An Appointment with Father Grandier
Portrait of Urbain Grandier
by Ed Simon
One spring day in 1629, legions of devils came to call upon Father Urbain Grandier. If we’re to believe his accusers, the priest respond with enthusiasm at the arrival of his demonic charge. According to the proceedings of his later trial, Grandier entered into a pact with such notables as Beelzebub, Leviathan, Astaroth, and of course Lucifer, on May 19th of that year. The contract written by these worthies promised Grandier the “love of women, the flower of virgins, the respect of monarchs, honors, lusts, and powers.” All that was required for this was that once a year the priest will “trample the holy things of the church,” desecrating the eucharist under foot, and in return he would receive “twenty years happy on the earth of men,” after which Grandier “will later join us to sin against God.”
A contemporary drawing of the priest, with his van dyke, his delicate curled mustache, and his wavy dark hair, doesn’t do justice to his reputation as being charming, handsome, and sexually rapacious; a well-educated scholar whom the nuns of the Ursuline convent at Loudun, France would accuse of bewitching them into orgiastic ceremonies for Satan, as possessed minions doing Hell’s bidding. There had been seasons of strange events among the sisters of the convent – convulsions and contortions among the nuns, meaningless, guttural, tongue-speaking glossolalia and foreign xenoglossia, and always the endless sexual dreams featuring Grandier performing all manner of perversion upon them. As part of his agreement with the devils, Grandier promised that after copulating with a nun, he would “make a slit below her heart… that this slit will pierce her shirt, bodice and cloth which will be bloody.” With language ripe for a Freudian analysis, the contract stipulates that the bloody slit made by the priest upon the bodies of these women will be later accompanied with orifices made by the demons Gresil and Amand, an “opening in the same way, but a little smaller” for those creatures’ carnal pleasure.
Central to his eventual prosecution was the testimony of the convent’s Mother Superior, Sister Jeanne de Anges; who attested that Grandier had bewitched the nuns after throwing a demonically enchanted bouquet of roses over the convent’s wall. Skeptics claimed that Jeanne de Anges was enraged after she was sexually rebuffed by the otherwise promiscuous priest, and that the possessions at the convent were an act of intricate revenge. Grandier attempted his own defense several times, to no avail; especially after the incident attracted the attention of Jesuit and Capuchin confessors who performed publicly attended mass exorcisms at the convent, including ones performed by the celebrated mystic Jean-Joseph Surin, who would be haunted by evil spirits for decades afterwards. The spectacle of the public exorcisms drew thousands of Loudon locals, occasioning numerous conversions in a region that had been populated heavily by Huguenots.
The clerics who eventually put Gardiner on trial in 1634 entered into evidence an actual, physical contract, a strange artifact of this supposed diabolical pact. The literary trope of a “deal with the Devil” is arguably as old as Genesis’s temptation, with the signing of an actual bid of sale depicted in works from the 10th century German nun Hroswitha’s poem about the necromancer Theophilus of Adana, to the legends of 13th century Pope Sylvester’s selling of his soul to Satan, and Christopher Marlowe’s 16th century blank-verse dramatic masterpiece Doctor Faustus. Yet for all of the supposed contracts between men and the devil, Grandier’s bill-of-sale is one of the few which you can still touch.
On frayed, yellowing paper, composed in backwards Latin and written in the abbreviated form known as secretary’s hand, is the aforementioned deal between the Jesuit and the host of demons, whereby Gardiner gave hell the souls of his nuns in exchange for profane powers. Among the signatories are some of the most infamous of Renaissance demonology, with occult symbols standing in for luminaries such as Leviathan, Beelzebub, and Astaroth. Demonic names are crucial for both the necromancer and the exorcist alike, for it’s in mastering their names that there can be mastery of the demons themselves. Such names on the parchment take a variety of hermetic forms. One symbol is composed of a circle within a circle, with various curved lines sprouting off of the circumference; another cipher looks nothing so much like an abstracted reptilian creature with pitchfork. Hard to imagine the massive, chthonic sea-creature of Leviathan or the insectoid Lord-of-the-Flies Beelzebub squeezing into Grandier’s study lined with Montaigne and Rabelais so as to sign this contract, and yet its admission into the record was that which ensured the priest’s demise. A longtime adversary of Grandier, a Father Mignon, claimed that the contract had been written by a priapic demon named Baalberith and was absconded from Lucifer’s own library by another devil named Asmodeus. That the handwriting on the document resembled that of Jeanne de Anges was only noted decades later.
Second part of the pact allegedly signed between Urbain Grandier and the Devil.
Grandier would ultimately be burnt alive at the stake in 1634. Nicholas Aubin, in his 1693 account of the incident, reports that a probe was “pushed back into the palm of his hand” by physicians searching for the tell-tale sign of the devil’s mark, a “barbarous surgeon would make them see that the other parts of his body were very sensible,” turning the “probe at the other end, which was very sharp pointed…[and] thrust it to the very bone.” There is an unnerving symmetry to the accounts of Grandier’s supposed mutilations of the Ursulines. Through all of these tribulations, the Jesuit never confessed to having had signed the strange diabolical pact produced during his interrogation. For skeptics such steadfastness proved his innocence, for the faithful such was the power of those demons imparted to the priest even under the duress of torture.
What exactly transpired at Loudon has long been the subject of academic debate. Whether mass hysteria or a cynically calculated spectacle against a powerful priest is ambiguous. As regards the later hypothesis, it should be noted that Grandier was the author of a scurrilous satire against Cardinal Richelieu. Perhaps, as with any event from that foreign country which is the past, it’s good to take to heart the advice given by the British novelist Aldous Huxley in his 1952 account The Devils of Loudun, when he cautioned that despite thinking “about events realistically, in terms of multiple causations… [as being] hard and emotionally unrewarding,” the most honest way to approach a phenomenon from eras so distant spiritually and culturally from our own is to understand that explanations are more complicated than first might be surmised. Despite it being easier, and “more agreeable to trace each effect to a single and, if possible, a personal cause,” the reality of Loudun must always be multifaceted.
Was Grandier the victim of superstition, Machiavellian political maneuvering, personal animus? Did the Ursuline sisters believe themselves to be possessed? Were they coached? And how does metaphysical reality intercede in such circumstances? Loudun does not offer up her lessons so easily, but there is something to be said for viewing those 17th century possessions as representative of the epoch’s approach towards demonology. In Grandier’s travails, we see a synthesis of two of the most frequent diabolical tropes: that of the mage, and of the witch. The priest harkens towards occultists with their goat-skinned grimoires, from legendary figures like Dr. Faustus to actual magicians such as John Dee and Simon Forman. Yet in the contortions and screaming of the possessed nuns, Loudun must also be considered a brief in the history of early modern witch hysteria, a phenomenon that may have taken as many as 100,000 lives, the vast majority of whom were women.
In an additional sense the possessions of Loudun mark the midpoint of a transition that defined the contradictions of early modern diabology. Strung between the humanism of the Renaissance and the rationalism of the coming Enlightenment, it would be easy to assume that this would be a period that would see fear of Lucifer wane, of the dimming of that morning star. We find, as made abundantly clear in the bodily crisps of those immolated as witches, that the opposite is true. The new doubts and skepticisms inculcated by new science, new geography, new philosophy, and most of all new theology in the form of the Protestant Reformation and the Catholic Counter-Reformation paradoxically increased fears of the Devil. Medieval Christians understood how sacrament could hold Satan at bay, but with the Reformation there was a rejection of such means of spiritual warfare, and so a profound anxiety took hold.
In early modern Europe there was a loss of faith in the means of containing demons, but those demons could still howl. The result were events such as those at Loudun; Catholics just as privy to the new doubts as their Protestant cousins. Another result was an unprecedented literary flowering of demonic representations, for if Medieval devils were squawking, farting, burping monsters equally held up for ridicule as for fear, then early modern devils were of an entirely more terrifying variety. This was the age that gave us Marlowe’s great embodiment of modernity in Dr. Faustus’ Mephistopheles, as well as John Milton’s immaculate Lucifer in Paradise Lost. The sixteenth and seventeenth-centuries are best understood as a gloaming period, for this was an age that convulsed with the painful birth pangs of our modern world, when scores of women and men were pulled by the contradictions of faith and doubt that defined the era.
French Jesuit and philosopher Michel de Certeau explained this context in his 1970 study The Possession at Loudun, writing that those strange events should be seen as a “confrontation between science and religion, a debate on what is certain and what is uncertain, on reason, the supernatural, authority.” Grandier, like many others, was a casualty of the era’s contradictions. Had he lived only a century later, the priest would perhaps have been understood as simply a libertine, a rake worthy of a print by Hogarth. As it was, Grandier rather found himself as kindling for a fire in Nouvelle-Aquitaine, one summer day in August of 1634.
About the Author:
Ed Simon is Editor at Berfrois, the Editor-at-Large for The Marginalia Review of Books, a channel of The Los Angeles Review of Books, and a frequent contributor at several different sites, having appeared in publications such as The Atlantic, The Paris Review Daily, The Washington Post, Newsweek and Jacobin among others. He can be followed on Twitter @WithEdSimon, his Facebook author page, or at his website. His collection America and Other Fictions: On Radical Faith and Post-Religion was released by Zero Books in 2018.