies. Now, as we know, the convent at
Loudun had been in existence for only a few years before Mignon became
its father confessor, and so, we may believe, it fell out that he
appeared on the scene precisely when sufficient time had elapsed for
environment and heredity to do their deadly work and provoke an epidemic
In those benighted times such attacks were popularly ascribed to
possession by evil spirits. The hysterical nuns, as the chronicles tell
us, explained their condition to Mignon by informing him that, shortly
before the onset of their trouble, they had been haunted by the ghost of
their former confessor, Father Moussaut. Here Mignon found his
opportunity. Picture him gently rebuking the unhappy women, admonishing
them that such a good man as Father Moussaut would never return to
torment those who had been in his charge, and insisting that the source
of their woes must be sought elsewhere; in, say, some evil disposed
person, hostile to Father Moussaut's successor, and hoping, through thus
afflicting them, to bring the convent into disrepute and in this way
strike a deadly blow at its new father confessor. Who might be this evil
disposed person? Who, in truth, save Urbain Grandier?
Picture Mignon, again, observing that his suggestion had taken root in
the minds of two of the most emotional and impressionable, the mother
superior and Sister Claire. Then would follow a course of lessons
designed to aid the suggestion to blossom into open accusation. And
presently Mignon would make the discovery that the mother superior and
Sister Claire would, when in a hysterical state, blindly obey any
command he might make, cease from their convulsions, respond
intelligently and at his will to questions put to them, renew their
convulsions, lapse even into seeming dementia.
Doubtless he did not grasp the full significance and possibilities of
his discovery--had he done so the devils would not have bungled matters
so often, and no embarrassing confessions would have been forthcoming.
But he saw clearly enough that he had in his hand a mighty weapon
against his rival, and history has recorded the manner and effectiveness
with which he used it.
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