In the year 1632, a bout of the black plague broke out in the French town of Loudun, eventually killing around 3,700 of the 14,000 residents. Doctors had left the town (since there was nothing they could do), and the convent of Ursuline nuns who usually gave alms to the poor also shut their doors.
This convent housed 16 young nuns, and most of them came from noble and rich families. It was during this period of turmoil that the group of nuns started seeing apparitions. These apparitions later devolved into convulsions and speaking in tongues. The bizarre case led to one of the most famous witch trials in the history of France.
The Cause of the Infamous Witch Trial: The Possessions at Loudun
On the night of 22 September 1632, one of the junior nuns at Loudun saw an apparition of a recently deceased priest. The next morning, she rushed to the head sister, Jeanne des Anges, and reported what she saw. Instead of offering counsel or trying to calm the junior nun, Anges exclaimed that she had seen the exact same apparition. During the next few weeks, a black orb was seen floating around the convent, as well as skeletons wandering through the halls. Nuns would report being punched and pushed by an invisible force and would have the urge to laugh uncontrollably. By early October, things took a turn for the worse after Sister Jeanne des Anges felt an invisible hand clench around her fist. When she uncurled her hand, she found three bloody hawthorn thorns in her palm. This marked the beginning of the possessions.
Writings from the time claim that the nuns would bend over backward and walk with their hands clasped to their heels. They would reportedly whip their heads front to back, and their tongues would dart out of their mouths — black and covered in pimples. They spoke crudely and exposed themselves and encouraged lewd behavior from those around them. The nuns would also beat their chests and uttered horrible and loud cries. The situation eventually got so out of hand that priests were called in to perform exorcisms. This was often done in public and attracted large crowds of tourists, some coming from as far as England.
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Through these exorcisms, the priests were able to ascertain the names of the demons responsible for inflicting terror on the nuns. Some of these demons included Asmodeus, Behemoth, Leviathan, and Astaroth. After many months the priests were able to determine who caused the possessions in the first place, a priest named Urbain Grandier.
Urbain Grandier: Trial and Execution
Grandier was a Jesuit who was appointed to be the parish priest for the Church of Saint-Pierre-du-Marche in Loudun in 1617, and was also appointed to the canon of the collegiate Church of Sainte Croix. As the eldest son, he was able to provide for his widowed mother and his siblings through these two positions, although it did stir up resentment among his fellow priests. He also did not help matters by sleeping with many of the town’s noble women, and he allegedly impregnated the daughter of the king’s prosecutor.
Grandier also provoked the ire of Cardinal Richelieu, the chief minister of France, by penning a satire that mocked the cardinal, as well as by writing a book that attacked the practice of clerical celibacy. The nail in his coffin, however, was when he decided to go up against the central government. They were proposing that the town walls be knocked down in order to centralize and consolidate power, and Grandier aligned himself with those who opposed this plan.
As a consequence of the nuns’ accusations, Grandier was put on trial for witchcraft. However, many believed that their accusations were falsified and that the nuns were coerced so that Grandier’s enemies to get rid of him in a legal way. During the trial, the nuns produced a document that claimed to be a copy of the contract Grandier signed with the devil and his demonic cohorts. The original was filed away in hell.
Although many of the nuns later retracted their statements, the priest’s fate was sealed. He was sentenced to death, but not before being tortured extensively. He was subjected to the Spanish boot, a torture device made of a red-hot iron vise filled with spikes that could break legs and feet. Despite this, Grandier never confessed to witchcraft before being burned at the stake in 1634. The priest tasked with giving him his last rites refused to do so, and also refused to give him the Kiss of Peace — an ancient Christian blessing. Grandier died before a crowd of more than 6,000 people.
After the Witch Trial: Did the Possessions Stop?
Although the person allegedly in charge of the whole affair had been disposed of, the possessions did not stop. In fact, matters got even worse. The “demons” seemed to ramp up the possessions and even started taking hold of people around the nuns, which resulted in the deaths of the presiding judge, surgeon, and priest from the trial. Four months after Grandier’s execution, Father Jean-Joseph Surin arrived and attempted to rid Jeanne des Anges of her demons. He pleaded for the demons to possess him instead, and they fulfilled his wishes. In 1637, Jeanne des Anges was finally free and left with four names inscribed on the palm of her hand: Jesus, Mary, Joseph, and Francis de Sales (a recently deceased French saint).
After all of that turmoil, one would think that Jeanne des Anges would go back to her old life as a nun and devote herself to Christ, but instead, she continued to cast herself into the limelight. She showed her magically inscribed hand to anyone who wanted to see it, which turned out to be thousands of people. This included the king, Cardinal Richelieu, and the writer Balthazar de Monconys, who ended up smudging one of the names on Sister Jeanne’s palm. Make of that what you will.
Meanwhile, Father Jean-Joseph Surin remained “possessed” although he also remained self-aware and described the possession as a terrible pain at the base of his stomach. He despaired at times and tried to commit suicide on one occasion but eventually recovered and continued to write until 1665.
At the end of the affair, many questions remained, such as whether the nuns had really been possessed, whether Grandier really was to blame, or whether it was all an elaborate plot to get rid of him. Some scholars have suggested it was a form of mass hysteria, and doctors have suggested that the nuns put forward his name after being tortured for many hours. Whatever the case may be, we will probably never know the truth. The Loudun Affair remains one of the most interesting and famous cases of possession and witchcraft in Western Europe.
By Michaela EngelbrechtB.Soc.Sci Psychology & Religious StudiesMichaela is a copywriter who holds a B.Soc.Sc. in Psychology and Religious Studies from the University of Cape Town and is currently pursuing a BA in Brand Communications. She has an avid interest in religion, religious history, and all the complexities that come with it. In her time off from studying, she enjoys expanding her knowledge base, exploring local museums, and writing articles on her specialty.