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The Devils Of Loudun

Scary Books: Historic Ghosts And Ghost Hunters

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?"


"What flowers?"


"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

faithfully executed.

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

human intervention.

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

of hysteria.

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.