Lacanian Jesuit

David Wootton

  • The Possession at Loudun by Michel de Certeau, translated by Michael Smith
    Chicago, 251 pp, £27.00, August 2000, ISBN 0 226 10034 0
  • The Certeau Reader edited by Graham Ward
    Blackwell, 320 pp, £60.00, November 1999, ISBN 0 631 21278 7
  • Michel de Certeau: Cultural Theorist by Ian Buchanan
    Sage, 143 pp, £50.00, July 2000, ISBN 0 7619 5897 5

In 1632 Loudun was a frontier town, with Catholicism to the north, south and east, and Protestantism to the west. Internally divided, it was in the process of being recaptured by the new religious orders of the Counter-Reformation (the Jesuits arrived in 1606, the Capuchins in 1616, the Ursulines in 1626); while at the same time Richelieu was planning to destroy the town’s castle, thus turning its citizens into subjects of the absolutist state. In October 1632, demons took possession of a group of Ursuline nuns. Exorcists were called in, but exorcism did not drive out the demons; instead, it established a method of communicating with them. For four years the demons testified: although demons are natural liars it was maintained that they had no choice but to tell the truth when commanded by an exorcist. Once or twice a day, simultaneously in five churches and chapels, the demons bore witness to the power of the Catholic Church. While the nuns writhed lasciviously, their demons spoke in strange voices and (on occasion) foreign tongues. (There were demons with Biblical names such as Leviathan and Behemoth; but also ones called Coal of Impurity, Concupiscence, Fornication, Dog’s Dick – this translation of Caudacanis is to be preferred to Dog’s Tail, which is the more usual, literal rendering.) Loudun became a tourist attraction, the theatre of possession the most exciting and puzzling of public spectacles.

The demons testified that they had taken possession of the nuns at the request of a local Catholic priest, Urbain Grandier. Grandier had a reputation for womanising (although he had recently settled into a monogamous relationship – among his papers was a treatise arguing that priests should be able to marry), and had made powerful enemies. But he was certainly innocent of sorcery. He was tried; and then tortured and burned alive on 18 August 1634. No inducement or pain could persuade him to confess. Around the exorcisms, the trial and the execution an extensive literature sprang up – some thirty of the publications that survive date from between 18 August and 31 December 1634. Still, the demons remained, the nuns performed.

The demons now began to enter the exorcists and their accomplices. Father Lacance, who died on 18 September 1634; Maunoury, the surgeon who had examined Grandier and testified that he bore the devil’s mark; Louis Chauvet, one of the judges: these three died distracted and raving, soon after Grandier; Father Tranquille died in 1638, possessed by Dog’s Dick and Leviathan. Among those possessed was Father Jean-Joseph Surin, a Jesuit mystic who had arrived in Loudun in December 1634, and who, instead of participating in the exorcisms, had prayed with the leader of the possessed nuns, the prioress, Sister Jeanne; he had even prayed that her demons would leave her and enter him. Which they did. For twenty years Surin suffered the after-effects, often unable to walk, talk or dress himself, tempted to suicide, and convinced he was damned. At the end of this long nightmare came a series of works that have won an enduring place in the history of Catholic spirituality: the Cantiques spirituels, the Catéchisme spirituel, the Dialogues spirituels, the Science expérimentale.

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