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Ursuline Nuns of Loudun, the

Category: Religious

All paintings on the page by Arnold Böcklin

The Convent of the Ursuline nuns in Loudun, a town in Poitou, France has become best known for what are called the ‘Loudun possessions’

Over two dozen nuns in the convent were found on examination to be "bewitched, obsessed, or possessed", but none to as great extent as Sister Jeanne des Anges, the mother superior, who was ‘said to be afflicted with seven demons’.

Following an investigation by the Catholic Church, a local priest named Father Urbain Grandier was accused of summoning the evil spirits.

Father Urbain Grandier was appointed parish priest of St-Pierre-du-Marché in Loudun, in 1617. Grandier was considered to be a very good-looking man, and was both wealthy and well-educated.

The combination made the priest a target for the attention of girls in Loudun, one of whom was Philippa Trincant, the daughter of the King's solicitor in Loudun. It was believed by the people of Loudun that Grandier was the father of Trincant's child. In addition to Trincant, Grandier openly courted Madeleine de Brou, daughter of the King's councillor in Loudun. Most assumed that Madeleine was Grandier's mistress after he wrote a treatise against the celibacy of priests for her.

Spiel_der_Wellen_1883

For a priest, therefore, Father Urbain Grandier sailed very close to the wind.  When he was arrested and found guilty of immorality on June 2, 1630, it was only his connections in political circles that restored him to full clerical duties within the same year. Presiding over the case was Chasteigner de La Roche Posay, the Bishop of Poitiers, a man who was known to dislike Grandier and admitted to wanting him out of the parish.

There is however another key player in this saga.  Father Mignon was confessor to the Ursuline nuns, and there is an hypothesis that what started out as hysteria fuelled by repression, was exacerbated by Father Mignon, who simply added fuel to the flames of lust, by blaming them on demons and possession by the Devil.

We have an observation for Jeanne des Anges in which she confesses to having illicit dreams about Father Grandier, who appeared to her as a radiant angel and enticed her to sexual acts, ‘causing her to rave loudly at night’. 

 Jeanne suffered flagellation and did penance for the night-time disturbances, but she was no less troubled and soon it was found that other nuns were being haunted by incubuses, hallucinations and vulgar dreams. It was then that Mother Superior Jeanne des Anges called for Father Mignon to purge the convent of demons via exorcism.

Father Mignon and his aide, Father Pierre Barré, immediately proceeded to perform exorcisms on the possessed nuns. Several of the nuns, including Jeanne des Anges, suffered violent convulsions during the procedure, shrieking and making sexual motions toward the priests. Following the lead of Jeanne des Anges, many of the nuns reported illicit dreams. During the exorcisms, Jeanne swore that she and the other nuns were possessed by two demons named Asmodeus and Zebulun. These demons were sent to the nuns when Father Grandier tossed a bouquet of roses over the convent walls.

 

The pact allegedly signed between Urbain Grandier and the Devil, was said by them to have been stolen from the Devil's cabinet of pacts by the demon Asmodeus. This document is in existence and  shows the signatures of all demons in possession of the Ursuline nuns at Loudun and the note added Dictionnaire infernal by Collin de Plancy (1826).

Those who have studied this case in detail, have highlighted the extreme emotion that was generated and the repressive state they were in as being key to the suggestibility that resulted.  Father Mignon and his aide, Father Pierre Barré were not innocent parties and their thoughts were seemingly being read by the nuns.  It was thus more than likely that Fathers Mignon and Pierre Barré were the source of these sexual demons.

Father Grandier certainly wasn’t, repression wasn't one of his problems, but nearby and realizing the danger he was in, he pleaded with the bailiff of Loudun to isolate the nuns; the bailiff's orders were ignored, and the exorcisms and denouncements continued. Desperate, Grandier wrote to the Archbishop of Bordeaux, who sent his personal doctor to examine the nuns. No evidences of true possession were found, and the Archbishop ordered the exorcisms to cease on March 21, 1633. The nuns were sequestered in their cells.

In the Sea 1883

But tragically this was not the end of the case. 

Jean de Laubardemont, [a relative of Jeanne des Anges' and favoured by the powerful Cardinal Richelieu], along with a Capuchin monk called Tranquille, visited the Cardinal with news of the unsuccessful exorcisms and added further evidence against Grandier by providing a copy of a libelous satire Grandier had written about Richelieu. Aware that a relative of his, Sister Claire, was in the Loudun convent, Richelieu asserted his power and organized the Royal Commission to arrest and investigate Grandier as a witch. Laubardemont was appointed head of the commission.

Nearly a year later, August 18, 1634, the Royal Commission found Grandier guilty of all counts against him and passed sentence - Grandier would be burned alive at the stake:

We have ordered and do order the said Urbain Grandier duly tried and convicted of the crime of magic, maleficia, and of causing demoniacal possession of several Ursuline nuns of this town of Loudun, as well as of other secular women, together with other charges and crimes resulting therefrom.
For atonement of which, we have condemned and do condemn the said Grandier to make amende honorable, his head bare, a rope round his neck, holding in his hand a burning taper weighing two pounds, before the principal door of the church of St. Pierre-du-Marché, and before that of St. Ursula of this town.
There on his knees, to ask pardon of God, the King, and the law; this done, he is to be taken to the public square of St. Croix, and fastened to a stake on a scaffold, which shall be erected on the said place for this purpose, and there to be burned alive...and his ashes scattered to the wind.
We have ordered and so do order that each and every article of his moveable property be acquired and confiscated by the King; the sum of 500 livres first being taken for buying a bronze plaque on which will be engraved the abstract of this present trial, to be set up in a prominent spot in the said church of the Ursulines, to remain there for all eternity.
And before proceeding to the execution of the present sentence, we order the said Grandier to be submitted to the first and last degrees of torture, concerning his accomplices.

All details of the sentence were carried out, including the torture.

The Mind Possessed  - Dr William Sargant

"Granted that there is no cheat in the matter," wrote the author of the anonymous pamphlet, "does it follow that the nuns are possessed? May it not be that, in their folly and mistaken imagination, they believe themselves to be possessed, when in fact they are not?" This, continues our author, can happen to nuns in three ways.

-          First, as a result of fasts, watchings and meditations on hell and Satan.

-          Second, in consequence of some remark made by their confessor something which makes them think they are being tempted by devils

-          And thirdly, the confessor, seeing them act strangely, may imagine in his ignorance that they are possessed or bewitched, and may afterwards persuade them of the fact by the influence he exercises over their minds."

Aldous Huxley concluded that the epidemic at Loudun 'was due to the third of these causes' and that it was 'produced and fostered by the very physicians who were supposed to restoring the patients to health.

 

References

The 1952 book titled The Devils of Loudun by Aldous Huxley tells the story of the trial of Urbain Grandier, priest of the town who was tortured and burned at the stake in 1634.

 

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