On June 2, 1630, Father Urbain Grandier, the parish priest of St.-Pierre-du-Marché of Loudun, France, was accused of witchcraft by a group of Ursuline nuns. Grandier, a politically-influential priest with a worldly lifestyle, scandalous affairs, and romantic adventures, had made many enemies. In 1618, Grandier had written a sarcastic discourse about Cardinal Richelieu. By 1630, Richelieu had become one of the most powerful men in France, and would play an important role in the Loudun case.
The nuns, while throwing convulsions and wild fits, said Grandier had sent demons to possess them. The role of exorcist was taken by Father Mignon, one of Grandier's enemies. Rather than attempting to cure them, Mignon encouraged the nuns in their antics.
For a short while, the machinations against Grandier were put to rest as Archbishop Soudis of Bordeaux forbade Mignon from further exorcisms. Unfortunately, a little while later, one of Richelieu's henchmen by the name of Laubardemont, a relative of one of the possessed nuns, arrived in Loudun. He was there to oversee the tearing down of the town's fortifications. This was part of Richelieu's programme of eliminating Huguenot strongholds by destroying local bastions.
Both the Protestant and Catholic contingencies of Loudun were against this. The removal of their battlements and defensive walls would leave them unprotected against mercenary armies. By citing the King's promise that Loudun's walls should not be demolished, Grandier prevented Laubardemont from destroying the fortifications. Hindered by the priest and aware of the demonic allegations against Grandier, Laubardemont made a report to Richelieu.
Richelieu saw this an a prime time both to avenge himself on Grandier (whose insulting writing had not been forgiven) and to display his political might. Without delay, Richelieu appointed an investigative committee and set aside large amounts of money for the hiring of exorcists and to provide care for the demon-possessed nuns.
The Capuchin Tranquille, the Franciscan Lactance, and the Jesuit Surin were among the expert exorcists at Loudun. By employing dramatic commands, threats, and rituals, these zealous priests directed and encouraged the nuns in their accusations against Grandier. Because the exorcisms were made public, the situation was transformed into a bizarre circus. By making the spectacle public, the citizens of Loudun could hear the accusations against Grandier. At times, up to 7,000 spectators attended the public exorcisms.
In 1634, Des Niau wrote the following description in his The History of the Devils of Loudun:
[The nuns] struck their chests and backs with their heads, as if they had their necks broken, and with inconceivable rapidity; They twisted their arms at the joints of the shoulder, the elbow, or the wrist, two or three times around. Lying on their stomachs, they joined the palms of their hands to the soles of their feet; their faces became so frightful one could not bear to look at them; their eyes remained open without winking. Their tongues issued suddenly from their mouths, horribly swollen, black, hard, and covered with pimples, and yet while in this state they spoke distinctly. They threw themselves back till their heads touched their feet, and walked in this position with wonderful rapidity, and for a long time. They uttered cries so horrible and so loud that nothing like it was ever heard before. They made use of expressions so indecent as to shame the most debauched of men, while their acts, both in exposing themselves and inviting lewd behavior from those present would have astonished the inmates of the lowest brothels in the country.The public spectacles set the citizens of Loudun against Grandier. He was arrested on November 30, 1633, and imprisoned in the Castle of Angers. Investigators promptly set about looking for the "Devil's mark." NIcholas Aubin's 1693 The Cheats and Illusions of Romish Priest and Exorcists Discovered in the History of the Devils of Loudun describes what happened next:
They sent for Mannouri the surgeon, one of [Grandier's] enemies, and the most unmerciful of them all; when he [came] into the chamber, they stripped Grandier stark naked, blinded his eyes, shaved him every where, and Mannouri began to search him. When he would persuade them that the parts of his body which had been marked by the Devil were insensible, he turned that end of the probe which was round, and he guided it in such a manner, that not being able to enter into the flesh, nor to make much impression, it was pushed back into the palm of his hand; the patient did not then cry out, because he felt no pain; but when the barbarous surgeon would make them see that the other parts of his body were very sensible, he turned the probe at the other end, which was very sharp pointed, and thrust it to the very bone; and then the abundance of people [outside] heard complaints so bitter, and cries so piercing, that they [were] moved...to the heart".
Grandier was denied the normal procedure of trial by a secular court. This would have given him the possibility of an appeal to the Parliament of Paris. Instead, Richelieu's committee took charge of the legal proceedings. A document was produced, allegedly written and signed by Grandier. This document was supposed to be Grandier's contract with Satan, signed by Lucifer, Astaroth, Beelzebub, Leviathan, and other popular infernal beings.
Some of the nuns took pity on Grandier and tried to retract their accusations. The officials, however, would not allow them to, asserting this was the ploy of Satan to save Grandier. Laubardemont announced that any citizens who testified in favour of Grandier would be arrested and have their possessions confiscated.
Grandier was convicted on all counts. The sentence was pronounced on August 18, 1634:
We have ordered and do order the said Urbain Grandier duly tried and convicted of the crime of magic, maleficia, and of causing demoniacal possession of several Ursuline nuns of this town of Loudun, as well as of other secular women, together with other charges and crimes resulting therefrom. For atonement of which, we have condemned and do condemn the said Grandier to make amende honorable, his head bare, a rope round his neck, holding in his hand a burning taper weighing two pounds, before the principle door of the church of St. Pierre-du-Marché, and before that of St. Ursual of this town. There on his knees, to ask pardon of God, the King, and the law; this done, he is to be taken to the public square of St. Croix, and fastened to a stake on a scaffold, which shall be erected on the said place for this purpose, and there to be burned alive...and his ashes scattered to the wind. We have ordered and so do order that each and every article of his moveable property be acquired and confiscated by the King; the sum of 500 livres first being taken for buying a bronze plaque on which will be engraved the abstract of this present trial, to be set up in a prominent spot in the said church of the Ursulines, to remain there for all eternity. And before proceeding to the execution of the present sentence, we order the said Grandier to be submitted to the first and last degrees of torture, concerning his accomplices.All details of the sentence were carried out.
The torture was supervised by Tranquille, who subjected him to the boots. This torture was administered by the priests themselves:
The Recollect and [Capuchins] who were present to exorcise the wedges, the planks, and the hammers for the torture, fearing that the exorcism had not effect enough, and lest the Devils should have the power to resist the blows of a profane man, such as the hangman was, they themselves took the hammers and tortured the unhappy man.
The torture was excruciating. Marrow and blood flowed from Grandier's legs, and he cried out to God. The tormentors, however, claimed he was actually calling out to Satan, his true god.Although Tranquille subjected Grandier to horrible pain, Tranquille was able to receive neither a list of accomplices from Grandier nor a confession. Crippled by his tortures, Grandier was dragged to his place of execution. Some sources claim the exorcists drenched him with huge quantities of Holy Water so that his last words could not be heard.
Grandier was shown no mercy, and was burned without being strangled first. "Cardinal Richelieu's power had been demonstrated in a very tangible and horrifying manner".
The Ursuline Nuns continued their demonical antics until Richelieu cut off their funding, thus ending one of the most infamous cases of demonic possession in Europe. The Loudun affair was considered by many as concrete proof of both witchcraft and possession by demons. A few townspeople even converted to Catholicism as a result of this event, although in the long run the clearly fraudulent elements of the case contributed to skepticism regarding the reality of witchcraft.