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Updated: Mar 26, 2023

A Dig Deeper Article by Production Dramaturg Brett Dahl.

Magdalene with the Smoking Flame (c. 1640), by Georges de La Tour. Oil on canvas, 128 x 94 cm (50.3 x 37 in). Louvre, Paris. Public domain.

One of history’s most prominent possession cases unfolded over a period of six years in Loudon, France, from 1632 - 1638. At the beginning of the 17th century, western Europe faced a number of religious and political crises marked by social unrest, plagues, and the emergence of new sciences. The world was rapidly evolving, transitioning from medieval worldviews to the Age of Enlightenment. By 1618, religious conflict thrust Europe into what became one of the longest and most destructive wars in European history: the Thirty Years’ War between the Protestants and Catholics. Before the events that would radically alter the lives of the Ursuline Nuns in Loudon, cases of demonic possession rose across France—a country reluctantly redefining itself amid the religious conflict. Wracked by a fear of change, cases of witchcraft, sorcery, and demonic possession rose out of the desperate need for scientific and religious intervention. Before Jeanne, Urbain Grandier, and the Ursuline Nuns would enter their fifteen minutes of fame, France had experienced other famous cases of public exorcisms. In one such case from 1566, sixteen-year-old Nicole Obry claimed to be possessed by up to thirty devils and endured daily public exorcisms in front of large crowds for nearly two months in the Cathedral of Laon.

After Louis XIII ascended the French throne in 1610, he worked to reintroduce Catholicism across the country, prompting revolts and a rise of various movements attempting to reform the Catholic Church from within. At the king’s right hand was the powerful and influential Cardinal Richelieu. Richelieu developed a reputation for supreme ruthlessness, and using his proximity to the throne, sought to centralize power in France by suppressing the feudal nobility, ultimately silencing any attempts towards reform. When charges of “commerce with the Devil” were laid against Grandier in 1634, Richelieu pressed Louis to proceed against Grandier, effectively punishing him for interfering with their power grab. Whiting’s play alludes to Richelieu’s talent for turning the religious instability of the time to his political advantage.

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