A Dig Deeper Article by Production Dramaturg Brett Dahl.
John Whiting’s play conjures the real events surrounding the witch trials at Loudon, which were among the most notable and scandalous episodes of demonic possession in history. The episode at Loudon has captured imaginations for centuries, from the crowds that swarmed Loudon to watch the public exorcisms to Sister Jeanne des Anges’ autobiography; from Aldous Huxley’s non-fiction exploration The Devils of Loudon (1952) to adaptations into opera by Kryzsztof Penderecki (1969), drama by John Whiting play (1961), and film by Ken Russell (1971), among others. Each version tells the story from a slightly different angle, but they ultimately all stay true to the main events of the plot:
According to historical records, the incidents began on September 22nd, 1632, when the prioress of the Ursuline convent, Jeanne des Anges, along with two other nuns, were each “visited” by the apparition of a man of the cloth. Two days later, Sister Marthe was knocked to the ground and Jeanne into a chair by a mysterious black sphere. The disturbing occurrences manifested in the nuns as physical assaults from invisible sources, uncontrollable convulsions, hearing voices, speaking in tongues, fits, manic laughter and other irrational behaviours. In the play and film versions of the story, the possessions begin with Jeanne and spread to the other sisters, but the actual account indicated a simultaneous visitation in the convent as the possessions occurred en mass. On October 5th, 1632, the exorcisms began. Exorcisms, customarily held in private (either the home of the possessed or in a church), became highly public events attracting thousands of spectators from across Europe.
When the nuns identified Grandier, one of the local priests, as the source of the possessions occurring within the convent, some government and Church officials began to regard the events with suspicion. According to these dissenters, the nuns must have feigned the possessions. Grandier’s supporters did whatever they could to stop the exorcisms, which they claimed were fabricated to discredit and bring down the priest. Grandier had been cast as a political scapegoat for opposing Richelieu’s bid to consolidate power, and he was considered an embarrassment to the Church and state. A subsequent court order from the state forbade debate or disagreement about both the possessions and the legal proceedings on pain of death. Because of this, no opposition to the trials surfaced until nearly 60 years later when a Huguenot from Loudon, who was living in exile in Amsterdam, published the Histoire des Diables de Loudun.
During Grandier’s second trial, around 1634, a shocking document was presented as evidence against him: a pact between Urbain Grandier and the Devil, written in Latin and signed by Leviathan, Beelzebub, Astaroth, and various other demons. Part of the diabolical pact translates to “we, the influential Lucifer … have today accepted the covenant pact of Urbain Grandier, who is ours. And him do we promise the love of women, the flower of virgins, the respect of monarchs, honours, lusts, and powers…”
By August 18th of 1634, Grandier had been found guilty of crime of sorcery and the possession of the Ursuline nuns. In a massive public spectacle, he was burned at the stake. Though Grandier, the accused possessor, had been executed, the exorcisms continued until 1638.