Aldous Huxley is a writer that one generally associates with three things – Brave New World and science fiction, along with real life science, like eugenics; drug experimentation, particularly with LSD; and the Eastern spiritualism he practised in California. Huxley came from a distinguished scientific and literary family and was bound to achieve ‘great things’. Brave New World is his most famous novel and I suppose most people associate him with that trope – the possibilities of science in society, the changing nature of our species over time.
Huxley moved from England to California in 1937 and added screenwriter to his already impressive repertoire. It was here that he began his association with the Vedanta Society of Southern California, learning spiritual practices and meditation based on Indian religion and taught by a Swami. He remained a member until his death and wrote extensively for Vedanta publications, as well as others, about the benefits of the practice and the importance of a spiritual life. Huxley was also interested in other elements of spirituality not related to Vedanta, such as parapsychology and philosophical mysticism, allowing for the existence of beings outside of our perception.
Perhaps it was this interest in psychology and mysticism that lead Huxley to the events of the small French town of Loudon in the 1620s and 30s. Urbain Grandier came to Loudon as the town’s new priest – to oversee the spiritual health and goodliness of the population and officially of the Ursuline convent, though he did not have much if any contact with the nuns. Though Grandier was a good priest and served the citizens well, he was also a charmer and a seducer, and seems to have worked his way through the women of the small town, married, widowed and single alike. Suffice to say he was quickly derided by the town’s officials and constantly attacked by them as they tried to find a way to legally expel him from the town. To admit that he had been philandering amongst the female population would be to admit they had technically allowed this behaviour by having knowledge of it and not immediately punishing either the women or the priest. Liked by the population and a gifted speaker, it would be hard to get rid of Grandier without an attention-seeking scandal or courtroom drama.
In the end however, this is what the officials got. Over the years they had attempted to persecute the priest for individual cases of ‘corruption’ of young ladies, but powerful friends had always saved Grandier from an punishment. Philippe Trincant was one of his most disastrous conquests, as she became pregnant and told her father the man responsible; and yet, Grandier escaped punishment. The child was born and kept behind closed doors, and despite M. Trincant’s efforts the priest’s reputation remained untarnished; that same could not be said for his daughter.
Philippe’s was the only recorded pregnancy, but she was one in a long list of women seduced by the priest. The only women he seemed to have no effect upon, up to this point, were the Ursuline nuns over whom he officially ruled. The only contact he would ever have with them was through a grate at the entrance to the convent, through which he would pass blessings and such. This was literally as close as he physically came to the nuns, and he only spoke to the Mother Superior, Sister Jeanne of the Angels, very briefly. However, Urbain Grandier’s reputation reached the convent before he did, and Sister Jeanne became, against her will, fascinated by this strange man, this man who managed to be holy and yet the most despicable seducer. She had never seen his face or heard his voice, but the man had entered her mind and he would not leave easily. Once she did meet him, through the grate, and hear his voice, her fascination quickly and irrevocably grew to an obsession.
In such a confined and monotonous place as the convent, the nuns did not have much with which to amuse themselves. They had their hobbies and charity work, their worship and service of the Lord; but not much else. They had no contact with men or any other part of the outside world and were a small and insular group. Consequently Sister Jeanne’s obsession soon spread to the other nuns – they wondered what it was about this man that enraptured her so, and became increasingly fascinated by him as she was. It is hard to explain what happened next or why – Huxley explores the historical details in order to try and explain how the nuns’ fascination and obsession became hysteria and mania. He clearly spent copious amounts of time and energy examining documents to try and work out the cause and effect here. Really we in the present time cannot know exactly what happened in Loudun four hundred years ago, but we must take what we know of human psychology and the effects of religious fanaticism and try to apply this to the Ursuline nuns. They became nothing if not hysterical. The whole convent was gripped with an obsession, which captivated the small town of Loudun. Grandier’s notoriety grew, with the nuns’ hysteria and fear of him causing him to be seen not only as a philanderer but as a servant of Satan.
Several different exorcists and ‘experts’ were brought in to try and cure the nuns of their affliction; records investigated by Huxley demonstrate the lengths to which the fear of the Devil ran within both the nuns and those who strived to save them. They underwent humiliating and unpleasant practices to try and force the demonic presence out of their bodies. It was believed that specific demons listed in the Bible were inhabiting various parts of the nuns’ physical bodies, with Sister Jeanne of course being the worst afflicted. Undignified and seemingly unholy measures were taken by the exorcists, examining every inch of her body and causing her to be sick and to defecate in order to try and get the demons to leave her body. She would scream and thrash about on the bed, making strange noises that were apparently the demon speaking within her. Hers was the worst but in the end all the nuns underwent such experiences in an attempt to cleanse themselves of Grandier’s demonic power. Meanwhile the priest had been nowhere near the convent and was only trying to defend himself and his position as his accusers closed in. They did, of course, get him in the end; but even after Grandier was tortured and burned at the stake, the nuns apparently were still possessed by demons that he had apparently sent. The scandal grew to such proportions that people actually travelled to Loudun to see the nuns being exorcised. Huxley makes it clear that in the end it became a sort of show that they would put on for the crowd. This fact, reiterated by Huxley, implies that even those involved knew that perhaps these possessions were not real and that it had not really been Grandier that had caused them; that the nuns had been caught up in their own fantasy and hysteria.
Religious belief and fear overcame rational thought and doubt in the town of Loudun. Huxley uses a journalistic but also historical method to examine the facts and try to understand the events he investigates; but despite his careful and thorough examination, everyone involved in The Devils of Loudun – besides its star, Urbain Grandier – seems completely trapped in a world of religious frenzy and fear, separated from logic and rational thought.
Originally published in 1952 by Chatto & Windus. I read the 2005 Vintage Classics edition.