The Last Judgments of Urbain Grandier
August 18, 1634

In this World   

Fear of Torture and Death

In the Next

Fear of Damnation

Which was more terrifying?

         One of the most famous cases of witchcraft and demonic possession in France took place in Loudon in the 1630s. The case proved the outcome of a multi-level conspiracy involving enemies of the accused at the local level and Louis XIII's chief minister the Duke of Richelieu at the center of royal power. It concluded with the trial and execution of Urban Grandier, the priest of the principle church in Loudon.

        When Grandier stood before the court and heard its sentence, he shuddered at what lay before him. Like any person facing torture prior to being burned at the stake, he shuddered at the physical pain and torment. But his fears went beyond earthly pain and death, for he was afraid of eternal damnation. A priest schooled by the Jesuits, he, more than ordinary people, likely had a more vivid and terrible picture of the torments of Hell. That terrified him more than torture or death.

        One could, however, draw a different interpretation, both of the causes behind his prosecution and of the reasons for his fear. The reader is invited to examine the evidence in this site and draw her own conclusions. One possible alternative concerns Grandier's expression of fear at his sentencing. Possibly, the worldly Grandier did not put much stock in the terrifying images of hell that the Jesuits and other Catholic writers were creating at the time to frighten their charges into being obedient Christians. We know from Huxley's account (The Devils of Loudon) that he was ingenious in reinterpreting Catholic dogma to justify his secret marriage with his lover. Possibly, this bespeaks a certain cynicism that would make him less likely to believe in the terrifying pictures of hell being created then. Thus his real fear was much more comprehensible to us today, for the terror that gripped him was the terror of torture and death. Refusing to admit guilt and recant, even under extreme pain, he believed in his innocence and, however much or little he believed in damnation, he was somewhat confident that his soul would not rot in hell.

        These various interpretations mark the nature of historical understanding. They also provide differing possibilities for actors and directors who attempt to represent the past in film. In looking below at a science from Ken Russell's 1971 film, The Devils, what interpretation seems evident in Oliver Reed's portrayal?

 

The Accused


Russell, The Devils, 1971

 

"My Lords, I am innocent. . . . and I am afraid. . . ."


Amende honorable

Public display of guilt, regret, and humiliation
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The court hereby orders that
"to make an honorable expression of regret, his head bare, a rope round his neck, holding in his hand a burning taper weighing two pounds, before the principal door of the church of St.-Pierre-du-Marché, and before that of St. Ursula of [Loudon]" (Sentence cited by Robbins, 315)

 

La question ordinaire et extraordinaire

 

Judicial torture to extract a confession and the names of accomplices
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Burned alive at the stake; his ashes scattered to the four winds

Public, exemplary punishment reserved for heretics and witches and designed to inspire fear
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Grandier was supposed to have been strangled before burning, but the friars who accompanied him to the stake prevented this act of mercy.
Confiscation by the King of his personal property

Further punishment for a high crimes against God and the State
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500 livres--a sum sufficient for the support of a family of four for one year--was to used "for the buying of a bronze plaque, on which will be engraved the abstract of his present trial, to be set up in a prominent spot in the said church of the Ursulines, to remain there for all eternity." (Sentence cited by Robbins, 315)

The Court

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Interpretations

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  • The court that tried Urbain Grandier was a special tribunal with extraordinary powers. Established by royal order, it was granted the authority to try the accused without appeal.
  • This set aside the normal criminal procedure which would permit the accused to appeal his conviction to the Parliament of Paris, one of the supreme courts of France.
  • After the civil magistrates of Loudon refused to serve in a process of "judicial murder," Laubrement, the Royal Commissioner charged by Richelieu with the inquiry, secured the services of "thirteen complacent magistrates" from other towns and a similarly inclined Public Prosecutor. (Huxley, 197-98)

These and other legal irregularities--including the forging of evidence by the Devil himself--are open to a variety of interpretations, depending upon one's point of view.