‘The Devils of Loudon’ is a long, wordy, scholastic history of a highly interesting event which took place in the French town of Loudon in the early sixteen thirties. The parson of the town, Urbain Grandier, a handsome, promiscuous rogue with an eye for the ladies and very bad instincts of self preservation, was accused and convicted of being in league with the devil, and as such tortured and then burned to death. The reason for his condemnation was his hysterical denunciation by a convent full of nuns, who claimed that, through the malefic influence of his demonic contacts he was inciting them to think lewd thoughts, shout filthy words, and indulge in goodness knows what manner of un-sisterly behaviour. So far so good. Leaving aside the poor hygiene, untreatable deformities, and various skin conditions that I’m fairly confident were prevalent in that epoch, and would probably have made the sisters in question a highly unappetising prospect, a convent full of sexually excited nuns is regardless a good place to start any historical study. But aside from the salacious elements, Huxley, as one would expect from the author of ‘Brave New World’, delivers a book that can also be enjoyed on far more elevated levels. Never one to shy away from the opportunity to exhibit his extraordinary degree of erudition, he also takes the opportunity to meditate on the flaws of organised religion, the nature of God and his/her/its relationship with man, the psychology behind the scandalous behaviour of the nuns, and plenty of other topics as well, most of them challenging and some downright obscure. Having read some of Huxley’s early works, I have to say I was a little concerned that memory of the nuns might not be treated fairly. I was steeling myself a little to read that this was purely a case of a good man brought down by the malign influence of the female. Certainly in those of his novels written before the war, Huxl
ey seemed inclined to regard women as little more than distracting sex objects; the narrative purpose of many of his female characters was largely to drive men’s thought away from weightier matters, and get them into trouble (the gorgeously ‘pneumatic’ yet regrettably vapid Lenina in ‘Brave New World’, for example. Worse still, the concupiscent Virginia in ‘After Many a Summer’, who not only shatters Pete Boone’s hard earned ‘peace of God’ by looking upset while wearing only a bath robe, but then goes on to get him shot as well). Thankfully, in this instance, Huxley, while not denying the Ursuline Sisters of Loudon their fair share of the blame for a largely innocent man’s torture and death, also makes plain that deceitful, hysterical, and downright silly as they may have been, the Nuns were not the most culpable villains in this medieval drama. Urbain Grandier made his deadliest enemies long before he inspired improper thoughts in the local brides of Christ. The early chapters of the book acquaint the reader with the world of medieval France, and thence to the Parson and his ways. The morality of the age, it seems, was not what one would hope from simple, superstitious folk living in the fear of a wrathful God. Offering us background from a variety of sources, including the memoirs of a contemporary of the times, Jean-Jacques Bouchard (which is memorably described as being “a document so clinically objective, so completely free of all expressions of regret, from any kind of moral judgement, that nineteenth-century scholars could only publish it for private circulation and with emphatic comments on the author’s unspeakable depravity”), it is shown that at all levels of society, not excepting those dedicated to the service of the Lord, there were those that would willingly behave every bit as badly as our authority figures seem to today. As such, despite t
he best theological education a budding priest could hope for, when he left his Jesuit teachers Grandier was, in Huxley’s words “still very far from being a Christian; and in spite of all the good advice he received from D’Aramagnac and his other friends, he was incapable, where his passions were involved, of acting with prudence. A long religious training had not abolished or even mitigated his self-love; it had served only to provide his ego with a theological alibi”. Huxley goes on, with much wit and many a fascinating titbit of historical detail (which highlight the extraordinary depth of knowledge possessed of Huxley the historian) thrown in, to list the formidable array of antagonists the parson managed to affront in the few years he dwelt in Loudon. Grandier’s worst enemy, it emerges, was certainly himself. He could hardly have been more profligate in sowing the seeds of his own downfall. Not only did he indulge in sexual indiscretions with far more women than could be considered prudent for a catholic priest, he dallied with and impregnated the daughter of a prominent local nobleman. Most foolish of all, he slighted Cardinal Richelieu himself. As the narrative progresses, and the number of those wishing him harm increases, the reader can only wait with grim expectation for events to turn to his disfavour. But while making it clear that the parson was foolish, it is to the author’s credit that he does not invite the reader to sneer at Grandier, or rest complacent in the thought that, even if he did not in truth raise devils to pleasure and corrupt the Ursuline sisters, his punishment was still the just desserts of a wicked man meted out by the righteous. Indeed I ended up quite liking Grandier. The greatest deceit, and the greatest abuse of the sisters came not from Grandier (who never met them), or even the devil (unless, of course, the Prince of Liars was behind it all and Huxley is no more th
an his highly convincing apologist), but from other agents of the church, and the supporters of Cardinal Richelieu. What was in it for them? Well, the author argues that Richelieu never forgot an insult and wanted revenge, which I’m prepared to believe. And as for the priests and ministers from far around who attempted to exorcise the devils from the nuns, Huxley points out, this was their bread and butter. What better way to draw the good people of Loudon into the graces of the church (and also enhance their own prestige) than fill them with superstitious awe, and show them nuns screaming obscenities and having convulsions. Of Barré, celebrated exorcist from nearby Chinon, one of those most committed from an early stage to freeing the nuns from their unwelcome unearthly visitations, Huxley writes that he “was on of those negative Christians to whom the devil is incomparably more real and more interesting than God… Enjoying nothing so much as a good tussle with Belial or Beelzebub, he was for ever fabricating and exorcising demoniacs... In his parish nobody could complain that life was uninteresting. Between the Curé and the devil there was never a dull moment.” As for the townspeople, among the onlookers Huxley suggests: “It was universally agreed that, not since the coming of those travelling acrobats, with the two dwarfs and the performing bears, had poor old Loudon been treated to such a show as this.” And what a show! Exorcism techniques at the time apparently included colonic lavage with holy water. Blessed enemas from a ‘huge brass syringe’ ( in my opinion it’s learning little facts like that which provide some of the most acute pleasures to be derived from reading history). Huxley, patently no big advocate of organised religion here shows it not just as the opium of the masses, but also pornographer to the masses, and while his satire is hilarious, it’s also hits its mark.
Huxley the spiritualist, however, even while he mercilessly beats up Christian mores and values, is no denier of God. Occasionally in the course of recounting the facts he will break off to engage the reader with his own theology: for example, early on he chooses to explain our relationship with God, which he suggests is a desire for self transcendence – that is communion with God through temporary abandonment of the ego, a desire which arises “because, in some obscure way and in spite of our conscious ignorance, we know (or, to be more accurate, something within us knows) that the Ground of our original knowing is identical with the Ground of all knowing and all being; that Atman (mind in the act of choosing to take the temporal point of view) is the same as Brahman (Mind in its eternal essence)”. It is in these digressions that he is in greatest danger of losing his audience. Huxley at the best of times leaves me with the feeling that my vocabulary isn’t really as big as it needs to be, and when he talks about philosophy he does so in a manner entirely unsparing of his audience. As I said, I’ve read a few of his books before, and through ‘Island’ and ‘After Many A Summer’ in particular I’m more or less familiar with what he’s trying to say, and moreover, I know I find it interesting. But this is a historical study, and many who want to know about Christianity and superstition in medieval France may find this kind of thing a little bit spurious and annoying. But on the other hand, it certainly adds another level to the book. Indeed, this is a book which deserves analysis and praise on so many levels, I fear I must abandon the task of trying to cover them all, and sum up as best I can. ‘The Devils of Loudon’ is one of those books which, while it subsists largely in one genre, impinges into many others without losing track of what it is. It’s pri
ncipally a compelling history of a fascinating occurrence, which succeeds brilliantly by genuinely conveying to the reader a sense of the time it describes, painting the characters with all the realism that one could hope for from an accomplished author of fiction, and thereby catching the reader up in the drama of the event. Interest is also added by the way in which Huxley applies the knowledge of modern science to the facts of the case – profiling the nuns with modern psychological methods, and then reverses the conceit, applying the lessons of medieval history to the modern world. But what I like most of all about this book is that it is outstandingly and entertainingly thought out, reasoned, and argued. The author’s wit helps, but above all stands the logic that underpins all of his assertions. It is almost impossible for a history to capture the whole truth, and in my estimation rare for one to persuade the reader it has caught more than half, but this is a book that in almost all points manages to convince.
Urbain Grandier, parson of the French town of Loudun, was tortured and burned at the stake in 1634. He was accused of being in league with the Devil and seducing an entire convent of nuns, in what is the most sensational case of mass possession and sexual hysteria in history. Charming, handsome, dandyish and promiscuous, as soon as Grandier arrived in Loudun it became clear that he took more than a pastoral interest in his female parishioners. His reputation for arousing extraordinary sexual passions in the townswomen spread to the Prioress of the local convent, Sister Jeanne, who became obsessed with the delicious monster.