The 16th century exorcism that became political propaganda

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In 1565, a teenager named Nicole Aubrey began to suffer horrific physical pain, speak in a gravelly voice, and refuse food. Several priests tried to exorcize her, to no avail. Soon, she became so famous that she was given a daily public exorcism, in front of the massive Laon Cathedral, where her "devil" delivered political speeches.

Over at Providentia, psychologist Romeo Vitelli describes how the case went from spiritual to political:

The chief demon possessing her, who named himself "Beelzebub, the Prince of the Huguenots" (Huguenots were French Protestants) insisted that no one less that the Bishop of Laon could drive him out. When Bishop Jean de Bours arrived in Vervins in January 1566 to do an exorcism, he was no more successful than the other priests.

The case quickly took on political dimensions with the local Huguenots insisting that the entire possession story was a hoax and attempted to have the exorcisms stopped. They had good reason for their skepticism considering that "Beelzebub" was accusing them of consorting with Satan. Largely for her own protection, Nicole was transferred to Laon where she was subjected to a series of public exorcisms which took on all the pomp of a religious pageant.

Each day, Nicole was taken from the convent where she was staying in a great religious procession to the majestic Cathedrale Notre-Dame de Laon where she mounted a specially constructed scaffold. There, before a large audience, the exorcist would order "Prince Beelzebub" to speak and Nicole would dutifully deliver a sermon on the evils that the Protestants would inflict on France's Catholics.

The content was little different from the anti-Huguenot sermons that priests and bishops across the country were delivering on a daily basis. That a demon, one of Satan's fallen, was telling the Catholics who were listening what they largely wanted to believe about their Huguenot neighbours seemed guaranteed to boost religious tensions. Among other things, "Prince Beelzebub" told his listeners that local Huguenots had stolen a communion wafer, cut it up, and burned the pieces. "Beelzebub" also boasted that "I with my obstinate Huguenots will do Him [Christ] more evil than the Jews did!"


Though Nicole had originally claimed she was possessed by her grandfather's spirit, she revised her story after so many priests had visited her and she became such a celebrity. It's not clear whether she was a genuinely ill young woman who was being manipulated — or if she simply wanted to be the sixteenth century equivalent of a reality TV star. What's certain is that the Catholic Church used Nicole's celebrity to foster anti-Protestant feeling. Her devil talked about how it was here on Earth to cozy up to Protestants and destroy the Catholic Church.

Eventually, a priest was finally able to exorcize Nicole — in a massive public event, of course — and nothing is known of what happened to her after that. But her fame inspired a few other possessions in France afterwards, one of which was a direct copycat scenario where a woman claimed that the same devil had possessed her and wanted to warn everybody about those awful Satanic Protestants.


Vitelli suggests that the Catholic Church publicized these possessions because it was rapidly losing political ground to the Huguenots and other Protestant groups in Europe. It's possible that the popularity of possession stories today serves a similar purpose — except today it's not a Catholic Church that's threatened by Protestants. It's all of Christianity that's threatened by skepticism.

Read more on Providentia