Marthe Brossier (16th century) a Fraudulent Possession case. Used as a vehicle for raising money from the gullible, Marthe Brossier’s alleged possession by Beelzebub also served as a means for the Catholic Church to try to undercut the religious reform of the Huguenots, members of the Protestant Reformed Church of France. The case stands as the first where accusations of fraud in an alleged possession were backed up by detailed physical evidence.
Reported as both the eldest and the youngest of four daughters of a poor draper in the town of Romorantin, Brossier first showed signs of unusual behavior at the age of 25 in 1598. Still without a husband, she cut her hair, wore men’s clothing, screamed, and contorted. She attacked her friend Anne Chevion (also known as Chevreau) in a fit of jealousy, accusing Anne of bewitching her. Although no records exist detailing Anne’s fate, other possessed persons in Romorantin successfully used the Witchcraft defense. Brossier’s career as a Demoniac also may have been influenced by an account of the MIRACLE OF LAON.
In any case, she demanded Exorcism by her local priest and began exhibiting fits, impossible body contortions, a psychosomatic pregnancy, and, as in Laon, ravings by Beelzebub against the heresy of the Huguenots. Realizing the celebrity potential of her possession, Brossier and her family traveled the Loire valley, stopping in various towns for exorcisms and drawing large audiences. The physician Michel Marescot, who examined Brossier in 1599, unkindly described her tours as “fifteen months spent in carrying of her too [sic] and fro, like an Ape or a Beare, to Angers, Saulmur, Clery, Orleans and Paris.”
In Orléans, Brossier obtained a certificate of genuine possession from the local priest. Not everyone was fooled, however, as administrators in Clery and Orléans posted documents forbidding any priest to exorcise “that fictitious spirit.” At Angers, Bishop Charles Miron tested Brossier on her reactions to holy water and sacred Latin texts, and she failed both examinations: She did not react to real holy water but to ordinary water, and the Latin, which caused more convulsions, was merely a line from Virgil’s Aeneid. Bishop Miron ordered Brossier and her family to return to Romorantin and stop playing tricks. Instead, in early March 1599, Brossier and her father went to Paris. Just a few days prior, the Paris parliament had passed the Edict of Nantes, giving official tolerance to both Catholic and Huguenot beliefs. The Brossiers sought refuge in the Capuchin monastery of Ste. Genevieve, where the monks began to exorcise Brossier immediately and broadcast Beelzebub’s anti-Huguenot diatribes. The exorcisms attracted huge crowds, and by the end of March, public feeling was so high that Henri De Gondy, bishop of Paris, intervened to verify Brossier’s possessed state. Both theologians and physicians examined Brossier, including Marescot, and all agreed on March 30 that Brossier was not possessed but merely ill; her symptoms were mainly counterfeit.
On March 31, two of the doctors reexamined Brossier and found an insensitive spot between her thumb and index finger. Believing it to be a Devil’S MARK, they asked for a postponement of the earlier report and began to exorcise Brossier on April 1. The Capuchins called in another group of doctors on April 2, and on April 3 they proclaimed her genuinely possessed. But their efforts were too late.
Fearing a breakdown of the edict, King Henri IV ordered a halt to the public exorcisms. Brossier was imprisoned for 40 days, and her copy of the Miracle of Laon was confiscated. Her convulsions gradually ceased. On May 24, Parliament ordered Brossier and her father to return to Romorantin, where the local judge was to check on her every two weeks. All was quiet until December, when Alexandre de la Rochefoucauld, the prior of St. Martin-de-Randan in Auvergne and a believer in Brossier’s possession, kidnapped her and took her to Avignon and finally to Rome to see the pope, all the while encouraging her anti-Huguenot performances. They arrived just in time for the Papal Jubilee of 1600, where Brossier contorted and was exorcized for the edification of the tourists.
Upon the advice of Henri IV and other clerics, the French cardinal d’Ossat stopped the Prior’s exhibitions, although Brossier continued to perform. According to an account by Palma Cayet in 1605, Brossier was still staging possession fits in Milan as of 1604 and acting as Beelzebub’s mouthpiece. That is the last record of her escapades.
- Ferber, Sarah. Demonic Possession and Exorcism in Early Modern France. London: Routledge, 2004.
- Walker, D. P. Unclean Spirits: Possession and Exorcism in France and England in the Late Sixteenth and Early Seventeenth Centuries. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1981.