The concept of demonic possession goes far back into history, and is present in cultures throughout the world. There was a time when people lived in fear of demons, when it was a very real threat that stalked the shadows and waited to pounce on the unwary, and such cases of possessions have continued right on into modern times and the age of reason. Whereas one demonic possession is scary enough, what about when there are multiple victims who have succumbed to these supernatural forces? Such is the case of one of the most famous cases of mass possession on record, when in the 17th century darkness fell upon a quiet convent of nuns in a sleepy town in France, going on to become a spectacle of supernatural terror that is discussed to this day.
For this historical tale we go way back to the year 1632, at the town of Loudun, France, where there was located the modest Ursuline convent, originally constructed in 1626. The convent was rather new at the time, and was run by the eccentric, powerful, and well-connected prioress Jeanne des Anges, who kept their way of life humble and quiet, that is until her and some of the other nuns began to receive frightening nighttime visitations by the vivid apparition of a man of the cloth. During these visions the man would reportedly appear almost angelic, yet spew forth filth and profanity, ordering the nuns to do the most unthinkable obscene sexual acts. This was already quite frightening for the nuns, but things escalated when they began to display symptoms of demonic possession, such as convulsions, contortions, verbal outbursts, and overt sexuality. Interestingly, they claimed to know who was behind this.
The culprit, according to Anges, was a local priest named Father Urbain Grandier, who had been appointed parish priest of St-Pierre-du-Marché in Loudun in 1617, and who was also actually rather notorious for his decidedly un-priest-like behavior. The wealthy and handsome Grandier had a reputation as an incorrigible ladies’ man, and had already been accused of fathering a child with Philippa Trincant, the daughter of the King’s solicitor in Loudun. He had also been found guilty of immorality in 1530, with only his high-up political connections keeping him from being locked up in prison and allowing him to maintain his post. There were also rumors that he dabbled in black magic and demon worshiping, and Anges accused him of having made a pact with the Devil.
In the meantime, the possession at the convent intensified, with the nuns allegedly speaking in languages they had no business knowing, possessing arcane knowledge, levitating, moving objects with their minds, displaying superhuman strength, and knowing people’s deepest darkest secrets, to the point that a procession of priests was brought in to investigate. In total 27 nuns at the convent displayed these symptoms of demonic possession, and it did not take long for them to become convinced that they had a problem on their hands. One chronicle of the case, Des Niau’s The Devils of Loudun would say of these demonic episodes and the subsequent exorcisms:
They 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.
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.
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. In another exorcism the Mother Superior was suspended in the air, only touching the ground with her elbow. 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.
It is some pretty intense stuff, and it was claimed that these possessed nuns would relentlessly sexually assault and proposition the priests in the lewdest of ways. According to the Mother Superior, the two main culprits were the demons Asmodeus and Zabulon, as well as Isacarron, the devil of debauchery, although there was claimed to be a whole horde of other demons helping them. The exorcisms became more and more public as the phenomena went on, with exorcists Capuchin Father Tranquille, Franciscan Father Lactance and Jesuit Father Jean-Joseph Surin performing exorcisms with up to 7,000 gawking spectators. All of this seemed seemed to have little effect, which caused more and more blame to be placed on Father Grandier. This led to his arrest and subsequent torture in order to try and drive a confession from him. Grandier was imprisoned at the Castle of Angers and it was claimed that the marks of the Devil were found upon his body, further cementing his guilt, and there was even a pact with the Devil presented, allegedly signed in blood by Grandier and host of demons, which read:
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.
Grandier was subjected to the most horrific torture methods the era had to offer, with both of his legs painfully broken in the process, but he defied all efforts and did not confess. At Grandier's trial things would get even weirder, when some of the actual alleged possessed nuns spoke in the Father’s defense, and Anges herself would claim that she had been put up to the whole thing by Grandier’s enemies. She went as far as to have a public meltdown, lashing herself, putting a noose around her neck, and threatening to hang herself if Grandier was not cleared of his charges. The doctors who had examined Grandier before his torture also claimed that they themselves had seen no Devil’s marks, and it was suspected that the “pact with the Devil” was actually in Anges’ handwriting, a plot in order to frame him. Additionally, there was evidence in Grandier’s favor in that it was found that it had been found by some of the priests that the nuns had failed tests to see if they could really speak foreign languages or exhibit superhuman strength or other supernatural powers, and that a physical examination of them had failed to show any signs of possession. There were even nuns that were claimed to have broken down crying during the exorcisms and admitting that they had been coached on what to do.
This all had little effect, as the court saw it merely as evidence that the Devil was manipulating them to save himself, and indeed it was eventually ordered that anyone who spoke in Grandier’s defense would be arrested as traitors. Only the witnesses against Grandier were allowed to speak, and many who would have defended him actually feared for their lives and fled France. Not even Grandier’s own refusal to confess under serious torture that would have broken anyone else was seen as evidence of his innocence, and a typical attitude towards this defiance was given by one witness who said:
I am not astonished 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, it wasn’t exactly a fair trial, and it is perhaps no surprise that Grandier was found guilty of “magic, maleficia, and of causing demoniacal possession” on August 18, 1634, and sentenced to be burned at the stake, despite his insistence to the last that he was innocent. He was apparently not even allowed to have a last word before his execution as promised, gagged and not given the opportunity to speak before the flames consumed him. This execution would itself to be quite the odd spectacle, as one witness describes:
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.
Amazingly, this would not even be the end of it all. The exorcisms continued, still the same public spectacles as ever, with many of the nuns still displaying possessed behavior, much to the entertainment of the crowds, and this was mostly seen as a big, fraudulent show. However, one priest by the name of Father Jean-Joseph Surin claimed that the actual demons had jumped into his body. So convinced was he that he was now host to these demons that his mental and physical health deteriorated rapidly, to the point where he could barely do even the most basic things on his own, such as eating, dressing himself, or even reading or writing. Through it all he claimed that he was constantly plagued by nightmares during which the demons would taunt and terrorize him, only finding peace in his last years before his death in 1665.
Others who had been involved with the exorcisms were apparently stalked and attacked by the demons in the years after Grandier's death as well. The manner in which this torment came to them include madness, sickness, and death, as well as visions of Grandier’s spirit taunting them from beyond the grave. In Des Niau’s account it is written of at length about these incidents:
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.
What are we to make of all this? The possessions of Loudun have become an oft-discussed historical oddity, with several possible answers. Of course there is the idea that this is an authentic case of possession, with the paranormal phenomena surrounding the nuns witnessed by many priests and other witnesses, as well as the curse and demonic activity that seemed to linger even after Grandier was dead. Another idea is that this was just a case of mass hysteria, and that Grandier was just the unlucky guy that got caught in the middle of it all, his rather notorious reputation not helping one bit. The most popular notion, however, is that this was all a set-up, and that Grandier was framed by his enemies, of which he had many, to be tried for witchcraft and taken out of the picture, the whole thing orchestrated from behind the scenes.
Although Grandier had more than a few enemies and naysayers, the main culprit is usually thought to be a Cardinal Richelieu, who absolutely loathed Grandier and wanted him removed from his post, but it could have been anyone of the people in positions of power who wanted him gone. The theory is that it went down just as the Mother Superior had said, and that they had been approached to fake possessions and point the finger at Grandier, after which Mignot was sent in by these conspiratorial forces to further cement the illusion that something paranormal was going on. Indeed, most of the accounts of supernatural activity were relayed by Mignot , with many other priests testifying that the case for demonic possession was far from convincing. Then there were the conflicting accounts of “Devil’s Marks” and the fact the the “Devil’s Pact” was written by Anges, as well as the fact that witness testimony in defense of Grandier was shut down. It stinks of a set-up, and it looks like there is the distinct possibility that the possessions of Loudun were orchestrated by nefarious parties.
So what happened all of those years ago at Loudun? What stalked this convent of nuns? Was it demonic forces from beyond or merely the political and religious machinations of men stabbing each other behind each other's backs? Is there anything supernatural to see here or is it all a complex framing of an innocent man using the era's fear of witchcraft and Satan against him? Whatever the case may be, the case of the nuns of Loudun is a curious peek into another age, a tale of witchcraft, demons, magic, and intrigue, and is a historical oddity that is just about as strange as they come.