Loudun Nuns

Loudun Nuns

(religion, spiritualism, and occult)

In 1633, the Ursuline convent of Loudun, France, was the scene of one of the most famous outbreaks of demonic possession. At the root of it was political movement against Father Urbain Grandier, who, at the age of twenty-seven, had been appointed parish priest of the church of St.-Pierre-du-Marché, in Loudun. Since he was not from that area, being a native of Mantes, the local clergy felt very antagonistic toward him.

Grandier was born in 1590, at Bouère, and educated at Bordeaux by the Jesuits. He was very much a lady's man, despite his priestly orders. In Loudun he was suspected of being the father of a child born to Philippa Trincant, daughter of the public prosecutor of Loudun, and he openly had one of his young penitents, Madeleine de Brou, as a mistress. On June 2, 1630, his enemy, the Bishop of Poitiers, charged him with immorality, and he was found guilty before the Ecclesiastical Tribunal of Poitiers. But within the year he was free again and back at his priestly duties, due to his political connections with the Archbishop of Bordeaux, Sourdis. Despite suggestions from his friends that he move elsewhere, he remained in Loudun and flaunted his affairs.

The confessor to the nuns of Loudun was Canon Mignon. He was approached by Grandier's enemies to persuade some of the sisters to pretend to be possessed and to accuse Grandier of bewitching them. The Mother Superior, Sister Jeanne des Anges (Madame de Béclier), and another nun cooperated and seemingly went into convulsions. They claimed they were possessed by two devils, Asmodeus and Zabulon, sent by Father Grandier. Later, other nuns, affected by the apparent convulsions and seizures of the Mother Superior, also became possessed. All accused Grandier of bewitching them.

A variety of priests proceeded to try to exorcise the nuns, and great crowds came to see the spectacle. When Grandier himself spoke to one of the nuns in Greek, she responded in Greek, having been taught what to say. Much of the pretense was suspected and eventually discovered. But Grandier did not fight back, believing that he could never be convicted. However, on November 30, 1633, he was thrown into jail in the castle of Angers, where Dr. Mannouri searched him for the Devil's Mark. Mannouri pricked Grandier with one end of a lancet, causing him to cry out, then reversed it and pressed with the blunt end and proclaimed that Grandier felt no pain. Another doctor saw the trick and revealed it.

For purely political reasons, Cardinal Richelieu wanted to bring back the Inquisition and saw the Grandier case as an excuse to do so. He wanted to impress the Protestants by staging great public exorcisms, thereby moving toward revoking the Edict of Nantes, which gave religious freedom to all denominations. Richelieu had Grandier arrested by his agent Jean de Laubardemont, who happened to be a relative of Sister Jeanne des Anges, the Mother Superior. The trial became a mockery. Although Grandier should have been tried in a secular court and permitted an appeal to the Parliament, the Cardinal threw out all the rules and proceeded as he saw fit.

Some of Grandier's rejected mistresses came forward to speak against him. According to Monsieur Des Niau, writing in La Véritable Histoire (de Loudun) (1634), "Sixty witnesses deposed to adulteries, incests, sacrileges, and other crimes, committed by the accused, even in the most secret places of his church, as in the vestry, where the holy host is kept, on all days and at all hours."

The 1634 trial was a complete travesty of justice. The Bailli of Loudon protested the proceedings but was immediately suppressed by implications that his actions could be construed as treason. Any evidence in favor of Grandier's innocence was suppressed or disregarded. An alleged Pact with the Devil, supposedly signed by Grandier, was produced as evidence of his dealings with Satan.

The Mother Superior and one or two of the nuns eventually had second thoughts and tried to recant their accusations, but they were either ignored or not allowed to speak. Sentence was pronounced on August 18, 1634. Grandier was found guilty "of the crime of magic, maleficia, and of causing demoniacal possession of several Ursuline nuns." To atone, he had to appear at the church of St.-Pierre-du-Marché, with a rope around his neck and holding a two-pound taper in his hand. There he had to drop to his knees and beg God's pardon. All his goods were to be confiscated by the Crown. Not only that, but he was to be tortured into naming accomplices before being burned alive at the stake, together with all his books and manuscripts.

Urbain Grandier was put to the most violent torture by Father Tranquille and other Capuchins, having his legs smashed and crushed until the marrow ran out of his bones. When he cried out to God, in his agony, the priests said that he was really crying out to Satan, his god! This was a tactic used, and recorded by the Christian chroniclers, throughout the witch trials during the persecutions. But Grandier refused to name anyone as an accomplice. Franciscan Father Lactance and Madame de Laubardemont lit the pyre and, according to reports, gloated over his struggles as he burned.

As it happened, the "possession" of the nuns did not cease at Grandier's death. In front of hundreds of people the nuns continued to roll on the ground, lift up their clothing to expose themselves, and, as Des Niau reported, use "expressions so indecent as to shame the most debauched of men, while their acts, both in exposing themselves and inviting lewd behavior from those present, would have astonished the inmates of the lowest brothel in the country." It was not until some time later, when Richelieu stopped making payments to the convent, that the nuns seemed to lose interest in their performances and things finally returned to normal.

The Witch Book: The Encyclopedia of Witchcraft, Wicca, and Neo-paganism © 2002 Visible Ink Press®. All rights reserved.