Along with the other members of the Conversion Narratives team, I’m currently in Washington, DC, preparing for the Renaissance Society of America Conference: a three-day event with a dizzying array of papers and panels. We’re lucky enough to be working in the wonderful Folger Shakespeare Library, whose slightly gloomy mock-Elizabethan interior makes the perfect setting for my discovery of a very peculiar story.
In 1613, a book was published in London, telling readers about The admirable historie of the possession and conversion of a Penitent woman. Seduced by a Magician that made her to become a Witch, and the Princes[s] of Sorcerers in the Country of Province [Provence]. The story is a striking one: an ambitious Priest called Lewes Gawfridi, living in Marseille, became a sorcerer thanks to some ill-advised leisure reading. As the narrator of the story (also an exorcist in this complicated case), tells his readers, ‘He fell into [sorcery], by reading a certaine booke in written hand, where there was French verses with diuers characters‘. This account chimes with what we know about the importance of handwritten books of magic (grimoires), in which the act of copying magical texts lent the book itself a potent power than a printed book could not replicate. Summoned by the act of reading, the devil demanded to know what the Priest wanted from him. The answer was simple: Lewes wanted to be more powerful than all the Priests in the ccountry (a reminder of the potent authority, as well as the mystery, of these representatives of the established church). He also demanded ‘that all the women that I shall be in love withall, doe affect and follow me‘. In exchange, the devil asked for Gawfridi’s body, his soul, and his works — a Faustian contract that the Priest happily consented to, and signed with his own blood.
Now, Gawfridi’s thoughts turned to ‘a young girle, of the age of nine or ten yeares‘, called Magdalene de Demandoul. According to the narrator, Gawfridi eventually won over the girl and persaded her to follow him to ‘a Cave or denne‘, where she was terrified to be faced by a crowd of men: ‘the Synode of Sorcerers‘. He ‘marked and abused’ the girl, who was subsequently carried to the conventicle on numerous occasions by the devil himself, to rule over it as its Princess.
Despite her unconventional nocturnal activities, Magdalene decided she wanted to become a nun in nearby Aix-en-Provence. Gawfridi, the Priest-Magician, did his best to dissuade her, threatening to tear down the whole convent. Unable to fulfil this dreadful promise, he did the next best thing, working with the devil to have Magdalene possessed by a demon, Beelzebub, and her friend Louise Capeau to be possessed by a wicked spirit, Verrine, and two companion devils
As if this story wasn’t already odd enough, we now learn that the reason Louise was possessed was because she had frequently prayed to God ‘that shee might indure all torments even to the paines of hell, as much as she could be capable of, that shee might convert certaine of her sisters there, who were in a desperate estate, & devoid of the grace of God”. Is this a case of pride coming before a fall? Or of God’s hand at work even in the devil’s choice of instruments?
The answer slowly begins to emerge: the possessed girls were exorcised and re-exorcised for more than a year (an activity that parallels in worrying ways the ‘markes and abuses’ that Magdalene suffered when she first joined the circle of magicians). As the months rolled on towards Advent, the Superior of the convent sought advice from a more experienced converter — Father Sebastian Michaelis (the writer of the text I am reading, who is nowhere, in the summary of events which prefaces the book, identified not only as its hero but its author). On his recommendation, the girls were taken to St. Baume, where new Priests succeeded in forcing the possessing devils to speak.
To everyone’s surprise, the demon Verrine revealed himself to be exceptionally devout, speaking knowledgeably about the immaculate conception, and explaining that, although Gawfridi had succeeded in conjuring him into Louise’s body, it was God who was speaking through him, ‘to convert and make knowne unto the world two magicians, especially him who was the Prince of them [i.e. Gawfridi] and commanded al the Magicians of Spain, France, England, and Turkie, and had Lucifer for his divell‘. God, Verrine said, ‘had destinated him unto this, and to be an instrument of their conversion‘. And so, declares the narrator, ‘Hence it is that God hath made choice by a great and new miracle of the diuells themselves (said he) for the manifestation and conversion of them‘ (a claim for demonic authority that is later — as we shall see — denied). That bracketed ‘(said he)’ works to interesting effect, taking the moral of the story out of the mouth of the narrator and placing it instead into the mouth of God, speaking through Verrine, speaking through Louise, addressing the distant English reader of a French text.
God-Verrine-Louise endeavoured first of all to convert Magdalene (who, of course, bore the name of an archetypal convert — look out for a blog post on Mary soon!). Only when ‘Verrine’ revealed her secret activities in the ‘Synagogue of witches‘, however, did Magdalene fully repent: ‘she began to shed many teares, and remained afterwards a perfect Convert‘. Now ‘Verrine’ turned his attentions to Gawfridi, but to no effect. Finally, events drew to a close: Father Michaelis brought the girls to an official trial but concluded that they had indeed been possessed, saving his prosecuting ire for the magician, and sparing Magdalene in ‘regard and compassion of her tender years‘. Intriguingly, Michaelis concluded that ‘there were three distinct infallible essences or realities in Magdalene’, a conclusion that lends Magdalene as well as Louise a multiplicitous and diverse identity, and renders her a site of divine and devilish contestation, but also conversation.
This is, without doubt, a peculiar story: one that seems to a modern audience both disturbing and unbelievable. The question is, then, what do we do with it as historians and as literary critics? The text is, of course, an important document in the history of magic, and historical belief in witches and witchcraft. Beyond that, we might choose to approach it as a document of social history, mining this case for what it tells us about church corruption, fantasies of power, and the realities of child abuse in Renaissance France. So too, we might consider the ways in which this story was deployed. Why did the narrator, Sebastien Michaelis, choose to publish this remarkable story (and to accompany it with some four hundred pages of explanation and analysis, as well as a separate discourse on spirits)? Why was the printer granted a royal monopoly so that only he could publish the text (at the same time as it advertised the royal seal of approval)? Why was it then translated into English (a country whose Protestant readers would see Sebastien’s description of Priestly abuses as all too typical of the corrupt Catholic church)?
Finally, we might ask, what does this voice say to those of us who are interested in women’s voices from this period? From the mouth of a French woman we hear a powerful and persuasive voice, but it is a voice that is doubly or even triply ventriloquised: the words she speaks are spoken by a deman who is himself possessed by God — and the whole thing is rewritten and narrated by the exorcist who claimed to have produced these dramatic effects. In this context, how do we understand Louise’s declared youthful ambition to convert numerous souls? After all, in his more detailed discussion of the case, Michaelis explains, ‘God … constrained the Divell to moove the tongue of Louyse, and to imprint in her imagination all which she should say, Louyse giving her consent unto it, out of a longing she had to convert the Magician and Magdalene.. All these prayers were the actions of Louyse and not of the Diuell but as an instigatour’. Do we, finally, see possession by a devil speaking divinity as a displaced and tortuous (and possibly literally torturous) technique by which a young woman might state her own claims to theological authority — converting not just her fellow convertites but a Prince and Princess of the great synod of sorcerers?
Sebastien Michaelis, The admirable historie of the possession and conversion of a Penitent woman (London: Imprinted for Wiliam Aspley, 1613).