The Devils of Loudun Page 58

The Petronius test was never, so far as I know, applied to the Ursulines of Loudun. The nearest approach to such a test was made by a visiting nobleman who handed the exorcist a box in which, so he whispered, there were some exceedingly holy relics. The box was applied to the head of one of the nuns, who immediately exhibited all the symptoms of intense pain and threw a fit. Much delighted, the good friar returned the box to its owner, who thereupon opened it and revealed that, except for a few cinders, it was completely empty. “Ah, my lord,” cried the exorcist, “what sort of a trick have you played upon us?” “Reverend Father,” answered the nobleman, “what sort of a trick have you been playing upon us?”

At Loudun, simple language tests were frequently tried, but always without success. Here is the account of an incident which de Nion, who was a firm believer in the reality of the nuns’ possession, regarded as convincingly miraculous. Speaking in Greek, the Bishop of Nîmes orders Sister Claire to bring him her beads and say an Ave Maria. Sister Claire responds by bringing first a pin and then some aniseed. Being urged to obey, she says, “I see you want something else,” and finally brings the beads and offers to say an Ave.

In most cases the miracle was even less astounding. All the nuns who knew no Latin were possessed by devils who also knew no Latin. To account for this strange fact, one of the Franciscan exorcists explained in a sermon that there are uneducated devils as well as educated ones. The only educated devils at Loudun were those who had invaded the Prioress. But even Jeanne’s devils were not conspicuously learned. Here is part of the procès-verbal of the exorcism performed before M. de Cerisay on 24th November 1632. “M. Barré holds up the Host and asks the devil, ‘Quem adoras?’ Answer: ‘Jesus Christus.’1 Whereupon M. Daniel Drouyn, Assessor of the Provost’s Office, said in a rather loud voice, ‘This devil is not congruous.’ The exorcist then changed his question to, ‘Quis est iste quem adoras?’ She answered, ‘Jesu Christe.’2 Upon which several persons remarked, ‘What bad Latin!’ But the exorcist retorted that she had said, ‘Adoro te, Jesu Christe.’1 Afterwards a little nun came in, roaring with laughter and repeating, ‘Grandier, Grandier!’ Then the lay sister, Claire, entered the room neighing like a horse.”

Poor Jeanne! She had never learnt enough Latin to understand all this nonsense about nominatives and accusatives and vocatives. Jesus Christus, Jesu Christe—she had given them everything she could remember; and still they said it was bad Latin!

M. de Cerisay, meanwhile, had declared that he would willingly believe in the possibility of possession, “if the said Superior would answer categorically two or three of his interrogations.” But when the questions were asked, there was no reply. Completely floored, Sœur Jeanne had to take refuge in a convulsion and a little howling.

On the day following this very unconvincing demonstration, Barré went to de Cerisay and protested that his actions were pure, and without passion or evil intentions. “Placing the ciborium on his head, he prayed that it might confound him, if he had made use of any malpractices, suggestions or persuasions in regard to the nuns in all this affair. When he had finished the Prior of the Carmelites stepped forward and made similar protestations and imprecations; he also held the holy ciborium on his head and prayed that the maledictions of Dathan and Abiram might fall upon him, if he had sinned or been at fault in this affair.” Barré and the Prior were probably fanatical enough to be sincerely blind to the nature of their actions, and it was, no doubt, with a clear conscience that they swore these enormous oaths. Canon Mignon, we note, thought it wiser to put nothing on his head and to call down no thunderbolts.

Among the distinguished British tourists who visited Loudun during the years of the possession was young John Maitland, afterwards Duke of Lauderdale. Maitland’s father had told him of a Scottish peasant woman, through whose mouth a demon had corrected the bad Latin of a Presbyterian minister, and the young man had consequently grown up with an a priori belief in possession. In the hope of confirming this belief by direct observation of demoniacs, Maitland undertook two continental journeys, one to Antwerp, the other to Loudun. In both cases, alas, he was disappointed. At Antwerp, “I saw only some great Holland wenches hear exorcism patiently and belch most abominably.” At Loudun, matters were a little livelier, but no more evidential. “When I had seen exorcizing enough of three or four of them in the chapel, and could hear nothing but wanton wenches singing bawdy songs in French, I began to suspect a fourbe.” He complained to a Jesuit, who commended his “holy curiosity” in coming to Loudun, and told him to go that evening to the parish church, where he would be amply satisfied. “In the parish church I saw a great many people gazing and a wench pretty well taught to play tricks, yet nothing so much as I have seen twenty tumblers or rope dancers do. Back I came to the nuns’ chapel, where I saw the Jesuits still hard at work, at several altars, and one poor Capuchin, who was an object of pity, for he was possessed by a melancholy fancy that devils were running about his head, and was constantly applying relics. I saw the Mother Superior exorcized, and saw the hand, on which they would have made me believe the names Jesus, Maria, Joseph were written by miracle (but it was apparent to me that it was done with aquafortis); then my patience was quite spent, and I went to a Jesuit and told him my mind fully. He still maintained a real possession, and I desired, for a trial, to speak a strange language. He asked, ‘What language?’ I told him, ‘I would not tell; but neither he nor all these devils should understand me.’ [Presumably it was the Gaelic of his native Scotland that Maitland had in mind.] He asked me if I would be converted upon the trial (for he had discovered I was no papist). I told him, ‘That was not the question, nor could all the devils in hell pervert me; but the question was, if that was a real possession, and if any could understand me, I would confess it under my hand.’ His answer was, ‘These devils have not travelled,’ and this I replied to with loud laughter.”

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