- Director: Ken Russell
- Release Year: 1971
- Production Country: United Kingdom
- Language: English
- Run Time: 111 minutes
- Themes: Religion, Christianity, Church/State relations, Political intrigue, Urbain Grandier (1590 – 1634), Witchhunts, Catholic Church, Huguenots, Louis XIII (1601 – 1643), Social commentary, Possession, Women's history, Literature, Possessions at Loudun,
A popular and charismatic priest is accused of witchcraft and sexual deviancy by local nuns when he refuses to allow the defensive walls of his town to be destroyed by the Cardinal's order.
On August 18, 1634, Urbain Grandier, curé of Saint Pierre du Marché at Loudun, was found guilty of “Wizardry, Sorcery and Possessions,” having been accused of aiding devils to possess several Ursuline nuns. He was executed by fire after undergoing questioning “ordinary and extraordinary” on the same day.1 This case was controversial in its own day, as many believed Grandier was executed because of his political involvement at Loudun and his personal conflicts that created several powerful enemies who swayed the judicial system. Delving into French history helps explain several aspects of this case.
In 1598, King Henri IV of France signed the Edict of Nantes, which ended the French Wars of Religion (the religious civil war that had been splitting the country since 1562). France remained Catholic but the edict allowed French Protestants (Huguenots) to live in French cities and again hold public offices and titles without persecution, as long as they recognized the sovereignty of the French crown. However, with the ascension of King Louis XIII in 1610, things changed. King Louis XIII had Cardinal Richelieu at his side who famously influenced state policy and together they slowly cut away the rights promised by the Edict.
As well, in the 17th century, the Catholic Church in France was experiencing the peak of the Counter Reformation spurred by the Council of Trent in 1563. This council responded to many of the grievances purported by the Reformation, including among other things, a policing and reduction of abuses by the clergy. During these changing times, Grandier came to Loudun and quickly earned the reputation of a womanizer, which mirrored the image of the corrupt Catholic priest so often described by Protestants. The libertine views of clerical celibacy created tensions between him and other leaders in the Catholic Church and this all did not help Grandier when he became involved in local and state politics, paving the way for his controversial trial and conviction.
All in this time, accusations of witchcraft were used by both Catholics and Protestants to blame the other for a continuation and abundance of witches. These ongoing debates fueled the proliferation of literature about witch trials and the Devil. Trials shifted to include the secular courts, which were considered more influenced by political pressure. Case summaries and commentary was often published following these trials to reassure the public of their authenticity and legality and to make the public amply aware of the Devil working in their communities. Added to this theater of good-over-evil was the increased use of public exorcism as a means to illustrate the power of Catholic priests over the growing threat and proliferation of Satan.2
Some of the threat came from those who caused the Devil to possess others, such as parish priest Louis Gaufridy, who was one of the first accused of causing possession, a great threat to the human soul. The first mass possession of nuns in France took place in Aix-en-Provence (1611 – 1613), where the Ursuline nuns accused Father Gaufridy of sorcery and he was put on trial. His highly publicized trial set two new precedents for witch trials. First, witches were previously limited to cases in which a witch incited obsession or there was an attack on a person by demons (instead of the demons actually overtaking the person’s body, as in a possession). Second, during this time it was well known that both demons and the Devil (often called the “Father of Lies”) could not be trusted and the possessed could not offer court testimony. A controversial solution emerged during Father Gaufridy’s trial which argued that priests could control a demon and elicit truths through the power of exorcism. Therefore, exorcists were able to gather testimony from the possessed nuns and use the information in the trial against the accused priest.
Ken Russell’s The Devils is largely based on the historical essay The Devils of Loudun by Aldous Huxley and the play The Devils by John Whiting. Both of these accounts are sympathetic to Grandier and focus on the inaccuracies and politicking surrounding his case.
As the central character, Grandier’s political actions become central to his fate. In the film he is depicted as acting as the temporary governor until a new one is elected. This places him in direct opposition to Baron de Laubardemont, His Majesty’s Special Commissioner, who came to Loudun to oversee the demolition of the city citadel. The crown, under the encouragement of Cardinal Richelieu, was systematically engaged in removing fortifications from larger municipalities, especially those with high Protestant populations like Loudun. Historically, Grandier was closely involved in this battle as friend and political ally of Loudun’s Governor D’Armagnac.3 Although the film eliminates D’Armagnac from the narrative, it focuses the audience on the political role Grandier was taking in the community that moved beyond the expectations of his religious vocation and dangerously allied him to Protestants in the town. The film adopts the interpretation by Huxley that de Laubardemont’s interest in the possessions at the Ursuline convent develops in response to Grandier’s political overreach.
To set the stage for the possessions, Prioress Jeanne des Anges is depicted as having repeated sexual fantasies of Grandier who replaces the image of Christ during prayers. Although these are fictionalized scenes, they do show realistic visions not unlike those described by religious female mystics.4 In one vision Grandier becomes the crucified Christ and walks to Sister Jeanne who first kisses his wounds before this sensuality turns to lovemaking. Meditating on the wounds of Christ was often practiced by monastics and drinking the blood of Christ from his wounds appears in female devout writing.5 However, there was a fine line between religious vision and ecstasies and visions experienced by those possessed. The way the scene moves from holy meditation to sexual fantasy portrays the uncertainty and confusion nuns often described when they first experienced possession. Nonetheless, Russell adopts the dominant view in the historical record that these visions were not the onset of possession but the result of hysteria. Several accounts suggest Sister Jeanne’s early fascination with Grandier became a keen desire for revenge after he declined the directorship of the convent. The prioress then confessed similar unholy visions to Canon Mignon who was a known enemy to Grandier.
The film’s depiction of the exorcisms is intense and overrun with chaos. The initial exorcism scene shows Sister Jeanne receiving holy water enemas and oral purgatives which are noted in the historical record. Indeed, the nuns were not only exorcised by priests but also received various medical treatments by local doctors. The next scenes of possession (highly edited) show chaos in the church as the naked, ranting nuns mingle with the curious parishioners.6 Public exorcisms did take place in four churches in Loudun on a daily basis as a platform for educating the public. The appearance of specific devils and feats would be advertised to entice audiences and in Sainte-Croix a stage was erected to ensure better views. They were crowded and noisy but controlled. The complete chaos depicted in The Devils is not accurate but instead serves to capture the emotional intensity expected. Eyewitnesses mention this expectation but repeatedly discuss their disappointment as the nuns could not perform the expected supernatural feats of speaking in tongues, foretelling the future, or levitation. Instead, they were reduced to circus contortionists who were roughly handled by their exorcists.7
In the end, Grandier maintained his innocence despite imprisonment and torture. These scenes in the film are brutal and stress the sadism of Grandier’s enemies. The amount of stress the jailers place on obtaining a confession is not unusual as many witch trials of the day often supported their actions through these confessions. The film ends with the political triumph of de Laubardemont who has the walls demolished as Grandier is burned.
The Devils can, at times, be jarring due to historical anachronisms (everything from characterizations to costumes and language) and the buffoonery of characters akin to Shakespearian fools. However, accentuation of the absurd in the adaptation has purpose and leaves a strong impression of the feeling of hysteria and confusion during a witch craze. Russell has captured what Huxley calls “crowd-delirium.” As Grandier shouts witnessing the exorcisms in the church, “You have turned the house of God into a circus!” It is true that one of the greatest pitfalls of researching witch trials is imposing current perceptions on the past. However, in the case of Grandier, this sentiment echoes the contemporary critics of the trial and possessions. One walks away from The Devils with a heavily simplified history of events but the interpretation follows the dominant historical narrative about the politics and fervor influencing Grandier’s trial.
Bynum, Caroline Walker. “Patterns of Female Piety in the Later Middle Ages.” In Crown and Veil: Female Monasticism from the Fifth to the Fifteenth Centuries. Edited by Jeffrey F. Hamburger and Susan Martin. New York: Columbia University Press, 2008.
Certeau, Michel de. The Possession at Loudun. 1970. Reprint, Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2000.
Dumas, Alexander, père. Urbain Grandier from “Celebrated Crimes." Rockville, MD: ARC Manor, 2008.
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, Robert. A Case of Witchcraft: The Trial of Urbain Grandier. Quebec City: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 1998.
Sluhovsky, Moshe. "The Devil in the Convent." American Historical Review 107, no. 5 (December 2002): 1379-1411.
Whiting, John. The Devils. New York: Hill & Wang, 1961.
1 Charles Alan Kors and Edward Peters, eds., Witchcraft in Europe, 400-1700: A Documentary History (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2001), 356.
2 One of the earliest highly publicized cases of possession was of Nicole Obry in 1566. During exorcisms she was specifically questioned about the Catholic faith. See more in Sarah Ferber’s Demonic Possession and Exorcism in Early Modern France (London: Routledge, 2005).
3 The removal of fortifications signaled a downgrade in status and citizens of Loudun feared they would become a mere village of little consequence and diminished revenue. Aldous Huxley, The Devils of Loudun (New York: HarperCollins Publishers, 1984), 57-58.
4 The scene of Christ leaving the cross embracing and kissing a nun is actually recorded in the testimony from the possessions at Louviers ten years after the events at Loudun. Moshe Sluhovsky, "The Devil in the Convent," American Historical Review 107 (December 2002): 1398. Sister Jeanne later stated that God kissed her on the mouth after a vision of the Passion – this was after Grandier’s death when she began her transformation from possessed to living mystic. Huxley, Devils of Loudun, 244.
5 An example of these intense visions during worship can be seen in the 14th century A Talking of the Love of God where the devotee leaps to Christ like a greyhound to suck the blood from his feet. Caroline Walker Bynum, “Patterns of Female Piety in the Later Middle Ages,” in Crown and Veil: Female Monasticism from the Fifth to the Fifteenth Centuries, edited by Jeffrey F. Hamburger and Susan Martin (New York: Columbia University Press, 2008), 181.
6 Most of the possession scene in the cathedral was edited due to sexual content. The censorship of the film is discussed in Richard Crouse’s Raising Hell: Ken Russell and the Unmaking of The Devils (Ontario: ECW Press, 2012) and the documentary Hell on Earth – the Desecration and Resurrection of The Devils (Film Four International: 2004).
7 Huxley, Devils of Loudun, 117.