The Devils of Loudun Page 43

Over against the sceptics we find a notable array of believers. First in eminence as in time stands the great Jean Bodin who tells us that he wrote his Démonomanie des Sorciers, among other reasons, “to serve as an answer to those who endeavour, by their books, as far as possible to excuse sorcerers; insomuch as it seems as if they were influenced by the devil himself to publish these fine books.” Such sceptics, Bodin thinks, deserve to be sent to the stake along with the witches whom their doubts serve to protect and justify.

In his Demonologie James I took up the same position. The rationalistic Weier, he says, is an apologist for sorcerers, and by his book he “betrays himself to have been one of that profession.”

Of James I’s eminent contemporaries, Sir Walter Raleigh and Sir Francis Bacon seem to have been on the side of the believers. Later in the century we find the case for witchcraft being argued in England by philosophers like Henry More and Gudworth, by learned physicians and scholars such as Sir Thomas Browne and Glanvil, and by lawyers of the calibre of Sir Matthew Hale and Sir George Mackenzie.

In seventeenth-century France all the theologians accepted the reality of witchcraft; but not all of the clergy were practising witch-hunters. To many the whole business seemed extremely indecorous and a menace to good order and public tranquillity. They deplored the zeal of their more fanatical colleagues and did their best to restrain it. A similar situation existed among the lawyers. Some of them were only too happy to burn a woman “pour avoir, en pissant dans un trou, composé une nuée de grêle qui ravagea le territoire de son village” (this particular burning took place at Dôle, in 1610); but there were others, the moderates, who believed, no doubt, in the theory of witches, but were unwilling, in practice, to proceed against them.

But under an absolute monarchy the decisive opinion is that of the King. Louis XIII was much concerned with the devil, but his son was not. In 1672 Louis XIV gave orders that all the persons recently condemned for witchcraft by the Parlement of Rouen should have their sentences commuted to banishment. The Parlement protested; but their arguments, the theological no less than the legal, left the Monarch unmoved. It was his good pleasure that these witches should not be burned, and that was sufficient, that was that.

When considering the events which took place at Loudun we must clearly distinguish between the alleged possession of the nuns and the alleged cause of that possession—the magic arts employed by Grandier. In what follows I shall deal in the main with the question of Grandier’s guilt, leaving the problem of possession to be considered in a later chapter.

Father Tranquille, a member of one of the earlier teams of exorcists, published in 1634 a True Relation of the Just Proceedings Observed in the Matter of the Possession of the Ursulines of Loudun and in the Trial of Urbain Grandier. The title is deceptive; for the pamphlet is not a true relation of anything, but merely a polemic, a rhetorical defence of the exorcists and the judges against what was quite evidently a general scepticism and an almost universal disapprobation. In 1634, it is clear, most educated people were doubtful of the reality of the nuns’ possession, were convinced of Grandier’s innocence and were shocked and disgusted by the iniquitous conduct of his trial. Father Tranquille rushed into print in the hope that a little pulpit eloquence would bring his readers to a more proper frame of mind. His efforts were not successful. True, the King and Queen were firm believers; but their courtiers, almost to a man, were not. Of the persons of quality who came to see the exorcisms, very few believed in the genuineness of the possession—and, of course, if the possession were not real, then Grandier could not be guilty. Most of the visiting physicians came away with the conviction that the phenomena they had seen were all too natural. Ménage, Théophraste Renaudot, Ismaél Boulliau—all the men of letters who wrote about Grandier after his death stoutly maintained his innocence.

On the side of the believers were the great masses of illiterate Catholics. (The illiterate Protestants, it goes without saying, were in this case unanimously sceptical.) That all the exorcists believed in Grandier’s guilt and the genuineness of the possession seems certain. They believed even when, like Mignon, they had helped to fake the evidence which sent Grandier to the stake. (The history of spiritualism makes it very clear that fraud, especially pious fraud, is perfectly compatible with faith.) Of the opinions of the mass of the clergy we know next to nothing. As professional exorcists, the members of the religious orders were presumably on the side of Mignon, Barré and the rest. But what of the secular priests? Did they care to believe, and to preach, that one of their number had sold his soul to the devil and put a spell on seventeen Ursulines?

We know at least that among the higher clergy opinion was sharply divided. The Archbishop of Bordeaux was convinced that Grandier was innocent and that the nuns were suffering from a combination of Canon Mignon and furor uterinus. The Bishop of Poitiers, on the other hand, was convinced that the nuns were really possessed and that Grandier was a sorcerer. And what of the supreme ecclesiastical authority, what of the Cardinal-Duke? In one context, as we shall see, Richelieu was completely sceptical; in another he exhibited the faith of a charcoal-burner. The thing was obviously a hoax; and yet, in a Pickwickian sense, and sometimes even in a non-Pickwickian sense, it was all perfectly true.

Magic, whether white or black, was the art and science of compassing natural ends by supernatural (though not divine) means. All witches made use of magic and the powers of more or less evil spirits; but some of them were also adherents of what in Italy was called la vecchia religione.

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