The Devils of Loudun Page 5

Such, then, was the kind of world in which the new parson had been brought up—a world in which the traditional sexual taboos lay very lightly on the ignorant and poverty-stricken majority and not too heavily upon their betters; a world where duchesses joked like Juliet’s nurse and the conversation of great ladies was a nastier and stupider echo of the Wife of Bath’s; where a man of means and good social standing could (if he were not too squeamish in the matter of dirt and lice) satisfy his appetites almost ad libitum; and where, even among the cultivated and the thoughtful, the teachings of religion were taken for the most part in a rather Pickwickian sense, so that the gulf between theory and overt behaviour, though a little narrower than in the mediaeval Ages of Faith, was yet sufficiently enormous. A product of this world, Urbain Grandier went to his parish with every intention of making the best both of it and of the other, the heavenly universe beyond the abhorred chasm. Ronsard was his favourite poet, and Ronsard had written certain stanzas which perfectly expressed the young parson’s point of view.

Quand au temple nous serons,

Agenouillés nous ferons

Les dévots selon la guise

De ceux qui, pour louer Dieu,

Humbles se courbent au lieu

Le plus secret de l’Église.

Mais quand au lit nous serons,

Entrelacés nous ferons

Les lascifs selon les guises

Des amants qui librement

Pratiquent folâtrement

Dans les draps cent mignardises.1

It was a description of ‘the well-rounded life,’ and a well-rounded life was what this healthy young humanist was resolved to lead. But a priest’s life is not supposed to be well-rounded; it is supposed to be one-pointed—a compass, not a weathercock. In order to keep his life one-pointed, the priest assumes certain obligations, makes certain promises. In Grandier’s case the obligations had been assumed and the vows pronounced with a mental restriction, which he was to make public—and then only for a single reader—in a little treatise on the celibacy of the clergy, written some ten years after his first coming to Loudun.

Against celibacy Grandier makes use of two main arguments. The first may be summed up in the following syllogism. “A promise to perform the impossible is not binding. For the young male, continence is impossible. Therefore no vow involving such continence is binding.” And if this does not suffice, here is a second argument based on the universally accepted maxim that we are not bound by promises extorted under duress. “The priest does not embrace celibacy for the love of celibacy, but solely that he may be admitted to holy orders.” His vow “does not proceed from his will, but is imposed upon him by the Church, which compels him, willy-nilly, to accept this hard condition, without which he may not practise the sacerdotal profession.” The upshot of all this was that Grandier felt himself at perfect liberty ultimately to marry and, meanwhile, to lead the well-rounded life with any pretty woman who was ready to be co-operative.

To the prudes in his congregation the new parson’s amorous propensities seemed the most horrible of scandals; but the prudes were in a minority. To the rest, even to those who had every intention of remaining virtuous, there was something pleasantly exciting in the situation created by the incumbency of a man of Grandier’s appearance, habits and reputation. Sex mingles easily with religion, and their blending has one of those slightly repulsive and yet exquisite and poignant flavours, which startle the palate like a revelation—of what? That, precisely, is the question.

Grandier’s popularity with the women was enough, of itself, to make him extremely unpopular among the men. From the first, the husbands and fathers of his female parishioners were deeply suspicious of this clever young dandy with his fine manners and his gift of the gab. And even if the new parson had been a saint, why should such a plum as the living of St. Peter’s go to a foreigner? What was wrong with the local boys? Loudun’s tithes should go to Loudun’s own sons. And, to make matters worse, the foreigner had not come alone. He had brought with him a mother, three brothers and a sister. For one of those brothers he had already found a job in the office of the town’s chief magistrate. Another, who was a priest, had been appointed chief vicar of St. Peter’s. The third, also in orders, had no official position, but prowled around hungrily on the lookout for clerical odd jobs. It was an invasion.

Even the grumblers had to admit, however, that M. Grandier could preach a thundering good sermon, and was a very able priest, full of sound doctrine and even of secular learning. But his very merits told against him. Because he was a man of wit and wide reading, Grandier was from the first received by the most aristocratic and cultivated personages in the town. Doors which had always remained closed to the rich bumpkins, the uncouth officials, the louts of gentle birth, who constituted the high, but not the highest, society of Loudun, were immediately opened to this young whippersnapper from another province. Bitter was the resentment of the excluded notables, when they heard of his intimacy, first with Jean d’Armagnac, the newly appointed Governor of the town and castle, and then with Loudun’s most famous citizen, the aged Scévole de Sainte-Marthe, eminent alike as jurisconsult and statesman, as historian and poet. D’Armagnac thought so highly of the parson’s abilities and discretion that, during his absences at court, he entrusted to Grandier the entire management of his affairs. To Sainte-Marthe the Curé recommended himself, above all, as a humanist who knew the classics and could therefore appreciate at its true worth the old gentleman’s Virgilian masterpiece, Paedotrophiae Libri Tres—a didactic poem on the care and feeding of infants, so popular that no less than ten editions were called for during the author’s lifetime, and at the same time so elegant, so correct, that Ronsard could say that “he preferred the author of these verses to all the poets of our age, and would maintain it however great the displeasure he might thereby give to Bembo, to Navagero and the divine Fracastoro.” Alas, how transitory is fame, how absolute the vanity of human pretensions! For us, Cardinal Bembo is hardly more than a name, Andrea Navagero rather less, and such immortality as is enjoyed by the divine Fracastoro belongs to him solely in virtue of the fact that he gave a politer nickname to the pox by writing, in flawless Latin, a medical eclogue about the unhappy Prince Syphilus who, after many sufferings, was relieved of the morbus Gallicus by copious draughts of a decoction of guaiacum. The dead languages grow ever deader, and the three books of Paedotrophiae treat of a less dramatic phase of the sexual cycle than the libri tres of the Syphilid. Once read by everyone, once reckoned as diviner than the divine, Scévole de Sainte-Marthe has now vanished into the darkness. But at the time when Grandier made his acquaintance, he was still in his sunset glory, the grandest of Grand Old Men, a kind of National Monument. To be received into his intimacy was like dining with Notre-Dame de Paris or dropping in for a chat with the Pont du Gard. In the splendid house to which this Elder Statesman and Dean of Humaner Letters had now retired Grandier talked familiarly with the great man and his hardly less distinguished sons and grandsons. And there were visiting celebrities—the Prince of Wales, incognito; Théophraste Renaudot, unorthodox physician, philanthropist and father of French journalism; Ismaël Boulliau, the future author of the monumental Astronomia Philolaica and the first observer to determine with precision the periodicity of a variable star. To these were joined such local lights as Guillaume de Cerisay, the Bailli, or chief magistrate of Loudun, and Louis Trincant, the Public Prosecutor, a pious and learned man who had been a schoolfellow of Abel de Sainte-Marthe and who shared the family’s taste for literature and antiquarian research.

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