The Possession at Loudun

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Overview

It is August 18, 1634. Father Urbain Grandier, convicted of sorcery that led to the demonic possession of the Ursuline nuns of provincial Loudun in France, confesses his sins on the porch of the church of Saint-Pierre, then perishes in flames lit by his own exorcists. A dramatic tale that has inspired many artistic retellings, including a novel by Aldous Huxley and an incendiary film by Ken Russell, the story of the possession at Loudun here receives a compelling analysis from the renowned Jesuit historian Michel de Certeau.

Interweaving substantial excerpts from primary historical documents with fascinating commentary, de Certeau shows how the plague of sorceries and possessions in France that climaxed in the events at Loudun both revealed the deepest fears of a society in traumatic flux and accelerated its transformation. In this tour de force of psychological history, de Certeau brings to vivid life a people torn between the decline of centralized religious authority and the rise of science and reason, wracked by violent anxiety over what or whom to believe.

At the time of his death in 1986, Michel de Certeau was a director of studies at the école des hautes études en sciences sociales, Paris. He was author of eighteen books in French, three of which have appeared in English translation as The Practice of Everyday Life, The Writing of History, and The Mystic Fable, Volume 1, the last of which is published by The University of Chicago Press.

"Brilliant and innovative. . . . The Possession at Loudun is [de Certeau's] most accessible book and one of his most wonderful."—Stephen Greenblatt (from the Foreword)

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Editorial Reviews

Library Journal
Eminent French Jesuit intellectual and historian de Certeau (1925-86) documents with scholarly detail the events surrounding the alleged diabolic possession of 17 nuns in an Ursuline convent during the early 1630s in the provincial French town of Loudun. A cause c l bre for years afterward, the matter touched Cardinal Richelieu and the monarchy and has been the subject of drama, opera, and the writings of Aldous Huxley, among others. Affairs culminated in the execution of accused priest-sorcerer Urbain Grandier, followed by a triumphant tour by the convent's mother superior. Politics, both ecclesiastical and civil, permeate the many official sources quoted, as unexplained phenomena and exorcisms vie with local self-interests and hysteria in a major theatrical spectacle of the time. This translation of the original French text (1970) makes the author's brilliant work accessible to English-speaking readers. De Certeau's analyses are not an easy read, as he dissects mystical, psychoanalytical, and sociological elements of events. For specialized collections.--Anna M. Donnelly, St. John's Univ. Lib., Jamaica, NY Copyright 2000 Cahners Business Information.\
Kirkus Reviews
A scholarly work for hardy souls who enjoy reading about tortured ones. In France, ever since Sartre, heavyweight intellectuals have gained fame by writing inscrutable prose. De Certeau's study, originally published in France in 1970, is exemplary in that regard, and Americans (the heirs of Twain and Hemingway) will find it hard going. De Certeau, the late, distinguished Jesuit scholar, was the right historian to try to bring fresh perspectives to the events of demonic possession, exorcism, and religious belief that convulsed a community in western France in the 1630s. It is a story that might appeal to fans of Stephen King if only they had the patience to wade through this version of it. For it is a fantastic tale of religion gone mad, cruel torment, grand hypocrisy, clever play-acting, and great courage in a time gone by. The genuine strangeness of the devil's supposed possession of some nuns (through the vehicle of a parish priest) remains gripping and can't fail to move even the most agnostic modern audience—except in this tortured text, an artifact of literary "new historicism." De Certeau provides ample selections from contemporary documents, each foreign and curious to modern eyes. He also emphasizes the dramaturgic qualities of the cruel medical and psychological examinations of the possessed, the stout faith of the condemned priest, and the lively public debates that surrounded his trial. But do readers have to be tried, too? Translator Smith must have been sorely taxed to render the original into some semblance of clear English. As if acknowledging his difficulty, he leaves some passages in the original Latin and French—fine forspecialistscholars and graduate students but not so for normal souls looking for greater insight into an infamous series of events. The best rendering of Satan's forays into old Catholic France remains Aldous Huxley's still vital Devils of Loudun. Go there first. (32 illustrations, not seen)
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780226100340
  • Publisher: University of Chicago Press
  • Publication date: 8/28/2000
  • Edition description: 1
  • Pages: 266
  • Product dimensions: 6.00 (w) x 9.00 (h) x 0.80 (d)

Meet the Author

At the time of his death in 1986, Michel de Certeau was a director of studies at the Ecole des hautes études en sciences sociales, Paris. Of his many books, The Practice of Everyday Life, The Writing of History, and Heterologies: Discourse on the Other are available in English translation.

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Table of Contents

List of Illustrations
Foreword
Translator's Acknowledgments
History Is Never Sure 1
1 How a Possession is Born 11
2 The Magic Circle 23
3 The Discourse of Possession 35
4 The Accused: Urbain Grandier 52
5 Politics in Loudun: Laubardemont 65
6 Beginning the Judicial Inquiry 77
7 The Theater of the Possessed 85
8 The Medical Eye 109
9 A Teratology of Truth 122
10 The Judgment of the Sorcerer 152
11 The Execution: Legend and History 171
12 After Death, Literature 181
13 The Time of Spirituality: Father Surin 199
14 The Triumph of Jeanne des Anges 213
Figures of the Other 227
Primary Sources and Bibliography 229
Notes 231
Index 245
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