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The Core Curriculum

Pact allegedly signed between Urbain Grandier and the Devil, submitted as evidence during the 1634 Loudun Possession Trial.

Pact allegedly signed between Urbain Grandier and the Devil, submitted as evidence during the 1634 Loudun Possession Trial.  Also signed by Satan, Leviathan, Astaroth and numerous other demons.  

The Loudon Possessions were among of the most notable and scandalous episodes of demonic possession in France in the seventeenth century.  It was alleged that a parish priest, Urbain Grandier, had made a pact with the devil: a group of Ursuline nuns came forward claiming that they had been sexually assaulted by Grandier, as well as visited and possessed by the devil.  Their symptoms included fits, convulsions and speaking in tongues.  Over a period of several years, exorcisms were performed, during which nuns barked, screamed blasphemies and acted out obscene contortions.  As hysteria around the episodes increased, public exorcisms were performed; they became something of a tourist attraction, drawing curious spectators to Loudon.  Several “witches” were tortured, along with Grandier himself, who was burnt at the stake in August 1634.

Subsequently doubts were raised about the veracity of the nuns’ testimony, as such tortures often prompted immediate confessions – victims told the inquisitors whatever they wanted to hear to make them stop.  According to some accounts, the accusations were part of a conspiracy: the nuns were asked to feign possession in order to discredit the handsome and “immoral” priest Grandier, who had become something of an embarrassment to the church.  In any case, the Loudon Possessions aroused suspicions about the value of eyewitness testimony and the authenticity of intense spiritual visions.  For the philosopher Michel de Certeau, the Loudon Possessions mark a key episode in the transition from a medieval mindset to the Age of Enlightenment.  In a period marked by social unrest, plague, war and dislocated populations, religious traditions of mystic experience were confronted by an emergent scientific world view.  In this new order of things, according to Certeau, institutions sought to interpret and contain diabolical speech, which testified to “social inquietude” even as it was suppressed and erased.  From a Cartesian point of view, such episodes of possession suggest ambiguous relations between the spiritual soul and the sensual body and contribute to skepticism about perception and the power of the imagination.

This episode became the subject of a book by Aldous Huxley, The Devils of Loudon (1952), which in turn inspired Ken Russell’s film, The Devils (1971).

In this clip from the film, a nun is overtaken by a vision of Christ that gradually takes on a demonic character.  Since the ecstatic visionary experiences of saints formed an important part of orthodox Catholicism, and were often of a semi-erotic nature, how might one distinguish between a genuine divine encounter and a demonic possession?  How, as Descartes asks, can we be sure that our whole reality is not merely a vision simulated by a malicious demon?


Image from Dictionnaire infernal ou bibliothèque universelle… by Collin de Plancy, 1826, via Wikimedia commons.  See also: Michel de Certeau, The Possession at Loudon, trans. Michael Smith (Chicago: University of Chicago, 2000).

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