By Elise Watson |
Our spooky subject this week is the controversial affair of demonic possession in an Ursuline convent in Loudun, France, which circulated throughout the 1630s in popular pamphlets. Demonic possession was a common fear in the early modern period, and women and members of religious orders were seen as particularly susceptible to mass possession and hysteria. As accounts of possession were rare, they became instant sensational drama, with letters, eyewitness testimonies, and ecclesiastical reports spreading rapidly across the country and the continent in the form of inexpensive, mass-produced pamphlets. An example is the Relation de la sortie du demon Balam du corps de la Mere Prieure, des Ursulines de Loudun (Relation of the departure of the demon Balam from the body of the prioress of the Ursulines of Loudun) (USTC 6034061), one of two known copies of which is held by our partner library the University of Glasgow.
This pamphlet, produced by the printing firm of Jean Martin in Paris, relates the story of the exorcism of the demon Balam from the prioress of the convent, Jeanne des Anges. Jeanne des Anges, along with over two dozen of her Ursuline sisters, famously exhibited signs of possession, and all were repeatedly exorcised by priests local and foreign between 1632 and 1634. Exorcisms were a public spectacle and a lucrative source of revenue: ‘spiritual tourists’ travelled hundreds of miles in the hopes of catching a glimpse of the casting out of a demon, and even more were willing to pay to read first-hand reports. In this particular pamphlet’s account, priests and nobles gather in the Ursuline church in Loudun to watch Jesuit priest and exorcist Jean-Joseph Surin accuse the devil Balam of possessing Jeanne and the other sisters, and cast him out. Surin names and confronts Balam, recognising him by the ‘mark of laughter’ on his face. Balam responds, unabashed, ‘it is true, I am responsible for all the evil things that you are complaining about’ (p. 6) and causes Jeanne to contort her body grotesquely, horrifying the onlookers.
The mise en page of the pamphlet reflects the intense engagement of the reader, using typography and composition to bring life to the story, as well as a simplicity of design that allowed it to be quickly reproduced. The text is printed with minimal ornamentation, in easy-to-set blocks of text and wide margins. On the eighth page, the narrative takes an interesting typographical twist. Surin’s exorcism proves successful, and as the demon Balam is forced to leave the body of Jeanne, the name Balam, which had previously been carved into her arm in ‘bloody characters’ (caracteres sanglans) by demonic magic, disappears and a new and holy name, that of St Joseph, emerges written in blood instead. This display is intended to evoke and illustrate the supernatural phenomenon: the text notes that ‘the said name is written in Roman letters of the shape and size present here’ (p. 8).
This pamphlet was copied and distributed by other printers in rapid succession. The USTC records the same account republished in Orléans in the same year (6809608), and translated into English and published in London in 1636 (3018619). Dozens of other sensational pamphlets regarding the possession of the Ursulines in Loudun survive in small numbers (6904475, 6034033, 6035244). Many focus on the topic of the execution of priest Urbain Grandier, who was blamed for the possession of Jeanne and the rest of the nuns and burned at the stake (6033585, 6904364, 6023563). As many other writers of this blog have observed, the ephemeral nature of these pamphlets means their low survival rate, despite many editions, is actually evidence of their popularity.
The story of Loudun has continued to captivate the popular imagination since the seventeenth century. Alexandre Dumas wrote about it in volume four of his Crimes célébres (1840) and a five-act play entitled Urbain Grandier and the Devils of Loudon (1850). Most famously, twentieth-century writer Aldous Huxley made this affair the centre of his 1952 novel The Devils of Loudun. The story has also been adapted into an opera (1969), a Broadway play (1965), and a controversial X-rated movie (1971) starring Vanessa Redgrave as the afflicted Jeanne des Anges (image featured above).
While we can attribute many causes to the twentieth-century fascination with the Loudun affair and our own predilections for filtering paranoia, witchcraft, and hysteria through our own political and social lenses, the popularity and sensationalism of these pamphlets show us that early modern readers found the story equally captivating. A cinematic story, like that of the exorcism of Jeanne des Anges, conveyed both in prose and simple but effective layout and composition, was designed to cause excitement and horror. It succeeded then, and continues to in adaptations today.
Elise Watson is a PhD candidate in the Reformation Studies Institute at the University of St Andrews. Her thesis examines printing for the Catholic community in the seventeenth-century Dutch Republic. She is broadly interested in minority Catholicism and interconfessionality in the early modern book trade, and the connections between the printed book and the construction of religious identity. She is also the Assistant Editor of Brill’s Book History Online. You can follow her on Twitter at @elisewatson_.
Adaptations of the Loudun affair:
Crouse, Richard. Raising Hell: Ken Russell and the Unmaking of the Devils (Toronto: ECW Press, 2012).
Dumas, Alexandre. Crimes Célèbres vol. 4 (Paris: Imprimerie de V. Dondey-Dupré, 1840), pp. 93-232.
Dumas, Alexandre. Urbain Grandier, drame en cinq actes (Paris: 1850).
Huxley, Aldous. The Devils of Loudun (London: Harper & Row, 1952).
Whiting, John. The Devils (London: Samuel French, 2015).
On possession and witchcraft:
de Certeau, Michel. The Possession at Loudun translated by Michael B. Smith (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2000).
Ferber, Sarah, Demonic Possession and Exorcism in Early Modern France (London: Routledge, 2013).
Sluhovsky, Moshe, ‘The Devil in the Convent’ The American Historical Review 107.5 (2002), pp. 1379-1411.
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