The convent was filled mainly with ladies of noble birth, who, not having sufficient dower to secure husbands, had—according to the common method of the time—been made nuns, without any special regard to their feelings.
It is not difficult to understand that such an imprisonment of a multitude of women of different ages would produce some woful effects. Any reader of Manzoni's "Promessi Sposi," with its wonderful picture of a noble lady kept in a convent against her will, may have some idea of the rage and despair which must have inspired such assemblages in which pride, pauperism, and the suppression of the instincts of humanity wrought a fearful work.
What this work was is to be seen throughout the middle ages; but it is especially in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries that we find it frequently taking shape in outbursts of diabolic possession.
In this case at Loudun, the usual evidences of satanic influence appeared. One after another of the inmates fell into convulsions; some showed physical strength apparently supernatural; some a keenness of perception quite as surprising; many howled forth blasphemies and obscenities.
Near the convent dwelt a priest—Urbain Grandier—noted for his brilliancy as a writer and preacher, but careless in his way of living. Several of the nuns had evidently conceived a passion for him, and in their wild rage and despair dwelt upon his name.
In the same city, too, were sundry ecclesiastics and laymen with whom Grandier had been engaged in various petty neighborhood quarrels, and some of these men held the main control of the convent.
Out of this mixture of "possession" within the convent and malignity without it, came a charge that Grandier had bewitched the young women.
The Bishop oftook up the matter. A trial was held, and it was noted that, whenever Grandier appeared, the "possessed" screamed, shrieked, and showed every sign of diabolic influence. Grandier fought desperately, and appealed to the Archbishop of Bordeaux, De Sourdis. The archbishop ordered a more careful examination, and, on separating the nuns from each other and from certain monks who had been bitterly hostile to Grandier, such glaring discrepancies were found in their testimony that the whole accusation was brought to naught.
But the enemies of Satan and of Grandier did not rest.
- On monasteries, as centers of "possession," and hysterical epidemics, see Figuier, "Le Merveilleux," page 40 and following; also Calmeil, Längin, Kirchhof, Maudsley, and others. On similar results from excitement at Protestant meetings in Scotland and camp-meetings in England and America, see Hecker's "Essay," concluding chapters.