The Loudun Possessions (1630–1634) were a Mass Possession of Ursuline nuns of Loudun, France, who accused Father Urbain Grandier as the source of their Demonic afflictions. The Loudun Possessions were probably the most famous case of mass possession in history. Vividly described in Aldous Huxley’s The Devils of Loudun (1952), the torments of Mother Superior JEANNE DES ANGES (Joan of the Angels) and the sisters by the handsome Grandier resulted in not only the priest’s fiery death but great debate on the veracity of the nuns’ sufferings, the theological probability of witchcraft, and the possibility that Grandier had been sacrificed for his political missteps.
A total of 27 nuns claimed to be possessed, obsessed, or bewitched. The Exorcisms became a circus of public spectacles conducted at the Ursuline convent, local chapels, and even private homes. Though the case had generally ended by 1634 with the execution of Grandier, exorcisms continued until 1637.
The Ursuline Convent
The Ursuline convent was new, established in 1626 by 17 nuns, most of them of noble birth. They were not particularly pious but were sent to the convent because their families could not afford dowries large enough to attract suitors of comparable rank. Most were resigned to their fate and lived lives of boredom at the convent. The only place they could afford to rent for their quarters was a gloomy house no one would live in because it was notoriously haunted. There was no furniture and the nuns slept on the floor. They did menial work and did not eat meat. Soon the locals realized that the nuns were well connected by blood to important people, and so they sent their daughters to the convent for education. In 1627, a new superior was appointed: Jeanne des Anges, formerly Jeanne de Belciel, a baron’s daughter. Contemporaries of Jeanne des Anges described her both as a living saint and as a strange, ambitious woman. She was arrogant, mean, rich, and extravagant in her secular life as the daughter of a baron. Sent to the convent because her hunchback and unattractive appearance made her marriage prospects poor, Jeanne nursed secret resentments. She feigned piety in order to become mother superior.
Grandier’s Rise and Fall
In 1617, Grandier was appointed parish priest of St.Pierre-du-Marche in Loudun, a town in Poitiers, France. He cut quite a figure. Handsome, urbane, wealthy, and eloquent, he had no trouble finding women willing to help him bend his priestly vows. He inspired admiration and adoration and at the same time resentment and envy. Everything he did was successful, and he enjoyed the support of powerful people.
Grandier reveled in his popularity and often acted arrogantly. He quarreled with people and did not care whether they became enemies. Townspeople suspected him of fathering a child by Philippa Trincant, the daughter of the king’s solicitor in Loudun, and he openly courted Madeleine de Brou, daughter of the king’s councilor, to whom he composed a treatise against the celibacy of priests. Most assumed Madeleine was Grandier’s mistress.
Grandier’s first serious setback occurred June 2, 1630, when he was arrested for immorality and found guilty by his enemy, the bishop of Poitiers. But Grandier’s own political connections restored him to full clerical duties within the year. Next, Grandier’s enemies approached Father Mignon, confessor to the Ursuline nuns at their convent and a relative of Trincant. The plan was for Father Mignon to persuade a few of the sisters to feign possession, swearing that Father Grandier had bewitched them, causing his removal and downfall. The mother superior, Jeanne des Anges, and another nun readily complied, falling into fits and convulsions, holding their breath and speaking in hoarse voices.
Jeanne became sexually obsessed with Grandier and had strange dreams in which he appeared to her as a radiant angel but spoke more as a devil would, enticing her to sexual acts and vices. Her hysterical dreams and ravings disturbed the peace of the convent, and after flagellation and penance, Jeanne was no quieter, and more nuns had succumbed to hallucinations and dreams. At this point, some accounts report Jeanne called for Father Mignon’s help, not the other way around.
Father Mignon and Father Pierre Barre, his aide, saw an opportunity for revenge against Grandier. There was no shortage of other enemies of Grandier, for he had made many, especially concerning his seductions of women in town.
When word circulated that the Ursuline nuns were bewitched and possessed and Grandier was responsible, the curé shrugged off the gossip. It was a foolish mistake, for the revised Witchcraft Act of 1604 called for the death penalty upon conviction of sorcery, Witchcraft, and diabolical Pact. The development of sorcery accusations against Grandier had grave implications.
The two priests began exorcizing the nuns, while Jeanne and the others shrieked, cavorted, and suffered convulsive fits. Whether the rituals added to the performance or caused Jeanne’s mind to snap, she swore that she and the others were possessed by two Demons, Asmodeus and ZABULON, sent by Father Grandier via a bouquet of roses thrown over the convent walls.
Now realizing his peril, Grandier appealed to the bailiff of Loudun to have the nuns isolated, but the bailiff’s orders were ignored. In desperation, Grandier wrote to the archbishop of Bordeaux; the archbishop sent his doctor to examine the nuns and found no evidence of possession. The archbishop ended the exorcisms on March 21, 1633, and ordered the nuns to confinement in their cells. Peace returned for a while, but the hysteria began again later that year.
Still convinced he could not be convicted of such imaginary crimes, Grandier was thrown into prison at the castle of Angiers on November 30, 1633. Devil’S MARKS were quickly found by lancing him in one part of the body, causing pain, and lightly touching him elsewhere, causing none. Observers such as Dr. Fourneau, the physician who prepared Grandier for torture, and the apothecary from Poitiers protested the examiner’s hoax and found no such marks. Other voices were raised in Grandier’s defense, even from the possessed nuns themselves.
Grandier’s enemies continued their efforts against him. A relative of Jeanne’s, Jean de LaubarDemont, and a crony of the powerful Cardinal Richelieu, along with a Capuchin monk, Father Tranquille, called to the cardinal’s attention a libelous satire on Richelieu that Grandier was supposed to have written in 1618 and reports of the unsuccessful exorcisms. Eager to prove his power in the church and in France, and aware of his relative, Sister Claire, in the convent, the cardinal appointed LaubarDemont head of a commission to arrest and convict Grandier as a witch. The exorcisms resumed publicly under Mignon, Barre, Father Tranquille, and FATHER GABRIEL LACTANCE, a Franciscan.
Experts continued to doubt that the possessions were genuine. Most of the nuns failed the test of knowledge of foreign languages not known to them prior to their possession. Nuns who did not know Latin were conveniently possessed by Demons who did not know Latin. Sometimes when given commands in Latin or Greek, the nuns had to be coached to respond correctly. Similarly, the nuns repeatedly failed tests for clairvoyance, Levitation, and superhuman strength. To make up for their shortcomings in crucial areas, the nuns resorted to contortions and gymnastics, revealing their legs, much to the delight of onlookers.
Even more glaring were other gaffes. Sister Agnes said repeatedly she did not believe herself to be possessed but was convinced by Jeanne and the exorcists. On another occasion, during an exorcism, some burning sulfur accidentally fell on the lip of Sister Claire. She burst into tears and said she was ready to believe that she was possessed as she had been told, but she did not deserve to be treated in this manner. On another occasion, Claire said tearfully that her possession and the accusations against Grandier were all lies she had been forced to tell by Mignon, Lactance, and the Carmelites. Agnes attempted to escape the convent but was captured and returned.
Jeanne made a deranged appearance in the convent yard one day, dressed only in her shirt, and stood for two hours in pouring rain with a rope around her neck and a candle in her hand. She then tied herself to a tree, threatening to hang herself, but was rescued by other sisters. This was witnessed by the chief magistrate, de LaubarDemont. The exorcists said Jeanne’s actions and the retractions were lies of Satan.
Despite these problems, the case against Grandier continued full force. In part, the case was also being used against the Protestant Huguenots in general, for the nuns all said that the Huguenots were disciples of Satan. After the Protestant Reformation, Catholics and Protestants battled each other in possession and exorcism cases to try to Demonstrate who had the greater spiritual authority. Besides the accusations of the nuns, Grandier’s former mistresses came forward with stories of adultery, incest, sacrilege, and other sins committed not only by a priest but in the holiest places of the church. The dreams and physical responses of the nuns were overtly sexual, providing shocking evidence of Grandier’s diabolical nature. Jeanne added a new possessor, ISACAARON, the devil of debauchery, and even went through a psychosomatic pregnancy.
Pillet de la Mesnardiere, one of Cardinal Richelieu’s personal physicians, determined exactly where some of Demons resided in the bodies of the possessed nuns, among them:
• Jeanne des Anges: Leviathan in the center of the forehead, Beherit in the stomach, Balaam under the second rib on the right side, Isacaaron under the last rib on the left
• Agnes de la Motte-Barace: Asmodeus under the heart and Beherit in the stomach
• Louise of Jesus: Eazaz under the heart and Caron in the center of the forehead
• Claire de Sazilly: Zabulon in the forehead, Nepthali in the right arm, San Fin (Grandier of the Dominions) under the second rib on the right, Elymi on one side of the stomach, the enemy of the Virgin in the neck, Verrine in the left temple, and Concupiscence of the Order of the Cherubim in the left rib
• Seraphica: A bewitchment of the stomach consisting of a drop of water guarded sometimes by Baruch and other times by Carreau
• Anne d’Escoubleau: A magic bayberry leaf in her stomach guarded by Elymi
Among the lay Demoniacs and their resident Demons were:
• Elizabeth Blanchard: A devil under each armpit, the Coal of Impurity in the left buttock, and devils under the navel, below the heart, and under the left breast nipple
• Françoise Filatreau: Ginnillion in the forebrain, Jabel throughout the body, Buffetison below the navel, and Dog’s Tail of the Order of Archangels in the stomach
The nuns’ accusations escalated. Madeleine de Brou was accused of witchcraft, arrested, and imprisoned. Because of her father’s political connections, she was released, rearrested, and released again. This time, she disappeared into a convent.
Gentlemen in town were accused of consorting with the Devil, and even the chief magistrate, de Cerisay, was accused of practicing black magic. Other priests were accused of rape.
Finally, Father Grandier was forced to exorcize the nuns himself, since he was the apparent cause of their sufferings. To test their knowledge of languages previously unknown to them—a sure sign of possession—Grandier spoke in Greek, but the nuns had been coached, replying that one of the terms of their pact had been never to use Greek. Of course, Grandier failed.
One of the most interesting items from the exorcisms and trial was the alleged written Pact between the Devil and Grandier, allegedly stolen from Lucifer’s cabinet of devilish agreements by Asmodeus and presented to the court as proof of Grandier’s complicity. Purportedly written backward by Grandier in Latin and signed in Blood, the pact outlined Grandier’s duties to the Devil and the benefits he accrued thereby. Cosigners were Satan, Beelzebub, Lucifer, ELIMI, Leviathan, and Astaroth, and it was notarized by “signature and mark of the chief devil, and my lords the princes of hell.” The recorder, BAALBERITH, countersigned the pact. Asmodeus also accommodatingly wrote out a promise to leave one of the nuns he was possessing, as reported by an earlier exorcist, Father Gault:
I promise that when leaving this creature, I will make a slit below her heart as long as a pin, that this slit will pierce her shirt, bodice and cloth which will be bloody. And tomorrow, on the twentieth of May at five in the afternoon of Saturday, I promise that the Demons Gresil and Amand will make their opening in the same way, but a little smaller—and I approve the promises made by Leviatam, Behemot, Beherie with their companions to sign, when leaving, the register of the church St. Croix! Given the nineteenth of May, 1629.
The message is written in Jeanne des Anges hand. Other Demonic “evidence” was that of Astaroth, a devil of the angelic order of seraphim and chief of the possessing devils; from Easas, Celsus, Acaos, Cedon, Alex, Zabulon, Naphthalim, Cham, and Ureil; from Asmodeus of the angelic order of thrones; and from Achas of the angelic order of principalities.
As the circus escalated, skeptics and defenders of Grandier came forward to protest. On July 2, 1634, they were officially silenced, forbidden to speak out against the nuns, the exorcists, or any others assisting in the exorcisms, under pain of stiff fines and physical punishment.
Jeanne des Anges appeared in court with a noose around her neck, threatening to hang herself if she could not expiate her previous perjury. Such efforts were ignored, and other defense witnesses were either pressured to keep silent or threatened with arrest as accessory witches or traitors to the king. Many had to flee France. Grandier believed almost to the end that he would be exonerated. He appeared before the 14 judges only three times. Inevitably, the Royal Commission passed sentence on August 18, 1634: After the first and last degrees of torture, Grandier was to be burned alive at the stake. Even under extreme torture, Grandier maintained his innocence, refusing to name accomplices, so angering Father Tranquille and the others that they broke both his legs and claimed that everytime Grandier prayed to God, he was really invoking the Devil. Grandier had been promised he could make a last statement and be mercifully strangled before burning, but the friars who carried him to the stake deluged him with holy water, preventing him from speaking. And the garotte was knotted so that it could not be tightened, leaving Grandier to be burned alive. One monk who witnessed the execution reported that a large fly buzzed about Grandier’s head, symbolizing that Beelzebub, the Lord of the Flies, had appeared to carry Grandier’s soul to Hell.
But Grandier had the last word. As he struggled, Grandier told Father Lactance that he would see God in 30 days. The priest died accordingly, reportedly crying, “Grandier, I was not responsible for your death.” Father Tranquille died insane within five years, and Dr. Mannoury, the fraudulent witch pricker, also died in delirium. Father Barre left Loudun for an exorcism at Chinon, where he was finally banished from the church for conspiring to accuse a priest of rape on the altar; the bloodstains turned out to be from a chicken. Louis Chavet, one of the judges who was skeptical of the possessions and who was denounced by Jeanne as a sorcerer himself, fell into depression and insanity and died before the end of the winter.
FATHER JEAN-JOSEPH SURIN, who arrived as an exorcist in 1634 after the death of Grandier, succumbed to possession by Jeanne’s devils. For years after Grandier’s death, Surin was haunted by the exorcisms, eventually becoming unable to eat, dress himself, walk, read, or write. He no longer prayed to God and continually saw visions of devils, black wings, and other terrors. In 1645, he tried to kill himself. Only after Father Surin received tender care from Father Bastide, the new head of Surin’s Jesuit College at Saintes, in 1648, did he begin to recover. Surin finally wrote again in 1657 and walked in 1660. He died at peace in 1665.
Grandier’s death did not stop the possessions at Loudun. Public appreciation of the exorcisms had been so great that the convent continued the performances as a type of tourist attraction, led by Mignon and three other Jesuit exorcists who arrived in December 1634 (one was Surin). Twice a day except Sundays, the afflicted nuns were exorcised for the amusement of the crowds. They lifted their skirts and coarsely begged for sexual relief. They beat their heads, bent backward, walked on their hands, stuck out blackened tongues, and used language that, according to one account, “would have astonished the inmates of the lowest brothel in the country.” Such shows continued until 1637, when the duchess d’Aiguillon, niece to Cardinal Richelieu, reported the fraud to her uncle. Having satisfied his original aim—to Demonstrate his considerable power—Richelieu righteously cut off the performers’ salaries and put the convent at peace. Jeanne des Anges, convinced of her saintliness by Father Surin, died in 1665.
Huxley’s account of the madness at Loudun forms the basis of Ken Russell’s film version, The Devils (1971). Vanessa Redgrave plays Jeanne des Anges, portrayed as a deformed, bitter, and sexually repressed woman. Oliver Reed plays the unfortunate Grandier.
Further Reading :
– 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.