Beginning in 1632, rumours spread throughout the town of Loudon, France about a strange outbreak occurring in the local Ursuline convent. All of the nuns, including the Mother Superior, began experiencing strange convulsions and "using abusive language" (although the lurid details kept changing as the rumours spread). Although the nuns and their priest had attempted to hide what was happening for as long as possible, tales of the demonic possession occurring in the convent eventually led to a formal investigation.
The convent, which had only been founded a few years earlier, already had a reputation for pious living and also functioned as a boarding school for the daughters of well-off families. Almost all of the seventeen nuns in the convent, including the Mother Superior Jeanne des Anges, belonged to minor noble families although the sisters had a difficult time making ends meet. The convent had no income aside from tuition fees and their only significant property was the convent house itself. Due to the reforms imposed by the Council of Trent some decades previously, convent life was strictly controlled by the Church with no males allowed inside the convent walls except for the Father Confessor.
On recently being appointed to that post, the new Confessor Canon Mignon was certainly alarmed by what the nuns began telling him about strange nightly visitations by demons, apparently intent on seducing them. Beginning with the Mother Superior herself and eventually spreading to all of the other nuns in the convent, signs of demonic possession, including sexual moaning, convulsions, speaking in tongues (glossolalia), and visions quickly spiraled out of control. Canon Mignon consulted various medical doctors and eventually arranged for exorcisms to try controlling what was happening. He and his fellow priests became increasingly alarmed when the nuns reacted to the exorcisms by screaming and making lewd sexual advances towards the priests. Even more outrageous was the Mother Superior accusing a local priest, Urbain Grandier, of being responsible for what was happening. The nuns, led by Jeanne des Anges, insisted that the possessions were due to two devils named Asmodeus and Zabulon and that Grandier had sent them to the convent after throwing roses over the convent wall.
Grandier was, by all accounts, a most unusual priest. Handsome and well-connected, he had already gained a scandalous reputation, not only for being politically outspoken but also for the less-than discreet affairs that he had with numerous women in the town (including fathering several children). Despite numerous complaints by outraged husbands and fathers, Grandier was protected by the local Huguenot community who admired his outspokenness and his bold attacks on the Church and its special privileges. When his bishop had Grandier arrested in 1630, he was formally banned from serving as a priest in Loudun at which point his family and friends went to work on his behalf. Using bribery and intimidation of the witnesses against Grandier, they managed to have him reinstated in 1631. All that the ecclesiastic panel was able to do was to issue a mild warning for Grandier to “behave well and decently according to the Holy Decretals and Canonical Constitutions”. Although the bishop warned Grandier to leave Loudun, he ignored the advice and regarded his acquittal as a total victory. He even went so far as to harass all of the townspeople who had testified against him including demanding legal restitution in court. While friends tried to talk him out of this campaign, he ignored them all. It would be a costly mistake.
Ironically, Urbain Grandier had offered his name for the post of Father Confessor for the Ursuline convent in town despite his sinister reputation. The job went to Canon Mignon instead and sparked an uncomfortable rivalry between the two priests, especially since Mignon had been involved in his previous trial. As for the nuns, many of whom had supported Grandier becoming the Father Confessor for the convent, exactly what was causing the strange stories of nightly visitations and demonic seductions is still open to question. Whether Urbain Grandier was actually sneaking into the convent somehow or that the strange epidemic was entirely due to mass hysteria on the part of the nuns, the rumours of what was happening in the convent spread beyond the town. Not only did parents withdraw all of the convent’s students one by one, but the convent's nuns were left completely destitute when their own families withdrew all support.
Grandier knew full well the danger that he was in and he arranged with the Archbishop of Bourdeaux to have his personal doctor examine the nuns. When no medical evidence for the possessions was found, the Archbishop ordered the exorcisms to end and arranged for the nuns to be imprisoned n their cells. Canon Mignon and his assistant then went over the Archbishop's head and asked King Louis XIII's chief minister Cardinal Richelieu to order an investigation. Since Richelieu was a frequent target of Grandier's political diatribes, he likely saw this as an excellent opportunity to rid himself of the renegade priest once and for all. That one of Richelieu's own relatives was one of the Loudun nuns likely didn't help matters either. The Cardinal sent a team of investigators to Loudun and authorized them to do whatever was necessary to end the possessions (including threatening to tear down the convent and the surrounding town).
During a public exorcism conducted before more than seven thousand people, the chief exorcist, Father Jean-Joseph Surin invited the demons possessing the nuns to inhabit his own body, the demons reportedly complied and he "lost mental balance as a result". Father Surin inflicted various injuries on himself and then attempted suicide. After being restrained and regaining his sanity,the exorcist said that he was "unable to understand what happened to him" when the unknown spirit entered his body. As the exorcisms continued, the accusations against Grandier became even more lurid and the nuns claimed that they were possessed by a multitude of demons. When Grandier attempted an exorcism himself to clear his name, the supposedly possessed nuns answered his threats by making him seem more guilty than ever (their testimony had likely been coached by Richelieu's investigators). After a formal document surfaced, allegedly showing the pact between Grandier and Satan and written in blood, Grandier's fate was likely sealed.
Urbain Grandier was imprisoned at the Castle of Angier in December, 1633. Despite protests by his supporters, he was stripped, shaved, and his body searched for "devil's marks". When he refused to confess to sorcery, he was repeatedly tortured according to the practices laid out n the Malleus Maleficarum. Anyone courageous enough to speak out on Grandier's behalf (including some of the nuns) were threatened by the Church and the Crown. Eventually, the presiding inquisitor announced that anyone who testified in favour of Grandier would be declared traitors to France and have their property seized. 4
With all supporters silenced, the outcome of Urbain Grandier's trial was a foregone conclusion. He was found guilty of magic, maleficia, and of "causing demoniacal possession of several Ursuline nuns of this town of Loudun, as well as of other secular women, together with other charges and crimes resulting therefrom". Grandier's steadfast refusal to confess his crime despite being his torture and the severity of his punishment hardly moved his persecutors. As one of the monks charged with trying to convert him prior to his execution later said, "I am not astonished at his impenitence, nor at his refusal to admit himself guilty of magic, both under torture and at his execution, for it is known that magicians promise the devil never to confess the crime, and he in turn hardens their heart".
Despite promises that he would be allowed to make a public statement and that he would be humanely garroted beforehand, Urbain Grandier was burned alive at the stake on August 18, 1634. According to one story, Grandier promised that one of the attending priests, Father Lactance, would died within thirty days and that many of his other persecutors would die as well. While Father Lactance died on schedule (reportedly crying that he was not responsible for Grandier's death), the legends surrounding Urbain Grandier and the Loudun possessions hardly ended there. Many of the participants who were involved in Grandier's execution died within a few years of his execution, whether due to remorse or a dying magician's curse seems to depend on which account of the time you happen to read.
And the Loudun possessions didn't end with Grandier's death either. Mother Superior Jeanne des Anges (who seemed to have some exaggerated views of her own piety) insisted that the exorcisms continue since she and her nuns were still being possessed by devils. Public exorcisms of the nuns continued until 1637 when Richelieu himself ordered them stopped and the investigation ended. Hardly anyone else in positions of power really believed that Grandier had been guilty but the story of the Loudun possessions and Grandier's fate made for a graphic lesson of what happened to anyone who crossed Cardinal Richelieu. That the public exorcisms helped convince many local Protestants to convert to Catholicism seemed to be an extra benefit. As for the "contract" with Satan supposedly signed by Grandier, many modern historians are divided over whether Grandier's signature had been completely forged or whether Grandier had signed it himself during one of his torture sessions.
Whether the Loudun possessions began with mass hysteria or as an entirely staged power play on Cardinal Richelieu's part, the case has been examined in depth by numerous authors including Alexander Dumas (pere) and Jules Michelet. Aldous Huxley's full-length book, The Devils of Loudun was published in 1952 and inspired a successful stage play as well as a classic horror film by Ken Russell. The continuing fascination with Urbain Grandier's case may well be due to the role that religious persecution and cynical political manipulation played in his torture and gruesome death. That accused sorcerers are being killed today over evidence just as flimsy as what condemned Grandier centuries ago suggests that the lessons of his case have still not been learned.