The Devils of Loudun Page 38

Of the state of mind of M. Barré and the other exorcists we know nothing at first-hand. They left no autobiographies and wrote no letters. Until Father Surin made his entry upon the scene, some two years later, the history of the men involved in this prolonged psychological orgy is completely lacking in personal touches. Fortunately for us, Surin was an introvert with an urge to self-revelation, a born ‘sharer’ whose passion for confession amply made up for the reticences of his colleagues. Writing of these early years spent at Loudun and, later, at Bordeaux, Surin complains of being subjected to almost continual temptations of the flesh. Given the circumstances of an exorcist’s life in a convent of demoniac nuns, the fact is hardly surprising. At the centre of a troop of hysterical women, all in a state of chronic sexual excitement, he was the chartered Male, imperious and tyrannical. The abjection in which his charges were so ecstatically wallowing served only to emphasize the triumphant masculinity of the exorcist’s rôle. Their passivity heightened his sense of being the master. In the midst of uncontrollable frenzies he was lucid and strong; in the midst of so much animality he was the only human being; in the midst of demons he was the representative of God. And as the representative of God, he was privileged to do what he liked with these creatures of a lower order—to make them perform tricks, to send them into convulsions, to manhandle them as though they were recalcitrant sows or heifers, to prescribe the enema or the whip.1 In their more lucid moments the demoniacs would confide to their masters—with what an obscene delight in thus trampling underfoot the conventions which had been an essential part of their personality!—the most unavowable facts about their physiological condition, the most lurid phantasies dredged up from the oozy depths of the subconscious. The kind of relation that could exist between exorcists and supposedly demoniac nuns is well illustrated by the following extract from a contemporary account of the possession of the Ursulines of Auxonne, which began in 1658 and continued until 1661. “The nuns declare, and so do the priests, that by means of exorcism, they (the priests) relieved them of hernias, qu’ils leur ont fait rentrer des boyaux qui leur sortaient de la matrice, that they cured them in an instant of the lacerations of the womb caused by the sorcerers, that they caused the expulsion des bastons couverts de prépuces de sorciers qui leur avoient esté mis dans la matrice, des bouts de chandelles, des bastons couverts de langes et d’aultres instruments d’infamie, comme des boyaux et aultres choses desquelles les magiciens et les sorciers s’étaient servis pour faire sur elles des actions impures. They also declare that the priests cured them of colics, stomach-aches and headaches, that they cured hardenings of the breast by confession; that they checked haemorrhages by exorcism, and, by means of holy water taken through the mouth, that they put an end to bloatings of the belly caused by copulation with demons and sorcerers.

“Three of the nuns announce, without beating about the bush, that they have undergone copulation with demons and been deflowered. Five others declare that they have suffered, at the hands of sorcerers, magicians and demons, actions which modesty forbids them to mention, but which in fact are none other than those described by the first three. The said exorcists bear witness to the truth of all the above statements.” (See Barbe Buvée et la prétendue possession des Ursulines d’Auxonne, by Dr. Samuel Garnier (Paris, 1895), pp. 14–15.)

What a cosy squalor, what surgical intimacies! The dirt is moral as well as material; the physiological miseries are matched by the spiritual and the intellectual. And over everything, like a richly smelly fog, hangs an oppressive sexuality, thick enough to be cut with a knife and ubiquitous, inescapable. The physicians who, at the order of the Parlement of Burgundy, visited the nuns, found no evidence of possession, but many indications that all or most of them were suffering from a malady to which our fathers gave the name of furor uterinus. The symptoms of this disease were “heat accompanied by an inextinguishable appetite for venery” and an inability, on the part of the younger sisters, to “think or talk about anything but sex.”

Such was the atmosphere in a convent of demoniac nuns, and such the persons with whom, in an intimacy that was a compound of the intimacies existing between gynaecologist and patient, trainer and animal, adored psychiatrist and loquacious neurotic, the officiating priest passed many hours of every day and night. For the exorcists of Auxonne the temptations were too powerful and there is good reason to believe that they took advantage of their situation to seduce the nuns committed to their charge. No such accusation was brought against the priests and monks who worked on Sœur Jeanne and the other hysterics of Loudun. There was, as Surin bore witness, a constant temptation; but it was resisted. The long-drawn debauch took place in the imagination and was never physical.

The expulsion of Asmodeus was so notable a victory and the nuns were by this time so well trained to act their demoniac parts that Mignon and the other enemies of Grandier now felt themselves strong enough to take official action. Accordingly, on the 11th of October, Pierre Rangier, the parson of Veniers, was sent to the office of the city’s chief magistrate, M. de Cerisay. He gave an account of what had happened and invited the Bailli and his Lieutenant, Louis Chauvet, to come and see for themselves. The invitation was accepted and that same afternoon the two magistrates, with their clerk, called at the convent, were received by Barré and Canon Mignon and taken up “to a high-ceilinged room furnished with seven small beds, one of which was occupied by the lay sister and another by the Mother Superior. The latter was surrounded by several Carmelites, by some nuns of the convent, by Mathurin Rousseau, priest and Canon of Sainte-Croix and by the surgeon, Mannoury.” At the sight of the Bailli and his Lieutenant, the Prioress (in the words of the minutes drawn up by the magistrates’ clerk) “began to make very violent movements, with certain noises like the grunts of a small pig, then buried herself under the bedclothes, ground her teeth and made various other contortions such as might be made by a person out of her wits. At her right was a Carmelite and on her left hand the said Mignon, who stuck two fingers, namely the thumb and the forefinger, in the said Mother Superior’s mouth and performed exorcisms and conjurations in our presence.”

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