The Devils of Loudun Page 73

After that it was the turn of Louis Chauvet, one of the upright judges who had refused to take part in the hellish tomfoolery of the trial. The Prioress and most of her nuns had accused him of being a magician, and M. Barre was able to confirm their testimony through the mouths of several demoniacs in his own parish, at Chinon. Fear of what might happen to him, if the Cardinal should choose to take these ravings seriously, preyed on Chauvet’s mind. He sank into a melancholy, then into madness, then into a decline, which killed him before the winter was out.

Tranquille was of tougher fibre than the others. It was not until 1638 that he finally succumbed to the consequences of a too exclusive preoccupation with evil. By his hatred of Grandier he had helped to raise the devils; by his scandalous insistence on public exorcisms he had done his best to keep them alive. Now the devils turned against him. God is not mocked; he was reaping what he had deliberately sown.

At first the obsessions were rare and of no great force. But little by little Dog’s Tail and Leviathan gained the upper hand. During the last year of his life, Father Tranquille was behaving like the nuns whose hysteria he had so carefully fostered—rolling on the floor, cursing, yelling, sticking out his tongue, hissing, barking, neighing. Nor was this all. The ‘stinking Owl of Hell,’ as his Capuchin biographer picturesquely nicknames the devil, plagued him with hardly resistible temptations against chastity, against humility, against patience, faith and devotion. He called on the Virgin, on St. Joseph, on St. Francis and St. Bonaventure. In vain. The possession went from bad to worse.

On Whitsunday, 1638, Tranquille preached his last sermon; for two or three days more he managed to say Mass; then he took to his bed with a sickness none the less mortal for being obviously psycho-somatic. “He threw up ordures, which were judged to be diabolic Pacts. . . . Every time he took a little nourishment, the devils made him retch with a violence that would have killed the healthiest person.” And meanwhile he suffered from headaches and pains in the heart, “of a kind of which there is no mention in Galen or Hippocrates.” By the end of the week “he was vomiting filths and stinks so insupportable, that his attendants had to throw them out without delay, so fearfully was the room infected by them.” On the Monday after Whitsun, Extreme Unction was administered. The devils left the dying man and forthwith entered the body of another friar, who was kneeling by the bed. The new demoniac became so frantic, that he had to be held by half a dozen of his colleagues, who had the greatest difficulty in preventing him from kicking the hardly lifeless corpse.

On the day of the funeral, Father Tranquille lay in state. “No sooner was the service over than the people flung themselves upon him. Some applied their rosaries to his body, others cut from his habit little pieces which they preserved as relics. So great was the press that the coffin was smashed, and the body disturbed in countless ways, each man tugging it towards himself so as to get his snippet. And assuredly the good father would have been left stark naked, had it not been for several persons of honour, who formed a guard to protect him from the indiscreet devotion of the people, who, after cutting up the habit, would probably have mangled the corpse itself.”

The shreds of Father Tranquille’s habit, the ashes of the man he had tortured and burned alive. . . . Everything was equivocal. The magician had died a martyr; his fiendish executioner was now a saint—but a saint who was possessed by Beelzebub. Only one thing was certain: a fetish is a fetish. So lend me your knife; after you with the shears!


GRANDIER was gone, but Eazaz remained, Coal of Impurity remained, Zabulon went marching along. To many, the fact seemed unaccountable. But where the cause persists, the effects will always follow. It was Canon Mignon and the exorcists who had originally crystallized the nuns’ hysteria into the forms of devils, and it was Canon Mignon and the exorcists who now kept the possession alive. Twice every day, Sundays excepted, the demoniacs were put through their tricks. As might have been expected, they were no better—they were even a little worse—than they had been while the magician was alive.

Towards the end of September Laubardemont informed the Cardinal that he had appealed to the Society of Jesus. The Jesuits had a reputation for learning and ability. From these masters of all the sciences the public would surely “accept, with less contradiction, the evidence for the truth of this possession.”

Many Jesuits, including Vitelleschi, the General of the Order, were for politely refusing to have anything to do with the possession. But it was too late to raise objections. Laubardemont’s invitation was speedily followed by a royal command. Through the King, His Eminence had spoken.

On the 15th of December 1634 four Jesuit fathers rode into Loudun. Among them was Jean-Joseph Surin. Father Bohyre, the Provincial of Aquitaine, had selected him for the task of exorcism, and had then, on the advice of his council, countermanded the order. Too late. Surin had already left Marennes. The original appointment was permitted to stand.

Surin was now thirty-four, nel mezzo del cammin, his character formed, the pattern of his thinking already fixed. His fellow Jesuits thought highly of his abilities, recognized his zeal and respected the austerity of his life, the fervour of his pursuit of Christian perfection. But their admiration was tempered by certain misgivings. Father Surin had all the makings of a man of heroic virtue; but there was something about him which caused the more prudent of his colleagues and superiors to shake their heads. They detected in him a certain extravagance, a too-muchness in act and word. He liked to say that “the man who does not have excessive ideas in regard to God will never come near Him.” And of course it was true—provided always that the excessive ideas were of the right kind. Some of the young father’s excessive ideas, though orthodox enough, seemed to deviate from the high-road of discretion. For example, he maintained that we ought to be ready to die for the people with whom we live, “while at the same time preserving ourselves from them as though they were our enemies”—a proposition hardly calculated to improve the quality of communal living in the Society’s houses and colleges. As well as anti-social, his excessive ideas made him over-righteous to the point of scrupulosity. “We ought,” he said, “to bewail our vanities as sacrileges, to punish with the utmost severity our ignorances and inadvertences.” And to this inhuman rigorism in the name of perfection he added what seemed to many of his elders and contemporaries an indiscreet and even dangerous interest in those ‘extraordinary graces’ which are sometimes vouchsafed to the holy, but which are entirely unnecessary to salvation or to sanctification. “From his earliest childhood,” his friend, Father Anginot, was to write many years later, “he has felt powerfully drawn toward such things, and has esteemed them too highly. It has been necessary to humour him in this and to allow him to travel by a road which was not the common and ordinary way.”

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