“Grammar, which knows how to control even kings” – Moliere
Everybody knows demons lie. It’s part of the job description. Sort of like politicians. The authorities of the church also assure us that even the garden variety, working imp is a consummate linguist, able to banter conversationally in any language with great fluency, and can often mimic an authentic accent. This is perfectly reasonable in the logic of demonology as it’s kind of hard to get mortals to sell their souls if you don’t know the lingo, and if you can’t perform some extraordinary, unnatural feat, folks are just going to chalk everything up to a pedestrian cause like insanity. That sort of nonsense can ruin a demon’s reputation. In fact, it has long been maintained that one of the major clues that someone is demonically possessed (rather than a mere raving loon) is that they suddenly begin rambling on in languages they don’t know, correctly answering those annoyingly earnest exorcists in grammatically perfect, albeit offensive Hebrew, Greek, Latin, Aramaic, or whatever language questions are put to them in. If you were to casually peruse the history of demonic exorcism (you know, like on a Thursday afternoon, you’re bored…), a curious, but in retrospect obvious, fact emerges. Demons are Grammar Nazis.
In 1620, Mademoiselle Elizabeth de Ranfaing of Lorraine, France, a pious widow notable for eventually (post-exorcism) founding a religious order called The Nuns of the Refuge, “the principal object of which was to withdraw from profligacy the girls or women who had fallen into libertinism” (Mahan, 1855, p94), after rejecting the advances of a physician and reputed black magician named Poviot (who then is said to have resorted to a combination of a little sorcery and the 17th century equivalent of Rohipnol – he was later burned at the stake for his efforts), experienced a “strange derangement” (involuntary spasms, speaking in foreign tongues, impossible knowledge of the secret sins of others) in her health. Several clever physicians could find nothing physically amiss, and referred the case to the Bishop of Toul, presumably requesting he send in the exorcists, as the symptoms they observed were thought to be inexplicable by any other cause than diabolical possession. The usual rip’ roarin’ Roman Ritual fun ensued, including a wide battery of tests to confirm that Mademoiselle de Ranfaing was indeed possessed. A relatively learned and prominent crowd showed up for the exorcism, including the exorcists M. Viardin, a doctor of divinity, counselor of the Duke of Lorraine, a Jesuit and capuchin; the Bishop of Tripoli, suffragan of Strasburg; M. de Sancy, formerly ambassador from the king at Constantinople; priest of the Oratoire, Charles de Lorraine, Bishop of Verdun, and two doctors of the Sorbonne educated in Hebrew, Greek, and Latin. And they set about trying to trip the possessing demon up and cast him out, conducting interrogations in a wide variety of languages, sometimes combining multiple languages in a single sentence, to which Mademoiselle de Ranfaing (or her possessing demon) responded in kind. Eventually, the infernal intruder was exorcised, but not without correcting the grammar of its inquisitors.
The Sieur Gamier, a doctor of the Sorbonne, having also given her several commands in Hebrew, she replied pertinently, but in French, saying that the compact was made that he should speak only in the usual tongue. The demon added, “Is it not enough that I show thee that I understand what thou sayest?” The same M. Gamier, speaking to him in Greek, inadvertently put one case for another; the possessed, or rather the devil, said to him, “Thou hast committed an error.” The doctor said to him in Greek, “Point out my fault;” the devil replied, “Let it suffice thee that I point out an error; I shall tell thee no more concerning it.” The doctor telling him in Greek to hold his tongue, he answered, “Thou commandest me to hold my tongue, and I will not do so” (Calmet, p166).
During a 1632-1638 epidemic of possession of Ursuline nuns at a convent of Loudun in Poitou-Charentes region of western France, it became necessary to exorcise the Mother Abbess, who’s demon clearly had a better grasp of Latin syntax than his exorcists, who mocked an apparent grammatical error on the part of the devil, that is, until the lead exorcist Father Barre pointed out that technically, while undoubtedly diabolical, the possessing demon was actually syntactically correct.
After the demon, through the organs of the Abbess, had replied to Father Barre “Adoro te,” the father asked her “Quem adoras” and repeated this question several times: the answer was “Jesus Christus.” Whereupon a bystander, Daniel Drouin, assessor to the provost, could not forbear saying somewhat aloud, “Here is a devil who does not understand concord.” The exorcist then changed the phraseology of the question, saying, ” Quis est iste quem adoras?” expecting she would answer giving the name in the same case as before; but she answered, “Jesu Christe:” upon which many present said, ” This is bad Latin.” But Father Barre came to the rescue of the devil’s Latinity, and maintained she had said, “Adoro te, Jesu Christe,” as an ejaculation, “I adore thee, O Jesus Christ!” If there had been as much pains taken to defend the accused priest’s cause and life as there was anxiety shown to defend the demon from a sin against the rules of syntax, humanity would have been saved a great outrage, and the Cardinal Richelieu and his agents a great crime (Madden, 1857, p295).
Demons may be out to steal your soul, but they are obviously sticklers for good grammar, regardless of the language the xenoglossolalia manifests in. While I’ve long suspected my sixth grade English teacher was in league with the forces of darkness, I had no concrete evidence until researching the subject. Just remember that the next time some insufferable clod points out your incorrect usage of the Oxford comma, they are simply trying to display a superior command of grammar, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that they aren’t pure evil, and remind them, as Renaissance essayist Michel de Montaigne said, “The greater part of the world’s troubles are due to questions of grammar”. Plus, if you sign a pact with the Devil, make sure you copy edit. That’s not the sort of thing you want returned to you covered in proofreading marks.
Calmet, Augustin, 1672-1757. The Phantom World: Or, the Philosophy of Spirits, Apparitions, &c. London: R. Bentley, 1850.
Madden, Richard Robert, 1798-1886. Phantasmata: Or, Illusions And Fanaticisms of Protean Forms Productive of Great Evils. London: T.C. Newby, 1857.
Mahan, Asa, 1799-1889. Modern Mysteries Explained And Exposed: In Four Parts. Boston: J.P. Jewett , 1855.