Father Urbain Grandier and The Loudun Possessions
Father Urbaine Grandier was the parish priest of St Pierre du Marche in Loudun in France. Wealthy, educated, well connected and something of a maverick, Grandier soon became popular- not least with the ladies of Loudun with whom he had several affairs. However, he also made enemies, not least the Bishop of Poitier. When in 1630 a charge of immorality failed to remove Grandier from his post, the Bishop began to look for other ways to rid himself of the troublesome priest.
In August 1632, Grandier was invited to become the confessor for Loudun’s convent of Ursuline nuns by their Mother Superior, Jeanne des Anges. He refused. A month later, the nuns began to act strangely. They were plagued with erotic dreams and began to speak in tongues and have violent, sexually suggestive fits. Possession was diagnosed- and its cause identified as Grandier.
Grandier was alarmed at the case being built against him. So, he called in his connections. The investigation stalled when the doctor of the archbishop of Bordeaux declared the women were not possessed but hysterical. Not to be thwarted, the Bishop of Poitier then played his trump card: Cardinal Richelieu. Grandier had once offended the King’s chief minister by satirizing him in a poem. Now Richelieu had his revenge. He ordered a royal commission to investigate Grandier for witchcraft.
Grandier was arrested. His entire body was shaved and searched for witch’s marks. He was tortured and both his legs broken in the boot to extract his confession. Despite the pain and humiliation he suffered, Grandier continued to maintain his innocence. At the trial, some of the nuns retracted their accusations against him. However, the prosecution dismissed this as a ploy of Satan. Grandier was found guilty of sorcery. He was burned publicly in Loudun on August 18, 1634.
A satanic pact used in evidence at the trial was later found to be in Jeanne des Anges handwriting, and the nuns were found to have been coached on how to act possessed. The possessions were also rumored to have been feigned on the orders of the Bishop of Poitier. It seems Grandier was deliberately set up. However, there was also an element of sexual obsession to the case. Jeanne des Anges reputedly dreamt of having sex with Grandier. Many psychologists now believe the possessions were in fact manifestations of hysteria brought on by suppressed sexuality, which were used against Grandier by the authorities he had embarrassed.
However, by the eighteenth century, witchcraft was becoming less credible.