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Matka Joanna od aniolów (Mother Joan of the Angels or The Devil and the Nun)

Synopsis

Father Jozef Suryn arrives at a lonely convent in Poland where a local priest named Garniec was recently executed for causing the mass possession of the nuns. The Mother Superior, Mother Joan of the Angels, becomes his sole responsibility as Father Suryn struggles to exorcise the eight demons inside her body. But the priest may have to bargain with his own soul to save the tormented nun.

Historical Context

Mother Joan of the Angels is based on the short story by Polish author Jarosław Iwaszkiewicz. Although the film’s events take place in Poland, the story was inspired by the accounts of possessed Ursuline nuns at Loudun, France in 1634, and by the relationship of the prioress, Sister Jeanne des Anges, and her confessor, Father Jean-Joseph Surin. The nuns' exorcisms were witnessed by the large population of Loudon and thousands of visitors and took place every day in four different churches for the edification of the faithful and to convert the Protestants in the city.

The events at Loudon took place near the height of the Counter Reformation in 17th century France. The Catholic Church recognized that Christians needed a better education in their faith, which spurred colleges of learning like those of the Jesuits. The Jesuit example of instruction and action further inspired many women to establish houses that offered instruction for children and cared for the sick and poor. Among these orders were the Ursulines who first appeared in France around 1597.

FilmStory

The Ursuline nuns at first served openly throughout their local communities, but by 1611 the Ursulines’ uncloistered lifestyle had been challenged and many had returned to the tradition of enclosed convents, which limited their service to boarders and day students.1 Some nuns saw enclosure as a limitation to their service and struggled to redefine their importance in a society where the good of religious action had usurped the contemplative life of monasteries.

Their search for purpose was answered, in part, by the emulation of the “Living Saint.”2 Living Saints were religious figures, such as Saint Teresa of Avila, who experienced visions and ecstasies—often after long periods of meditation or practicing extreme “religious disciplines” such as fasting or self-flagellation. These rare religious figures—usually women—were studied by nuns, despite the disapproval of their male confessors, who often questioned the legitimacy of Living Saints.3 Another development during this same period was the proliferation of literature and popular knowledge concerned with the power of Satan. This meant that when nuns did have religious visions or physical experiences, authorities questioned just who was responding to their devotion: God or the Devil?

During the 17th century, mystic visions were increasingly categorized as possessions by male confessors who viewed women as weaker and especially susceptible to vice.4 Sister Jeanne’s autobiography gives her own account of how her hours spent in the parlor gossiping about the outside world and own pride and whimsical outbursts allowed her weak spirit to be possessed. Although she maintained that Grandier was to blame, she also held herself accountable for her own possession. However, Sister Jeanne was unique, as the final expulsion of her demons included holy visitations and stigmata that transformed her from one possessed to a Living Saint. Although many of her contemporaries questioned the legitimacy of her visions, her transformation did follow the expectations and religious discourse of the 17th century. Freed of her demons, she was received at the French court and by several church officials, including Cardinal Richelieu, during her triumphant tour of France beginning in 1638. She died in Loudun in 1655, surrounded by those who considered her a religious mystic.

The Jesuit Father Jean-Joseph Surin came to Loudun in 1634 to aid in the exorcisms of the nuns. He was famously thrown into the public light in May 1635 after a private letter detailing his struggles with his own possession was published. When he performed exorcisms, Father Surin was attacked when the Devil left the possessed and entered his body where Surin said the Devil, “assaults me and overturns me, shakes me, and visibly travels through me, possessing me for several hours.”5 Eventually, Father Surin had to leave Loudun for his own health but the demons followed him and continued to inflict him with debilitating pain.6 The historical Father Surin never committed murder, like he is shown to do in the film, but did believe that he had become a sorcerer after being possessed at Loudun and remained possessed for over thirty-five years.

Surin’s own accounts, eyewitnesses to the exorcisms, and the autobiography of Sister Jeanne all offer personal reflections of the struggles with possession, all of which become the basis for Mother Joan of the Angels.

Historical Accuracy

Mother Joan of the Angels offers a focused examination of possession and personal battles with temptation. Each character has individual struggles but, ultimately, the movie focuses on Father Suryn (as spelled in the film's credits). The story does not follow the historical account of Father Suryn's public and private life, although it would have been beneficial to recount more faithfully. However, it is difficult to negate the efforts of a film (or, more aptly, the novella) that is only inspired by a history rather than directly based on it. There are several scenes in this film that offer a fair interpretation from the sources about the events at Loudun, including how the possessed behaved and some of the procedures used during public exorcisms.7 Additionally, the focus on internal struggles offers another interpretation of the possession often simplified to be about political intrigue and jealousy. Specifically, the exchanges between Mother Joan and Father Suryn about the nature of sin and desire for holiness could be taken directly from the nun's autobiography. It is when Kawalerowicz (and Iwaszkiewicz) do engage the sources well that one is left wishing they had done more with this rich history.

~Heather Pundt

Select Resources

Certeau, Michel de. The Possession at Loudun. 1970. Reprint, Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2000.

Ferber, Sarah. Demonic Possession and Exorcism in Early Modern France. London: Routledge, 2004.

Goldsmid, Edmund, ed. The History of the Devils of Loudun: The Alleged Possession of the Ursuline Nuns, and the Trial and Execution of Urbain Grandier, Told by an Eye-Witness. Translated by Edmund Goldsmid. Edinburgh: N.p., 1887.

Huxley, Aldous. The Devils of Loudun. 1952. Reprint, New York: Harper Perennial Modern Classics, 1984.

Jeanne des Anges, Gabriel Legué, and Georges Gilles de la Tourette. Soeur Jeanne des Anges, supérieure des Ursulines de Loudun, XVIIe siècle; autobiographie d'une hystérique possédée, d'après le manuscrit inédit de la bibliothèque de Tours. Paris: Progrès medical, 1886.

Kors, Alan Charles, Edward Peters, and Alan Charles Kors. Witchcraft in Europe, 400-1700: A Documentary History. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2001.

Lietaer, Hugo and Jozef Corveleyn, “Psychoanalytical Interpretation of the Demoniacal Possession and the Mystical Development of Sister Jeanne des Anges from Loudun (1605-1665).” International Journal for the Psychology of Religion 5, no. 4 (1995): 259 276.

Rapley, Elizabeth. The Devotes: Women and Church in Seventeenth-Century France. Montreal: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 1990.

Sluhovsky, Moshe. "The Devil in the Convent." American Historical Review 107, no. 5 (December 2002): 1379-1411.

Citations

1The Ursulines were one of many female congregations that formed in early 17 th century France. For a full discussion see Elizabeth Rapley’s The Devotes: Women and Church in Seventeenth-Century France (Montreal: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 1990).

2Although living Saints were known earlier in Spain and Italy, they reached their popularity in France in the first half of the 17th century. See more in Sarah Ferber’s Demonic Possession and Exorcism in Early Modern France (London: Routledge, 2005).

3Sister Jeanne was well aware of St. Teresa and often meditated on her example. Jeanne des Anges, Gabriel Legué, and Georges Gilles de la Tourette, Soeur Jeanne des Anges, supérieure des Ursulines de Loudun, XVIIe siècle; autobiographie d'une hystérique possédée, d'après le manuscrit inédit de la bibliothèque de Tours (Paris: Progrès medical, 1886), 44. A relic from St. Teresa was even used during the exorcisms at Loudun. Moshe Sluhovsky, "The Devil in the Convent," American Historical Review 107 (December 2002): 1394.

4During the trial of Grandier, the nuns at times contested their confessors during exorcism and stated they did not believe they were possessed but the priests dismissed this as a lie of the Devil. Aldous Huxley, The Devils of Loudun (New York: HarperCollins Publishers, 1984), 188.

5Charles Alan Kors and Edward Peters, eds., Witchcraft in Europe, 400-1700: A Documentary History (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2001), 357.

6Father Surin’s torment was so great, Huxley concluded he was himself a hysteric dealing with his own physical and emotional turmoil. For several years he was treated as insane until a sympathetic brother listened to confession and quietly prayed with him—much as he had done for Sister Jeanne during her possession. Huxley, Devils of Loudun, 288-297.

7Mother Joan is tied to a bench after displaying possession through body contortions and blasphemous behaviors noted in the historical record. When not tied to benches, beds were also supplied for the possessed nuns during exorcism so they would not hurt themselves or others. Michel de Certeau, The Posession at Loudun (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2000), 86-87.