Born on 30 October 1592 to lesser nobles in Remiremont, Lorraine, Fance, Marie Elisabeth de Ranfaing had a rather rough life at first. When she was very young she was forced into marrying a much older nobleman she didn’t love by the name of Francois Dubois by her parents. It had been a marriage of convenience and reputation as was often done in noble families, but although Marie stayed with Dubois long enough to have three, and by some accounts six, children with him, she led a miserable life, with Dubois described as an abusive, alcoholic taskmaster. After many years of this, in 1617 she fled to a monastery in the Duchy of Lorraine, France, to escape her situation and become a servant of God, leaving her husband and children behind. She would then go on to be in good hands, but there were dark clouds looming, and Marie was about to become the center of one of the weirder historical accounts of demonic possession.
At the monastery, Marie led a virtuous and chaste life, and occasionally she would go into town to attend to various business and sometimes attend social events. It was at one of these events that she would meet a prestigious doctor by the name of Charles Povoit, who was quickly smitten with her. Povoit began constantly trying to woo Marie, following her around and proposing to her on many occasions, ignoring her pleas for him to leave her alone and the fact that she was a virtuous, religious woman who had taken a vow of chastity. This only seemed to make the doctor try even harder and want her more. He began stalking her incessantly, which graduated to him secretly slipping her various herbal love potions that he had concocted through the use of occult books and which were meant to win her over once and for all. On some occasions they seemed to actually work, as her historiographer d’Argombat would say they gave her the “inexplicable torment of seeing her mind filled with thoughts, and her heart with feelings, of affection for the person for whom it horrified her to have them.” She then started having intense visions of doom. One evening she had a vivid dream in which she was attacked and eaten by a group of men led by Povoit, and the next day she was overcome with horror when she saw a group of men having a picnic, of which M. de Porcelets, the Bishop of Toul would later write:
At the sight of several men about to start eating some food, which they are taking from a basket, during a pilgrimage to Saint-Mont, half-an-hour’s walk from Elisabeth de Ranfaing’s home, the saint suddenly realizes the meaning of the premonitory dream that she had had the previous night: a great multitude of strong, robust men were dragging her to a barbaric altar, dedicated to Cupid, and had obliged her to kneel before this lascivious god. Among her torturers, she had perfectly recognized Doctor Poirot, who, once more, said that he loved her with a platonic love, inseparable from the veneration that he had for her as a saint. The widow’s friends tried to persuade her that the men were not going to eat her alive, but, pale and trembling, she rushed into the chapel to reiterate her vows of eternal chastity, at the feet of Mary. She came out again one hour later, for she had to eat. Poirot was there, radiating malevolent joy, complimenting her, worrying about her pallor, advising her not to drink only water, in other words, acting like a real succubus demon, ready to descend onto its prey.
These would turn out to be a portent of what was to come. These love potions mostly just caused Marie’s health to deteriorate badly, and may have been the reason for the strange series of events that was about to transpire. Marie’s sickness worsened, but no physician could find anything physically wrong with her, and then one day she began speaking in languages she had never known or studied before and would go into rampaging, often destructive fits of shouting and crying. This would convince the Church that she was perhaps under the influence of demonic possession, and so it was arranged for Marie to travel to the city of Nancy, the capital of the Duchy of Lorraine, where she was interviewed and examined by a respected physician by the name of Remy Pichard. After a thorough examination, Pichard came to the conclusion that her behavior and symptoms indeed were most likely caused by demonic possession, and so an exorcism was arranged, attended by Pichard, the Bishop of Toul, and various church officials, theologians, monks, physicians, and representatives of the royal court. The exorcisms began on September 2, 1619, and almost immediately conjured up a show of supernatural, demonic power from the stricken woman. The bishop of Toul would describe the bizarre scene:
To begin, the beautiful Madame de Ranfaing’s neck swells to the point that her head appears to be directly fixed onto her body. Doctor Pichard, who is watching, has, like everyone else, the impression that the devil is stretching her body so much that it appears longer by a good foot and a half. Gradually, the saint’s gracious face blackens, her mouth foams and her sparkling eyes rolling and turning extraordinarily are a difficult sight for everyone. Suddenly, Elisabeth falls to the ground and starts to wriggle like a snake. Not for long, for an invisible force pulls her abdomen into the air while her feet and hands continue to touch the floor. The devil then puts her into a symetrically opposite posture, so that it is now her abdomen which serves as the resting point. Suddenly, the prelate and the good fathers see her climb up a column which supports an adjoining chapel, using only one arm. Having arrived at the balustrade, she supports herself on it with her left leg and the rest of her body is suspended in space for long minutes. The spectators hold their breath and let out a few exclamations, when, without notice, the evil one lets her fall from a height of seven feet. Supple, like a Pont-Neuf acrobat, she makes gentle contact with the alley’s tiles. The devil is very careful not to impudically expose any part of the saint’s body. Throughout the performance, her numerous layers of clothing remain closely stuck to her body.
Marie then began speaking in Latin and various other languages including Greek, Italian, German and Hebrew, answering the questions of the gathered exorcists and expounding on a variety of theological issues with great clarity and accuracy. She spoke all of these languages perfectly, even pointing out grammatical mistakes made by those interrogating her, which demonstrated linguistic ability far beyond what Marie herself possessed. During the exorcism she also named the doctor Povoit as being in league with the Devil to help him possess her, which got him arrested and eventually executed for witchcraft. The demon also carried out various commands directed at it in several languages, demonstrated supernatural abilities, and went around the room calling out the secret sins and dirty thoughts of all present, much to their shock and embarrassment, and it also showed a potent ability to read thoughts directed at it. Augustine Calmet’s book Phantom World, originally published in 1850, says of some of this:
The Reverend Father Albert, Capuchin, having ordered him (the demon) in Greek to make the sign of the cross seven times with his tongue, in honor of the seven joys of the Virgin, he made the sign of the cross three times with his tongue, and then twice with his nose; but the holy man told him anew to make the sign of the cross seven times with his tongue; he did so; and having been commanded in the same language to kiss the feet of the Lord Bishop of Toul, he prostrated himself and kissed his feet. The same father having observed that the demon wished to overturn the Bénitier, or basin of holy water which was there, he ordered him to take the holy water and not spill it, and he obeyed. The Father commanded him to give marks of the possession; he answered, “The possession is sufficiently known;” he added in Greek, “I command thee to carry some holy water to the governor of the town.” The demon replied, “It is not customary to exorcise in that tongue.” The father answered in Latin, “It is not for thee to impose laws on us; but the church has power to command thee in whatever language she may think proper.
Then the demon took the basin of holy water and carried it to the keeper of the Capuchins, to the Duke Eric of Lorraine, to the Counts of Brionne, Remonville, la Vaux, and other lords. The physician, M. Pichard, having told him in a sentence, partly Hebrew, and partly Greek, to cure the head and eyes of the possessed woman; hardly had he finished speaking the last words, when the demon replied: “Faith, we are not the cause of it; her brain is naturally moist: that proceeds from her natural constitution;” then M. Pichard said to the assembly, “Take notice, gentlemen, that he replies to Greek and Hebrew at the same time.” “Yes,” replied the demon, “you discover the pot of roses, and the secret; I will answer you no more."
There were quite a few questions in foreign languages, which showed that he understood them very well. The demon did not obey the voice only of the exorcists; he obeyed even when they simply moved their lips, or held their hand, or a handkerchief, or a book upon the mouth. A Calvinist having one day mingled secretly in the crowd, the exorcist, who was warned of it, commanded the demon to go and kiss his feet; he went immediately, rushing through the crowd. M. Pichard relates several unknown and hidden things which the demon revealed, and that he performed several feats which it is not possible for any person, however agile and supple he may be, to achieve by natural strength or power; such as crawling on the ground without making use of hands or feet, appearing to have the hair standing erect like serpents.
The exorcism would continue for years, until in 1625 the demon was finally declared to have left Marie’s body. In the wake of the long and turbulent exorcism of Marie Elisabeth de Ranfaing there was some skepticism from the medical community. It was pointed out that the demonic possession was most likely merely convulsions and mental distress caused by the toxic love potions given to Marie by Povoit, but how would this explain the levitation, mind reading, language ability, and the numerous other displays of the supernatural? Could a drug cause these symptoms and behavior for the seven years this exorcism dragged on? It was also thought that Marie could have faked the whole thing, but why would this religious and honest woman do this for so long? What would she have to gain from it? It was also pointed out by Calmet that those in attendance were respected and learned men who would have been unlikely to have been so tricked by a young woman merely suffering delusions or trying to deceive them. Calmet would write:
I have omitted a great many particulars related in the recital of the exorcisms, and the proofs of the possession of Mademoiselle de Ranfaing. I think I have said enough to convince any persons who are sincere and unprejudiced that her possession is as certain as these things can be. The affair occurred at Nancy, the capital of Lorraine, in the presence of a great number of enlightened persons, two of whom were of the house of Lorraine, both bishops, and well informed; in presence and by the orders of my Lord de Porcelets, Bishop of Toul, a most enlightened man, and of distinguished merit; of two doctors of the Sorbonne, called thither expressly to judge of the reality of the possession; in presence of people of the so-called Reformed religion, and much on their guard against things of this kind. It has been seen how far Father Pithoy carried his temerity against the possession in question; he has been reprimanded by his diocesan and his superiors, who have imposed silence on him.
Mademoiselle de Ranfaing is known to be personally a woman of extraordinary virtue, prudence, and merit. No reason can be imagined for her feigning a possession which has pained her in a thousand ways. The consequence of this terrible trial has been the establishment of a kind of religious order, from which the church has received much edification, and from which God has providentially derived glory. M. Nicolas de Harlay Sancy and M. Viardin are persons highly to be respected both for their personal merit, their talent, and the high offices they have filled; the first having been French ambassador at Constantinople, and the other resident of the good Duke Henry at the Court of Rome; so that I do not think I could have given an instance more fit to convince you of there being real and veritable possessions than this of Mademoiselle de Ranfaing.
Whatever the case may be, the exorcists all signed statements attesting to the validity of the possession, and it was found to be an authentic case by the Church. Marie would go on to found the Order of Refuge for women recovering from a life of prostitution in 1631 and live a peaceful, virtuous life without further incident up to her death in 1649. Was there anything to any of this? What afflicted this poor woman and how do we explain the various phenomena seen by these seemingly impeccable witnesses? We may never know for sure, and it remains a rather obscure, yet intriguing case of possible demonic possession.