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The Devils of Loudun (P.S.) Paperback – Illustrated, July 28, 2009
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From the Back Cover
Aldous Huxley's acclaimed and gripping account of one of the strangest occurrences in history
In 1632 an entire convent in the small French village of Loudun was apparently possessed by the devil. After a sensational and celebrated trial, the convent's charismatic priest Urban Grandier—accused of spiritually and sexually seducing the nuns in his charge—was convicted of being in league with Satan. Then he was burned at the stake for witchcraft.
In this classic work by the legendary Aldous Huxley—a remarkable true story of religious and sexual obsession considered by many to be his nonfiction masterpiece—a compelling historical event is clarified and brought to vivid life.
About the Author
Aldous Huxley (1894–1963) is the author of the classic novels Brave New World, Island, Eyeless in Gaza, and The Genius and the Goddess, as well as such critically acclaimed nonfiction works as The Perennial Philosophy and The Doors of Perception. Born in Surrey, England, and educated at Oxford, he died in Los Angeles, California.
- Paperback : 370 pages
- ISBN-10 : 0061724912
- ISBN-13 : 978-0061724916
- Item Weight : 9.6 ounces
- Product Dimensions : 5.31 x 0.83 x 8 inches
- Publisher : Harper Perennial Modern Classics; Illustrated Edition (July 28, 2009)
- Language: : English
- Best Sellers Rank: #65,565 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)
- Customer Reviews:
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I first became aware of the madness that descended on the small town of Loudun, located just south of the Loire Valley, and a bit north of Poitier, which today has a population of 7,500, when I watched the movie The Devils , starring Oliver Reed and Vanessa Redgrave, in the 1970’s. I found the movie quite memorable (and disturbing!). And I recently read Arthur Miller’s play, The Crucible: A Play in Four Acts , concerning the same elements of a “witch hunt,” occurring in the same century as the events in Loudun, on the other side of the Atlantic, in Salem, Massachusetts. Aldous Huxley states that he first read of the events at Loudun in Michelet’s "La Sorcière". Huxley was struck by the inaccuracies and the “very slap-dash” quality of the work, written by an admittedly great historian. And he figured he could do better, capturing all levels, “from the most horrible to the most sublime,” as reflected in Grandier and Surin. Huxley also relates these distant events to similar phenomena today, much as Arthur Miller did.
Urbain Grandier was a real scumbag, in the plain-spoken vernacular. He was also a Jesuit priest, and shortly after his ordination, in 1615, he was assigned to Loudun, which had almost double the population of today. He conformed, and substantially exceeded the prevailing “community standards” of the time, which Huxley states as being “…from highest prelate to humblest friar, the majority of clergymen are thoroughly disreputable.” Certainly, they could not be encumbered by the vow of chastity, and the clergymen would normally have a few women in the congregation to whom they provided more than spiritual solace (no mention of young boys!). Grandier had many more than the proverbial “few,” including the daughter of his best friend, who he got pregnant, and then denied it all: she, of course, was the “sinner.” Her baby became another’s, “legal truth” as opposed to “truth,” as Huxley sarcastically notes. Thus, Grandier accumulated a few enemies in the town. He also ran afoul of the man who would become the most powerful in France: Cardinal Richelieu.
An Ursuline convent was established in Loudun. Jeanne des Anges, age 25, dwarfish, and deformed would become the head nun. She developed a sexual obsession for Grandier, handsome as he was. Almost certainly it was unrequited. She knew some of the village women who enjoyed “requited” status. As Huxley says: “envy modulated into hatred and contempt,” or, as more famously phrased: “hell hath no wrath like a woman scorned.” Hysteria followed, and “infected” the entire convent. The convenient explanation: the nuns were possessed of devils, and such were the times, the specific names of the devils, and their location in the body could be identified. Grandier’s enemies united, including Richelieu, who knew the charges were probably not true, but he sought the greater glory of France, and a consolidation of Royal power, and besides, “you can’t make an omelet without breaking a few eggs” as Huxley says, and Grandier is a scumbag, so, he was charged with “sorcery.” Numerous individuals refused to participate in this charade, but enough did so that he would be condemned to death, tortured first, with his legs crushed upon the wheel, and burned at the stake. Huxley describes the details in “disturb-your-dreams” detail. I sensed a scrupulous attention to the facts, as detailed in court records and the many diaries of the time.
The aftermath was equally unpleasant. The three chief inquisitors met unpleasant ends, two within the year. Richelieu himself, who thought bringing back the Inquisition would be an excellent way to consolidate power and punish enemies would have a body that literally putrefied, causing a stink that others avoided and ridiculed. Jean-Joseph Surin, a coeval of Grandier, would be brought in to exorcise the demons from Jeanne des Anges. She would become famous, and the reason for “pilgrimages” to Loudun. Huxley describes her as: “she knew herself to be- half actress, half unrepentant sinner, wholly hysterical.” Her fate was also unpleasant, as would be Surin’s, who lived for a couple of decades with excruciating pains and bodily dysfunction (all psychosomatic?) and was eventually cured.
The madness of crowds. Huxley, who wrote this work in 1953, wove comparisons between Loudun and current events, particularly, but not limited to, totalitarian regimes. For example, he says: “…the Collective Will is merely the dictator’s will-to-power, sometimes mitigated, sometimes distorted to the verge of lunacy, by some pseudo-scientific theory of what, in the gorgeous future, will be good for an actuarial abstraction labeled ‘Humanity’.” Huxley concludes with a marvelous epilogue in which he discusses humanity’s urge to “self-transcendence,” via alcohol, drugs, sexuality and yes, “crowd-delirium,” “herd intoxification.” Oh, how true: “To men and women under the influence of herd-poison, ‘whatever I say three times is true’ – and whatever I say three hundred times is Revelation, is the directly inspired Word of God.”
I had to think of the substantial industry that is “airport security,” as well as those slew of “think tanks” when Huxley concluded: “If there had been no exorcists, it would never have begun.” Huxley is a thoughtful, incisive observer of the human condition. I’m glad I moved beyond Brave New World ) to read at least one other of his works, which deserves 5-stars, plus.
This is the story of a conspiratorial witch hunt in Loudon, France in the 1600's and it's amazingly relevant with the current, secularized versions of "witch hunts" in the Western World today. Read this book and understand exactly how a person can be completely bamboozled with erroneous claims about their guilt; how many different people, through greed, envy, over-zealousness, piety, dogma, ambition, and ideology, can mix together and create an absolute nightmare of a witch hunt. In the end, they burn a man at the stake. Though he certainly wasn't a witch, he was also absolutely not a "good guy". It's a great tale with many lessons to take from it.
What I found so powerful about this book is Huxley's own spiritual critique of the situation and the players involved. Huxley absolutely penetrates the spiritual realities and complexeties taking place during this period. His writing is so clear and fluid that it almost feels like a conversation. He is almost a spiritual guru at times in this book.
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.
Top reviews from other countries
This is quite a complex book to read, because to understand what happened and the full consequences of the Loudun Possessions we need to know about other things of the period. So here we have pieces about the politics of the time, both religious as well as secular, which in themselves make for interesting reading, and with this we can see how different factions gained footholds in certain areas. This along with the average thoughts and concerns of the people at the times does help to put what happens further on into context.
Although only a small town as such Loudun was somewhere that had both Catholics and Protestants, and thus there was always some sort of tension going on. Enter onto the scene then Catholic priest Urbain Grandier, handsome, definitely a lady’s man, clever, and not being from the area, mistrusted by a number of people. Foregoing his vow of chastity, this was a man who liked to put it about, which didn’t go down with fathers and husbands.
Already facing a number of problems this is only exacerbated when reports of him appearing magically at the local convent and cavorting with the nuns take hold. Initially these began with the prioress, the hunchbacked Sister Jeanne. Ultimately the nuns themselves became a sort of tourist attraction, and there were torturing and burnings at the stake before the matter was resolved.
Huxley along with some others who have studied the case have come to the conclusion of mass hysteria, but others have come to different conclusions over the years, so although a very interesting read we do not really know what actually happened, so Huxley could be right or wrong. Personally, I think he may be right to a certain degree, but other considerations should have been taken into account. Anyway, whatever the true circumstances this is something that still can be seen as a warning of what can happen when manipulation and personal feelings and emotions can get involved in things that require a cool mind and judgement.
The Devils of Loudon is not only a masterful account of the mass hysteria that surrounded the so-called possession of the nuns of Loudon, it is a book that goes much further than that.
One understands better the grasp of any sort of totalitarian regime and how those sorts of ideologies gain followers.
This book is one of the greatest books I have ever read and I intend to re-read it many times.
It has a message that should be scrupulously studied if we ever wish to better understand the world in which we live.
I cannot recommend it highly enough!
I have found this book very inspirational and
very thought provoking. At times very brutal,
it will illuminate the darkest parts of humanity.
No wonder, many film directors have used
this material in their films, one way or another.