Fox in the Hen House! The Ghastly Possession of the Nuns of Loudun

Fox in the Hen House! The Ghastly Possession of the Nuns of Loudun


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 devil urbainvictim 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.devil nun2 st clara

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.devil and woman

“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:devil contract

“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.devil urbain burned good

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.devils saint

“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?devil leading sheep

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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  1. the paraclete

    03/22/2013 at 5:48 PM

    Great read. Have you ever watched Ken Russell’s fantastic “The Devils” with the awesome Oliver Reed? That’s an anomaly in and of itself.

  2. Conquistador3

    03/23/2013 at 2:05 AM

    Having gone to a primary school run by Ursuline nuns, this case always intrigued me.

    One bit that’s usually left out of the stories is this.
    After the first wave of accusations started, Grandier wrote to the Archbishop of Bordeaux asking for help in clearing his name. The Archbishop quickly dispatched his personal physician and a few clerics from his household to look into the case. They found “no evidence of demonic possession” and the physician (most likely suspecting mass hysteria) ordered the nuns to be confined in their cells and be closely guarded. Following this the Archbishop ordered the exorcisms and the trial against Grandier to be stopped.
    That is where the case should have come to a halt.

    However it appears Grandier had some powerful enemies, chief among which was a nobleman by the name of Jean de Labaurdemont. We don’t know why he held such a grudge against Grandier, but we know two things for sure: first he had a relative (the infamous Jeanne de Agnes) in the nunnery and second he had the ear of the all powerful Cardinal Richelieu.
    Apparently Laubardemont arranged for Fr Tranquille (the Capuchin exorcist) to visit Richelieu and talk to him about the case and also produced a pamphlet by Grandier, a pamphlet highly critical of Richelieu’s religious policies.

    Richelieu is well known for resorting to “unconventional methods” to track down dissenters, the most curious of which was disguising himself as a servant and eavesdropping from behind closed doors to conversations (it must have been a sight to behold, as the Cardinal was exceedingly tall and with a striking figure). Most of all he hated Huguenots with a burning passion.

    Laubadermont obtained what he wanted and more: Richelieu made him the head of a Royal Commission charged with investigating the possessions and overruled the Archbishop of Bordeaux by ordering the exorcisms to be resumed.

    These exorcisms were public affairs: they were not held in private but in front of thousands of spectators. The exorcists (the aforementioned Fr Tranquille, a Jesuit and a Franciscan) made them into highly dramatic shows which drew people from the surrounding countryside.

    Grandier almost managed to throw a wrench in the conspiracy against him by obtaining permission to question the “demons” himself. He did so in Greek. According to tradition, knowledge of languages unknown to the possessed is a sure sign of demonic possession. Obviously the nuns remained silent, until one of them (coached by one of the exorcists) said the “demons” had been forbidden from speaking Greek!

    The relationship between Laubadermont and Jeanne de Agnes surfaced only recently and is disturbing to say the least. While alleged demonic possessions were far from rare in nunneries (most nuns had been cloistered against by their will by families wishing not to give them a dote or for political considerations and claiming demonic possession was the only way to escape dull convent life), Jeanne’s precise accusations against Grandier, a well known critic of Richelieu and suspected of Huguenot sympathies, throw a completely different light on the case. The final proof is Laubadermont arranged for Jeanne to visit both Richelieu himself and King Louis XIII, a highly unusual honor for a possessed person.

    So, was Grandier a martyr? It’s hard to answer. He was obviously popular among the inhabitants of Loudun for taking their side against the powerful Richelieu (who had ordered the town walls to be razed; town walls provided protection against both brigands and bands of marauding soldiers and, last but not least, Royal armies) and the Huguenots considered him a good friend.

    Were the possessions real? It’s easier to answer: as I said before, demons seemed to target nuns with frightening frequency in those days, so much a number of priests and monks gained reputation for being particularly skilled at ridding nunneries of demons. The lives of these nuns were very tough: while most friars led active and stimulating lives (for example Capuchin monks have always been extremely popular because they “mingle” with people and tend to be charismatic figures), nuns were subjected to a life which was both very demanding and dull in the extreme. Add the fact most nuns had been cloistered at a very young age against their will and you have an explosive cocktail of repressed emotions waiting to burst. “The Devil made me do it” was the only way to escape this tedious life.

    • Jasper T. Woodsman

      03/23/2013 at 4:49 PM

      Wow, fascinating! Thanks so much for sharing. That definitely puts a new twist on things. I should have feigned demonic possession when my folks caught me up to no good…

  3. alanborky

    03/23/2013 at 9:05 AM

    Jasper speaking from personal experience the bodily contortions of the nuns and the business with the tongues’s almost certainly true.

    During what I dubbed at the time my Three Stooges I spent several months getting twatted off the four walls of my bedroom by what felt like huge bolts of electricity [I’ve been electrocuted several times since I was a kid] and it always amazed me how it was possible to get thrown in the air and literally land upside down on my neck with a horrendous sounding crunch yet somehow never seemed to get injured.

    At times I’d have the sense these bolts of ‘electricity’ or even lightning’ were being launched at me from somewhere very far away but a lot of the time they seemed to go spontaneously go off inside me usually hurtling upwards from the direction of my groin to bust their way out my solar plexus and at the time it felt exactly like a physically real solid steel battering ram was try’n’o pound its way out my chest though the image it always conjured in my mind was that scene from Alien where it busts its way out John Hurts chest.

    Sometimes though the flow seemed to reverse and I’d feel like the matter in my spine was liquefying to the point of boiling as things started hurtling in the opposite direction down my spine causing me to lose control of my limbs to the point of having my heels completely of their own accord to somehow snap backwards and wallop the back of my head and with such violent force it bleedin’ hurt I can tell y’u.

    Actually I’d been having intermittent versions of milder version of the same sorts of bodily phenomena most of my life but during that Three Stooges stage circa the Millennium it got so bad it was scaring my kids and other family members so I allowed them to call an ambulance out in case I really was having a heart attack or some sort of brain seizure but after watching the heart monitor calmly going through its paces while simultaneously watching my chest and body covered in various frozen goods out the fridge buck and bronk and convulse like I was having a massive fit I stopped worrying.

    I started worrying again though when during a later phase my tongue started leaping so far out my mouth turning almost black while making this horrendous braying sound it felt like I was being turned inside out. In fact it shot so far out my mouth even I could see this sort of cluster of tortured nerve ends forming the tongue’s root vibrating insanely in front of my face like one of those party favours you blow in to make them uncurl and razz I had to allow my family to call out an ambulance again only to have this initially deeply alarmed looking ambulance guy screech “You’re puttin’ that on!” to which I could only respond in between explosive tongue convulsions “You cheeky fucking bastard the only reason I allowed them to call you out in the first place was because as you can see with your own eyes I’m gettin’ me fuckin’ innards turned inside out here and you’re giving me bad theatrical reviews?”

    Anyway I put this here because like that ambulance guy a lot of people’ll read your Possessed Loudun Nuns piece and say ah they were puttin’ it on.

    Well I’m here to state they almost certainly weren’t even right down to the demonic possession stuff but that’s not the same thing as saying what they were really were undergoing demonic possession.

    • Jasper T. Woodsman

      03/23/2013 at 4:57 PM

      VERY interesting. I’ve never heard anything like that before. What do you think, could this have been some rare medical condition afflicting the nuns? Did you feel like your experience was spiritual–was it ever accompanied by any odd waves of fear or ecstacy, or visions of any kind? Or did you experience radical shifts in worldview during the episodes? (Odd and doubtful questions, I know.) It doesn’t sound like it was a spiritual episode by your account, although I’m sure you invoked SOME diety while undergoing so much pain. (Your comments to the medic craked me up.) It does sound preternatural. What do you chalk it all up to, if you don’t mind me asking?

  4. Patrick Fennelly

    04/16/2013 at 5:45 AM

    Similarly, there’s a fair amount of research out there which suggests that Elizabeth Bathory and Gilles de Rais were too victims of conspiracy. In those times, the world was locked in religious mania (I suppose we haven’t come THAT far), these easiest way to ruin someone was through heresy, devil worship, a sullied name. This would confirm the transfer of estates, lands and riches with ease.

  5. edoardo

    05/13/2013 at 4:37 AM

    Ho trovato il vostro blog su google e sto leggendo alcuni dei tuoi post iniziali. Il tuo blog è semplicemente fantastico.

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