Aix-en-Provence Possessions
(1609–1611)
   Sensational case of possessed Ursuline nuns, alleged immoral sex, and a PACT with the DEVIL, which led to the torture and execution of a priest. The Aix-en-Provence case is one of the first in France to produce a conviction based on the testimony of a DEMONIAC. Prior to the 17th century in France, accusations from a demoniac were considered unreliable, since most clerics believed that any words spoken by one possessed by the Devil were utterances from “the father of lies” (John 8:44) and would not stand up to accepted rules of evidence. As with the LOUDUN POSSESSIONS, sexual themes dominated the manifestations of the nuns’ POSSESSION. The central figure—and perpetrator—of the case was Sister Madeleine de Demandolx de la Palud, a highstrung, vain girl from a wealthy and aristocratic Provençal family. Deeply religious from childhood, she was sent in 1605, at age 12, to the new Ursuline convent in Aix-en- Provence. There she was one of only six nuns, all of them from wealthy families. Their spiritual director was Father Jean-Baptiste Romillon.
   After about two years, Madeleine became severely depressed and was sent home. There she was visited by a family friend who sought to help her, Father Louis Gaufridi, a handsome priest 20 years her senior. Gaufridi had a much lower class background but was popular among the wealthy. He was personable and entertaining, and his good looks appealed to women.
   Thus it was no surprise that 14-year-old Madeleine fell violently in love with him. He visited often, and gossip flew when he once spent an hour and a half with her without her family present. Warnings about this inappropriate behavior were issued to Gaufridi and to Madeleine’s mother by the head of the Ursuline convent in Marseilles, Mother Catherine de Gaumer. Still, in 17thcentury France, loose behavior by clergy was tolerated, unless WITCHCRAFT was suspected.
   In 1607, Madeleine went to the convent in Marseille as a novice. She confessed to Mother Catherine that she had been intimate with Gaufridi. Mother Catherine sent her back to Aix-en-Provence, which was more remote, and where Gaufridi could not visit her.
   Nothing happened for nearly two years, and then Madeleine began suffering convulsions, shaking fits, and visions of DEMONs. Before Christmas 1609, she smashed a crucifix during confession. Father Romillon tried to exorcise Madeleine, without success. Meanwhile, her possession infected three other nuns, who began having the same symptoms and lost their speech.
   By Easter 1610, the nuns were still afflicted. Father Romillon confronted Gaufridi in June about his affair with Madeleine, which the priest denied. Madeleine, however, had become quite vocal about their indiscretions during her fits. She accused Gaufridi of denying God, giving her a green devil for a FAMILIAR, and having sex with her since she had been 13 (later, she said she was nine when they began their affair). She claimed he gave her a special powder to drink that would cause any babies she bore not to look like him, so he would not fall under suspicion.
   Romillon conducted secret EXORCISMs on Madeleine. Five more nuns became infected. One of them, Louise Capeau, became her rival in performance. Exasperated, Romillon took the two young women to see the grand inquisitor in Avignon, Sebastian Michaelis, a man who had gotten on in years but was quite feared: He had sent 18 witches to their death at the stake in Avignon. He was a most determined inquisitor.
   Michaelis’ approach was a public exorcism of the nuns at the shrine of St. Mary Magdalene in the grotto at Ste-Baume. It failed.
   Madeleine and Louise were then sent to another EXORCIST, François Domptius, a Flemish Dominican priest at the Royal Convent of St. Maximin. Louise stole center stage. Three demons who possessed her, Verin, Gresil, and Sonnillon, spoke through her in a deep bass voice. They taunted Madeleine with possession by BEELZEBUB, LEVIATHAN, BAALBERITH, ASMODEUS, and ASTAROTH—all important in HELL—plus 6,661 other demons, for a grand total of 6,666. In response, Madeleine screamed obscenities. The witnesses, including the exorcists, were convinced beyond doubt that the women were genuinely possessed. On December 15, Verin, speaking again through Louise, identified Gaufridi as the cause of Madeleine’s possession. Michaelis sent for Gaufridi, intending that he perform an exorcism, but without explanation to the priest. Gaufridi had no knowledge of exorcisms, and the two nuns mocked him, calling him a magician. He retorted, “If I were a witch, I would certainly give my soul to a thousand devils!”
   Michaelis pounced on this and had Gaufridi arrested and jailed in the grotto. While he languished in jail, his quarters were searched for evidence of witchcraft, but nothing was found. Madeleine, not to be outdone by Louise, expanded on her accusations, saying the priest did not pray with a “clean heart” and accusing him of every obscene act possible.
   Even so, without hard evidence, there were no grounds to continue to hold Gaufridi. His many friends went to his defense. Michaelis reluctantly freed him, and he returned to his parish in a rage. He undertook a campaign to clear his name, appealing even to the pope. He also sought to suppress the Ursuline convents and jail the offending nuns. Michaelis continued to look for ways to convict him on charges of sorcery.
   Michaelis confined Madeleine to the Ste-Baume convent.
   Her behavior worsened; she may have become manic-depressive. She danced, laughed, had visions, vomited froth, neighed like a horse, sang love songs, disrupted services, and told wild stories of SABBATs at which sodomy was performed and participants ate babies. Beelzebub made her bones crack and disrupted her bowels. After these manic episodes, she would fall into lethargy or a deathlike sleep.
   Michaelis at last was able to pressure the Parliament of Aix to bring Gaufridi to trial in civil court in February 1611. Madeleine and Louise were the star witnesses against the priest, recounting in graphic detail their possessions and going into fits before the court. Madeleine alternated this daily display with assertions that she was making everything up. She claimed great love for Gaufridi and actually writhed on the floor imitating the sexual acts they had done. Physicians examined her and agreed she was not a virgin. She displayed the DEVIL’S MARKs on the bottom of her feet and under her left breast. When pricked with a pin, the marks did not bleed or cause her pain. The marks mysteriously disappeared and reappeared repeatedly. Twice she attempted suicide in bouts of deep depression. While he awaited his turn in court, Gaufridi was kept in heavy chains in a rat-infested dungeon. He was taken before the court in March, weak and dispirited. His body was shaved, and three Devil’s marks were found.
   At last, the priest surrendered to relentless prosecution and confessed to being “Prince of the Synagogue” and to signing a pact with the Devil in his own BLOOD in exchange for the promise that all women would follow him. He described sabbats, though not as luridly as had Madeleine. Michaelis was ecstatic at Gaufridi’s breakdown and wrote a phony confession of 52 points. Gaufridi rejected it, saying he had been forced under torture to confess. On April 18, 1611, the court found him guilty of sorcery, magic, idolatry, and fornication. He was sentenced to be burned on a pile of bushes, a slower way to die by fire than by being burned on a pile of faggots.
   Still, the court was not done with the priest, continuing a relentless interrogation to obtain names of accomplices. Gaufridi became deranged, still denying intimacy with Madeleine but confessing to more sensational crimes. His last appearance before the court was on April 28, at which he said the truth no longer mattered, and he had eaten roasted babies.
   Gaufridi was executed on April 30. First, he was subjected to horrible torture. He was defrocked and degraded and subjected three times to the strappado, in which he was strung up on a rope with his hands bound behind his back and dropped, so that his bones were severely and painfully dislocated. Then, he was subjected four times to the squassation, in which heavy weights were attached to his feet, and he was hoisted on a rope and dropped sharply to within inches of the floor. But Gaufridi had no names of fellow witches or sorcerers to give. He was then forced to ask God for forgiveness and was bound to a wooden sled and dragged through the streets of Aix for five hours. Fortunately for Gaufridi, the bishop of Marseilles had granted him a special dispensation, and he was strangled to death before his body was put on the burning bushes. It was a significant mercy. As soon as he was executed, Madeleine was “cured.” But the Aix-en-Provence affair was not over by any means. Louise continued to have visions of witches, which led to a blind girl’s being accused and convicted of witchcraft and burned at the stake on July 19, 1611. The possession infection spread to two other convents, St. Claire’s in Aix and, two years later, St. Bridget’s in Lille. There, three nuns accused Sister Marie de Sains of bewitching them. Most notable about Sister Marie’s testimony, in many ways a copy of Madeleine’s performance, was her detailed description of the witches’ sabbat: On Mondays and Tuesdays, the witches copulated with devils and each other in a natural fashion; they practiced sodomy on Thursdays and bestiality on Saturdays and sang litanies to the Devil on Wednesdays and Fridays. Sunday, apparently, was their day off. Marie was put away out of sight by the archbishop of Malines, and the Lille possessions died down.
   Madeleine’s troubles recurred later in life. In 1642, at age 49, she was accused of witchcraft. Her relatives abandoned her, and she was forced to prepare her own defense, with inherited money. She was accused again in 1652, and many witnesses testified against her. Devil’s marks were found on her. She was sentenced to pay a large fine and spend the rest of her life in prison. After 10 years, she was released to a relative in Chateauvieux, where she died at age 77 on December 20, 1670.
   FURTHER READING:
   - Baroja, Julio Caro. The World of the Witches. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1975.

Encyclopedia of Demons and Demonology. . 2009.

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