Demons and Descartes

(Reading The Possession at Loudun, by Michel de Certeau, translated by Michael B. Smith)


Urbain Grandier (1590-1634)

Over the years 1632-38, in the French town of Loudun, 17 nuns and 10 secular women were examined and treated for being under the sway of demons in one way or another. Some were possessed, meaning that one or more demons had taken up residence in specific parts of their bodies and controlled the women from within, while others were obsessed, meaning that demons were acting externally upon them (a lesser problem). In the end, the women were exorcised, and a troublesome but well-connected priest, Urbain Grandier, was convicted of having made a pact with the Devil, and was burned at the stake.

A modern-day image for this episode would be the breakout of some virulent disease in some city. A platoon of medical technicians and doctors would be sent out to gather samples and evidence and to try to treat the symptoms and stop the spread of the disease. Over time (one hopes), the nature of the disease would be understood, and a cure or treatment would be found and implemented. Similarly, in 17th-century Loudun, various kinds of priests and medical practitioners (doctors, surgeons, apothecaries) were sent in to try to determine whether the women were suffering from a natural form of madness or supernatural, demonic possession. It was, in other words, a big operation, organized and sustained over several years. Official witnesses kept notes of the examinations, interrogations, and (eventually) the exorcisms, and sent their notes to revered authorities at the University of Paris for their judgments. The final compendium of notes was nearly 5,000 pages.

By all accounts, the women underwent the examinations and treatments willingly (not that they had any choice), as they believed they were under demonic influence, and wanted to be free of it. (Or, at least, they saw that going along with the game was the smartest course.) In the cases of the possessed, they were tied to benches and subjected to what would seem to be torture in order to identify the demons within them and get more information from the demons.


Grandier’s alleged pact with the Devil (Wikipedia)

The women snarled and barked and laughed and convulsed in just the ways we would imagine. They answered priest’s questions in demonic voices, with contempt and malice. But all this, as we know, could be symptomatic of insanity. The Loudun experts knew this as well. What tipped the judicial scales toward the supernatural was that women were seen to do the most extraordinary things: some levitated, some were raised from lying down to standing on their feet without bending or flexing, and one did a sort of back flex so that just her feet and the top of her head were touching the ground (which doesn’t sound too magical); but then went up some steps in this posture (well: wow). And, finally, the smoking gun: an actual written pact between Grandier and the Devil was found. (Well, actually it was found after a “demon” retrieved it and placed it under the chair of one of the investigators. It has been identified more recently as being in the handwriting of one of the nuns.)

The more lurid parts of the whole process were done before the population of Loudun. Thousands of residents were said to have witnessed some of the exorcisms. At the execution of Grandier midway through the episode in 1634, the taunting of the crowd enticed the executioner to light the fire without taking the relatively humane step of killing the victim first by hanging.

One has to ask: what really went on here? And a number of possibilities come to mind:

  1. It was a case of actual deviltry. Yes, thank you; you may sit down now.
  1. It was all a sham trial, aimed at killing Grandier. There is some plausibility to this. Grandier was well-educated and had friends in mid-range offices, and wrote passionately against the celibacy of priests (and in this regard seems to have practiced what he preached). The bishop of Poitiers, a powerful man, saw him as trouble and wasn’t sorry to see him go. The whole episode may have been constructed to get rid of Grandier. But, overall, offering this as the sole explanation strikes me as implausible, as surely there were easier and more straightforward ways to get rid of a troublesome priest.
  1. It was a weird psychological episode. It seems to me it must have been at least this. There was “demonic possession” in the air, as there had been recent previous cases in the area; Loudun itself was fought over, taken and lost in turn, by Protestant and Catholic forces, with standard violence; and a nun’s life was full of various encouragements toward weird psychological episodes. Still – as I don’t understand the dynamics of such episodes – it does seem to me too much to claim that this is all it was. There was the forgery of the pact with the Devil; and the “miraculous” behaviors of the possessed nuns, which (presuming they didn’t really happen) were most likely fabricated or at least embellished by the investigators. The interesting question, to me, is how much was out-and-out fabrication, and how much was the result of exaggerated perceptions and interpretations of normal events. Among a group of people primed to see demons, they might “see” all kinds of supernatural events happening around them.
  1. It was a weird psychological episode, which was appropriated to accomplish two ends: (1) get rid of Grandier, and (2) reassert the authority of the Church. This seems to me the most likely explanation of all. At the end of the whole process, the people of Loudun must have been thoroughly reassured that the Church has dominion over the spiritual realm: the demons were discovered and dispelled, and a wayward priest was burned alive. The scale of the operation, with all of the attending priests and medical practitioners, must have impressed upon the population that the Church really knew what it was doing, and the appeal of Protestantism would have dimmed in corresponding fashion.

Some philosophers (notably, Richard Popkin) have drawn connections between the events at Loudun and Descartes’s scenario of a deceiving demon in his Meditations. Loudun was described in various published chronicles, and it was enough of an episode to make it near certain that Descartes would have known of it. Beyond this, though, and beyond any contemporary’s general familiarity with cases of demonic possession, it’s hard to see that Loudun was particularly influential on what he wrote in the Meditations. He actually doesn’t name the thing that may be deceiving him as a demon, but as an “evil genius.” This genius does not cause him to bark and writhe and stick out his tongue at priests, but only deceives him as to what ideas are clear and distinct in his mind. It seems to be a case of obsession, rather than possession, since the genius is not able, apparently, to corrupt the light of nature that is in Descartes – Descartes, in other words, stays in possession of his inner most self, the self that is named in the cogito, ergo sum.

But one does wonder what Descartes would have said about it all. As a good son of the Church, he probably did believe in the phenomenon, but viewed it as outside his domain of expertise (which was natural philosophy, not theology). The genius he uses as a device is not supposed to be a natural entity that would be treated through some sort of medicine (he gives short shrift to the doubt that he might be insane, with his brain clouded by black vapors), but neither is it supposed to be a supernatural entity that can be dispelled only through sacraments and sorcery. It is just an imaginative device – something that gets him into a position to present the subsequent arguments of the Meditations. It is doubtful that he would have thought that his own rationalist epistemology would have been of any use in Loudun. But, with a bit of drama, one might point out that his epistemological program did eventually succeed in exorcizing all Loudunesque demons from the early modern imagination.

About Huenemann

Curious about the ways humans use their minds and hearts to distract themselves from the meaninglessness of life.
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2 Responses to Demons and Descartes

  1. Only women, eh? It might be interesting know the status (wealth/social) of these women and their relationship to the “interrogators” before they were “helped”.


    • Huenemann says:

      Yes, only women. But I think women were seen as especially vulnerable to possession, due to their “weak nature.” From what I can see, a few of the nuns came from very prominent parents – but about the rest, and the laywomen, I’m not sure.


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