Devil Worship and Demonic Possession in French Convents Pt II

Part one of this little series looked at the mass outbreaks of demonic possession (see also: convent hysteria) in several convents in France between 1611 and 1613. Despite geographical distance between the convents, there were a number of incidents which saw groups of nuns of varying denominations demonstrating behaviour considered to be evidence of possession. Such possession was supposed to have come from a person making a pact with the devil or another demon, which then allowed the demons access to a sanctified and therefore protected space.

There was a lull in mass possessions for two decades after the nuns of Saint Brigitte’s convent in Lille were imprisoned for their madness rather than burned for their heresy, but in 1634 demons would make another attempt to undermine the church, this time at the Ursuline convent at Loudun. Central to the possessions at Loudun was the priest Father Urbain Grandier who proved popular with the ladies and as a result less popular with his colleagues. Grandier was known to have had several sexual relationships with prominent women in Loudun, he was known to keep mistresses and wrote a treatise attacking the priestly vow of celibacy. It was probably no surprise that he would be brought up on charges of immorality in 1630, but he was so well connected politically that being found guilty meant little to him and he continued to live as he had after being restored to full clerical duties in the same year.

There are several theories as to how the accusations against Grandier from the Ursuline convent came about. One involves the Bishop of Poitiers approaching Father Jean Mignon, the convent’s confessor and in conspiring to have Grandier removed from his position, they convinced a number of the nuns to feign possession. Alternatively, the mother superior of the convent, who was known to be difficult and somewhat unstable, had offered Grandier the position of spiritual advisor to the convent after becoming intrigued by his reputation. When he turned the position down, she offered the position to Father Mignon and together they conspired to bring down Grandier. It is also possible that the nuns simply became hysterical and in their actions, Grandier’s enemies saw the chance to implicate the priest and have him disgraced.

Whatever the background, two years after Grandier had been restored to his duties the mother superior, Jeanne des Anges approached Father Mignon and revealed that she and several of her charges were being tormented by visions of Grandier. Jeanne claimed that her sleep was being disturbed regularly by visions of Grandier appearing to her as an angel in order to seduce her. This caused her to rave at night and disrupt her mind, while in the day she was found to be irritable, violent, and prone to convulsions and hallucinations. Other nuns were also exhibiting strange behaviour; walking around in a trance-like state at night, climbing onto the roof of the convent and, like Jeanne, having illicit dreams about Grandier. Naturally, they also demonstrated the behaviour standard to demonic possessions – contorting, shrieking, blaspheming, speaking in tongues and making animal noises. Despite doing penance for her nighttime ravings, Jeanne was found to be no better and she continued to be tormented.

Father Mignon attempted to exorcise Jeanne and the other nuns, and in doing so they named Grandier as the source of their woes. During the exorcisms, the nuns’ behaviour became more erratic and bordered on obsessive with Grandier. Jeanne claimed that she, ‘burned with love for him,’ while the nuns ran within the walls of the convent, calling over the wall for Grandier to come to them. At this point, we will note that not one of the nuns had met Grandier or had even seen him in person.

In 1633, the year after the exorcisms began, the Archbishop of Bordeaux ordered them to stop. Grandier had written to him previously protesting the accusations and when the Archbishop sent his personal physician to examine the nuns, the doctor found no evidence of possession. With the exorcisms halted and the nuns isolated in their cells, Grandier’s enemies now moved to involve Cardinal Richelieu, the chief minister of France. Richelieu was already no fan of Grandier after the latter had written a critical satire about him. Further, one of the nuns, Sister Claire, was a relation of Richelieu. With a personal stake in the trial and in a demonstration of his own political power, Richelieu ordered the royal commission to investigate the convent and claims that Grandier was a witch. To that end, the exorcisms resumed at the end of 1533.

The nuns’ hysteria was fuelled by the circumstances of their exorcism. Without a chapel of their own, the nuns were taken to one of the neighbouring churches where they would be exorcised daily and because they were beyond the confines of the convent, quite publicly. Huge crowds gathered to watch the event which placed the expectation of a spectacle upon the women who were already engaged in highly suggestible behaviour. Local hotels filled with tourists and people travelled considerable distances to witness the exorcisms, during which the women would blaspheme, contort their bodies into unnatural positions and call indecently to the men in the crowd. Richelieu’s relative, Sister Claire, was particularly noted for her grandstanding as she masturbated before the crowd while calling for the masses to have their way with her.

Even by contemporary standards, the behaviour of the possessed was shocking, but questions were raised over the legitimacy of the case. The nuns repeatedly failed to respond in foreign languages (common among demons) but claimed that their particular demons did not speak those languages. Although they contorted they could only do so within the realms of human practicality, while unusual and shocking to onlookers, the contortions were not considered otherworldly, neither could they levitate or demonstrate any supernatural gifts. Occasionally the nuns broke character, one claimed she had been pestered into believing she was possessed by Mignon and the mother superior. Sister Claire repeatedly retracted her claims against Grandier citing pressure from Mignon to make them in the first place, but her changing story was seen as further proof of possession.

To further condemn Grandier, a number of his past lovers and mistresses came forward and told of their lurid exploits in detail. The trial became extremely sexually charged and the charges were expanded into accusations of rape against other priests. Grandier himself was tortured but refused to confess. Despite this, documents said to have been written by him and signed by demons were taken as evidence of his pact with the various devils that possessed the convent.

His own attempt to exorcise the nuns failed, and eventually, he was executed as a witch on August 18th, 1634. However, this failed to stop the possessions and the public exorcisms continued and it was not until 1567, three years after Grandier’s death, that they were stopped and the nuns were considered free of their demonic tormentors. In the interim their displays were as spirited as ever; in the new year of 1635, the mother superior claimed to be pregnant by one of her demons. After loudly considering how she would rather die than birth the child the demonic father was persuaded by exorcists to abort the baby and Jeanne ceased being pregnant. The nuns were told to strip and flagellate and Sister Claire, again outdoing her companions, was found to be using a crucifix to pleasure herself.

The event came to an end when the mother superior was successfully exorcised and healed by Saint Joseph in a dream. The convent was shut down and the nuns dispersed, while Jeanne wrote an autobiography which documented her experiences. But before the exorcisms at Loudun had ended, the demons had already turned their attention to another convent around two hundred miles away.

Unlike the nuns at Loudun, the Hospitaller sisters of Saint Louis and Saint Elizabeth demonstrated numerous inexplicable behaviours and their testimonies may have been based in fact. The bizarre behaviour of the nuns surprised all in the community, given that they had been considered pillars of spirituality. The spiritual advisors of the nuns over a twenty year period were known for their austerity. When the particularly strict Father David died in 1628 he was replaced with the equally strict Father Mathurin Picard and Father Thomas Boulle. For years the nuns had lived a life of extreme severity. They fasted to the point of starvation, flagellated and mutilated themselves by way of penance and spent entire nights in prayer without sleep. While the harsh and rigid lifestyle might have lent the nuns a certain instability they appear to have reconciled to it and were known for their piety.

When Father Picard died and his assistant Boulle dispatched elsewhere, they received a new spiritual director who was far less exacting in his methods. Possibly surprised by the stringent activities the nuns subjected themselves to, their new director offered a far gentler path to holiness, suggesting that their previous mentors had been mistaken. Within three months of him taking the position, eighteen nuns within the convent began acting hysterically. They were unable to focus on prayer, cursing and blaspheming against God and going so far as to destroy the sacrament when it was offered to them. They hallucinated at night and their screams were so loud that it disturbed not only the rest of the convent but the nearby town.

Where the sisters at Loudun had been unable to demonstrate any supernatural conditions, the physical exertions of the Louviers’ nuns were not thought to come from anywhere else. They were able to contort themselves unnaturally, could support their body weight upon their head and remain in that position for hours, they succumbed to fainting fits but after all of these instances were found to be calm and collected, with no physical symptoms that something was wrong. They could run at great speed without getting out of breath, they displayed great agility by climbing onto rooftops or trees and on one occasion a sister was thrown into a fire by her demon only to emerge unscathed with no evidence of burning upon her.

Sister Madeleine Bavent became the focus of the inevitable investigation when she loudly declared for the power of Satan during a sermon. Madeleine claimed to have been forced to attend a witches’ sabbat by Boulle and the now deceased Picard. There she engaged in various sexual acts with the two men and the devil, whom she married during the event. After her initial confession, other nuns came forward with similar stories of Picard and Boulle’s debauched sorcery, but also accused Madeleine herself of being a witch, having been corrupted by Picard and Boulle. Under these accusations, Madeleine confessed in depth to the events she had witnessed. While most of her testimony was rooted in the supernatural, she also related that Father David had encouraged the sisters to hear mass naked, in theory, so they could mimic the purity present at the Garden of Eden, but in practice, so he could encourage them into lesbianic affairs. She spoke of the ways in which they had pleasured each other, which had extended to using the crucifix as an aid during sex. These were the only accusations levied against Father David and seemed to have had an element of truth in them, given that he was known to have preached in the nude himself, compared to the excessive claims made of Picard and Boulle’s behaviour.

As at Loudun, the nuns were interrogated and exorcised in public. Boulle, as the only surviving member of the accused trio, was brought to Louviers to face trial and was tortured at great length. During the exorcisms, the sisters revealed that at the witches sabbat they had committed extensive acts of perversion with the priests, demons, each other and when they were not engaged in the acts themselves they watched the priests fornicate with demons. The investigation focused on Madeleine accused by her sisters as being the instrument of the priests and she was placed in solitary confinement. Her mental state continued to deteriorate and despite displaying obvious signs of insanity and attempting to end her life several times, she was brought out to testify against Boulles and the deceased, with her testimony being taken as a fact.

The exorcisms continued but the sisters showed no improvement. In 1647 Boulles was condemned for his crimes and he was burned at the stake, tied to the recently exhumed body of Father Picard. By this time the nuns who had not been affected had been slowly dispersing to other convents. The possessed recovered their senses and relocated while the convent itself was demolished.

These cases of possession spanned almost forty years and had a tremendous effect on the treatment of the possessed and how trials were conducted. Prior to the events at Aix-en-Provence in 1611, the testimony of a possessed person was considered unreliable and as such could not have been heard as evidence. In each of these cases, however, statements made by the possessed made up the bulk of the prosecution cases however unsubstantiated or incongruous. After the events at Louviers, the authorities compiled a catalogue of symptoms exhibited by a truly possessed person. Based on the public spectacles of Loudun and Louviers the end result was a fifteen point list which included blasphemies, behaving lewdly, believing oneself to be possessed and shriek/scream/bark or otherwise mimic an animal. While witch hunts continued around Europe, the possession at Louviers was one of the last examples of witch trials in France and eventually the catalogue the authorities compiled on possession was abandoned.

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