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Father Urbain Grandier : The Case of the Loudun Possessions

Loudun Possessions

In 1632, the 17 nuns of a convent in Loudun howled that they were possessed by the devil. They name the one through whom the demon entered them: Urbain Grandier, pastor of a parish in the city. After two years of charges, Grandier is convicted of witchcraft and burned. However, the possession crises of the nuns did not stop.

Strange noisy phenomena

During the night of September 21, in the Ursuline convent, the prioress Jeanne des Anges and two nuns saw the shadow of their confessor, Prior Moussaut, who had died of the plague a few weeks earlier. In the days that follow, strange phenomena manifest themselves: a black ball flies through the refectory and a ghost walks in the corridors. In early October, several nuns show signs of dementia, scream and roll on the floor.

The whole convent was soon reached. The priests run up and their conclusion falls quickly: the Ursulines are possessed, victims of the Evil One. According to the logic of the religious, Lucifer cannot appear if he has not been called by a wizard. One must find the person responsible for this demonic act.

An ideal culprit: the priest, handsome man and libertine

From all over the region, then from all over France, priests arrived. They engage in exorcism sessions, stalking the devil, seeking the man who summoned it. On October 11, a nun possessed, she said, by the demon Astaroth released a name: that of Urbain Grandier, parish priest of Saint-Pierre-du-Marché church, in the center of Loudun. A culprit is named, the accusation is taken up by other nuns and, in the city, rumors spread quickly: Urbain Grandier is a sorcerer.

The people have already pass judgement. Urbain Grandier is a tall and handsome man, lively and intelligent. He captivates his audience when he takes the rostrum, but he is criticized for his debauchery and, more precisely, his taste for his parishioners.

The case becomes political

Grandier never entered the Ursuline convent, but the whole town only talks about it, the Ursulines know it and start dreaming about him. The bourgeois of Loudun criticize his height and his extreme ambition. The Capuchins, also installed in Loudun, take advantage of Grandier's questioning to denounce him as the author of a violent pamphlet against Richelieu.

However, Baron de Laubardemont, commissioner of the minister-cardinal, arrived in the city in September 1633, for a mission unrelated to the affair. There, he hears about the incessant crises of the nuns, the exorcists who follow one another and the presumptions against the parish priest of Saint-Pierre. Back in Paris, he was assigned the file. On December 8, he returned to Loudun, instructed by Richelieu, who gave him full powers, to investigate Grandier's trial.

Exorcisms followed like shows

The day after his arrival, Laubardemont had Urbain Grandier arrested. He searched the priest's house without finding anything compromising and, during the month of January 1634, he took depositions and testimonies. From February 4 to 11, he interviewed Grandier. The priest denies the accusations of witchcraft and then refuses to answer Laubardemont's questions. In their convent, the possessed are still not delivered. Laubardemont decides to separate them to examine each case: this does not prevent the public from coming in crowds to witness the countless exorcisms. The doctors, invited by Laubardemont to observe the possessions, soon give their conclusion: "All of which we judge to absolutely surpass the forces and means of nature ..." The case has been heard: the nuns are victims of the supernatural.

A pact with the devil

The trial opens on July 8, 1634. Twelve judges have been appointed, they come from small courts in the region. They read Laubardemont's investigation reports, question the possessed and search Urbain Grandier for "extraordinary evidence". A scar on his thumb thus indicates the old wound he allegedly inflicted on himself to sign a pact with the devil with his blood. The insensitivity of a shoulder shows that the Evil One has taken hold of that part of his body and made it escape the laws of nature. This evidence is considered decisive.

On August 18, at 5 o'clock in the morning, the judges pronounce the sentence. Two hours later, Laubardemont comes to look for Grandier in his prison. He was tortured and then, in the afternoon, brought to the Market Square where his pyre awaits him.

Everything calms down ...

The Loudun nuns' possessions, always spectacular, continued several years after the death of Urbain Grandier, until the day when the most virulent of the possessed, Jeanne des Anges, then became a mystic, a visionary inhabited by God, almost a holy ...

During a tour that took her through the roads of France, she was even presented, in 1638, to Richelieu and Louis XIII.

Demonopathy

In psychiatry, we call "demonopathy" a systematized delirium having for object the demon and what surrounds it: hell, ideas of damnation, external or internal attacks. In the 17th century, France was particularly the scene of such epidemic crises of demonopathy which spread in convents and this in direct connection with the period of witchcraft trials.

The process is, with a few variations, identical in all cases: a priest is accused of having sent demons to seduce or torment in spirit one or more nuns; exorcists are then sent to the scene, rumors amplify, so do possessions crises, then, with the help of torture, condemnation falls on the priest ... who is burned!

Above all, beyond the hysteria, it is necessary to take into account the context of the time: rigidity of life and iron morals imposed on these women (with, in particular, an exacerbation of sexual frustrations), presence in the web of thousands of pyres lit for other women, impact of the Devil and the notion of sin; all this engendered a more or less conscious revolt against the first representatives of this system: men and priests.

Does one case call for another?

Witchcraft affects the countryside and concerns the poor, possession the towns and the bourgeoisie. At the start of the 17th century, dozens of cases were investigated in Brittany, Franche-Comté, Lorraine, Alsace, Poitou, Béarn, Provence… The possessed are women rather than men. Some became famous: Nicole Aubrey, Jeanne Fery, Martha Brossier.

Of all these cases, the one that makes the greatest noise is the trial of C. Gaufridy, which is held in Aix-en-Provence, and lasts more than two years, between 1609 and 1611. Gaufridy falls under the charge of two nuns, Madeleine de Mandol and Louise Capel; the first will come close to being a witch and will end her days in prison.

A book relating the facts in detail appears the following year: it cannot be excluded that its reading will not influence later cases, in particular those of the Faubourg Saint-Jacques, between 1621 and 1622, of Loudun between 1632 and 1640, of Louviers between 1642 and 1647 (a Franciscan, Madeleine Bavent, manages to convict Vicar Bouillé, burned in 1647 with the corpse of Father Picard, accused retroactively!) And of Auxonne between 1658 and 1663.