Miracle of Laon
(1566)
   Sensational POSSESSION case in Laon, France. The Catholic Church used the daily EXORCISMs of Nicole Obry (also Aubry) before huge crowds as examples of the church’s power over the DEVIL to support it in religious struggles with the French Huguenots. Through Obry, BEELZEBUB claimed the Huguenots as his own people, gleefully noting that their supposed heresies made them even more precious to him. The demon was exorcised through repeated administration of holy wafers, a precedent in exorcism, and proved to the faithful the danger of the threat of Huguenot reform. The central issue dividing French Catholics and Huguenots was transubstantiation, or the Real Presence: whether or not, during communion, the bread and wine actually became the body and blood of Christ. This miracle occurred for Catholics, whereas Huguenots considered such an interpretation to be idolatry. By exorcising Beelzebub with the help of holy wafers, the Catholic Church declared a victory for the power of the presence. Obry had a troubled past with problems of fits before she showed signs of possession in 1565, at age 15 or 16. The daughter of a butcher in Vervins, near Laon in Picardy, she had spent eight years in a convent at Montreuil-les-Dames. She was a dull-witted student but learned to read. Her fits probably had physical causes, not hysteria, unlike those of many other female demoniacs. She had suffered two severe head injuries, one from a dog bite and one from a falling tile. As a result, she suffered from chronic headache until she was exorcised. At the time of her possession, she had been married for a short time to a merchant, Louis Pierret. Despite her history, she was a stunning and convincing demoniac and exhibited uncanny and genuine clairvoyance via the possessing demons.
   One day, while Obry prayed alone in church, the spirit of her maternal grandfather, Joachim Willot, visited her. Willot entered the girl and explained that since he died suddenly after supper and had not confessed his sins nor accomplished certain vows, his soul was in purgatory. He asked for her help to enable him to ascend to heaven: Obry should have masses said in his name, give alms to the poor, and make holy pilgrimages, especially to the shrine of St. James of Compostela.
   Obry’s family complied but evaded the pilgrimage to St. James, perhaps because of the expense involved. Her convulsive fits, present since Willot’s possession, did not improve, and Obry blamed her family’s failure to visit St. James. The family arranged a fake departure for the pilgrimage, but Obry was not deceived. At this point, the family asked the local priest, the schoolmaster, and a Dominican monk to conjure the spirit, who admitted he was not the soul of Willot but his good ANGEL. Knowing this to be heresy, the priests finally made the spirit admit he was a devil. For two months, Obry was exorcized daily in front of ever-growing crowds. The first exorcisms were done in Vervin, where inexperienced priests first used a handbook on baptismal exorcism, then obtained a book of demonic exorcisms. They followed instructions to find out the name of the demon and, when they succeeded in getting Beelzebub’s name, did as the manual directed and wrote it on a piece of paper and burned it. Beelzebub shrieked but did not depart. The demon quickly became immune to this procedure and even remarked that it was a waste of paper and ink.
   Obry was moved to the cathedral in Laon when Beelzebub complained that a prince of his rank could be expelled only by a bishop in a suitable location. The exorcisms continued on stage in the cathedral for two days but moved to a private chapel to prevent mob chaos. But Beelzebub protested again. In the account of Obry’s exorcism by the Hebrew professor Jean Boulaese in 1578, Beelzebub told the priests that “it was not right to hide what God wanted to be manifested and known to all the world,” and that he would only leave Obry in “that great brothel” (the cathedral), and on stage. The exorcisms grew to two times a day, during which Obry gave an impressive demoniacal performance, with contortions, horrible noises, blackened tongue, rigidity, and levitation. Beelzebub commanded center attention, but 29 other demons also made appearances.
   During the rituals, the priests tried to use more traditional methods, such as holy water, relics, the sign of the cross, and prayers to the Virgin Mary, but these only succeeded in angering Beelzebub. Only the host, or Eucharist— the body and BLOOD of Christ—tamed him. By submitting to the host, Beelzebub confirmed the power of the Real Presence. On one occasion, Beelzebub called the Eucharist “Jack the White.” Before this, the Eucharist had not been used as a principal weapon in exorcisms, making this case unusual.
   Obry occasionally suffered repossessions as often as 50 times a day, leading to mass consumption of holy wafers. The host began to be regarded as medicine for her spiritual sickness. Although he admitted that he was the father of lies, Beelzebub taunted Huguenot doubters about Obry’s possession, gleefully noting that their doubts of faith made them all the more precious to him. Through Obry, Beelzebub also pointed out sinners in the masses watching the exorcisms, revealing their secret, unconfessed sins. Many went to receive confession, and some rejoined the church. On some days, thousands confessed out of sheer fear of exposure by Beelzebub; priests were stationed everywhere in the cathedral to handle the demand. As propaganda for the Catholics, Obry’s sufferings were unparalleled.
   French theologians did not use the accusations of demoniacs against the accused witch until the 17th century. But it may have been the possession of Obry at Laon that planted the seeds of such evidence. As well as identifying secret sinners, Beelzebub, through Obry, accused some women of witchcraft while still in Vervins. According to the account by Barthelemy Faye, a magistrate, Obry claimed that a gypsy woman, not a man, as some claimed, had bewitched her early in her possession. In addition, the Huguenots continually claimed SORCERY and MAGIC against Obry’s mother, one of the exorcists, and a priest, Despinoys, who accompanied Obry after her expulsion from Laon.
   Beelzebub finally left Obry at 3:00 P.M. on Friday, February 8, 1566. After his expulsion, Obry and her husband remained in Laon until, fearing outright religious war, the Huguenots succeeded in barring Obry from the city. Still weak, Obry survived only on communion wafers. She made one last bid for celebrity in 1577, when she became blind and was cured, not by the host, but by the holy relic of John the Baptist’s head.
   The Catholic Church, rejoicing in this miraculous affirmation of transubstantiation, used the accounts of it to their greatest advantage. Future cases of possession and exorcisms relied on the happenings at Laon, and even certain Huguenots, including Florimond De Raemond, the historian of 16th-century heresy, were converted. Obry’s redemption was celebrated at the Cathedral of Laon on February 8 until the French Revolution at the close of 18th century.
   FURTHER READING:
   - Calmet, Dom Augustin. The Phantom World: Concerning Apparitions and Vampires. Ware, England: Wordsworth Editions in association with the Folklore Society, 2001.
   - Walker, D. P. Unclean Spirits: Possession and Exorcism in France and England in the Late Sixteenth and Early Seventeenth Centuries. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1981.

Encyclopedia of Demons and Demonology. . 2009.

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