Saturday, May 05, 2012

Notre Dame, Paris, 1625 - a devout special effect goes wrong

“The King of Canadaes Son, by meanes of the intercourse of traffique between the French and that Savage Nation, having, at the suite of these holy compassers of Sea and Land, beene sent by his Father into France, and there entertained at their Colledge in Paris, with the quintessence of Jesuiticall discipline, for the space of two yeares, was at length presented a learned Catechumenist in the Cathedrall Church of our Lady to be baptized; where in the presence of a Congregation, as great as the Church was capable of, the King himself was his Godfather, and gave him his owne name [the king was Louis III], but when the sacrament was administered, such a cracke was heard from a secret Scaffold provided for the nonce, that the whole multitude was much astonished, fearing least the Church would have fallen on their heads, wherof the holy fathers being well apayed [gratified] to see their plot had taken effect, one of them catching his cue, and beckning with the finger for audience, began to tell them, that they had no cause to feare at all, but rather to rejoice, and glorifie God, who had honoured the baptisme of this Savage Prince with a miracle, in token of the conversion of that whole Nation, wherof himselfe was now the first fruits: But while he was yet speaking, the paper wherein the miracle was wrought came smoking downe among the company, and brought such a stinke of Gunpowder with it, that every one with his nose in his hand began to leave the place, and get him away, some smiling, others blushing, and last of all the new Christian also, leaving his religion where he had found his baptisme. For being not long after brought into England with the French ships, taken by some of our merchants in their Canada voyage, he himselfe related the story, protesting it to be true, with many more of the like nature, for which, he said, he did much abominate the Romish religion, and thereupon became conformable to the Church of England.”

If this incident occurred, the ‘King of Canada’s son’ must have been a Huron Indian whose status back in his own country had been inflated for the sake of some pious propaganda. The Huron tribes were at this time willing to accept Jesuit missions; these were very much ‘embedded’ in nature, as the Jesuit missionaries tried first to understand the people they were converting by living with them, and to some extent adopting their ways. But ‘Canada’ of course did not exist as a nation, the Iroquois were unappeasable in their war against the Huron, nor could the European settlers help them. This article from the Catholic Encyclopedia is a long record of disaster:

Anyway, the relation has it that at the formal baptism in Notre Dame of this purported Prince, a charge of gunpowder had been set somewhere high in the building, so fused that it exploded noisily during the administration of the sacrament. Consternation followed this ‘miracle’, as well it might. Whether the explosion was meant to signify the devil (say, ‘Okee’) departing the scene, or a clap of divine thunder by way of heavenly approval isn’t clear. But the artificers had not thought it all the way through: down drifted the smoking remnants of their firework, and the fraud became apparent even as one of the devoutly inspired contrivers was trying to capitalize upon it.

I half incline to accept the story as genuine, even though the context is solid English anti-catholicism. Baptisms were moments of ideological triumph. The implacable Iroquois themselves recognized as much, in their sadistic use of scalding baptisms in killing missionary priests

But the notion that the ‘prince’ of the Huron witnessed such a fraud perpetrated by Catholic Christians, but then was subsequently willing to join the Church of England is just too incredible.

My source for this dubious anecdote is, as I say, not a neutral one. It is thrown in at the end of this pamphlet: A relation of the deuill Balams departure out of the body of the Mother-Prioresse of the Ursuline nuns of Loudun Her fearefull motions and contorsions during the exorcisme …Or the first part of the play acted at Loudun by two divels, a frier, and a nun. Faithfully translated out of the French copie, with some observations for the better illustration of the pageant (1636).

The pamphlet consists of, first, a translation from a French source of a Catholic account of this exorcism of Balam from the famous Jean des Anges, then the English author’s own debunking commentary. Finally, the anonymous author presents the anecdote I have transcribed as a comic ‘jig’ or afterpiece to his main drama. Whoever the author was, he was strongly influenced by Samuel Harsnett’s attacks on the ‘devil theatre’ of earlier Catholic exorcists (this can be seen in the theatrical figure already developed in the title).

The pamphlet itself is an indication that there was some perturbation about the effect of the ‘miracles’ going off in Loudon. Walter Montagu had been present at this exorcism, and converted, the dramatist Thomas Killigrew was there, and put his name down among those who testified to the inexplicable nature of what they had seen. Killigrew’s own description for a correspondent has been found and published. Put simply, Jean des Anges was undergoing the slow process of exorcism by the Jesuit Father Surin, and others. She had multiple devils in her, so the departure of Balam was just a part of the process. As this pamphleteer sourly remarks, the timing of this exorcism fell very conveniently for the English gentlemen who had traveled to Loudon to be ‘edified’.

One reads in Greenblatt about the connections Harsnett saw between these devout actions and the ‘action’ of the theatre. This pamphlet really brings it home just what levels of impersonation were reached. The devils possessing Jean des Anges are said quite simply to appear. Then you realize the obvious: that they are ‘appearing’ by taking over the body and face of the prioress. Surin interprets the appearance of the different possessing devils as they show in her facial expressions that signify their manifestations: “he appeared againe in the same shape of Iscaran … as he was in the midst of his action, he suddenly stopped, and the forme of Balam appeared in his countenance, but with an aspect sad and affrighted, yet but smiling withal, by which marke he was knowne. Then the Father told the behoulders that it was Balam, which the devil also averred, and as his face was noted to wax very pale and discoloured, the said Father said unto him: thy paleness argues thee guilty.” Jean des Anges can, with the collaboration of Father Surin, manifest individually distinct devils. In case we don’t get it, the pamphleteer explains: “for the devil are no where else to be seene or heard, but in the actions of the maid, and the tongue of the priest”.

The devil Balam, who seems to have been a very amenable sort of devil, whose arrival is signaled by Jean assuming rueful smiles, had previously said that he would soon depart, but proposed to leave a token of his departure: his name would appear on the Prioress’ arm. He remarks - with some poignancy for a devil - that by this means his name, at least, will finally get into heaven. (Balam also willingly testifies that, unlike the human observers, he can see the real presence in the sacrament.) Surin had objected to having his holy demoniac polluted in this way, and dictated that, instead, the name of St Joseph should appear. Balam had willingly divulged that St Joseph was his ‘chief enemy’ in heaven.

At the climax of this particular exorcism, Jean des Anges manifested the devil within her gnawing at her left hand, and then the name of ‘Joseph’ appeared on her right arm ‘in bloody characters’, before the witnesses.

Killigrew, a man of the theatre, had no idea of how it was done; Walter Montagu simply converted. The pamphleteer can’t really produce any clear explanation either, so (reasonably enough) he just pours scorn by way of refutation. His most rational suggestion is “if you please to write with the juice of a Limon upon a peece of paper, and afterwards hold it to the fire” you can reproduce the type of trick. But even if you can write in lemon juice on your arm, there was no obvious source of heat for Jean des Anges to hold her arm up to, to bring out the letters.

But the pamphleteer then says something fascinating, which I cannot explain, and am sure that I have seen no further references to: “or learne how the characters are made upon the armes of many that have beene at Hierusalem.

What could that mean? He makes it sound as if Jerusalem pilgrims could return with a heat sensitive tattoo. Could you rub vigorously on your arm, and make a mysterious authentication of your pilgrimage appear? And was it ‘I ♥ Jerusalem’?

My illustration is a Canadian brave, on the title page of A New Discovery of a Vast Country in America, (1698).

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