The trial of Urbain Grandier for witchcraft was either a witch hunt in truth, or in the sarcastic way that we use the term today. Either Grandier used black magic to infest the nuns of Loudun with a number of powerful demons, or he was a victim of religious persecution because his beliefs were a threat to the Catholic Church in 17th-century France. Aldous Huxley wrote a well-researched account of the incident to draw attention to McCarthyism in his era, positing that Grandier was in fact innocent—a victim of Catholic authoritarianism, of righteousness turned into bloodlust, bigotry, and greed.
Whether scapegoat or sorcerer, he paid the ultimate price for his entanglement with this historic case of mass possession. Since the account of the possessions is far more captivating than a hoax, we’ll borrow from Des Niau’s account The Devils of Loudun, written in 1634, as our primary text. All quotes henceforth, unless noted, come from his work. Huxley’s conjectures will form a backdrop to Des Niau’s retelling. Now—ahem—on with the story!
Urbain Grandier was the curate of Loudun at the dawn of the 1600s. Early in his career, he was suspected of hosting certain Reformation sympathies, which held that a simple faith unadorned by elaborate sacraments and rituals was more akin to the religious life than the lavish ceremonies of the Roman Catholics. He had a following of Huguenauts (a Reformist order of Christians who were soon to face bloody persecution all across France) who endorsed his authority in the town, much to the chagrin of more traditional Catholics. This, and perhaps other such blasphemous acts as sleeping with women, earned him many enemies in his parish and abroad. Whether his Reformist beliefs (and tomcat tendencies) figured in his ultimate torture and execution we can weigh later. Suffice it to say now that he was not exactly the most popular priest on the pulpit.
Grandier’s bad rep soon took a toll on his professional life when he lost the bid to become Prior Moussaut (the nuns’ confessor) at the Loudun nunnery. Instead a man named Canon Mignon was selected, whose reputation was sterling by comparison. By Des Niau’s account, anything you could hate in a guy, Grandier was that and worse. On the other hand, Mignon was just the bee’s knees, the cat’s pajamas, the real McCoy. Sterling, just sterling he was.
When it came to light some time later that the nuns of this convent had become possessed by demons, their pupils and patrons headed for the hills in fear, leaving Mignon to set about the long and difficult task of exorcism with some dedicated priests. While Mignon went through the rites with the Mother Superior (who seemed worst afflicted by the demons), he questioned the hideous devil as to who had summoned them. Grandier, it replied, and spoke of him as their master. This is where it gets interesting.
Apparently the nuns had been plagued by visions of Grandier night and day for several months. He appeared by magical means to wreak havoc on their quiet monastic life, enticing them to do all sorts of sinful acts, which the nuns rejected steadfastly (we may presume) until the possessions began—after which their behavior was anything but nunly.
The nuns showed all the classic signs of demonic possession. They spoke in languages unknown to them, and seemed to possess a bottomless well of arcane knowledge. They often revealed secret thoughts and uttered blasphemies so repulsive that no chronicler dared to record them. Various tests were administered to assure any skeptics that the convent had indeed come under the influence of the Devil.
One priest ordered the demon possessing Sister Clara to fetch him five rose leaves from the garden—using only his mind. She returned with a handful of flowers and herbs, and presented them saying, “‘Is that what you wish, father? I am not a Devil, to guess your thoughts.’” He ordered her to obey for the glory of God. “She then returned to the garden, and after several repetitions of the order, presented through the railings a little rose branch, on which were six leaves. The Exorcist said to her: ‘Obedias punctualiter sub pœnâ maledictionis,’ obey to the letter under penalty of malediction; she then plucked off one leaf, and offered the branch saying: ‘I see you will only have five; the other was one too many.’”
The horrifying nature of their contortions is so astounding and well written that I will quote Des Niau at length.
The possessed nuns, “passed from a state of quiet into the most terrible convulsions, and without the slightest increase of pulsation. They struck their chests and backs with their heads, as if they had had their neck broken, and with inconceivable rapidity; they twisted their arms at the joints of the shoulder, the elbow and the wrist two or three times round; lying on their stomachs they joined their palms of their hands to the soles of their feet; their faces became so as the commissioners should incline. It further frightful one could not bear to look at them; their eyes remained open without winking; their tongues issued suddenly from their mouths, horribly swollen, black, hard, and covered with pimples, and yet while in this state they spoke distinctly; they threw themselves back till their heads touched their feet, and walked in this position with wonderful rapidity, and for a long time.
“They uttered: cries so horrible and so loud that nothing like it was ever heard before; they made use of 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; they uttered maledictions against the three Divine Persons of the Trinity, oaths and blasphemous expressions so execrable, so unheard of, that they could not have suggested themselves to the human mind.
“They used to watch without rest, and fast five or six days at a time, or be tortured twice a day as we have described during several hours, without their health suffering; on the contrary, those that were somewhat delicate, appeared healthier than before their possession.
“The Devil sometimes made them fall suddenly asleep: they fell to the ground and became so heavy, that the strongest man had great trouble in even moving their heads. Françoise Filestreau having her mouth closed, one could hear within her body different voices speaking at the same time, quarrelling, and discussing who should make her speak.
“Lastly, one often saw Elizabeth Blanchard, in her convulsions, with her feet in the air and her head on the ground, leaning against a chair or a window sill without other support.
“The Mother Superior from the beginning was carried off her feet and remained suspended in the air at the height of 24 inches. A report of this was drawn up and sent to the Sorbonne, signed by a great number of witnesses, ecclesiastics and doctors, and the judgment thereon of the Bishop of Poitiers who was also a witness. The doctors of the Sorbonne were of the same opinion as the Bishop, and declared that infernal possession was proved.
“Both she and other nuns lying flat, without moving foot, hand, or body, were suddenly lifted to their feet like statues.
“In another exorcism the Mother Superior was suspended in the air, only touching the ground with her elbow.
“Others, 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 they remained thus so long as their position was not altered by others.
“At other times they passed the left foot over their shoulder to the cheek. They passed also their feet over their head till the big toe touched the tip of the nose.
“Others again were able to stretch their legs so far to the right and left that they sat on the ground without any space being visible between their bodies and the floor, their bodies erect and their hands joined.
“One, the Mother Superior, stretched her legs to such an extraordinary extent, that from toe to toe the distance was 7 feet, though she was herself but 4 feet high.”
The nature of these possessions was so severe that Grandier’s trial was expedited in hopes that his death might break the spell and relieve the nuns. (This was to be far from the case, as we shall see.) On top of the testament of the demons, a Surgeon had discovered three Devil’s Marks upon Grandier—a common indicator in witch trials of this era. A needle inserted into one of these marks would produce neither blood nor pain in their bearer. They were said to be signs of a contract with Lucifer himself.
Another key piece of evidence against him was a very literal contract with the devil—which one of the nuns had miraculously produced during an exorcism. The archaic-looking script (supposedly written in Grandier’s own hand) read in full:
“My Lord and Master, Lucifer, I recognise you as my God, and promise to serve you all my life. I renounce every other God, Jesus Christ, and all other Saints; the Catholic, Apostolic and Roman Church, its Sacraments, with all prayers that may be said for me; and I promise to do all the evil I can. I renounce the holy oil and the water of baptism, together with all the merits of Jesus Christ and his Saints; and should I fail to serve and adore you, and do homage to you thrice daily, I abandon to you my life as your due.” Signed—Grandier, Beelzebub, and some other cryptic sigils of lesser hellions.
Grandier was tortured mercilessly in hopes of procuring a confession (or a conversion), but he would not repent or admit to his alleged sorcery. It was a great wonder to his torturers that he would neither cry nor invoke the names of the Holy Virgin, Jesus Christ, of God above in all his torment. He refused holy water even when utterly parched, and would not even cast a glance at the crucifix hanging before him. They thought this was a sure sign that his soul was in the boa-constrictor grip of Satan. Huxley thought that if you were being wrongly tortured by the Church, you might not want to invoke Christ, either.
“I am not astonished,” says one who was present, “at his impenitence, nor at his refusing to acknowledge himself guilty of magic, both under torture and at his execution, for it is known that magicians promise the devil never to confess this crime, and he in return hardens their heart, so that they go to their death stupid and altogether insensible to their misfortunes.” In other words, since Grandier was in league with the Devil, he didn’t know what was good for him.
Burning at the stake was good for him. Everyone said so.
On his final march to the place of his execution, he finally said the name of God. “Pray God for me,” he told several men in the crowd. But these men were Huguenauts, so it didn’t count as repentance.
Grandier’s final moments were as gruesome and strange as the events that lead up to it. Grandier was lashed to a post and the tinder at his feet was lit. “The executioner then advanced, as is always done, to strangle him; but the flames suddenly sprang up with such violence that the rope caught fire, and he fell alive among the burning faggots. Just before this a strange event happened. In the midst of this mass of people, notwithstanding the noise of so many voices and the efforts of the archers who shook their halberts in the air to frighten them, a flight of pigeons [note: a species of dove] flew round and round the stake. Grandier’s partisans [the Huguenauts and Reformers], impudent to the end, said that these innocent birds came, in default of men, as witnesses of his innocence; others thought very differently, and said that it was a troop of demons who came, as sometimes happens on the death of great magicians, to assist at that of Grandier, whose scandalous impenitence certainly deserved to be honoured in this manner. His friends, however, called this hardness of heart constancy, and had his ashes collected as if they were relics.”
I wonder why a “troop of demons” would take the form of the Holy Spirit’s totem animal—the dove? And why would the Huguenauts be so stubborn in treating Grandier as a martyr when he had so obviously been in league with the Prince of Darkness? It turns out that not everyone was so convinced that Grandier was to blame for the possessions, after all. But I digress.
Some involved in the possessions—nun and priest alike—were tormented unto death by the demons, despite having done away with Grandier. The Mother Superior was at last relieved when, “After tremblings, contortions, and horrible howlings, Father Surin pressed him more and more with the Holy Sacrament in his hand, and ordered him [the demon] in Latin to write the name of Mary on the lady’s hand. Raising her left arm into the air, the fiend redoubled his cries and howls, and in a last convulsion issued from the lady, leaving on her hand the holy name Maria, in letters so perfectly formed that no human hand could imitate them. The lady felt herself free and full of joy; and a Te Deum was sung in honour of the event.” Other folks involved, however, were not so lucky.
“Father Lactance, the worthy monk who had assisted the possessed in their sufferings, was himself attacked… All of a sudden, whilst rolling along a perfectly level road, the carriage turned over with the wheels in the air without any one being in any way hurt. The next day… the carriage again turned over in the same way in the middle of the Rue du Faubourg de Fenet, which is perfectly smooth… This holy monk afterwards experienced the greatest vexations from the demons, who at times deprived him of sight, and at times of memory; they produced in him violent fits of nausea, dulled his intelligence, and worried him in numerous ways. At length, after being tried by so many evils, God called him to Him.
“Five years later, died of the same disease Father Tranquille… They cast him to the ground, they cursed and swore out of his mouth, they caused him to put out his tongue and hiss like a serpent, they filled his mind with darkness, seemed to crush out his heart, and overwhelmed him with a thousand other torments.
“The Civil Lieutenant, Louis Chauvet, was seized with such fear-that his mind gave way, and he never recovered. The Sieur Mannouri, the Surgeon who had sounded the marks which the devil had impressed on the magician priest, suffering from extraordinary troubles, was of course said by the friends of Grandier to be the victim of remorse. Here are the particulars of the death of this Surgeon—
“One night as he was returning about ten o’clock from visiting a sick man, walking with a friend, and accompanied by a man carrying a lantern, he cried all of a sudden, like a man awaking from a dream, ‘Ah! there is Grandier! what do you want?’ At the same time he was seized with trembling. The two men took him back to his home, while he continued to talk to Grandier whom he thought he had before his eyes. He was put to bed filled with the same illusion, and shaking in every limb. He only lived a few days, during which his state never changed. He died believing the magician was still before him, and making efforts to keep him at arm’s length.”
I think there is no question as to whether a real possession took place. The accounts are too vivid, otherworldly, and well documented to have been hoaxed all together. As Des Niau concluded, “Even those who do not blush to deny the truth of infernal possessions need only notice that the human race has always believed, and still believes, that there are intelligent creatures in existence other than man, and almost similar to those whom the Pagans have always represented as Gods of Evil, or subterranean genii, like the demons believed in by Christians.” But the real mystery is whether Grandier was to blame for their presence in Loudun.
Malachi Martin, the world-renowned authority on exorcism and possession, has written that in order for a demon to possess a victim, they must first consent with their own free will. Usually that means making a proverbial “deal with the devil.” If that’s true, we have two choices—either the nuns of Loudun were all Satanists in bed with Old Scratch himself, or some hoax was perpetrated against the Reformist minority and their local leader Urbain Grandier. But then what of the Surgeon’s frightful visions of a phantom Grandier? Did his restless spirit return to avenge his unjust fate? Or was it an echo of his powerful pact with darkness, a specter raised from the brimstone?
Huxley concluded his book like this: “Every idol, however exalted, turns out, in the long run, to be a Moloch, hungry for human sacrifice.” The Catholic Church reaped countless innocent souls during their inquisitions, crusades, and cultural genocides—all in the name of the Holy Cross. It just goes to show that no matter how heavenly a symbol is—even if pure as lamb’s wool—it can turn to bloodlust and hellfire in the dark mirror of hatred and intolerance. Whether Grandier was innocent or guilty we may never know. Huxley’s work offers some good rebuttals to the evidence for it. But whether his reading of dusty records is more reliable than Des Niau’s close-at-hand account is hard to say.
All in all, this parable has more facets of evil than a cold diamond, and may guide us into a better understanding of the forces of good, for better or worse.
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