In 1634, a parish priest named Urbain Grandier was tortured to exact a confession that he’d engaged in sorcery and made a pact with the devil. There was plenty of reason to believe that Grandier was a less than virtuous fellow (e.g. that he knocked up the teenage daughter of his best friend in Loudun), but no evidence of the crimes that he was actually accused of–and that the Church insisted he cop to despite his steadfast denials. However, there was some potent circumstantial evidence in the form of a case of mass hysteria by members of a convent of Ursuline nuns that was attributed to demonic possession at the time.
Huxley tells this fascinating story in great detail. At some points, perhaps too much detail. The writing style can come across as pretentious, needlessly complicated, and slow-moving at times. (For example, there are frequent quotes and snippets of poetry in French–and a few in Latin—and many of these were not translated to English in the edition that I read. Apparently, the assumption was that the reader would have a basic competency in these languages.) However, when it comes to the climax of the story, the book is as gripping as they come. Having been presented with great insight into Father Grandier, we know him to be a deeply flawed man. He’s like the priests and bishops of a Marquis de Sade novel, lecherous and libertine. Yet, he manages to become a sympathetic character as he shows virtue of sticking to his guns in denial of being in league with Satan long after the truth of his vices has been admitted. In essence, when juxtaposed to his inquisitors, he becomes the lesser of two evils.
I also don’t fault that Huxley delves into analysis, because there is a fascinating question at the heart of the event—one that deserves to be batted around. What made this group of nuns behave in such an un-nun-like fashion? There was writhing, foul language, wardrobe malfunctions, etc. Today, it’s impossible for a rational skeptic to write these events off as demonic possession. However, while the Mother Superior, Sister Jeanne of the Angels, clearly had an axe to grind against Grandier (for issues regarding organizational leadership and not so much for womanizing the townies), that also seems unsatisfactory as a cause for these sisters to behave as they did. There have been a number of cases of pretended possession, but generally these were individuals—e.g. Martha Broissier. There seems to be some fascinating psychology at work in this case.
The book is arranged in 11 longish chapters, largely following a chronological progression of events. The edition that I have has some interesting appendices as well as a bibliography. There isn’t much in the way of graphics, but as the book reads like a novel one doesn’t expect there to be.
I’d recommend this book for those who are interested in history or psychology. It’s fascinating in both domains. While I thought the book could have been a little clearer and more concise, it’s still quite readable and the heart of the story is highly engaging. I was also reading the book as a general interest reader. A scholarly reader might appreciate Huxley’s thoroughness more.