Witch hunts were not new to the seventeenth-century population, having been around since before the time of Christ, but the 1600s saw an explosion of interest (or hysteria) regarding witches and their work. During this time convents across Europe would see spontaneous outbreaks of witchcraft, devil worship and demonic possession. For the devil to gain access to a holy place it was thought he must have a willing servant within the religious community who summoned him.
In many instances, the testimony of the possessed was incredible to the point of ridicule, but religious courts often jumped on the details, however absurd or salacious, and the offending ‘witch’ would usually be tortured and burned.
Between 1611 and 1647 there were a number of cases in France where small convents of nuns demonstrated demonic possession en masse, with nuns falling prey to the devil in groups before they were cured and the devil moved onto a different convent. The result was a number of high profile witchcraft trials and a legal breakthrough where the testimony of a possessed person would be used as evidence for the first time. Today, we would consider such events as an example of mass hysteria but at the time it looked like France was suffering an almost epidemic of demon possession.
The patient zero of the mass possessions was Madeleine de Demandolx de la Palud. At twelve Madeleine had entered a new, small Ursuline convent but was prone to bouts of depression, seeing her return to her family for short spells. During one such instance, she was visited by a family friend, Father Louis Gaufridi and despite a twenty year age gap between the two, it was rumoured they had become lovers. Although Gaufrdi would deny the affair he also visited Madeleine frequently and on occasion was alone with her. When the head of the Ursuline convent at Marseilles heard the rumours she alerted Madeleine’s mother and Madeleine entered Marseilles. There she confessed the details of the affair in detail to the head sister who informed Father Gaufridi and had Madeleine sent to the more remote convent at Aix-en-Provence where the potential scandal had more chance of dying down.
For two years things were quiet until, in 1611, the now nineteen-year-old Madeleine began demonstrating the accepted symptoms of demonic possession. Her body contorted unnaturally, she was prone to convulsing and fits, she raved incoherently and cried about demonic visions. She could not bear to be around religious symbols, going so far as to destroy a crucifix when it was presented to her. This was not considered particularly unusual and a Jesuit priest, Father Romillon was summoned to exorcise the girl. Rather than banish the demons, however, the exorcism seemed to increase their hold on her and Madeleine began accusing Father Gaufridi of devil worship and seducing her when she was seventeen. As the year progressed eight other nuns (bearing in mind that the convent was so small only six nuns had lived there five years earlier) began exhibiting symptoms of possession, with the worst afflicted Sister Louise Capaeu. With the situation escalating Father Romillon called for assistance which came in the form of the Grand Inquisitor Sebastien Michaelis and a renowned Flemish exorcist, Father Domptius. Events focused on Madeleine and Capaeu who continued in their denunciations of Father Gaufridi to the point that Gaufridi himself was summoned to assist in the exorcisms, though he was deliberately kept in the dark about the sisters’ accusations. When Gaufridi attempted to exorcise Capaeu she named him as a witch, a cannibal and accused him of such sexual perversion that Michaelis had Gaufridi’s rooms searched for evidence of his sexual practices. Gaufridi compounded his supposed guilt when he told Capaeu that were he a witch, he would give his soul to a thousand devils. Michaelis saw this as evidence of the priest’s guilt and Gaufridi was put in prison.
Madeleine and Capaeu’s demons seemed to be in competition to outdo each other. Madeleine’s body continued to contort being likened to the sound of a tree creaking when she moved. She raved, screamed obscenities and made realistic animal noises. Meanwhile, Capaeu’s accusations grew wilder and under the control of the demon, ‘ Verin’ she added cannibalism to the growing list of Gaufridi’s crimes, claiming that he had killed a great number of babies before roasting their flesh and eating them.
Gaufridi’s home had yielded nothing remotely incriminating, however, and his parish talked of him with great respect so he was released from prison. The exorcists by now had discovered that the women were possessed with 6,666 demons including some of the highest ranked in hell; Beelzebub, Astaroth and Asmodeus among others. The situation was escalating as the possessed women deteriorated while Gaufridi publicly demanded that his name be cleared and those who had denounced him be punished for their accusations. The result was Gaufridi’s trial in 1611 which turned out not to be the public vindication he was hoping for.
Madeleine and Capaeu were presented as witnesses, the first time that the testimony of possessed victims was used in court, prior to this their statements had been considered unreliable. In court Madeleine’s behaviour escalated. She veered wildly between violent, demented screaming during which she repeated her accusations against Gaufridi to asking his forgiveness, retracting her previous statements and begging him for a word of kindness. A number of times she demonstrated scenes of wild lust, at one point going so far as to orgasm violently in court. Her body was searched for ‘devil’s marks’ and after their discovery, Madeleine twice attempted suicide. Her story regarding the affair with Gaufridi also changed; she claimed it had begun when she was seventeen, then fourteen, thirteen before she settled on nine, a time before she had even become a nun. Gaufridi himself confessed, under torture, to everything the nuns had accused him of and more, but continued to deny the affair with Madeleine. Although he retracted his statement in court, claiming that he had only confessed because of the torturous means used to extract it, his signed confession was seen as proof positive of his guilt.
Pronounced guilty by the court Gaufridi continued to be tortured until he wearily admitted that all the accusations levied against him were true. He was sentenced to death by burning, specifically over a bush that would burn slowly to extend the manner of his death, but he was ultimately granted strangulation before the fire took. The demons that possessed Madeleine left her at the moment of his death, but she was forever watched by the Grand Inquisitor who had her prosecuted twice more for witchcraft in later life. The demons were not so kind to Capaeu who they continued to torment her with visions of the devil for the rest of her life.
The event sparked a series of similar incidents in nunneries across France, with another convent in Aix-en-Provence playing host to a number of possessed women in the same year. Two years later, on the other side of the country, three nuns at a Franciscan convent in Lille began manifesting similar symptoms.
Despite the geographical distance of over six hundred miles between the two convents, the convent of Saint Brigitte had some connection to the events at Aix-en-Provence. The fate of Father Gaufridi had been witnessed by one of the sisters who would have presumably shared the tale with her fellow nuns. The Grand Inquisitor Sebastian Michaelis and the Flemish exorcist, Father Domptius, had also been created the spiritual advisors of Saint Brigitte’s after the execution.
Initially, three nuns became demented with visions of demons, but the behaviour soon spread to newcomers to the convent who found themselves afflicted only while they were inside the convent, outside they were cured. The sisters developed an aversion to religious symbols and shied away from the cross while being unable to partake in confession. Blame found its way to Sister Marie de Sains, whose great piety and humility was now seen as a facade to disguise her involvement with the devil. During a succession of failed exorcisms, a number of the nuns spoke with the voice of their demons and placed the blame with Sister Marie. When Sister Marie was summoned to answer the accusations her initial disbelief and denial quickly became a bizarre and extreme confession wherein she detailed, in great length, her unnatural behaviour.
Describing the average week in the life of a devil worshipper, Sister Marie claimed that on Mondays and Tuesdays she and those she had bewitched would have ritualistic sex with each other and their devils. Wednesday was spent singing songs of worship to the devil followed by practices of sodomy on Thursday. On Friday they returned to their worship songs, Saturday was spent copulating with various animals including horses, dogs and snakes before having a rest day on Sunday. Marie herself was apparently pregnant by the Devil with whom she had already had two children. She followed this by confessing to mass murder, claiming to have killed a great number of people with a potion she had created from a recipe given to her by Satan. Of those she had killed most of them had been babies and the various means in which she had done so became increasingly unbelievable. Marie claimed to have disembowelled, strangled, poisoned, flayed, crucified, burned, boiled, drowned, hung, dismembered hundreds of babies, she had thrown some to lions to be eaten and on more than one occasion crushed the heart of a newborn with her teeth in front of its parents. She was also responsible for exhuming the children she had killed, offering their sacrifice to Satan.
Her confession was unbelievable, literally, and rather than consider her a practitioner of the dark arts, the Archbishop of Malines who was given authority over the case, had her incarcerated as a mad woman instead of tried as a witch. Her admissions were not just seen as implausible but impossible, as murder on the scale she declared would have involved her devote more time than she had actually lived to the crimes, while someone would surely have noticed disturbed graves or so many missing children. After Sister Marie was sent away the situation in Lilles calmed a bit, but the possessions continued. In the coming years, the three initial victims were put on trial for witchcraft and devil worship, but their confessions were as implausible as Sister Marie’s and so they were imprisoned rather than burned.
Next time, part two! In which we consider further cases of mass possession, specifically those at Loudun and Louviers.