Marie des Vallees (1590–1656) was a French girl of Coutances, France, whose lifelong struggle with Possession led to her cult recognition as a local mystic. Marie des Vallees was possessed for 44 of her 66 years and was called the Saint of Coutances.
Marie was born to a peasant family in Saint-SauveurLandelin in the diocese of Coutances in Lower Normandy. Her father, Julien, died when she was 12. Her mother, Jacquelin Germain, married a butcher, who beat Marie with a stick. The abuse forced her to leave home, and she wandered for two years living with different people. In 1609, she was living with a female tutor when the symptoms of Demonic possession manifested.
According to Marie, who shared details of her life with St. Jean Eudes, who was inspired by her, the cause of her possession was a witch’s Curse. A young man proposed to her and she turned him down. He sought the help of a witch to force her to love him. Soon after, he pushed against her while they were in a procession for the feast of St. Mercouf, and she felt lustful stirrings within her. When she went home, she fell down and uttered “terrible cries.” From then on, Marie was in the grip of Demons. She found it difficult to pray or attend church. Marie never disclosed the name of the young man but said that he left the parish permanently. The witch, known as “La Grivelle,” was later burned at the stake on unrelated charges of Witchcraft.
Another version of the possession cause was publicized by one of Marie’s critics, who said that her problem started after she indulged in a “lascivious and sacrilegious dance” with a young man in a cemetery on a feast day. Regardless, once Marie was afflicted, her problems increased. After three years of unrest and near-sleepless nights, her adopted family took her to Bishop Briroy, the bishop of Coutances, to seek his advice. Doctors could not help her. The bishop tried for three years to exorcise the Demons but failed.
In 1614, Marie went to Rouen, to undergo Exorcisms by the archbishop and several doctors. The Demons promised to leave at a certain time but did not. When asked why, they said that a local gentleman was using witchcraft to prevent them from leaving. Outraged at this accusation, the nobleman denounced Marie as a witch, and she was arrested.
Marie was held in prison for six months. She was shaved and searched for a Devil’S MARK by being pricked with needles. She was “matroned,” a test for virginity. It was believed that witches had intercourse with Demons and the Devil, and so if she were indeed a witch, she would not be a virgin. Marie passed the virginity test and was released.
She turned the situation to her advantage by expressing compassion for witches and desiring to take on the punishments for all their crimes. She wore a pigskin shirt with bristles and a horsehair ceinture and fasted. From 1617 to 1619 she said she descended into a state of Hell during which she suffered all the tortures inflicted upon witches. She said that witches gathered around her and accused her of sins she did not commit and added to her suffering.
Marie displayed common signs of possession, such as revulsion toward holy objects and the inability to take communion. She tried to commit suicide by stabbing herself with a knife but said that God stopped her by stiffening her arm.
Marie never expressed a desire to be free of Demons and used her possession to advance herself as a saintly person. She enjoyed great patronage but also was controversial and was severely criticized. She operated outside the church. In 1651, a local church tribunal declared that she had been fooled by the Devil and had entered into a Pact with him.
In 1655, Marie’s possession left her. For the first time in 30 years, she was able to take communion. She died in 1656.
- Ferber, Sarah. Demonic Possession and Exorcism in Early Modern France. London: Routledge, 2004.