Spirit of Orléans
Fraudulent Exorcism plot perpetrated by Franciscan monks in Orléans, France, for money.
In the 16th century, it was custoMary to follow certain procedures in funeral rites that gave employment to mendicant monks. Soon after a person’s death, funeral criers were hired to go about a town and proclaim the death, urge people to pray, and announce the time and place of the burial. Monks were hired for the funeral procession to carry lights. An elaborate procession, with many hired monks, enhanced the importance of the deceased and the family.
In 1534, the wife of the mayor of Orléans died. She had specified in her will that she did not wish to have an elaborate funeral and burial with a large procession and huge crowd. Her husband honored her wishes, and so no monks were hired. Instead, the woman was buried at the Franciscan church with only her husband and father in attendance. Her husband paid the monks six gold pieces, far less than they had hoped to earn.
The monks might have let it pass, save for another insult. Not long afterward, the mayor had some trees cut down to sell as logs. The Franciscans asked for free wood, and he refused. They decided to get revenge by convincing him that the soul of his wife was damned and required exorcisms. A novice monk was stationed above the vault of the church. Late at night, when the monks arrived to pray, he made a great racket. Adjurations and exorcisms were to no avail. Instead, he made noises to indicate that he was a mute spirit.
With this fiction established by performance, the monks went to prominent citizens who were supporters of the Franciscans and said that a terrible thing was happening at their church. They invited people to go and see for themselves during evening prayers. The novice performed again, indicating that he could not speak but could answer questions with signs—making loud rapping noises. Through a secret hole, he could hear the questions to the “spirit” posed by the EXORCIST. Thus, the novice indicated that he was the spirit of the mayor’s dead wife, and her soul was condemned because of the heresy of her Lutheranism, and her body should be dug up and transferred to another place.
The monks asked the witnesses to sign a record to this effect. However, the citizens refused out of fear of offending the mayor. Nonetheless, the monks moved house to conduct their masses elsewhere, a practice they were entitled to do if a church had been profaned and needed purification. The bishop sent a judge and committee of noted persons to investigate. The judge ordered that the exorcisms be performed in his presence and that someone climb up into the vault to see whether any spirit could be detected. The monks objected, saying that the spirit of the dead woman should not be disturbed. Nor would they perform the exorcisms in the presence of the judge. The mayor reported all of this to the king of France, who sent members of the Parisian senate to investigate. Other investigators were sent by Chancelor Anton du Prat, a cardinal and papal legate to France. The monks were summoned to Paris and interrogated, but they refused to cooperate, hiding behind religious privileges and immunities. The novice kept his silence, fearing death at the hands of the monks if he betrayed them, until the king promised him immunity and said he would not be sent back to the Franciscans if he told the truth. The novice confessed all and repeated his confession in the presence of his fellow conspirators. The monks were returned to Orléans and sent to jail. They were paraded through town and forced to confess their crime in public.
The incident became the basis for a proverb whenever a lie was told: “It’s the spirit of Orléans.”
– Weyer, Johann. On Witchcraft (De praestigiis daemonum). Abridged. Edited by Benjamin G. Kohl and H. C. Erik Midelfort. Asheville, N.C.: Pegasus Press, 1998.