Jeanne des Anges (1602–1665) was the Mother superior of the Ursuline convent in Poitiers, France, who became possessed with major demons in the famous Loudun Possessions case. A mean and vindictive woman, Jeanne des Anges (Joan of the Angels) became the principal demoniac in fraudulent possessions that led to the execution of an innocent priest, Urbain Grandier. She ended her life near sainthood and wrote a vivid account of her experiences in her autobiography, which she modeled on the autobiography of St. Teresa of Avila.
She was born Jeanne de Belciel in 1602 to a noble family. Her father was Louis de Belciel, baron de Coze, and her mother was Charlotte Goumart d’Eschillais. Jeanne evidently suffered tuberculosis early in life, which stunted her growth and left her with a hunchback. Because of her unattractiveness Jeanne developed a withdrawn and defensive personality. She automatically considered most people her enemies, and she was quick to mock others. Jeanne’s parents attempted to get rid of their disagreeable child at an early age by sending her to an aunt who was a prioress at a nearby abbey. After about three years, she was sent home. When she was old enough, she was sent to the Ursuline convent. She was careless in her duties and unpleasant in demeanor, but the nuns tolerated her because her family was wealthy. Suddenly, she underwent a marked change of personality and became docile and extremely devout. The prioress, who was retiring, decided to recommend Jeanne, at age 25, as her replacement. Jeanne retained the position of mother superior for all but three years from 1627 until her death in 1665. In her autobiography, Jeanne gave a much different and mocking account. She said she deliberately made herself indispensable and used ingratiating behavior to gain her advantage. She also became adept at feigning states of ecstasy and rapture. Through her false spirituality, she sought to prove herself better than the other nuns. The nuns passed much of their time in gossip, and at the center of attention was the handsome curé of Loudun, Father Urbain Grandier, who was well known for his sexual exploits. At some point, Jeanne became sexually obsessed with him from afar, an obsession that grew for about five years. She wrote:
When I did not see him, I burned with love for him and when he presented himself to me . . . I lacked the faith to combat the impure thoughts and movements that I felt. . . . Never had the Demons created such disorder in me.
When the Ursulines’ director, Canon Moussant, died, Jeanne wasted no time in inviting Grandier to replace him. He declined, saying he was not worthy of the post, and besides, he was too busy with parish duties. Shocked and insulted, Jeanne became his enemy and began allying herself with a growing list of Grandier’s enemies in town. She appointed to her vacancy a cleric, Canon Mignon, who openly detested Grandier.
Meanwhile, Jeanne regaled her nuns with stories of lurid dreams involving Grandier. She had already told of dreams in which the deceased Moussant returned from purgatory to ask for prayers. Now Moussant was transformed into Grandier, who caressed her, told her he loved her, and pressed her to have sex with him. These salacious stories found receptive ears, for some of the other nuns were also having sexual dreams about other clergymen. Shortly after Moussant’s death in 1632, the nuns said they saw shadowy forms of men, including Moussant and Grandier, moving about the convent at night. Canon Mignon did nothing to discourage the talk or the tales of sexual dreaming, which he began to reinforce by characterizing them as incubi sent by Satan. Rather, he used these episodes as weapons against Grandier. He met with some of the curé’s enemies and conceived a plot in which Grandier could be accused of bewitching the nuns. The conspirators enlisted the aid of Carmelite EXORCISTs. Word spread through Loudun that the Ursuline nuns were plagued by Demons, and the Demons blamed everything on Grandier.
At first, Grandier shrugged off the stories, confident no one would believe he had done those things to women he had never met. But Mignon persisted, and exorcisms went on for months. Jeanne complied, eager to take revenge on Grandier for spurning her invitation to join the convent.
Mignon’s next move was to call in new exorcists who had higher standing, and who firmly believed the Devil was at work: Pierre Rangier, the curé of Veniers, and M. Barre, the curé of Saint-Jacques. The exorcisms were made public, and townspeople poured into the convent to witness them. On October 6, 1632, in his third exorcism, Barre sent Jeanne into convulsions, in which she rolled on the floor, growled and howled, and ground her teeth. Seven devils claimed to have hold of her. The crowd was entertained.
Two days later, Barre battled Asmodeus, who said he was residing in Jeanne’s belly. It took the curé two hours to expel the Demon, who finally parted after Jeanne, pinned down to her bed, was administered an enema of a quart of holy water. Jeanne later claimed that she was so confused that she barely knew what was happening to her. Although Mignon and Barre assured her that she was infested with Demons, Jeanne privately doubted that she could be, according to her autobiography, since she had entered into no Demonic Pact. She became angry when people talked to her about being possessed and felt that if Demons were influencing her, they were quite subtle about it. Nonetheless, she performed as a Demoniac during the public exorcisms. Most of the educated people who witnessed the exorcisms did not believe the nuns were genuinely possessed, and physicians believed their conditions had natural causes. The most gullible witnesses were uneducated Catholics.
Mignon lent her his book on the Marseilles Possessions and the death of Father Louis Gaufridi in the Aix-en-Provence Possessions, which may have influenced Jeanne and spurred her on in her performances as a Demoniac. She allowed herself to believe she was indeed possessed. Jeanne wrote later in her autobiography that when her possession started, she was plunged into “continual disturbance of mind” for almost three months. She was in constant “rages and fits of madness” and could hardly remember what happened to her. She excused her performances as a weakness of mind and spirit that made her susceptible to suggestion—although she clung to the claim that the suggestion had been from “the Demon”: In most cases I saw quite clearly that I was the prime cause of my turmoil and that the Demon only acted according to the openings I gave him. When I spoke of that to my exorcists, they told me it was the Demon who gave me those feelings in order to hide within me, or to cast me into a little despair at seeing myself in so much malignancy. I was not the more satisfied for that, for although I submitted to believing what they were telling me at the time, nevertheless my conscience, which was my judge, gave me no peace. Thus all their assurances blinded me. I think the fact is that it was difficult for them to believe that I was so wicked, and that they believed the devils were giving me these scruples.
To make myself better understood, I must give a few examples, both in important things and light matters, so that those who may read this will know how necessary it is that souls beleaguered by Demons should hold firmly to God and greatly beware of themselves. It so happened, to my great embarrassment, that during the first days when Father Lactance was given to me to be my director and exorcist, I disapproved of his way of conducting many small matters, although it was a very good way; but it was because I was wicked. One day he undertook to have us all take communion at our grille.
At that time, since we were for the most part sorely afflicted with the inner turmoil and great convulsions, for the reception of the Eucharist the priest would either come into our chancel or have us go out to take communion in the church. I was angry that he wanted to introduce a different practice. I began to murmur about in my heart, and thought within myself that he would do better to follow the way of the other priests. As I dwelled negligently on that thought, it entered my mind that, to humiliate that father, the Demon would have committed some irreverence toward the Very Holy Sacrament. I was so miserable that I did not resist that thought strongly enough. When I went to take communion, the devil seized my head, and after I had received the holy host and had half moistened it, the devil threw it into the priest’s face. I know perfectly well that I did not perform that act freely, but I am very sure, to my great embarrassment, that I gave the devil occasion to do it, and that he would not have had this power had I not allied myself with him.
When she took communion, the Demon within her forced her to fling the wafer in the face of the priest. Her mind was filled with blasphemies, which she uttered without control. She hated God and the spectacle of his goodness and looked for ways to displease him.
The Demon, she said:
Beclouded me in such a way that I hardly distinguished his desires from mine; he gave me, moreover, a strong aversion for my religious calling, so that sometimes when he was in my head I tore all my veils and such of my sisters’ as I could lay hands on; I trampled them underfoot, I chewed them, cursing the hour when I took the vows. All this was done with great violence, I think I was not free.
The exorcists invited two magistrates to witness the possessions for themselves, and they did. Jeanne went into violent contortions and grunted like a pig. Mignon stuck two fingers in her mouth and performed exorcisms. The Demons in her revealed that she was indeed under the influence of two diabolical pacts: one made of three hawthorn prickles and one a bunch of roses that she found on the convent stairs and stuck into her belt. Supposedly, Grandier had tossed the roses over the convent wall. Upon “accepting” the roses, Jeanne was bewitched with obsessive love for Grandier that interfered with her ability to think of anything else.
Mignon, pleased at this performance, suggested to the magistrates that this case bore all the hallmarks of a similar case 20 years earlier, the Aix-en-Provence possessions of Ursuline nuns that resulted in the execution by burning of Father Louis Gaufridi, for his alleged Demonic pact.
The chief magistrate, M. de Cerisay, believed the case to be one of natural sickness and fraud, and he attempted to stop the exorcisms. But Mignon persuaded the bishop to order them to continue. Legal jockeying ensued, with Grandier seeking a restraining order and the exorcisms continuing, albeit in private. Mignon reinforced daily to the nuns that they had been bewitched by Grandier. Eventually the archbishop intervened and sent his personal physician to investigate. Scared, the nuns dropped their possession fits.
The cessation of the fits caused supporters of the nuns to turn against them, for now it appeared that they were indeed playing out a deception. Even friends and families deserted them, and they fell on hard times financially. In autumn 1633, King Louis XIII’s commissioner, Baron Jean de Martin LaubarDemont, investigated and favored putting Grandier on trial. Grandier was advised by friends to flee, but he remained in town, confident that his innocence would allow him to prevail. Grandier was accused of Sorcery and of consorting with the Devil and his Demons and witches at Sabbats. At his preliminary hearings, all of the witnesses who had recanted their testimonies in 1630 came forward and swore that they had in fact told the truth. Grandier’s defense was not allowed; his mother protested with petitions against the illegal hearings, and her petitions were destroyed. She appealed to the Parlement of Paris, but the king barred the parlement from becoming involved in the case. At the hearings, the nuns screamed and screeched at Grandier, claiming his specter roamed the convent at night seducing them. The prosecution produced “pacts” that appeared mysteriously in the nuns’ cells or were allegedly vomited up by them. One pact was a piece of paper stained with three drops of Blood and containing eight orange seeds. Another was a bundle of five straws and another was a package containing worms, cinders, and hair and nail clippings. On June 17, while possessed by Leviathan, Jeanne vomited up a pact containing—according to her possessing Demons—a piece of the heart of a child who had been sacrificed in 1631 at a witches’ sabbat near Orléans, the ashes of a eucharist, and some of Grandier’s blood and semen.
Countering these shocking spectacles was the nuns’ obvious lack of command of previously unlearned foreign languages, a test of Demoniacs. Jeanne displayed little knowledge of Latin and made poor attempts to speak it. Some of the other possessed nuns did not even try to understand or speak Latin, Hebrew, or Greek. Often, the nuns resorted to howling and contorting to avoid answering questions. Other times, they claimed that the pacts they had with Grandier forbade them to speak in certain languages. The nuns also failed the test for clairvoyance. And they claimed that Grandier’s magical books were kept in the home of one of his mistresses—but none were found there.
After the death of Grandier, the nuns fell into states of remorse and guilt, but they were subjected to continuing exorcisms before crowds. They performed as if they were circus animals. In December 1634, four new Jesuit exorcists arrived, including Father JEAN-JOSEPH SURIN, to whom Jeanne took an immediate dislike. Whenever approached by him, she went into fits, howled, stuck out her tongue, and ran away. She laughed and mocked him, and her jokes seemed to energize one of the Demons, BALAAM, who urged her to continue and thus undermine the progress made by Surin. The priest wrote:
I saw that this spirit was wholly opposed to the seriousness with which one ought to take the things of God, and that it fostered in her a certain glee which destroys the compunction of heart indispensable to a perfect conversation with God. I saw that in a single hour of this kind of jocularity was enough to ruin everything I had built up in the course of many days, and I induced in her a strong desire to rid herself of this enemy. Jeanne diverted attention with a false pregnancy. She claimed ISACAARON began tempting her anew; she said “he performed an operation upon my body, the strangest and most furious that could be imagined; thereafter he persuaded me that I was great with child, in such sort that I firmly believed the fact and exhibited all signs.” Jeanne’s belly became greatly distended and she stopped menstruating. She vomited frequently and secreted milk from her breasts. She was in a state of extreme agitation nearly constantly and only experienced relief when Isacaaron visited her nightly and sexually assaulted her. Refusals resulted in beatings.
Jeanne considered trying to abort herself with herbs and drugs but abandoned the idea. She considered cutting the baby out of her womb with a knife but could not carry out the deed. Isacaaron once offered her a magic plaster that would terminate the pregnancy, but she refused it. A physician pronounced her pregnancy to be genuine, but Isacaaron, speaking at an exorcism, claimed it was all deception created by the Demons in Jeanne. She threw up a large quantity of blood and the pregnancy symptoms vanished. For Jeanne and Surin, a miracle had taken place.
Surin persisted in trying to rid Jeanne of devils, if not by exorcisms alone, then by spiritual instruction that would elevate her soul. He offered to take on her Demons himself and soon became obsessed, and then possessed. Jeanne continued to revile and resist Surin and then suddenly had a turnabout. She decided she wanted to become a saint; in fact, she wanted to imitate St. Teresa of Avila. She increased her prayer time and took on severe austerities: a hair shirt, a bed of boards, wormwood poured onto her food, and a belt spiked with nails. She beat herself up to seven hours a day. Surin, a great believer in discipline, encouraged her. Jeanne became more receptive to Surin, and by summer 1635, they were meeting privately in the convent’s attic, where he expounded on mystical theology and they prayed together. These private sessions raised gossip in Loudun, which the two ignored.
Whenever Jeanne objected to the mortifications prescribed by Surin, which were private instead of public, she let the Demons out to howl and complain. Surin ordered the Demons to whip themselves—and they did, making Jeanne scream.
In February 1635, Isacaaron announced that three anonymous magicians had three consecrated wafers, which they intended to burn. Surin ordered Isacaaron to fetch the wafers. At first, the Demon refused and then relented. The three wafers mysteriously appeared in a niche at the convent. The feat appeared to be a miracle. Surin had transformed himself from exorcist to Jeanne’s spiritual director, displeasing the Jesuit authorities. In October 1635, he was ordered to return to Bordeaux and be replaced by another exorcist. Distressed, Jeanne fell ill for several days and then asked to be exorcized. On November 5, in front of a large crowd, Surin expelled Leviathan from her and was allowed to stay on at the convent.
A bloody cross appeared on her forehead and remained for three weeks. Then Balaam announced he was ready to go and would write his name on Jeanne’s left hand when he did so. Jeanne prayed mightily that the Demon would inscribe the name of St. Joseph, not his own. The Demon departed on November 29, leaving Jeanne marked with the name Joseph. Surin viewed this as an extraordinary grace from God. Others believed it to be the product of autosuggestion. But the crowds saw her as a saint. Later, the names of Jesus, Mary, and St. Francis de Sales were added to her arm. The names would fade after a few weeks and then be renewed by Jeanne’s good angel. Isacaaron left Jeanne on January 7, 1636. Surin took on BEHEMOTH, but 10 months went by with no progress. In October, he broke down and was recalled to Bordeaux. He was replaced by Father Resses.
As she had with Surin, Jeanne resisted Resses, but he forced exorcisms on her anyway. She fell ill and vomited blood. Her condition deteriorated and extreme unction was given. She had a vision in which God told her she would be taken to the point of death but would not die. She reached a point where doctors felt she had only hours to live, and then she had a vision of her good angel in the form of a beautiful youth, followed by St. Joseph, who anointed her with oil, and she miraculously recovered. Later, she revealed her chemise had an oil stain of five drops. She probably faked the evidence, but it took on the status of a relic.
Behemoth announced that he would not depart without Jeanne’s making a pilgrimage to the tomb of St. Francis of Sales at Annency, accompanied by Surin. The priest was recalled to Loudun in June to comply. He and a companion, Father Thomas, accompanied Jeanne on part of her pilgrimage, and then Surin’s job with her was done. Jeanne’s five-month pilgrimage was a triumphal march through France in 1638. She visited major cities, including Paris, Lyon, Orléans, Grenoble, Blois, and Annency. Tens of thousands turned out to see her and view her relics, the names on her arm, and the stained shirt. At Annency, a possessed girl was cured by touching the stained shirt.
Jeanne had audiences with royalty, including Queen Anne, wife of Louis XIII; archbishops; and the dying Cardinal Richelieu (who privately thought the Loudun affair was a fraud). Her stained chemise was used as a blanket in the birth of Louis XIV. Everywhere she went, she was hailed and admired.
On October 15, Behemoth kept his end of the bargain and departed from Jeanne, and Surin returned again to Bordeaux.
After the pilgrimage, Jeanne returned to the Loudun convent, never to leave it again. She was bored and hungry for the limelight, but now there were no devils and no miracles to use to gain attention. She fell seriously ill and miraculously recovered, but this time the “miracle” was barely noticed.
A few times, the Demons reappeared, to beat her and harass her. Jeanne, however, was more interested in producing heavenly miracles than engaging in fights with the infernal. She claimed her heart split in two and was marked invisibly with the instruments of the Passion. Souls in purgatory appeared to her and spoke. Increasingly, she developed a relationship with her guardian angel and prayed for “true lights” to be revealed to her. Her angel complied, dispensing even personal advice to visitors of the most petty nature.
Jeanne began to write her autobiography in 1644. Her account of events reveals a personality self-absorbed and unconcerned about the consequences of her actions. She made little reference to the unfortunate Grandier, even though at the height of the drama, she had confessed her guilt and remorse at framing him with lies. Rather, she saw her life as a spiritual quest, in which she had allowed Demons to act against her as a consequence of her own defective will. Twice during the depths of her spiritual darkness, she had tried to commit suicide.
For years, she wrote to Surin, but she received no reply until 1657, when he resumed serving as her spiritual director until his death in 1665. She enjoyed a correspondence and close friendship with him, confessing the state of her soul, still seeking to be the center of attention to the end of her life.
By 1662, her “miracles” were at an end. Despite her saintliness, she was still the object of criticism and was called a witch and magician even in the last years of her life.
Jeanne died in January 1665. Her head was cut off and placed in a silver and gold reliquary. The stained chemise was already in its own reliquary. These relics were the objects of popular devotion.
The convent commissioned an artist to paint a huge image of the expulsion of Behemoth. In the center, Jeanne knelt before Surin, Tranquille, and a Carmelite, a look of ecstasy on her face. Royalty and commoners looked on. A radiant St. Joseph, accompanied by Cherubim, floated overhead with three thunderbolts intended for the Demons leaving Jeanne’s mouth.
The painting hung in the chapel for more than 80 years, when a bishop ordered it removed. The nuns hid the painting by covering it with another one. In 1772, the convent was suppressed. The painting, chemise, and mummified head were sent into hiding and disappeared.
- Certeau, Michel de. The Possession at Loudun. Translated by Michael B. Smith. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2000.
- Ferber, Sarah. Demonic Possession and Exorcism in Early Modern France. London: Routledge, 2004.
- Huxley, Aldous. The Devils of Loudun. New York: Harper and Brothers, 1952.