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Loudun, Nuns of

The second of three cases of demonic possession reported in seventeenth-century France. The first involved Father Louis Gaufridi and Sister Madeleine de la Palud de Demandolx at Aix-en-Provence in 1611. The third was the case of the Nuns of the Franciscan Tertiaries at Louviers concerned with Sister Madeleine Bavent and Father Thomas Boullé.

In 1633 the convent of Ursulines in Loudun, France, became the scene of an outbreak of what was described as diabolical possession. The numerous nuns who inhabited the convent showed all of the signs of possession, including speaking in tongues and acting in a most extraordinary and hysterical manner. The affair grew in volume until practically all the nuns belonging to the institution were in the same condition.

The Mother Superior of the convent, Jeanne des Anges (Madame de Béclier), appears to have been of an unstable temperament, and she was not long in infecting the other sisters. She, a sister named Claire, and five other nuns were the first to be obsessed by the so-called evil spirits. The outbreak spread to the neighboring town and caused such scandal that Cardinal Richelieu appointed a commission to examine the affair. The "devils" resisted the process of exorcism, but seemed to succumb to a more imposing ceremony, then returned with greater violence than ever. Suspicion then fell upon Fr. Urbain Grandier, the confessor of the convent, as the instigator. He was arrested and accused of giving the nuns over into the possession of the devil by means of the practice of sorcery.

However, it came to light that the neighboring clergy were jealous of Grandier because he had obtained two benefices in their diocese, of which he was not a native, and they made up their minds to destroy him at the first possible moment. Despite his protests of innocence, the priest was hauled before a council of judges of the neighboring presidencies. They found on his body various marks said to be the undoubted signs of a sorcerer, and the inquest also brought out weaknesses in Grandier's reputation.

However, religious prejudice undoubtedly tainted this case. Papers seized from him were said to contain much material subversive to Roman Catholic religious practice. The prosecution produced a pact with Satan, promising Grandier the love of women, wealth, and worldly honor, endorsed with diabolical signatures. Some doubt as to the authenticity of this document is inevitable in view of the prosecution's claim that it was stolen by the demon Asmodeus from Lucifer's private files. This document, and a further claimed pact with the devil, apparently signed by Grandier in his own blood, survives in The Bibliothèque Nationale in Paris. Versions of it were published by credulous persons and sold as broadsheets.

Grandier was condemned to be burnt at the stake. The sentence was carried out in 1634, though only after he had been so severely tortured that the marrow of his bones oozed through his broken limbs. Through it all he persistently maintained his innocence.

However, his death did not end the symptoms among the sisters. In fact, the demons became more obstreperous than ever and flippantly answered to their names of such leading demons as Asmodeus, Leviathan, and Behemoth. A very holy brother called Surin was delegated to put an end to the affair. Frail and unhealthy, he possessed, however, an indomitable spirit, and after much wrestling in prayer succeeded in finally exorcising the demons.

A somewhat sensational movie based loosely on this incident was produced in 1971 under the title The Devils.

Sources:

Berger, Arthur S., and Joyce Berger. The Encyclopedia of Parapsychology and Psychical Research. New York: Paragon House, 1991.

Carmona, Michel. Les Diables de Loudun: Sorcellerie et politique sous Richelieu. Paris: Fayard, 1988.

Historie des diables de Loudun. N.p., 1839.

Huxley, Aldous. The Devils of Loudun. London: Chatto & Windus, 1952.

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Loudun, Nuns of

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