In 1632 Loudun was a frontier town, with Catholicism to the north, south and east, and Protestantism to the west. Internally divided, it was in the process of being recaptured by the new religious orders of the Counter-Reformation (the Jesuits arrived in 1606, the Capuchins in 1616, the Ursulines in 1626); while at the same time Richelieu was planning to destroy the town's castle, thus turning its citizens into subjects of the absolutist state. In October 1632, demons took possession of a group of Ursuline nuns. Exorcists were called in, but exorcism did not drive out the demons; instead, it established a method of communicating with them. For four years the demons testified: although demons are natural liars it was maintained that they had no choice but to tell the truth when commanded by an exorcist. Once or twice a day, simultaneously in five churches and chapels, the demons bore witness to the power of the Catholic Church. While the nuns writhed lasciviously, their demons spoke in strange voices and (on occasion) foreign tongues. (There were demons with Biblical names such as Leviathan and Behemoth; but also ones called Coal of Impurity, Concupiscence, Fornication, Dog's Dick - this translation of Caudacanis is to be preferred to Dog's Tail, which is the more usual, literal rendering.) Loudun became a tourist attraction, the theatre of possession the most exciting and puzzling of public spectacles.
LRB 4 October 2001 | PDF Download