Liberties Taken

​Ron Capshaw November/December 2017

British writer Aldous Huxley is known primarily today as the author of Brave New World (1932), which along with George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four (1949) set the gold standard for dystopian literature. But Huxley was also the author of the lesser-known The Devils of Loudun (1953), which, along with The Handmaid’s Tale, by Margaret Atwood, is one of the most damning arguments ever written about the dangers to the citizenry when church partners with state. Indeed, technological torture instruments aside, Huxley’s examination of a real-life event in which the tools provided by the religion of the time were manipulated by the theocracy into destroying a rebellious priest is as horrifying as anything a Big Brother could inflict on the populace.

It’s not just the leg-breaking torture and immolation inflicted on the doomed Urbain Grandier, who a group of nuns claimed seduced them into a coven that is horrifying; it’s the tale of how religious zealots, cynics, and power-hungry government officials were able to manipulate a practical joke into a means to burn a man alive, and subsequently launch a heresy hunt.

In seventeenth-century France a group of bored nuns in the town of Loudun capitalized on their convent’s reputation as haunted by dressing up in white sheets and rattling chains in the attic in order to scare the older nuns.

In another climate this would have been written off as a harmless joke. But in the hate-filled atmosphere of Loudun it became the situation Grandier’s enemies had been waiting for.

This cabal, who for several years met in secret, was created by Grandier’s self-destructive arrogance. A serial seducer, Grandier himself would be guilty of what was to come, for like those assuring his date with the stake, he too used religion for his own purposes. After impregnating the daughter of the town prosecutor, he abandoned her, and used the concept of “Christian fortitude,” which in essence meant she had to bear her burden alone. After marrying a devout, local girl, he hurriedly penned a pamphlet justifying that priests should be allowed to marry—using, as an example, Christ’s married apostles.

But Grandier’s seduction and abandonment of the girl would be one of the hinge events that would lead to his destruction; for the girl’s father was the town prosecutor, the most powerful figure in town, and her cousin was a vengeful priest who would be the prime instigator in using the practical joke to start a chain reaction to take out Grandier.

In addition to the prank, the priest Canon Mignon had considerable material even before capitalizing on the practical joke: in the form of a hump-backed nun named Sister Jeanne, who was obsessed with Grandier. But he rebuffed her invitation to step into the shoes of the recently deceased convent’s director, pleading that he was far too busy. Deprived of him going to her, or her going to him, she might have settled into a quieter obsession. But by now Grandier had actually fallen in love and married one of the most devout women in the town, Madeleine de Brou.

To say that Jeanne was enraged would be an understatement. When de Brou showed up at the convent to visit her niece, she encountered Jeanne behind a grill; the latter unleashed, according to Huxley, “a torrent of abuse that became shrilly violent with every passing moment. ‘Whore, strumpet, debaucher of priests, committer of the ultimate sacrilege!’” Jeanne concluded this tirade by spitting on her.

Vengeful, Jeanne summoned one of the parson’s most hateful enemies, Mignon, who accepted her offer to be the nuns’ confessor. Accurate or not, Jeanne recounted to her fellow nuns dreams she had of Grandier attempting to seduce her. Soon two of the nuns began to have their own dreams of attempted seduction, although they did not report the seducer as Grandier.

“All things,” Huxley wrote of the Confessor Mignon, “he now perceived was working together for the good. He would work with them. To this end, he reprimanded the jokers, but ordered them to say nothing about their pranks. He instilled a new terror into the victims of those pranks by telling them that the things they had taken for ghosts were more probably devils.”

From there he completed this process of turning a joke into a deadly weapon against Grandier by telling Sister Jeanne and the others that the dreams they had of seduction by clergymen were real, and represented an invasion of their bodies by demons.

To back this up, Mignon called in exorcists and instructed the nuns, behind the closed doors of the convent, that Grandier was the demonic seducer in their visions. The exorcists undoubtedly saw that one way to convince the populace that the sexually contorting, profanity-spewing nuns were indeed possessed was by throwing open the convent doors to the general public. In Huxley’s words the nuns’ show was “good enough, and dirty enough to attract the public.” But many in the public saw simply good entertainment and didn’t bother with such niceties as to pondering whether the nuns were faking their seizures or not. Huxley wrote, “Not since the coming of those traveling acrobats” had “poor old Loudun been treated to such a good show as this.”

By now the government came into play, courtesy of Cardinal Richelieu, the true power behind the throne. True to form, Grandier had insulted the cardinal, first, by elbowing him out of the way during a religious processional, and second, for criticizing him as power-hungry and even treasonous.

Huxley validates the cardinal’s desire to get rid of Grandier by showing that of all the witchcraft episodes the Loudun event was the one the cardinal “took a keen and sustained interest.” But the cardinal had larger, more sinister designs for destroying Grandier when appointing a royal commission to investigate and prosecute the parson as a witch.

Huxley wrote that Richelieu was ecstatic at the opportunities Loudun presented: “If people could be made to believe that Loudun was but the beachhead of a regular invasion from hell, then it might be possible to revive the Inquisition in France. . . . How greatly it would facilitate the cardinal’s self-appointed task of all centralizing all power in the absolute monarchy.”

Huxley, who did entertain the idea that possession was possible, nevertheless took the convincing view that the nuns were faking it. When a crusty and tough doctor visited them and concluded there was no possession, the nuns stopped the seizures. When a father took his two possessed daughters away from the exorcists and had them whipped, “the devil,” Huxley wrote, “took his leave immediately.”

The author wrote of a telling, even more damning, incident when: “a visiting nobleman who handed the exorcist a box in which, so he whispered, there were some exceedingly holy relics. . . . The box was applied to the head of one of the nuns, who immediately threw a fit. Much delighted, the good friar retuned the box to its owner, who thereupon opened it and revealed that, except for a few cinders, it was completely empty. ‘Ah, my lord,’ cried the exorcist, ‘what sort of a trick have you played upon us.’ ‘Reverend Father,’ answered the nobleman, ‘what sort of trick have you been playing on us?’”

And tricks they played. The more politically cunning of the nuns knew to denounce God and Jesus, but not Richelieu or the king. Indeed, one of them, “speaking” as one of the demons, managed to flatter the cardinal by stating, “He is the scourge of all my friends.”

Huxley, a product of a more secular and less believing age, nevertheless proves throughout the book to be a much more laudable religious example than those in 1634. He reveals the hypocrisy and sheer savagery of those claiming that God was on their side. Throughout the work, the exorcists and those pledged to destroy Grandier in their zeal violated religious tradition. Against the time-honored portrait of Satan, as far back as the Gospels, as the prince of liars, whose statements could not be trusted, the exorcists proclaimed every bellowing accusation from the possessed against Grandier was the literal truth. As Huxley shows, none of the nuns exhibited one of the chief signs of possession as prescribed by the Catholic Church. None used a foreign language they were unfamiliar with before possession; and to deal with such a thorny matter, the exorcists slyly, and to the mocking laughter of the crowds, asserted that there were “uneducated demons” and that it was they who inhabited the nuns.

Jeanne was equally sly; when the other sign of possession was applied to her, that of physical levitation, she stated that part of her unholy pact with Grandier forbid physical levitation.

All of this is equally damning by virtue of the fact that Huxley actually considered the possibility of possession, and even accepted that there was a God and a Satan.

Moreover, the Manichean notion of God and Satan, of absolute good versus absolute evil, was used by the exorcists and opponents to inflict such cruelties on him that Huxley, who lived in the age of Stalinist purge trials and the Holocaust, was appalled. Resistant to the very end, Grandier refused to admit he was bewitched, even after a Black Mass and an episode in which his legs were broken in a ritual known as the extraordinary question.” This was attributed by the torturers to be Satan strengthening the victim’s resolve.

As Grandier was about to be burned alive his human rights were denied by the exorcists in the cruelest fashion imaginable. The crowd, to the irritation of those exorcists about to light the bonfire, expressed mercy toward Grandier, and urged that he be granted the “kiss of peace.” Only after pressure from the crowd did a priest agree to this. But the promise from his executioner that he would be strangled before the flames were lit was prevented when the exorcists on stage set fire to the straw at Grandier’s feet, and to assure his painful death tied the rope that he was to be strangled with in many knots.

Hence, Grandier was burned alive; Loudun’s protective walls were knocked down and with it went the religious toleration of Protestantism at that time.

In a key moment in the book Huxley saw what happened in Loudun to have a contemporary counterpart: “From our vantage point on the descending road of modern history, we now see that all the evils of religion can flourish without any belief in the supernatural.”

And this is borne out today. The charges are no longer supernatural, but this in no way represents an advance. Recently there has come news that in Russia President Vladimir Putin is justifying his ban of the country’s Jehovah Witnesses because they are “terrorists.” And the purpose of closing up their places of worship and seizing the property may be to re-create the same kind of theocracy that murdered Grandier: Putin wants to strengthen ties with the Russian Orthodox denomination.

Toward the end of his life Huxley stated that he believed the nuns’ visions of devils and Grandier seducing them were brought on by fermented rye bread. Even if their motives were powered by drug-addled minds, this doesn’t detract from its being a casebook example of the horrors that occur when church partners with state; in Loudun’s case it was how religion allowed those who proclaimed themselves most loyal to become willing to violate it in order to settle old scores and grab power.

Article Author: ​Ron Capshaw

Ron Capshaw is a journalist and freelance writer in Midlothian, Virginia.