The Devils of Loudun Page 63

At the beginning of August Father Tranquille published a short treatise, setting forth and justifying the new doctrine: “Duly constrained, the devil is bound to tell the truth.” The book had the approval of the Bishop of Poitiers and was hailed by Laubardemont as the last word in orthodox theology. Doubt was no longer permissible. Grandier was a magician and so, in a smaller way, was that insolently upright M. de Cerisay. Excepting those whose parents were good Cardinalists, all the girls of Loudun were whores and witches. And half the town’s population was already damned for lack of faith in the devils.

Two days after the publication of Tranquille’s book, the Bailli summoned a meeting of notables. Loudun’s predicament was discussed and it was decided that de Cerisay and his Lieutenant, Louis Chauvet, should go to Paris and petition the King for protection against the high-handed actions of his Commissioner. The only dissentient voices were those of Moussaut, the Public Prosecutor, Menuau, and Hervé, the Lieutenant Criminel. Asked by de Cerisay whether he accepted the new doctrine and approved of what was being done to his fellow citizens in the names of Balaam, Dog’s Tail and company, Hervé replied that “the King, the Cardinal and the Bishop of Poitiers believed in the possession, and that, so far as he was concerned, was enough.” For our twentieth-century ears, this appeal to the infallibility of political bosses has a remarkably modern ring.

Next day de Cerisay and Chauvet set out for Paris. They were the bearers of a petition in which the just complaints and apprehensions of the people of Loudun were clearly set forth. Laubardemont’s proceedings were severely blamed and the Capuchins’ new doctrine was shown to be “against the express prohibition of God’s law” and contrary to the authority of the Fathers of the Church, of St. Thomas and of the whole faculty of the Sorbonne, which had formally condemned a similar doctrine in 1625. In view of all this the petitioners begged His Majesty to order the Sorbonne to examine Tranquille’s book and further requested that all those defamed by the demons and their exorcists might be permitted to appeal to the Parlement of Paris, “which is the natural judge of such matters.”

At court the two magistrates sought out Jean d’Armagnac, who immediately went to the King and asked him to receive them. The answer was a blunt refusal. De Cerisay and Chauvet left their petition with the King’s private secretary (who was the Cardinal’s creature and an avowed enemy of Loudun), then took the homeward road.

In their absence Laubardemont had issued another proclamation. It was now forbidden, under pain of a fine of twenty thousand livres, to hold any public meeting whatsoever. After this the devil’s enemies gave no further trouble.

The preliminary investigations were now completed; it was time at last for the trial. Laubardemont had hoped to recruit some at least of the judges from among the principal magistrates of Loudun. He was disappointed. De Cerisay, de Bourgneuf, Charles Chauvet and Louis Chauvet—all refused to be parties to a judicial murder. The Commissioner tried cajolery; then, when that failed, hinted darkly at the consequences of His Eminence’s displeasure. In vain. The four lawyers stood firm. Laubardemont was forced to look further afield—to Chinon and Châtellerault, to Poitiers and Tours and Orléans, to La Flèche and Saint-Maixent and Beaufort. In the end he had a panel of thirteen complaisant magistrates and, after some trouble with an over-scrupulous lawyer called Pierre Fournier, who refused to play the game according to the Cardinal’s rules, a thoroughly reliable Public Prosecutor.

By the middle of the second week of August everything was ready. After hearing Mass and taking Communion, the judges assembled in the Carmelite convent and began listening to the evidence accumulated by Laubardemont during the preceding months. The Bishop of Poitiers had formally guaranteed the genuineness of the possession. This meant that real devils had spoken through the mouths of the Ursulines, and these real devils had sworn again and again that Grandier was a sorcerer. But, “duly constrained, the devil is bound to tell the truth.” Therefore . . . Q.E.D.

Grandier’s condemnation was so certain, and the certainty was so notorious, that tourists were already pouring into Loudun for the execution. During those hot August days thirty thousand persons—more than twice the normal population of the city—were competing for beds and meals and stake-side seats.

Most of us find it very hard to believe that we could ever have enjoyed the spectacle of a public execution. But before we start to congratulate ourselves on our finer feelings, let us remember, first, that we have never been permitted to see an execution and, second, that when executions were public, a hanging seemed as attractive as a Punch and Judy show, while a burning was the equivalent of a Bayreuth Festival or an Oberammergau Passion Play—a great event for which it was worth while to make a long and expensive pilgrimage. When public executions were abolished, it was not because the majority desired their abolition; it was because a small minority of exceptionally sensitive reformers possessed sufficient influence to have them banned. In one of its aspects, civilization may be defined as a systematic withholding from individuals of certain occasions for barbarous behaviour. In recent years we have discovered that when, after a period of withholding, those occasions are once more offered, men and women, seemingly no worse than we are, have shown themselves ready and even eager to take them.

The King and the Cardinal, Laubardemont and the judges, the townspeople and the tourists—all of them knew what was going to happen. The only person for whom the condemnation was not a foregone conclusion was the prisoner. Even as late as the end of the first week in August, Grandier still believed that he was just an ordinary defendant in a trial whose irregularities were accidental and would be set straight as soon as attention had been called to them. His Factum (the written statement of his case) and the letter which he smuggled out of prison for delivery to the King, were evidently written by a man who was still convinced that his judges could be moved by statements of fact and logical arguments, that they took an interest in Catholic doctrine and might be expected to bow to the authority of accredited theologians. Pathetic illusion! Laubardemont and his tame magistrates were the agents of a man who was not concerned with fact, or logic, or law, or theology, but only with personal vengeance and a political experiment, carefully designed to show how far, in this third decade of the seventeenth century, the methods of totalitarian dictatorship could safely be pushed.

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