While cases of religious ecstasy are hardly unusual, there are definitely examples that tend to stand out. In 1728, in the Parisian cemetery of St. Medard, a phenomenon began that quickly became the talk of France. Following the burial of a pious, Jansenist bishop named Francois de Paris in the cemetery, stories arose of miraculous cures being worked at the bishop's tomb. Pious female parishioners, who later became known as St. Medard's convulsionaries, were described as engaging in "contortions and convulsive movements, attended by cries, shrieks and groans, all of which were regarded as manifestations of divine power". The adherents would work themselves into states of religious ecstasy and engage in acts of severe torture which they either inflicted on themselves or through the actions of assistants known as Secouristes. They would then reportedly work miracles and cure all forms of disease. The massive hysteria that arose led to a crackdown by the police under orders of the King and the eventual closure of the cemetery in 1732. Thousands of convulsionaries were arrested and the movement was driven underground. It eventually split into different factions and faded into obscurity (although it would briefly reappear in Paris in 1759). The police action gave rise to a famous epigram: "De par le roi, defense a Dieu De faire miracle en ce lieu. (Louis to God: To keep the peace, here miracles must henceforth cease)." The convulsionaries of St. Medard gained a literary immortality through the writings of Voltaire and Diderot.
A less famous but longer-lasting example of religious convulsionaries occurred in the northern Spanish town of Jaca. This small town was known for centuries for the annual pilgrimage to commemorate its patron saint, Orosia (also spelled Eurosia). Different accounts of Orosia's life exist (and she may have never existed at all) and it remains unclear why she was named patron saint of the demonically possessed but she became the patron saint of Jaca after her relics were brought there in the eleventh century. From that time until the Church banned the practice in 1947, St. Orosia's convulsionaries took part in a bizarre procession each year on June 25 (the Saint's feast day).
The procession involved the "demonically afflicted" (eg, epileptics, mentally ill, physically handicapped, and other stricken) and took place in front of the Saint's sarcophagus. The pilgrims would gather to find healing for their various afflictions through participation in the procession and exorcism rituals. In a description of the procession by a medical observer in 1881 (and bear with me here since my Spanish is rusty), the bishop and retinue of friars would start off the procession accompanied by music and dancing. "Paralytics, madmen, epileptics and hysterics would gather during the night before the chest containing the saint's relics. Their infirmity is attributed to possession by a devil and they seek the devil's elimination. Cramping, muscle contractions, spasmodic grins, and howling are the preamble of the convulsions. They would fall to the ground until they were black and blue, blood spurting from their mouths". At this point, the exorcism would begin with multiple applications of the rosary and cross which the convulsionaries would kiss repeatedly. Once the demon was deemed to have fled, the newly healed convulsionaries would jump for joy and scream loudly. It is doubtful whether any actual "cures" took place (there were certainly no follow-up studies) but the sight of the newly-exorcised praising the saint for their healing made for quite a spectacle by all accounts and drew pilgrims from all over the region.
The banning by the Church in 1947 brought an end to St. Orosia's convulsionaries and marked the last example of recurring mass motor hysteria in Europe. Sadly, the use of exorcism in dealing with mental illness continues even today with tragic results When proper mental health care isn't available and families seek for a cure for their loved ones, what solutions might they turn to in desperation?