The demoniacs of Louviers

Louviers is a French city with 18.120 inhabitants (January 2007) in the département Eure in the region Haute-Normandie. It lies on the bank of the river Eure near the loops of the river Seine. In the west of the city lies the big forest Forêt domaniale de Bord-Louviers, 25 kilometer northwest lies Rouen.

Canal of the river Eure in Louviers, photo by Wikimedia Commons user Theoliane, licence: public domain

History of Louviers

In the 9th century the city was called “Locos veteris” (old place). On February 10 856 the king Louis the Stammerer celebrated his son’s (Louis) engagement to a daughter of Erispoë, the duke of Brittany. Locos veteris was most likely not the original name of the town, but the original name must have derived from Latin language, maybe from “luparius” (‘wolfshunter’) or from “Lupariae” that became “louvières” (‘wolf den’). It can be assumed, that the town already existed in Gallo-Roman times (52 BC(E) to 486 AD (CE)) and that there must have been some wolves.

History of the convent Saint-Louis-Sainte-Elisabeth-Saint-François

The convent Saint-Louis-Sainte-Elisabeth-Saint-François was founded in 1616. The first buildings of the convent were built in 1625 and the convent church was consecrated in 1645. The convent was dissolved in the French Revolution (1789-1799).

Cloister of the monastery of the Penitents in Louviers (17th century). Photo by Wikimedia Commons user Theoliane, licence: public domain

The king himself gave the name to the convent, the founders of the women’s convent wanted to call it “Saint-Élisabeth”. The king wanted to honour king Louis IX of France, (1214-1270) and he wanted the convent to be part of the Third Order of Saint Francis (Tier-Ordre de Saint François). The founder was Catherine Hennequin (née Catherine le Bis), the widow of Jean Hennequin, who had been an official of the ministry of finance and was executed in 1602 for defalcation.

Catherine Hennequin, her adopted daughter Françoise Gaugain and some daughters of rich Parisian aristocrats went to Louviers in 1617 and 13 or 14 girls and widows received the nun’s habit. Immediately the male priests of Paris, that were involved in the foundation, started to quarrel about the administration of the convent. Mussart was the leader of the Third Order of Saint Francis in Paris, he brought two nuns from Paris to Louviers. He wanted those nuns to teach the other nuns and to lead the convent. David was the priest that suggested the foundation of the convent to Catherine Hennequin. Both did not accept the two nuns from Paris. David wanted to have influence over the convent and Catherine Hennequin had financed the convent, she didn’t like to get passed over. Thus the two nuns from Paris were sent back where they came from and Catherine Hennequin became abbess Catherine-de-Jésus. Mussart protested and his men searched the convent for irregularities, but nothing was found. Catherine Hennequin died in 1622. Her adopted daughter Françoise Gaugain became abbess Françoise-de-la Croix at the age of 31. She sickened in 1625 and went back to Paris, to be treated there. She stayed in Paris and became abbess of a convent of the order of the Order of Saint Augustine. David stayed in Louviers and was undisputed head of the convent until he died in 1628.

Statue of Marie Salomé, which was found in the attic of the church Notre-Dame (13th century). Photo of the Base Mémoire of the French Ministère de la culture.

The next head of the convent was Mathurin Picard and his vicar Thomas Boullay. Picard died in 1642. He was buried in the convent church and a wave of hysteria spilt over the convent. Especially the younger nuns had hallucinations in which they saw the priest Picard. They saw him in their cell, they saw flames rise out of his tomb in the church and they saw demonic creatures. Some nuns had somatic symptoms. “Demoniacs” yelled, cussed and blasphemed God.

Begin of a hysterical crisis, Photographic Iconography of Salpêtrière. Paris: 1876-1880, licence: public domain

The bishop of Évreux, Péricard, came from Paris to investigate the cases. He threw one of the nuns, Madeleine Bavent, lifelong into prison. Picard’s mortal remains were exhumed and thrown into a marnière. The bishop thought, that would solve the affair and went back to Paris. But the family of Picard protested and requested the bones.

The entombment, sculptures of the 15th century in the church Notre-Dame in Louviers, photo by Wikimedia Commons user Theoliane, licence: public domain

So the king set up a committee to investigate the cases of “demonic possession” further. The committee was active from 1643 to 1647. The nuns were interrogated and public exorcism sessions were held. Madeleine Bavent was questioned and exorcised 200 times till 1647. In May 1647 the actual court case at the Parlement of Normandy in Rouen started. Picard and Boullay were sentenced to death on a charge of sorcery and witchcraft. The mortal remains of Picard and the tortured, but still living Boullay were burned on a stake on the place “Vieux-Marché” (‘old market’) in Rouen on August 21, 1647. On the same market place on which Jeanne d’Arc had been burned on a stake in 1431. Madeleine Bavent was not executed, in the meantime she had become completely insane. She died in prison in 1653. The litigation documents were destroyed.

The convent lied at the Place Ernest Thorel. Old postcard in the archives of the département.

The rest of the hysterical nuns was treated and most of them returned to the convent. The public interest even enhanced the prestige of the convent, because the people felt sympathy for the “poor demoniacs”. At it’s foundation the convent had 14 nuns, at the time of the hysteria it had 52 and when it was dissolved in 1789 it had 32 nuns. Since 1791 the buildings of the convent and it’s church were used for other purposes or destroyed.

Northern part of the Place Ernest Thorel, old postcard in the archives of the département..

References:

Ernest Nègre: Toponymie générale de la France. vol. 1, Librairie Droz, 1990, ISBN 9782600028844, p. 344

Auguste Le Prévost; Léopold Delisle, Louis Paulin Passy (edit.): Mémoires et notes de M. Auguste Le Prevost pour servir à l’histoire du département de l’Eure. vol. 2, Auguste Herissey, Évreux 1864, p. 335-355

Louviers in the Base Mérimée. Ministère de la culture

L’Histoire du Couvent de Saint-Louis – Sainte-Elisabeth. Société d’Etudes Diverses de Louviers et de sa région

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