Loudun is a small town in France about
midway between the ancient and romantic cities of
Tours and Poitiers. To-day it is an exceedingly
unpretentious and an exceedingly sleepy place; but
in the seventeenth century it was in vastly better
estate. Then its markets, its shops, its inns,
lacked not business. Its churches were thronged
with worshipers. Through its narrow streets proud
noble and prouder ecclesiastic, thrifty merchant and
active artisan, passed and repassed in an unceasing
stream. It was rich in points of interest, preeminent
among which were its castle and its convent.
In the castle the stout-hearted Loudunians found a
refuge and a stronghold against the ambitions of the
feudal lords and the tyranny of the crown. To
its convent, pleasantly situated in a grove of time-honored
trees, they sent their children to be educated.
It is to the convent that we must
turn our steps; for it was from the convent that the
devils were let loose to plague the good people of
Loudun. And in order to understand the course
of events, we must first make ourselves acquainted
with its history. Very briefly, then, it, like
many other institutions of its kind, was a product
of the Catholic counter-reformation designed to stem
the rising tide of Protestantism. It came into
being in 1616, and was of the Ursuline order, which
had been introduced into France not many years earlier.
From the first it proved a magnet for the daughters
of the nobility, and soon boasted a goodly complement
At their head, as mother superior,
was a certain Jeanne de Belfiel, of noble birth and
many attractive qualities, but with characteristics
which, as the sequel will show, wrought much woe to
others as well as to the poor gentlewoman herself.
Whatever her defects, however, she labored tirelessly
in the interests of the convent, and in this respect
was ably seconded by its father confessor, worthy
Father Moussaut, a man of rare good sense and possessing
a firm hold on the consciences and affections of the
Conceive their grief, therefore, when
he suddenly sickened and died. Now ensued an
anxious time pending the appointment of his successor.
Two names were foremost for consideration that
of Jean Mignon, chief canon of the Church of the Holy
Cross, and that of Urbain Grandier, cure of Saint
Peter’s of Loudun. Mignon was a zealous
and learned ecclesiastic, but belied his name by being
cold, suspicious, and, some would have it, unscrupulous.
Grandier, on the contrary, was frank and ardent and
generous, and was idolized by the people of Loudun.
But he had serious failings. He was most unclerically
gallant, was tactless, was overready to take offense,
and, his wrath once fully roused, was unrelenting.
Accordingly, little surprise was felt when the choice
ultimately fell, not on him but on Mignon.
With Mignon the devils entered the
Ursuline convent. Hardly had he been installed
when rumors began to go about of strange doings within
its quiet walls; and that there was something in these
rumors became evident on the night of October 12,
1632, when two magistrates of Loudun, the bailie and
the civil lieutenant, were hurriedly summoned to the
convent to listen to an astonishing story. For
upwards of a fortnight, it appeared, several of the
nuns, including Mother Superior Belfiel, had been
tormented by specters and frightful visions. Latterly
they had given every evidence of being possessed by
evil spirits. With the assistance of another
priest, Father Barre, Mignon had succeeded in exorcising
the demons out of all the afflicted save the mother
superior and a Sister Claire.
In their case every formula known
to the ritual had failed. The only conclusion
was that they were not merely possessed but bewitched,
and much as he disliked to bring notoriety on the
convent, the father confessor had decided it was high
time to learn who was responsible for the dire visitation.
He had called the magistrates, he explained, in order
that legal steps might be taken to apprehend the wizard,
it being well established that “devils when
duly exorcised must speak the truth,” and that
consequently there could be no doubt as to the identity
of the offender, should the evil spirits be induced
to name the source of their authority.
Without giving the officials time
to recover from their amazement, Mignon led them to
an upper room, where they found the mother superior
and Sister Claire, wan-faced and fragile looking creatures
on whose countenances were expressions of fear that
would have inspired pity in the most stony-hearted.
About them hovered monks and nuns. At sight of
the strangers, Sister Claire lapsed into a semi-comatose
condition; but the mother superior uttered piercing
shrieks, and was attacked by violent convulsions that
lasted until the father confessor spoke to her in
a commanding tone. Then followed a startling dialogue,
carried on in Latin between Mignon and the soi-disant
demon possessing her.
“Why have you entered this maiden’s body?”
“Because of hatred.”
“What sign do you bring?”
“Who has sent them?”
A moment’s hesitation, then the single word “Urbain.”
“Tell us his surname?”
In an instant the room was in an uproar.
But the magistrates did not lose their heads.
To the bailie in especial the affair had a suspicious
look. He had heard the devil “speak worse
Latin than a boy of the fourth class,” he had
noted the mother superior’s hesitancy in pronouncing
Grandier’s name, and he was well aware that deadly
enmity had long existed between Grandier and Mignon.
So he placed little faith in the latter’s protestation
that the naming of his rival had taken him completely
by surprise. Consulting with his colleague, he
coldly informed Mignon that before any arrest could
be made there must be further investigation, and,
promising to return next day, bade them good night.
Next day found the convent besieged
by townspeople, indignant at the accusation against
the popular priest, and determined to laugh the devils
out of existence. Grandier himself, burning with
rage, hastened to the bailie and demanded that the
nuns be separately interrogated, and by other inquisitors
than Mignon and Barre. In these demands the bailie
properly acquiesced; but, on attempting in person to
enforce his orders to that effect, he was denied admittance
to the convent. Excitement ran high; so high
that, fearful for his personal safety, Mignon consented
to accept as exorcists two priests appointed, not by
the bailie, but by the Bishop of Poitiers who,
it might incidentally be mentioned, had his own reasons
for disliking Grandier.
Exorcising now went on daily, to the
disgust of the serious-minded, the mystification of
the incredulous, the delight of sensation-mongers,
and the baffled fury of Grandier. So far the
play, if melodramatic, had not approached the tragic.
Sometimes it degenerated to the broadest farce comedy.
Thus, on one occasion when the devil was being read
out of the mother superior, a crashing sound was heard
and a huge black cat tumbled down the chimney and
scampered about the room. At once the cry was
raised that the devil had taken the form of a cat,
a mad chase ensued, and it would have gone hard with
pussy had not a nun chanced to recognize in it the
pet of the convent.
Still, there were circumstances which
tended to inspire conviction in the mind of many.
The convulsions of the possessed were undoubtedly
genuine, and undoubtedly they manifested phenomena
seemingly inexplicable on any naturalistic basis.
A contemporary writer, describing events of a few
months later, when several recruits had been added
to their ranks, states that some “when comatose
became supple like a thin piece of lead, so that their
body could be bent in every direction, forward, backward,
or sideways, till their head touched the ground,”
and that others showed no sign of pain when struck,
pinched, or pricked. Then, too, they whirled
and danced and grimaced and howled in a manner impossible
to any one in a perfectly normal state.
For a few brief weeks Grandier enjoyed
a respite, thanks to the intervention of his friend,
the Archbishop of Bordeaux, who threatened to send
a physician and priests of his own choice to examine
the possessed, a threat of itself sufficient, apparently,
to put the devils to flight. But they returned
with undiminished vigor upon the arrival in Loudun
of a powerful state official who, unfortunately for
Grandier, was a relative of Mother Superior Belfiel’s.
This official, whose name was Laubardemont, had come
to Loudun on a singular mission. Richelieu, the
celebrated cardinal statesman, in the pursuit of his
policy of strengthening the crown and weakening the
nobility, had resolved to level to the ground the
fortresses and castles of interior France, and among
those marked for destruction was the castle of Loudun.
Thither, therefore, he dispatched Laubardemont to
see that his orders were faithfully executed.
Naturally, the cardinal’s commissioner
became interested in the trouble that had befallen
his kinswoman, and the more interested when Mignon
hinted to him that there was reason to believe that
the suspected wizard was also the author of a recent
satire which had set the entire court laughing at
Richelieu’s expense. What lent plausibility
to this charge was the fact that the satire had been
universally accredited to a court beauty formerly
one of Grandier’s parishioners. Also there
was the fact that in days gone by, when Richelieu
was merely a deacon, he had had a violent quarrel
with Grandier over a question of precedence. Putting
two and two together, and knowing that it would result
to his own advantage to unearth the real author to
the satire, Laubardemont turned a willing ear to the
suggestion that the woman in question had allowed her
old pastor to shield himself behind her name.
Back to Paris the commissioner galloped
to carry the story to Richelieu. The cardinal’s
anger knew no bounds. From the King he secured
a warrant for Grandier’s arrest, and to this
he added a decree investing Laubardemont with full
inquisitorial powers. Events now moved rapidly.
Though forewarned by Parisian friends, Grandier refused
to seek safety by flight, and was arrested in spectacular
fashion while on his way to say mass. His home
was searched, his papers were seized, and he himself
was thrown into an improvised dungeon in a house belonging
to Mignon. Witnesses in his favor were intimidated,
while those willing to testify against him were liberally
rewarded. To such lengths did the prosecution
go that, discovering a strong undercurrent of popular
indignation, Laubardemont actually procured from the
King and council a decree prohibiting any appeal from
his decisions, and gave out that, since King and cardinal
believed in the enchantment, any one denying it would
be held guilty of lèse majesty divine and human.
Under these circumstances Grandier
was doomed from the outset. But he made a desperate
struggle, and his opponents were driven to sore straits
to bolster up their case. The devils persisted
in speaking bad Latin, and continually failed to meet
tests which they themselves had suggested. Sometimes
their failures were only too plainly the result of
For instance, the mother superior’s
devil promised that, on a given night and in the church
of the Holy Cross, he would lift Laubardemont’s
cap from his head and keep it suspended in mid-air
while the commissioner intoned a miséréré.
When the time came for the fulfilment of this promise
two of the spectators noticed that Laubardemont had
taken care to seat himself at a goodly distance from
the other participants. Quietly leaving the church,
these amateur detectives made their way to the roof,
where they found a man in the act of dropping a long
horsehair line, to which was attached a small hook,
through a hole directly over the spot where Laubardemont
was sitting. The culprit fled, and that night
another failure was recorded against the devil.
But such fiascos availed nothing
to save Grandier. Neither did it avail him that,
before sentence was finally passed, Sister Claire,
broken in body and mind, sobbingly affirmed his innocence,
protesting that she did not know what she was saying
when she accused him; nor that the mother superior,
after two hours of agonizing torture self-imposed,
fell on her knees before Laubardemont, made a similar
admission, and, passing into the convent orchard,
tried to hang herself. The commissioner and his
colleagues remained obdurate, averring that these confessions
were in themselves evidence of witchcraft, since they
could be prompted only by the desire of the devils
to save their master from his just fate. In August,
1634, Grandier’s doom was pronounced. He
was to be put to the torture, strangled, and burned.
This judgment was carried out to the letter, save
that when the executioner approached to strangle him,
the ropes binding him to the stake loosened, and he
fell forward among the flames, perishing miserably.
It only remains to analyze this medieval
tragedy in the light of modern knowledge. To
the people of his own generation Grandier was either
a wizard most foul, or the victim of a dastardly plot
in which all concerned in harrying him to his death
knowingly participated. These opinions posterity
long shared. But now it is quite possible to reach
another conclusion. That there was a conspiracy
is evident even from the facts set down by those hostile
to Grandier. On the other hand, it is as unnecessary
as it is incredible to believe that the plotters included
every one instrumental in fixing on the unhappy cure
the crime of witchcraft.
Bearing in mind the discoveries of
recent years in the twin fields of physiology and
psychology, it seems evident that the conspirators
were actually limited in number to Mignon, Barre,
Laubardemont, and a few of their intimates. In
Laubardemont’s case, indeed, there is some reason
for supposing that he was more dupe than knave, and
is therefore to be placed in the same category as
the superstitious monks and townspeople on whom Mignon
and Barre so successfully imposed. As to the
possessed the mother superior and her nuns they
may one and all be included in a third group as the
unwitting tools of Mignon’s vengeance.
In fine, it is not only possible but entirely reasonable
to regard Mignon as a seventeenth-century forerunner
of Mesmer, Elliotson, Esdaile, Braid, Charcot, and
the present day exponents of hypnotism; and the nuns
as his helpless “subjects,” obeying his
every command with the fidelity observable to-day
in the patients of the Salpetrière and other centers
of hypnotic practice.
The justness of this view is borne
out by the facts recorded by contemporary annalists,
of which only an outline has been given here.
The nuns of Loudun were, as has been said, mostly daughters
of the nobility, and were thus, in all likelihood,
temperamentally unstable, sensitive, high-strung,
nervous. The seclusion of their lives, the monotonous
routine of their every-day occupations, and the possibilities
afforded for dangerous, morbid introspection, could
not but have a baneful effect on such natures, leading
inevitably to actual insanity or to hysteria.
That the possessed were hysterical is abundantly shown
by the descriptions their historians give of the character
of their convulsions, contortions, etc., and
by the references to the anesthetic, or non-sensitive,
spots on their bodies. Now, as we know, the convent
at Loudun had been in existence for only a few years
before Mignon became its father confessor, and so,
we may believe, it fell out that he appeared on the
scene precisely when sufficient time had elapsed for
environment and heredity to do their deadly work and
provoke an epidemic of hysteria.
In those benighted times such attacks
were popularly ascribed to possession by evil spirits.
The hysterical nuns, as the chronicles tell us, explained
their condition to Mignon by informing him that, shortly
before the onset of their trouble, they had been haunted
by the ghost of their former confessor, Father Moussaut.
Here Mignon found his opportunity. Picture him
gently rebuking the unhappy women, admonishing them
that such a good man as Father Moussaut would never
return to torment those who had been in his charge,
and insisting that the source of their woes must be
sought elsewhere; in, say, some evil disposed person,
hostile to Father Moussaut’s successor, and hoping,
through thus afflicting them, to bring the convent
into disrepute and in this way strike a deadly blow
at its new father confessor. Who might be this
evil disposed person? Who, in truth, save Urbain
Picture Mignon, again, observing that
his suggestion had taken root in the minds of two
of the most emotional and impressionable, the mother
superior and Sister Claire. Then would follow
a course of lessons designed to aid the suggestion
to blossom into open accusation. And presently
Mignon would make the discovery that the mother superior
and Sister Claire would, when in a hysterical state,
blindly obey any command he might make, cease from
their convulsions, respond intelligently and at his
will to questions put to them, renew their convulsions,
lapse even into seeming dementia.
Doubtless he did not grasp the full
significance and possibilities of his discovery had
he done so the devils would not have bungled matters
so often, and no embarrassing confessions would have
been forthcoming. But he saw clearly enough that
he had in his hand a mighty weapon against his rival,
and history has recorded the manner and effectiveness
with which he used it.