The Devils of Loudun Page 36

Mignon’s next step was to call on the Carmelites. What he needed was a good exorcist. Could the Reverend Fathers provide one? Enthusiastically the Prior gave him, not one, but three—Fathers Eusèbe de Saint-Michel, Pierre-Thomas de Saint-Charles and Antonin de la Charité. With Mignon, they set to work at once and were so successful in their operations that, within a few days, all except two or three of the oldest nuns were having nightly visits from the parson.

After a time rumours began to leak out of the haunted nunnery, and in a little while it was a matter of common knowledge that the good sisters were all possessed by devils, and that the devils laid the blame for everything on the spritely M. Grandier. The Protestants, as can be imagined, were delighted. That a popish priest had conspired with Satan to debauch an entire convent of Ursulines was almost enough to console them for the fall of La Rochelle.

As for the parson himself, he merely shrugged his shoulders. After all, he had never so much as set eyes on the Prioress and her frantic sisters. What these demented women said about him was merely the product of their malady—melancholy adjust combined with a touch of furor uterinus. Debarred from men, the poor things must needs imagine an incubus. When these remarks were reported to Canon Mignon he only smiled and remarked that he laughs best who laughs last.

Meanwhile the labour of exorcizing all these demoniacs was so great that, after some months of heroic wrestling with the demons, the Canon had to call for reinforcements. The first to be summoned was Pierre Rangier, the Curé of Veniers, a man who owed his very considerable influence in the diocese and his universal unpopularity to the fact that he had made himself the Bishop’s spy and secret agent. With Rangier participating in the exorcisms, the Canon could feel confident that there would be no scepticism in high places. The possession would be official and orthodox.

To Rangier’s was soon added the collaboration of another priest of a very different stamp. M. Barré, Curé of Saint-Jacques in the neighbouring town of Chinon, was one of those negative Christians to whom the devil is incomparably more real and more interesting than God. He saw the print of cloven hoofs in everything, he recognized Satan’s work in all the odd, all the disastrous, all the too pleasurable events of human life. Enjoying nothing so much as a good tussle with Belial or Beelzebub, he was for ever fabricating and exorcizing demoniacs. Thanks to his efforts, Chinon was full of raving girls, bewitched cows, husbands unable, because of some sorcerer’s malignant spells, to perform their conjugal duties. In his parish nobody could complain that life was uninteresting; what with the Curé and the devil, there was never a dull moment.

Mignon’s invitation was accepted with alacrity, and a few days later Barré arrived from Chinon at the head of a procession formed by a large body of his more fanatical parishioners. To his great disgust he found that, up to this time, the exorcisms had been conducted behind closed doors. To hide one’s light under a bushel—what an idea! Why not give the public a chance to be edified? The doors of the Ursulines’ chapel were thrown open; the mob poured in. At his third attempt, Barré succeeded in sending the Mother Superior into convulsions. “Bereaved of sense and reason,” Sœur Jeanne rolled on the floor. The spectators were delighted, especially when she showed her legs. Finally, after many “violences, vexations, howlings and grindings of teeth, two of which at the back of the mouth were broken,” the devil obeyed the order to leave his victim in peace. The Prioress lay exhausted; M. Barré wiped the sweat from his forehead. And now it was the turn of Canon Mignon and Sœur Claire de Sazilly, of Father Eusebius and the lay sister, of M. Rangier and Sister Gabrielle of the Incarnation. The performance ended only with the ending of the day. The spectators trooped out into the autumnal twilight. It was universally agreed that, not since the coming of those travelling acrobats, with the two dwarfs and the performing bears, had poor old Loudun been treated to such a good show as this. And all free of charge—for of course you didn’t have to put anything in the bag when it was passed round, and if you did give something, a farthing would make as good a jingle as a sixpence.

Two days later, on 8th October 1632, Barré won his first major victory, by routing Asmodeus, one of the seven devils who had taken up residence in the body of the Prioress. Speaking through the lips of the demoniac, Asmodeus revealed that he was entrenched in the lower belly. For more than two hours Barré wrestled with him. Again and again the sonorous Latin phrases rumbled forth. “Exorciso te, immundissime spiritus, omnis incursio adversarii, omne phantasma, omnis legio, in nomine Domini nostri Jesus Christi; eradicare et effugare ab hoc plasmate Dei.”1 And then there would be a sprinkling of holy water, a laying on of hands, a laying on of the stole, of the breviary, of relics. “Adjuro te, serpens antique, per Judicem vivorum et mortuorum, per factorem tuum, per factorem mundi, per eum qui habet potestatem mittendi te in gehennam, ut ab hoc famulo Dei, qui ad sinum Ecclesiae recurrit, cum metu et exercitu furoris tui festinus discedas.”2 But instead of departing, Asmodeus merely laughed and uttered a few playful blasphemies. Another man would have admitted defeat. Not so M. Barré. He ordered the Prioress to be carried to her cell and sent in haste for the apothecary. M. Adam came, bringing with him the classical emblem of his profession, the huge brass syringe of Molièresque farce and seventeenth-century medical reality. A quart of holy water was ready for him. The syringe was filled, and M. Adam approached the bed on which the Mother Superior was lying. Perceiving that his last hour was at hand, Asmodeus threw a fit. In vain. The Prioress’s limbs were pinioned, strong hands held down the writhing body and, with the skill born of long practice, M. Adam administered the miraculous enema. Two minutes later, Asmodeus had taken his departure.1

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