The Devils of Loudun Page 39

In the course of these exorcisms and conjurations it transpired that Sœur Jeanne had been possessed through the material agency of two diabolic ‘pacts’—one consisting of three hawthorn prickles, the other of a bunch of roses which she had found on the stairs and stuck in her belt, “whereupon she was attacked by a great trembling in her right arm and was seized by love for Grandier all the time of her orisons, being unable to keep her mind on anything except the representation of Grandier’s person which had been inwardly impressed upon her.”

Asked in Latin, “Who sent these flowers?” the Prioress, “after having delayed and hesitated, answered as though under constraint, Urbanus. Thereupon the said Mignon said, Dic qualitatem. She said, Sacerdos. He said, Cujus ecclesiae? and the said nun replied, Santi Petri,1 which last words she pronounced rather badly.”

When the exorcism was over, Mignon took the Bailli aside and, in the presence of Canon Rousseau and M. Chauvet, remarked that the present case seemed to bear a striking resemblance to that of Louis Gauffridy, the Provençal priest who, twenty years earlier, had been burned alive for bewitching and debauching certain Ursulines of Marseilles.

With the mention of Gauffridy, the cat was out of the bag. The strategy of the new campaign against the parson stood clearly revealed. He was to be accused of sorcery and magic, brought to trial and, if acquitted, ruined in reputation, if condemned, sent to the stake.


AND so Grandier was accused of sorcery and the Ursulines were possessed by devils. We read these statements and smile; but before the smile can expand into a grin or explode in a guffaw, let us try to discover what precisely was the meaning attached to these words during the first half of the seventeenth century. And since, at this period, sorcery was everywhere a crime, let us begin with the legal aspects of the problem.

Sir Edward Coke, the greatest English lawyer of the late Elizabethan and Jacobean age, defined a witch as “a person who hath conference with the Devil, to consult with him or to do some act.” Under the Statute of 1563 witchcraft was punished by death only when it could be proved that the witch had made an attempt on someone’s life. But in the first year of James’s reign this statute was replaced by a new and harsher law. After 1603 the capital offence was no longer murder by supernatural means, but the simple fact of being proved a witch. The act performed by the accused might be harmless, as in the case of divination, or even beneficent, as in the case of healing by means of spells and charms. If there were proof that it had been performed through “conference with the Devil,” or by the intrinsically diabolical methods of magic, the act was criminal and the performer of it was to be condemned to death.

This was an English and a Protestant ruling; but it was fully in accord with Canon Law and Catholic practice. Kramer and Sprenger, the learned Dominican authors of the Malleus Maleficarum (for almost two centuries the textbook and vade mecum of all witch-hunters, Lutheran and Calvinist no less than Catholic), cite many authorities to prove that the proper penalty for witchcraft, fortune-telling, the practice of any kind of magic art, is death. “For witchcraft is high treason against God’s majesty. And so they (the accused) are to be put to the torture to make them confess. Any person, whatever his rank or position, upon such an accusation may be put to the torture. And he who is found guilty, even if he confess his crime, let him be racked, let him suffer all other tortures prescribed by law in order that he may be punished in proportion to his offence.”1

Behind these laws stood an immemorial tradition of demonic intervention in human affairs and, more specifically, the revealed truths that the devil is the Prince of this World and the sworn enemy of God and God’s children. Sometimes the devil works on his own account; sometimes he does his mischiefs through the instrumentality of human beings. “And if it be asked whether the Devil is more apt to injure men and creatures by himself than through a witch, it can be said that there is no comparison between the two cases. For he is infinitely more apt to do harm through the agency of witches. First, because he thus gives greater offence to God by usurping to himself a creature dedicated to Him. Secondly, because, when God is the more offended, He allows him the more power of injuring men. And thirdly, for his own gain, which he places in the perdition of souls.”2

In mediaeval and early modern Christendom the situation of sorcerers and their clients was almost precisely analogous to that of Jews under Hitler, capitalists under Stalin, Communists and fellow travellers in the United States. They were regarded as the agents of a Foreign Power, unpatriotic at the best, and, at the worst, traitors, heretics, enemies of the people. Death was the penalty meted out to these metaphysical Quislings of the past and, in most parts of the contemporary world, death is the penalty which awaits the political and secular devil-worshippers known here as Reds, there as Reactionaries. In the briefly liberal nineteenth century men like Michelet found it difficult not merely to forgive, but even to understand the savagery with which sorcerers had once been treated. Too hard on the past, they were at the same time too complacent about their present and far too optimistic in regard to the future—to us! They were rationalists who fondly imagined that the decay of traditional religion would put an end to such devilries as the persecution of heretics, the torture and burning of witches. Tantum religio potuit suadere malorum.1 But looking back and up, from our vantage point on the descending road of modern history, we now see that all the evils of religion can flourish without any belief in the supernatural, that convinced materialists are ready to worship their own jerry-built creations as though they were the Absolute, and that self-styled humanists will persecute their adversaries with all the zeal of Inquisitors exterminating the devotees of a personal and transcendent Satan. Such behaviour-patterns antedate and outlive the beliefs which, at any given moment, seem to motivate them. Few people now believe in the devil; but very many enjoy behaving as their ancestors behaved when the Fiend was a reality as unquestionable as his Opposite Number. In order to justify their behaviour, they turn their theories into dogmas, their by-laws into First Principles, their political bosses into Gods and all those who disagree with them into incarnate devils. This idolatrous transformation of the relative into the Absolute and the all too human into the Divine, makes it possible for them to indulge their ugliest passions with a clear conscience and in the certainty that they are working for the Highest Good. And when the current beliefs come, in their turn, to look silly, a new set will be invented, so that the immemorial madness may continue to wear its customary mask of legality, idealism and true religion.

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