The Devils of Loudun Page 81

The exorcism began and “Leviathan appeared in an altogether extraordinary manner, boasting that he had triumphed over the minister of the Church.” Surin counter-attacked by ordering the demon to adore the Blessed Sacrament. There were the customary howls and convulsions. Then “God in His mercy granted us more than we could have dared to hope.” Leviathan prostrated himself—or, to be more accurate, he prostrated Sœur Jeanne at the feet of the exorcist. He acknowledged that he had plotted against Surin’s honour and begged to be forgiven; then, after one last paroxysm, he left the Prioress’s body—for ever. It was a triumph for Surin and a vindication of his method. Impressed, the other exorcists changed their tune, the Provincial gave him another chance. Sœur Jeanne had got what she wanted and, in doing so, had demonstrated that, while she was possessed by devils, the devils were, to some extent at least, possessed by her. They had power to make her behave like a lunatic; but when she chose to use it, she had power to make them behave as though they didn’t exist.

After the departure of Leviathan, a bloody cross appeared on the Prioress’s forehead and remained there, plainly visible, for three full weeks. This was good; but something much better was to follow. Balaam now announced that he was ready to go and promised that, when he took his leave, he would write his name on the Prioress’s left hand, where it should remain until her death. The prospect of being thus branded indelibly with the signature of the spirit of buffoonery did not appeal to Sœur Jeanne. How much better if the demon could be constrained to write the name, say, of St. Joseph! On Surin’s advice, she embarked on a course of nine consecutive Communions in honour of the saint. Balaam did all he could to interrupt the novena. But illness and mental obfuscation were without avail; the Prioress struggled on. One morning, just before the hour of Mass, Balaam and Behemoth—buffoonery and blasphemy—got into her head and set up such a turmoil and confusion that, though she knew quite well that she was doing wrong, she could not resist a mad impulse to rush headlong to the refectory. There “I breakfasted with such intemperateness that I ate, at this one meal, more than three famished persons could have eaten in a whole day.” Communion was now out of the question. Overcome with grief, Sœur Jeanne appealed to Surin for help. He put on his stole and gave the necessary orders. “The demon re-entered my head and forthwith caused me to vomit with such abundance that it was quite inconceivable.” Balaam now swore that the stomach was completely empty, and Father Surin judged that she might safely take Communion. “And thus I went on with my novena to the end.”

On 29th November the spirit of buffoonery finally took his leave. Among the spectators on this occasion were two Englishmen—Walter Montague, son of the first Earl of Manchester and a new-made Catholic with all the convert’s will-to-believe-everything, and his young friend and protégé, Thomas Killigrew, the future playwright. A few days after the event Killigrew wrote a long letter to a friend in England, describing all that he had seen at Loudun.1 The experience, he says, had been “beyond his expectation.” Going from chapel to chapel in the convent church, he had seen, on the first day of his visit, four or five of the energumens, quietly kneeling in prayer, each with her exorcist kneeling behind her and holding one end of a string, the other end of which was tied round the nun’s neck. Small crosses were fastened to this string, which served as a leash to control, in some small measure, the frenzies of the devils. For the moment, however, all was peace and quiet, and “I saw nothing but kneeling.” In the course of the next half hour, two of the nuns became unruly. One of them flew at a friar’s throat; the other stuck out her tongue, threw her arms about the neck of her exorcist and tried to kiss him. All the while, through the gratings separating the church from the convent, came a sound of howling. After that the young man was called by Walter Montague to witness a display of diabolic thought-reading. The devils succeeded with the convert, but were not so successful with Killigrew. In the intervals of this performance they offered prayers for Calvin and heaped curses on the Church of Rome. When one of the fiends departed, the tourists asked where he had gone. The nun’s reply was so unequivocal that the Editor of the European Magazine could not bring himself to print it.

Next came the exorcism of pretty little Sister Agnes. Killigrew’s account of this has already been given in an earlier chapter. The spectacle of this delicious creature being held down by a pair of sturdy peasants, while her friar triumphantly set his foot first on her breast, then on the white throat, filled our young cavalier with horror and disgust.

Next day it all began again; but this time the performance ended in a more interesting, a less revolting manner. “Prayers being ended,” writes Killigrew, “she (the Prioress) turned herself to the friar (Surin), who cast a string of crosses about her neck, and there tied it with three knots. She kneeled still, and ceased not to pray till the strings were fastened; but then she stood up and quitted her beads; and after a reverence made to the altar, she went to a seat like a couch with one end, made purposely for the exorcism, whereof there are diverse in the chapel.” (It would be interesting to know if any of these ancestors of the psycho-analyst’s sofa are still extant.) “The head of this seat stood to the altar; she went to it with so much humility that you would have thought that this patience would merit enough, without the prayers of the priests, to chase out the devil. When she came to it, she lay down and helped the priest to bind her to it with two ropes, one about her waist, another about her thighs and legs. When she was bound, and saw the priest with the box wherein the sacrament was included, she sighed and trembled with a sense of the tortures she was to suffer. Nor is this a particular humility and patience that she showed; for they are all so, and in the same instances. When this exorcism was performed, another of the possessed called another of the fathers unto her, and set her seat herself, and then lay down upon it, and tied herself upon it as the other did. ’Tis strange to see how modestly they go to the altar, when they are themselves, and how they walk in the nunneries. Their modest looks and faces express what they are (maids vowed to religion). This nun, upon the beginning of the exorcism, lay as if she had slept. . . .” Surin now set to work on the Prioress. In a few minutes Balaam made his appearance. There were writhings and convulsions, abominable blasphemies, frightful grimaces. Sœur Jeanne’s belly suddenly swelled, until it looked like that of a woman far gone in pregnancy; then the br**sts puffed themselves up to the size of the belly. The exorcist applied relics to each part as it was affected, and the swellings subsided. Killigrew now stepped forward and touched her hand—it was cool; felt her pulse—it was calm and slow. The Prioress pushed him aside and began to claw at her coif. A moment later the bald, close-shaven head was bare. She rolled up her eyes, she stuck out her tongue. It was prodigiously swollen, black in colour and had the pimply texture of morocco leather. Surin now untied her, ordering Balaam to adore the Sacrament. Sœur Jeanne slid backwards off the seat and landed on the floor. For a long time Balaam stubbornly resisted; but at last he was bullied into performing the act of worship demanded of him. “Then,” writes Killigrew, “as she lay on her back, she bent her waist like a tumbler and went so, shoving herself with her heels, on her bare shaven head, all about the chapel after the friar. And many other strange, unnatural postures, beyond anything that ever I saw, or could believe possible for any man or woman to do. Nor was this a sudden motion, and away; but a continuous thing, which she did for above an hour together; and yet not out of breath nor hot with all the motions she used.” All this time the tongue hung out, “swollen to an incredible bigness, and never within her mouth from the first falling into her fit; I never saw her for a moment contract it. Then I heard her, after she had given a start and a shriek that you would have thought had torn her to pieces, speak one word and that was, ‘Joseph.’ At which all the priests started up and cried, ‘That is the sign, look for the mark!’ On which one, seeing her hold out her arm, looked for it. Mr. Montague and myself did the same very earnestly; and on her hand I saw a colour rise, a little ruddy, and run for the length of an inch along her vein, and in that a great many red specks, which made a distinct word; and it was the same she spake, ‘Joseph.’ This mark the Jesuit said the devil promised, when he went out, he would make.” Minutes of the proceedings were drawn up and signed by the officiating exorcists. Montague then added a postscript in English, to which he and Killigrew put their names. And so, the letter gaily concludes, “I hope you will believe it, or at least-ways say there are more liars than myself, and greater, though there be none more your humble servant than—Thomas Killigrew.”

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