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Accusations at Louviers
Sister Madeleine Bavent was 18 years old in the year of 1647; the initial possession victim, she claimed to have been bewitched by Mathurin Picard, the nunnery’s director, and Father Thomas Boulle, the vicar at Louviers. Her confession to authorities claimed that the two men had abducted her and taken her to a witches’ sabbat. There, she was married to the Devil, whom she called Dagon, and committed sexual acts with him on the altar. Two men were allegedly crucified and disemboweled as these acts took place.
Madeleine’s confession prompted the investigation, which found that other nuns were also victims of Picard and Boulle; they, too, had been taken to secret sabbats where sexual intercourse with demons, particularly Dagon, took place. The confessions of these nuns were accompanied by what investigators believed were classic signs of demonic possession: contortions, unnatural body movements, speaking in tongues (glossolalia), obscene insults, blasphemies, and the appearance of unexplainable wounds that vanished without aid.
Beyond mere symptoms of possession, the body of Sister Barbara of St. Michael was said to be possessed by a specific demon named Ancitif.
Exorcisms at Louviers
As in the decade earlier case at Loudun, the exorcisms at Louviers were a public spectacle. Nearly every person present at the exorcisms was questioned by the inquisitors, and the entire town of Louviers began exhibiting symptoms of hysteria as the cries of the nuns undergoing exorcism rose with the screams of Father Boulle, who was tortured during the exorcisms. Mathurin Picard had died previous to the public display.
Father Bosroger recorded the proceedings, which he would publish in 1652. In his account, nuns were said to confess further evidence against Picard and Boulle. In addition to tempting them into sexual acts, Satan (in the form of Picard and Boulle) had also tried leading the nuns down the road of heresy. Appearing to the nuns as a beautiful angel, the Devil engaged them in theological conversations so clever that they began to doubt their own teachings. When told that this was not the same information they had been taught, Satan replied that he was a messenger of heaven and had been sent to reveal the fatal errors in accepted dogma.
Signs of possession continued throughout the exorcisms. One witness wrote that a nun “ran with movements so abrupt that it was difficult to stop her. One of the clerics present, having caught her by the arm, was surprised to find that it did not prevent the rest of her body from turning over and over as if the arm were fixed to the shoulder merely by a spring.”
Punishment at Louviers
As hysteria rose, it seemed inevitable that a trial would occur and Father Boulle’s fate would be sealed. During the exorcisms, though, parliament at Rouen passed sentence: Sister Madeleine Bavent would be imprisoned for life in the church dungeon, Father Thomas Boulle would be burnt alive, and the corpse of Mathurin Picard would be exhumed and burned.
Catalogue at Louviers
After the nuns at Louviers were afflicted, authorities undertook the task of cataloguing the symptoms of demonic possession. The treatise they developed included fifteen indications of true possession:
- To think oneself possessed.
- To lead a wicked life.
- To live outside the rules of society.
- To be persistently ill, falling into heavy sleep and vomiting unusual objects (either such natural objects as toads, serpents, maggots, iron, stones, and so forth; or such artificial objects as nails, pins, etc.).
- To utter obscenities and blasphemies.
- To be troubled with spirits (“an absolute and inner possession and residence in the body of the person”).
- To show a frightening and horrible countenance.
- To be tired of living.
- To be uncontrollable and violent.
- To make sounds and movements like an animal.
- To deny knowledge of fits after the paroxysm has ended.
- To show fear of sacred relics and sacraments.
- To cursing violently at any prayer.
- To exhibit acts of lewd exposure or abnormal strength.
It is widely believed today that the Louviers Possessions, similar in many ways to those at Aix-en-Provence (1611), Lille (1613), and Loudun (1634) were part of a political and religious “show” in France.
They also differ from later cases of possession and witch-hunt hysteria like that in England and Colonial America in that they involve lurid sex themes. During the exorcisms at Louviers, nuns were seen to raise their habits and beg for sexual attention, use vulgar language, and make lascivious movements. In the earlier case at Loudun, a local doctor named Claude Quillet wrote, “These poor little devils of nuns, seeing themselves shut up within four walls, become madly in love, fall into a melancholic delirium, worked upon by the desires of the flesh, and in truth, what they need to be perfectly cured is a remedy of the flesh.”
Most demonic possessions in France of this period (from the early to late 17th century) were of young women and appeared most often in the convents. Physicians and psychologists today attribute much of the activities to sexual hysteria, alluded to so long ago by Quillet.
Extreme seizures explained in the 17th century are today believed to point to epilepsy and similar diseases. In the time-frame of the cases in France, demonic possession served as a catchall explanation for any personality anomaly.
- Summers, Montague. The Geography of Witchcraft. London: Kegan Paul, Trench, Truner & Co. Ltd., 1927
- Michelet, Jules. Satanism and Witchcraft. Translated by A.R. Allinson. 1939. Reprint, Secaucus, N.J.: Citadel Press, 1992