The Sorceress, by Jules Michelet, , at sacred-texts.com
HAD not Richelieu refused to order the inquiry demanded by Father Joseph against the thirty thousand illuminati among the Father Confessors, we should doubtless have had some strange revelations as to the internal life of the convents and the morals of the nuns inhabiting them. Failing this, the history of events at Louviers, more instructive than anything told us about Aix or Loudun, proves that confessors, although possessing in Illuminism a new instrument of corruption, by no means neglected the old tricks of Sorcery, diabolic apparitions, angelic visitations, and the like. 1
Of three successive Directors of the Convent of Loudun,
within thirty years, the first, David, is one of the illuminati, a Molinist (before Molinos); the second, Picart, has dealings with the Devil and uses magic arts; the third, Boullé, acts under the guise of an angel.
The great authority on the whole affair is a book entitled, Histoire de Magdelaine Bavent, Religieuse de Louviers, avec son interrogatoir, etc. (History of Madeleine Bavent, a Nun of Louviers, together with her Examination, etc.), 4to: Rouen, 1652. 2 The date of this work accounts for the perfect freedom with which it is written. During the "Fronde," a stout-hearted priest, an Oratorian, having found the nun in question in the prisons of Rouen, conceived the bold idea of writing down at her dictation the history of her life.
Madeleine was born at Rouen in 1607, and was left an orphan at nine years old. At twelve she was bound apprentice to a tradeswoman of the city, a worker in linen. The Confessor of the establishment, a Franciscan, was absolute master of the house, the linen-worker, who was chiefly employed in making nuns robes, depending wholly on the Church's patronage. The monk made the apprentice girls, who were drugged probably with belladonna and other Wizards potions, believe he was taking them to the "Sabbath" and marrying them to the great
devil Dagon. He had his will of three of them, and Madeleine, at fourteen, made the fourth.
She was filled with ardent piety, especially towards St. Francis. A Franciscan convent had just been founded at Louviers by a lady of Rouen, widow of the King's Procureur Hennequin, hanged for malversation. The lady hoped by this good work to do something for the salvation of her husband's soul, and with this view consulted a holy man, an aged priest by name Father David, who superintended the new foundation. Outside the gates of the town, buried in the woods surrounding Louviers, the convent, a poor place gloomily situated, and established under such tragic circumstances, seemed a fit place for the austere life. David himself was known by a strange, violent book he had composed against the abuses that disgraced the Religious Houses, the Fouet des Paillards (A Whip for Wantons), as it was called. 3 Nevertheless, this stern moralist had some very curious notions as to what constituted purity. He was an Adamite, preaching the nudity Adam practised in his innocence. Obedient to his teaching, the Sisters of the convent at Louviers, by way of subjugating and humiliating the novices and breaking them in to discipline, required (no doubt in summer-time) these young Eves to resume the condition of our first mother. They made them take exercise in this state in certain private gardens, and even appear so in chapel. Madeleine, who had succeeded at sixteen in being received as a novice, was too proud (too pure-minded perhaps so far) to submit to this strange way of living. She incurred the displeasure of the authorities and was scolded for having endeavoured, at Communion, to hide her bosom with the altar-cloth.
She was equally reluctant to unveil her soul, and would not confess to the Lady Superior,a usual practice in convents and one that the Abbesses found greatly to their liking. She preferred to entrust the care of her soul to the old priest, David, who separated her from the other Sisters,while he
returned the compliment by entrusting his body to her when he was ill. He did not hide from her his private, inner doctrine, the conventual theory of Illuminism: "The body cannot contaminate the soul; we must, by means of sin, which makes us humble and cures our pride, kill sin," etc. The nuns, saturated with these doctrines, and unobtrusively putting them in practice among themselves, appalled Madeleine with their abominable doings. She withdrew and kept apart from the rest, living in the outer purlieus of the convent, having secured the post of tourière. 4
She was eighteen when David died. His advanced age can scarcely have allowed him to go very far with Madeleine but the curé Picart, his successor, pursued her with ardent importunity. At confession he spoke of nothing but love, and made her Sacristaness, that he might be able to be with her alone in the convent chapel. She did not like him; but the Sisters forbade her any other confessor, for fear of her divulging their little mysteries. This put her completely in Picart's hands. He assailed her when she was ill, when she was almost on her deathbed; moreover, he assailed her through her fears, leading her to believe that David had handed on to him certain diabolical talismans. Last of all, he assailed her through her feelings of compassion, shamming sick himself and beseeching her to visit him in his room. From that moment he was her master, and it would seem, confused her wits with magic potions. She dreamed of the Witches Sabbath, fancied herself carried off thither in his company, where she was at once altar and victim. And it is only too true she was so in sad reality!
But Picart was not satisfied with the barren pleasures of the "Sabbath," but, defying scandalous tongues, boldly got her with child.
The nuns, whose turpitude he knew, were afraid of him.
[paragraph continues] Besides which they were bound to him by their worldly interests; it was his credit, his energy, the alms and gifts he attracted from all quarters, which had enriched their convent. He was even now building them a great church. The affair of Loudun has sufficiently shown what were the ambitions and mutual rivalries of these Houses and the jealous eagerness they displayed to out-vie one another. Picart, in virtue of the good will of rich patrons, found himself promoted to the rôle of benefactor and sacred founder of the convent. "Dear heart," he declared to Madeleine, "tis I am building this magnificent church. After my death you will see wonders. . . . Will you not do as I wish?"
He was a great lord, and carried things with a high hand. He paid down a dowry for her, and from a mere lay Sister raised her to the position of a full-blown Sister, so that, being no longer in charge of the turning-box, and living within the convent itself, she might conveniently be delivered or contrive abortion, as the case might be. Provided with certain drugs, and possessed of certain secrets, convents could dispense with the necessity of calling in medical aid. Madeleine declares (Examination, p. 13) she bore several children. What became of these infants she does not say.
Picart, already an oldish man, dreaded Madeleine's fickleness, fearing she might form a new connexion with some other confessor, to whom she could pour out her remorse. He adopted a hateful means of attaching her irrevocably to himself. He made her swear an oath pledging herself to die when he should die, and be with him where he should go. The poor, fainthearted creature endured agonies of terror. Would he drag her with him into the tomb? would he set her in Hell alongside of himself? She fully believed herself a lost soul. She became his chattel, his familiar spirit bound to do his will, and he used her and abused her for every vile purpose. He prostituted her in a fourfold orgy, carried out with his vicar Boullé and another woman. He made use of her to win over the other nuns by a
magic talisman. The sacred wafer, dipped in Madeleine's blood and buried in the convent garden, was a sure way of agitating their senses and eluding their wits.
It was the very same year that Urbain Grandier was burned, and all France was talking of nothing else but the devils of Loudun. The Penitentiary of Evreux, who had been one of the actors in that drama, brought back appalling accounts of what had occurred to Normandy. Madeleine felt herself possessed, assailed, battered, by devils; a cat with fiery eyes pursued her with amorous advances. Little by little other Sisters caught the contagion, and began to experience strange, supernatural stirrings. Madeleine had asked help of a Capuchin, and later on of the Bishop of Evreux. The Lady Superior, who could not but be aware of the fact, was rather glad than otherwise, seeing the glory and riches a similar affair had brought to the Convent of Loudun. But for six years the Bishop was deaf to all such appeals, being no doubt afraid of Richelieu, who was trying at the time to initiate a reform of the Religious Houses.
His wish was to put an end to all these scandals. Only at his death and that of Louis XIII., in the general confusion that followed, under the Queen and Mazarin, did the priests really take up their dealings with the supernatural again, and resume their struggle with the Devil. Picart was dead, and interference looked less hazardous now in an affair in which that dangerous man might have involved many others in his own guilt. To fight the visions of Madeleine, another visionary of the same sort was sought for, and soon found. A certain Anne of the Nativity was introduced into the convent, a woman of sanguine and hysterical temperament, on occasion shown, a savage and half a madwoman, actually insane enough to believe her own lies. It was a stand-up fight, regularly arranged like a bout between two bulldogs; and the pair fell to sacrificing each other with outrageous calumnies. Anne declared she saw the Devil standing stark naked by Madeleine's side. Madeleine swore that she had seen Anne at the Witches Sabbath, along with the Lady Superior,
the Mother Delegate, and the Mother of the Novices. Not that there was a single novel feature; it was all a réchauffé of the two famous cases at Aix and Loudun. Both had the printed reports of those trials, and followed them slavishly, without a trace of discrimination or originality.
The accuser Anne and her devil Leviathan had the countenance of the Penitentiary of Evreux, one of the chief actors in the Loudun affair. By his advice the Bishop of Evreux orders the exhumation of Picart's body, so that his corpse being removed from the neighbourhood of the convent may remove the devils along with it. Madeleine, condemned without a hearing, is to be degraded, and examined to discover on her body the satanic sign-manual. Her veil and robe are torn off her wretched body, which is left to be the butt of an unworthy curiosity, ready to pry into her very vitals to find excuse to send her to the stake. The Sisters would entrust to no hands but their own this cruel search, in itself a terrible punishment. These virgin nuns, in the guise of matrons, verified her condition, whether pregnant or no, then shaved her in every part of her person, and pricking with their needles, driving them deep in the quivering flesh, sought if there was anywhere a spot insensible to pain, as the devil's mark is bound to be. But every stab hurt; failing the crowning triumph of proving her a Witch, at any rate they had the satisfaction of gloating over her tears and cries of agony.
But Anne was not satisfied yet; on the testimony of her devil, the Bishop condemned Madeleine, whom the examination vindicated from the suspicions entertained, to be immured in an in pace for life. Her removal, it was alleged, would calm the other nuns. But it was not so. The Devil raged only the more furiously; and a score of the Sisters were soon screaming, prophesying, and struggling.
The sight attracted the curious in crowds from Rouen, and even from Paris. A young surgeon of the latter city, Yvelin by name, had already been a spectator of the farce perpetrated at
[paragraph continues] Loudun, and now came to watch the one at Louviers. He was accompanied by a magistrate, a very clear-headed man and an Assistant Counsellor at Rouen. They devoted a steady and persevering attention to the matter, establishing themselves in the town and studying the phenomena systematically for seventeen days.
From the very first day they detected the imposture. A conversation they had had with the Penitentiary on entering the town was repeated to them (as a special revelation) by the devil in possession of Anne of the Nativity. On every occasion they accompanied the crowd to the convent garden. The scene and its accessories were extremely striking; the shades of night, the torches, the trembling and smoky lights, all produced effects which had been lacking at Loudun. The mode of procedure, however, was of the simplest; one of the possessed would declare, "You will find a talisman at such and such a spot in the garden." A hole was dug at the place indicated, and the charm duly discovered. Unfortunately, Yvelin's friend, the sceptical magistrate, refused to quit the side of the principal performer, the nun Anne. On the very edge of an excavation they were going to open up, he grasps her hand, and opening the fingers, finds the talisman (a little black thread) concealed there, which she was on the point of throwing into the hole.
Exorcists, Penitentiary, priests, and Capuchins, who were all present, were covered with confusion. The intrepid Yvelin, on his own authority, commenced an inquiry and saw to the bottom of the whole thing. Among fifty-two nuns there were, he declared, six under possession, diabolic or otherwise, who would seem to have deserved a taste of discipline. Seventeen others, under a spell, were merely victims, a troop of young women affected by the morbid excitement characteristic of cloister life. He details the symptoms with precision; the girls are otherwise normal, but hysterical, suffering from extreme disturbances and derangements of the womb, to all intents and purposes lunatic and deranged. Nervous contagion had destroyed
their wits, and the very first thing to do is to isolate them from each other.
Next he scrutinises with a Voltairean keenness the various signs by which the priests recognise the supernatural character of the possession under which they labour. They prophesy; granted, but things that never happen. They translate tongues; granted, but without understanding the original (for instance, ex parte Virginis is made to mean "the departure of the Virgin"). They know Greek before the populace of Louviers, but cannot speak a word of it before the doctors at Paris. They make extraordinary leaps and perform feats of strength,the easiest in the world, climbing a great tree-trunk a child of three could negotiate. In one word, the only thing they do really terrible and unnatural is to say filthy abominations no man would ever soil his lips with.
The surgeon was really doing a great service to humanity by tearing away the mask from them. For the business was being pressed, and more victims would soon have been added. Besides the talismans, papers were discovered which were attributed to David or Picart, and in which such and such individuals were declared Sorcerers and marked down for death. Everybody trembled, and the terror of ecclesiastical pains and penalties gained ground from day to day.
The evil days of Cardinal Mazarin were now come, and the first essays in ruling of the weak Anne of Austria. Order and good government were things of the past. "There was only one phrase left in the whole French language, La Reine est si bonne (the Queen is so good-natured)." This good nature it was gave the clergy their chance to gain the upper hand; lay authority being interred with Richelieu, bishops, priests, and monks were going to govern instead. But the impious audacity of the magistrate and Yvelin was like to compromise this agreeable hope. Voices of lamentation and protest reached the good Queen,not the voices of the victims, but those of the scamps and impostors
caught red-handed in their trickeries. The Court must go into mourning for the dire outrages done to the sacred cause of Religion!
This was a blow Yvelin was far from expecting, believing his favour at Court to be firmly based, as for ten years he had enjoyed the title of Surgeon to the Queen. Before his return from Louviers to Paris, his adversaries won from the weakness of Anne of Austria the appointment of other experts, of their own choosing, an old dotard in his second childhood, a Diafoirus of Rouen and his nephew, two clients of the clergy. These did not fail to find that the affair of Louviers was supernatural, above and beyond all human skill.
Any other man but Yvelin would have been discouraged. The Rouen experts, who were physicians, treated as altogether an inferior this mere barber-surgeon, this quack; while the Court gave him no support. He only stiffened his back and wrote a pamphlet, which will live. In it he accepts the great duel between Science and the Clergy, and declares (as Wyer had done in the sixteenth century) "that in such-like matters the proper judge is not the Priest, but the man of Science." After much difficulty he found a printer to risk putting it in type, but no one willing to sell it. Accordingly the heroic young fellow set himself in broad daylight to the task of distributing the little book. He posted himself at the most frequented spot in Paris, on the Pont Neuf, and standing at the feet of Henri IV., presented his brochure to the passers-by. There they could read the official report of the scandalous deceit, the magistrate seizing in the very hand of the female devils the unanswerable evidence of their own infamy.
To return to the unhappy Madeleine. Her enemy, the Penitentiary of Evreux, the same who had ordered her to be prickedpersonally marking the place for the needles!now carried her off as his prey, and deposited her in the depths of the episcopal in pace at that town. Beneath a subterranean gallery
was a cellar at a lower level still, beneath the cellar a dungeon where the prisoner lay rotting in damp and darkness. Her unfeeling companions, making sure she must soon perish in the dreadful place, had not common kindness enough to provide her with a little linen to dress her ulcer with. She suffered both from pain and from her filthy condition, lying as she did in her own excrements. The perpetual darkness was disturbed by a dreadful scampering of hungry rats, the object of much terror in prisons, as they will sometimes gnaw off the helpless prisoners noses and ears.
But the horror even of these fearful surroundings did not equal that inspired by her tyrant, the Penitentiary. Every day he would come into the cellar overhead, to speak down the orifice of the in pace, threatening, ordering, confessing her in her own despite, making her say this and that against other people. Presently she left off eating entirely. He was afraid she was going to die, and took her out of the in pace for a brief while, lodging her in the cellar above. Then, furious at Yvelin's brochure, he threw her once more into the foul sewer down below.
This glimpse of light, this gleam of hope, kindled and so soon extinguished, all added to her despair. The ulcer had now closed, and her strength was somewhat recruited. She was seized with a heartfelt, wild desire for death. She swallowed spiders,she merely vomited, without further bad effects. She pounded glass and gulped it down,but in vain. Putting her hand on an old blunt knife, she tried hard to cut her throat, but could not succeed. Next, choosing a softer place, her belly, she forced the iron into her inwards. For four whole hours she worked, and writhed and bled. But nothing answered her hopes; even this wound soon closed. To crown her woes, the life that she hated so, grew stronger within her. Her heart was dead indeed,but what of that?
She became a woman once more, and alas! desirable still, a temptation for her gaolers, brutal fellows of the Bishop's household, who, in spite of the horrors of the place, the unhealthy and
unclean condition of the wretched creature, would come to take their pleasure of her, deeming any outrage permissible on a Witch. An angel came to her succour, so she declared. She defended herself both from men and rats, but not from her own evil passions. A prison degrades the character. She began to dream about the Devil, to call upon him to visit her, to implore the renewal of the shameful, agonising delights he used to wring her heart with in the old days at Louviers. But he would come back no more; the power of dreams was done in her, her senses depraved indeed, but dulled and dead. Only the more eagerly did she recur to the thought of suicide. One of the gaolers had given her a poison to destroy the rats that infested her cell. She was on the point of swallowing it, when an angel stayed her hand (was it an angel or a demon?), reserving her for an existence of crime.
Now fallen into the most abject condition, to indescribable depths of cowardice and servility, she signed interminable lists of crimes she had never committed. Was she worth the trouble of burning? Many renounced the idea, and the implacable Penitentiary was the only one who still thought seriously of adopting such a course. He offered money to a Wizard of Evreux they had under lock and key if he would give such evidence as to ensure Madeleine's death.
But henceforth she could be utilised in quite a different way, as a false witness, an instrument of lying and slandering. Every time it was desired to ruin a man she was haled to Louviers, to Evreux,the accursed phantom of a dead woman who went on living only to be the death of others. In this fashion she was brought along to kill with the venom of her tongue a poor man by name Duval. The Penitentiary dictated, and she said her lesson obediently after him; he told her by what sign she should recognise Duval, whom she had never seen. She duly identified him, and affirmed she had seen him at the Witches Sabbath,and he was burned on her testimony!
She confesses to this atrocity, and shudders to think she must
answer for it before God. After a while she fell into such contempt they did not so much as deign to watch her. The doors stood wide open; sometimes she had the keys in her own possession. Where, indeed, should she have fled, now she was grown a mere object of horror to all mankind? From henceforth the universe rejected the odious creature and spued her out; her only world was her dungeon.
Under the anarchy of Mazarin and his "good-natured" mistress, the Parlements were the sole and only authority left. That of Rouen, till then the most favourable of them all towards the clergy, yet waxed indignant at the insolence of their present proceedings, the way they were domineering and burning. By a mere decree of the Bishop's, Picart had been exhumed and his body cast into the common sewer. Now it was the vicar Boullé's turn, and they were trying him. The Parlement hearkened to the appeal of Picart's family, and condemned the Bishop of Evreux to return the body at his own cost to the tomb at Louviers. It summoned Boullé to appear before it, discharged his case, and on the same occasion finally removed the unhappy Madeleine Bavent from Evreux, and took her also to Rouen.
There was much reason to fear the Parlement might call up both the surgeon Yvelin and the magistrate who had detected the nuns, flagrante delicto, in their imposture. Appeal was instantly made to Paris; and Mazarin threw the ægis of his protection over his fellow-rascals. The whole affair was to be laid before the King's Council, an easy-going tribunal, which had neither eyes nor ears, and whose first care was invariably to bury, to hush up, to make a cloud of darkness, in any question of law and justice.
Simultaneously, soft-spoken priests, in the dungeons of Rouen, comforted Madeleine, received her confession, and for penance ordered her to ask pardon of her persecutors, the Sisters of Louviers. Henceforward, come what might, Madeleine, thus tongue-tied, could not be brought up to bear witness against them. This was a distinct triumph for the clergy,a triumph
which the Capuchin, Esprit de Bosroger, one of the charlatan exorcists, has celebrated in his Piété affligée, a grotesque monument of human folly, in which, quite unknowingly, he incriminates the very people he believes himself to be defending. We have seen a little above (in a note) the noble words of the Capuchin in a passage where he gives as lessons of the angels a series of shameful maxims that would have utterly shocked Molinos.
The Fronde was, as I have said before, a revolt in favour of integrity of living. Fools have seen in it only the formal and ludicrous side, but the real basis was a solemn and serious moral reaction. In August, 1647, at the first breath of free criticism, the Parlement took action, and cut the knot. It decreed: imprimis, that the Sodom of Louviers should be destroyed, the young women dispersed and sent home to their families; secundo, that henceforward the Bishops of the Province should send four times a year Confessors Extraordinary to all nunneries to make sure that these filthy abuses were not being repeated.
Still a sop was needed for the clergy. They were given the bones of Picart to burn, and the living body of Boullé, who, after making a proper expression of contrition in the cathedral, was drawn on a hurdle to the Fish-market, and there delivered to the flames,August 21st, 1647. Madeleine, or rather her dead carcass, remained in the prisons of Rouen.
207:1 It was only too easy to deceive women who wished to be cajoled. Celibacy was now more difficult than in the Middle Ages, the monastic fastings and bleedings being largely discontinued. Many died of a life so cruelly inactive and so liable to nervous over-excitation. The unhappy women took little pains to hide the martyrdom they suffered, but spoke of it to the other Sisters, to their Confessor, to the Virgin herself,a circumstance deserving our sympathy and pity far more than our ridicule. We read in a report of an Italian Disciplinary Commission such an avowal on the part of a nun, who said naïvely to the Madonna, "of your gracious favour, Holy Virgin, grant me some one I may sin with" (in Lasteyrie, Confession, p. 205). It formed a genuine embarrassment for the Director, who, no matter what his age, was in real peril. The story of a certain Russian convent is well known,how a man who had penetrated within its doors did not come out alive. In the French Houses the Director went inside, indeed it was his duty to do so, every day. The general belief among Religious Women was that a holy man p. 208 can only sanctify, and a pure being purify. The people called them in mockery "the Sanctified" (Lestoile). This was a matter of very serious conviction in convents (see the Capuchin Esprit de Bosroger, ch. xi. p. 156).
208:2 I do not know a more important, a more terrible book, or one better deserving to be reprinted (Bibliothèque Z, ancien 1016). It is the most striking of all such histories. Another work, La Piété affligée (Piety Afflicted), by the Capuchin Esprit de Bosroger, is a book that must live for ever in the annals of human folly and dulness. I have extracted from this, in the preceding chapter, some surprising statements which might well have involved its being burned by the common hangman; but I have carefully refrained from reproducing the amorous liberties which it makes the Archangel Gabriel take with the Virgin, his dove-like kisses, and so on. The two admirable pamphlets of the stout-hearted Surgeon Yvelin are to be found in the Bibliothèque de Sainte-Geneviève. The Examen and the Apologie are bound up with other documents in a volume inappropriately labelled Éloges de Richelieu (Letter x. 550). A duplicate of the Apologie occurs also in the volume numbered Z 899 in the same collection.
209:3 See Floquet, Parl. de Normandie, vol. v. p. 636.
210:4 I.e., the nun who attends to the turning-box of a convent, by means of which communication is kept up with the outside world.