“In account after account of exorcisms the demonic voices will propound nihilism of one variety or another” – J.R.R. Tolkien
Don’t you hate it when grandfather’s ghost turns out to be the Devil? In 1565 A.D. sixteen-year-old Nicola Aubry of Vervin, France, and known to history as “the Demoniac of Laon” (Wraxall, 1796, p401) was frequently visited by an apparition that told her it was her dear, departed grandfather requesting masses and prayers for his immortal soul, as many ghosts have been known to do since they don’t have jobs beyond the occasional haunting. Why not wheedle a few hosannas out of the living to pass the time. Only when the specter started whisking Ms. Aubry away for occasional day trips in full view of witnesses did it occur to anyone that this might not be the revenant of old grandpappy after all. While this may seem an extreme conclusion to jump to over a little teleportation and bilocation, later symptoms of demonic possession would validate it.
Nicola herself didn’t believe it was the Devil, but once the Bishop of Laon (in northern France, so not Lyon) caught wind of the situation, he ordered a procès-verbaux (a French legal term for an authenticated account drawn up by a magistrate), and gave the local priest the authority to conjure the offending spirit. I wasn’t aware one could apply for such an official dispensation. I need to find my local bishop and get my ducks in a row. Beginning in November 1565, Father Motta of Vervin undertook the first attempted exorcisms in order to figure out just which devils they were dealing with, concluding among other things that Nicola was possessed by no less than 30 different devils, 3 of which were particularly intractable and beyond the reach of the poor, local priest Father Motta.
The exorcisms lasted more than three months, and only serve to prove more and more the fact of the possession. The poor sufferer was torn from the hands of nine or ten men, who could hardly retain their hold of her; and on the last day of the exorcisms sixteen could not succeed in so doing. She had been lying on the ground, when she stood upright and stiff as a statue, without those who held her being able to prevent it. She spoke diverse languages, revealed the most secret things, announced others at the moment they were being done, although at a great distance; she discovered to many the secret of their conscience, uttered at once three different voices, or tones, and spoke with her tongue hanging half a foot out of her mouth” (Calmet, 1850, p157-158).
Standard Hollywood exorcism fare, and pretty much what are considered to be the hallmarks of a well-organized demon possession. Hell clearly has good project managers. Holy sacraments seemed to have some temporary effectivity, during which times Nicola would return to lucidity, and related that during those observable trance-like periods of possession she found herself surrounded by shadowy men, menacing her with glittering knives and threatening murder, as well as horrible beasts breathing fire and brimstone trying to suffocate her. This state of affairs and the surrounding publicity would simply not do in the eyes of the Catholic Church. On January 3rd, 1556, the Bishop of Laon had Nicola brought to the Cathedral of Laon and proceeded with a heavy-duty exorcism surrounded by a gawking crowd of some 12,000 persons, both the common folk and aristocrats, as well as papal nuncios, parliamentary deputies, and university scholars. Those bishops do love an audience, and scaffolding was erected in the Cathedral to accommodate an unobstructed view of the ceremony.
Now, the Devil is a tricky guy. It’s his thing and he owns it. He likes theatrics and has a good sense of timing. 16th Century France was already in upheaval. Six years after the events in Laon, France would be plunged into the second deadliest religious war in European History, a 30 year conflict between Catholics and Calvinist Protestant Huguenots that through violence, famine, and disease would claim some three million lives. The Devil saw his angle at Laon, and as the Bishop commenced, through Nicola Aubry, made some awfully surprising declarations for a malevolent satanic entity. “The devil, forced by the exorcisms, rendered such testimony to the truth of the Catholic religion, and, above all, to the reality of the holy Eucharist, and at the same time to the falsity of Calvinism” (Calmet, 1850, p158). In short, the Devil took the opportunity to add kindling to the already burning conflagration that would shortly flare into full blown religious civil war in France. Obviously, the Calvinists (who maintained that they should have killed Nicola Aubry at the outset, or at least imprisoned her) were not thrilled by the bizarre validation of the Catholic Church by the Devil. Violence ensued, the exorcism was interrupted, and a Calvinist zealot named Dr. Carlier attempted to assassinate Nicola with poison, which obviously didn’t work, what with her being possessed and all. The scaffolding was removed from the Cathedral and the ritual pre-exorcism processions stopped. The Devil was feeling pretty smug at this point, and began taunting the Bishop regarding his failure to observe the proper exorcism rituals, and probably his Latin grammar.
The outraged Calvinists conceived the idea of a writing from M. de Montmorency, forbidding the continuation of the exorcisms, and enjoining the King’s officers to be vigilant. Thus they abstained a second time from the procession, and again the devil triumphed at it. Nevertheless, he discovered to the Bishop the trick of this suppositious writing, named those who had taken part in it, and declared that he had again gained time by this obedience of the Bishop to the will of man rather than that of God. Besides that, the devil had already protested publicly that it was against his own will that he remained in the body of this woman; that he had entered there by the order of God; that it was to convert the Calvinists or to harden them, and that he was very unfortunate in being obliged to act and speak against himself. The Chapter then represented to the Bishop that it would be proper to make the processions and the conjurations twice a day, to excite still more the devotion of the people. The prelate acquiesced in it, and everything was done with the greatest éclat, and in the most orthodox manner. The devil declared again more than once that he had gained time; once because the Bishop had not confessed himself; another time because he was not fasting; and lastly, because it was requisite that the chapter and all the dignitaries should be present, as well as the court of justice and the king’s officers, in order that there might be sufficient testimony; that he was forced to warn the Bishop thus of his duty, and that accursed was the hour when he entered into the body of this person; at the same time he uttered a thousand imprecations against the Church, the Bishop, and the clergy (Calmet, 1850, p159-160).
First, this Devil had quite the devious strategy, claiming that God sent him to convert Calvinists, which of course further enraged the Calvinists. Second, he seems to have spent a lot of time criticizing the Bishop’s exorcism technique, ostensibly under duress. From then on, the Bishop made sure to do everything strictly by the theological playbook, confessing, fasting, and all the other little rituals expected of a well-heeled exorcist.
“What is thy name?” asked the Bishop. “Beelzebub, prince of the devils, next to Lucifer,” answered the evil spirit. “How many companions hast thou here at present?”, “There are nineteen of us now,” answered Satan; “tomorrow there will be twenty. But this is not yet all, for I see that I must call all hell to my assistance.” “I command thee, in the name and by the power of God,” said the Bishop, in a solemn voice, “to depart instantly with thy infernal companions!” “Yes, we shall depart,” replied the evil spirit, “but not now, and not here. My work is not yet done in this city.” “Where goest thou when expelled by the power of the Real Presence of our Lord in the Blessed Sacrament?” asked the Bishop. “You want to know where I go, do you? Well! Last night I paid you a visit,” answered Satan; and then he related the very words the Bishop had said on hearing a noise in his room. Satan was, at last, expelled again, by means of the Blessed Sacrament. On leaving, he paralyzed the left arm and the right foot of Nicola, and also made her left arm longer than her right; and no power on earth could cure this strange infirmity, until some weeks after, when the devil was at last completely and irrevocably expelled (Müller, 1877, p66).
Well, the Devil had been successfully expelled, but had clearly accomplished a more important goal, that is, further exacerbating the tensions between Catholics and Protestants, ultimately wreaking more havoc than a simple possession of a teenage girl. And, oh my god, why does it take 30 demons to possess one girl? Maybe they work in shifts. There must be some kind of union. It really seems like an inhuman resources problem, qualified professionals of which there must be an abundance of in Hell. It is said that numerous Calvinists converted to Roman Catholicism after the incident, but that was largely church propaganda promulgated long after the fact. In fact the contemporary Calvinists didn’t let things stand when the exorcism concluded successfully. Louis de Bourbon, Prince of Condé, a Huguenot leader, and later a general in the ensuing religious wars ordered the interrogation of Nicola Aubry, and finding no hint of artifice, angrily sent her home, only to later have her arrested and imprisoned. Nicola was released after her parents entreated King Charles IX to rectify this injustice, and she was ordered set at liberty by his majesty. Given the growing antagonism between Protestants and Catholics in France, conspiracy theories regarding Nicola Aubry abounded. Let’s face it, the Devil clearly knows his business.
It must be disconcerting, as an exorcist, when the possessing Devil is such a jerk as to correct your Latin grammar or harp on your ritual adherence, as if he’s giving lessons on how to properly exorcise himself. Maybe the devil has to deal with so many incompetent clergy who fell asleep in exorcist class that it gets a bit frustrating. There’s just no challenge in it. May as well start a religious war for kicks. That’s long term planning, a skill of which it would be a shame, assuming you prefer to be the author of evil in the world, to lose. The Devil should probably stop giving out free advice to exorcists, for as Friedrich Nietzsche said, “Be careful, lest in casting out your demon you exorcise the best thing in you”.
Calmet, Augustin, 1672-1757, and Henry Christmas. The Phantom World: Or, the Philosophy of Spirits, Apparitions, &c. London: R. Bentley, 1850.
Müller, Michael, 1825-1899. God the Teacher of Mankind: Or, Popular Catholic Theology, Apologetical, Dogmatical, Moral, Liturgical, Pastoral, and Ascetical. New York: Benziger Brothers, 1877.
Müller, Michael, 1825-1899. Triumph of the Blessed Sacrament. Baltimore: Kruezer, 1877.
Tylor, Edward B. (Edward Burnett), 1832-1917. Primitive Culture: Researches into the Development of Mythology, Philosophy, Religion, Language, Art, and Custom. London: J. Murray, 1913.
Wraxall, Nathaniel William, Sir, 1751-1831. The History of France from the Accession of Henry the Third to the Death of Louis the Fourteenth: Preceded by a View of the Civil, Military, and Political State of Europe, Between the Middle and the Close of the 16th Century. Dublin: Wogan, Byrne, etc., 1796.