The Convulsionists of Saint-Medard
Hon. Robert Dale Owen
From The Atlantic Monthly. February-March, 1864
(This article recounts some of the miracles and wonders said to have been wrought by the late Jansenist deacon Francois de Paris in opposition to the bull Unigenitus issued in 1713 against the Moral Reflections on the New Testament by Pasquier Quesnel.)
Of all the [pneumatological episodes] that have visited Europe, beyond question the most remarkable, and in some of its features the most inexplicable, is that which prevailed in Paris some hundred and thirty years ago, among what were called the Convulsionists of St. Medard.
The celebrated Jansenius, Bishop of Ypres, during his life the opponent and enemy of the Jesuits, whom he caused to be excluded from the theological schools of Louvain, left behind him, at his death, a treatise, posthumously published in 1640, entitled, “Augustinus,” in which he professed to set forth the true opinions of St. Augustine on those century-long disputed questions of Grace, Free-Will, and Predestination. Taking ground against the Molinists, he contended for the doctrine of Predestination antecedent and absolute, a gift purely gratuitous, of God’s free grace, independent of any virtue or merit in the recipient soul. This doctrine, set forth in five propositions, was condemned, in the middle of the seventeenth century, by Popes Innocent X. and Alexander VII.; and against it, when revived by Father Quesnel in the beginning of the eighteenth century, there was fulminated, in 1713, by Pope Clement XI., the famous Bull Unigenitus. *
* Note: Innocent and Alexander condemned only a particular formulation of the doctrine, as attributed by them to Jansenius. Rome always insisted that no condemnation ever touched the doctrine of gratuitous predestination and efficacious grace as maintained by the Augustinians and the Thomists. Clement’s condemnation of Quesnel’s theological formulation was fallible, not ex cathedra, and judging by the supernatural scenes that followed upon it, must be considered dubious.
From this Bull, accepted in France after long opposition, the Jansenist party appealed to a future Papal Council, thence deriving their name of Appellants. Among these, one of the most noted and zealous was the Diacre Paris, who refused a curacy, to avoid signing his adhesion to what he regarded as heresy, consumed his fortune in works of charity, and his health in austerities of a character so excessive that they abridged his life. Dying, as his partisans have it, in the odor of sanctity, and protesting with his last breath against the doctrines of the obnoxious Bull, his remains were deposited, on the second of May, 1727, in the small church-yard of St. Medard, situated in the twelfth arrondissement of Paris, on the Rue Mouffetard, not far from the Jardin des Plantes.
To the tomb of one whom they regarded as a martyr to their cause the Jansenist Appellants habitually resorted, in all the fervor of religions zeal, heated to enthusiasm by the persecution of the dominant party. And there, after a time, phenomena presented themselves, which caused for years, throughout the French capital and among the theologians of that age, a fever of excitement; and which, though they have been noticed by medical and other writers of our own century, have not yet, in my judgment, attracted, either from the medical profession or from the pneumatological inquirer, the attention they deserve.
Of these phenomena a portion were physical, and a portion were mental or psychological. The former, first appearing in the early part of the year 1731, consisted (as alleged) partly of extraordinary cures, the apparent result of violent convulsive movements which overtook the patients soon after their bodies touched the marble of the tomb, sometimes even without approaching it, by swallowing, in wine or water, a small portion of the earth gathered from around it, the effect being heightened by strict fasting and prayer,--partly of what were called the “Grands Secours,” literally “Great Succors,” consisting of the most desperate, one might say murderous, remedies, applied, at their urgent request, to relieve the sufferings of the Convulsionists. These measures, called of relief, and carried to an incredible excess, were of such a character, that, during any normal state of the human system, they would have destroyed, not one, but a hundred lives, if the patient, or victim, had been endowed with so many. Those who regarded this marvellous immunity from what seemed certain immolation as a miraculous interposition of God were called Succorists; their opponents, ascribing such effects to the interference of the Devil in protection of his own, or (a somewhat rare opinion in those days) to natural agency, went by the name of Anti-Succorists. (Secouristes and Anti-Secouristes.)
Some of these alleged cures, but more especially some of these so-called succors, were of a nature so far passing belief, that one would be tempted to cast them aside as sheer impostures, were not the main facts vouched for by evidence, not from the Jansenists alone, but from their bitterest opponents, so direct, so overwhelmingly multiplied, so minutely circumstantial, that to reject it would amount to a virtual declaration, that, in proof of the extraordinary and the improbable, we will accept no testimony whatever, let its weight or character be what it may. Accordingly, we find dispassionate modern writers, medical and others, while reminding us, as well they may, that enlightened observers of these strange phenomena were lacking, and while properly suggesting that we ought to make allowance for exaggeration in some of the details, yet admitting as incontestable realities the substantial facts related by the historians of St. Medard.
Among these historians the chief is Carre de Montgeron, a magistrate of rank and high character, Counsellor of the Parliament of Paris. An enthusiast, and a weak logician, as hot enthusiasts generally are, Montgeron’s honesty is admitted to be beyond question. Converted to Jansenism on the seventh of September, 1731, in the church-yard of St. Medard, by the strange scenes there passing, he expended his fortune, sacrificed his liberty, and devoted years of his life, in the preparation and publication of one of the most extraordinary works that ever issued from the press. It consists of three quarto volumes, of some nine hundred closely printed pages each. Crowded with repetitions, and teeming with false reasoning these volumes nevertheless contain, backed by certificates without number, such an elaborate aggregation of concurrent testimony as I think human industry never before brought together to prove any contested class of phenomena.
Not less zealous, if less voluminous, were the writers opposed to what was called “the work of the convulsions.” Of these one of the chief was Dom La Taste, Bishop of Bethleem, author of the “Lettres TheoIogiques,” and of the “Memoire Theologique,” in both of which the extravagances of the Convulsionists are severely handled; a second was the Abbe d’Asfeld, who, in 1738, published his “Vains Efforts des Discernans,” in the same strain and another, M. Poncet, who put forth an elaborate reply to the Succorists, entitled “Reponse des Anti-Secouristes a la Reclamation.”
The convulsions, commencing in the year 1731, almost immediately assumed an epidemical character, spreading so rapidly that in a few months the affected reached the number of eight hundred. These were to be found not only on the tomb and in the cemetery itself but in the streets, lanes, and houses adjoining. Many, after returning from the exciting scenes of St. Medard, were seized with convulsions in their own dwellings.
The numbers and the excitement went on increasing, and conversions to Jansenism were counted by thousands. The scenes became daily more extravagant, and the phenomena more extraordinary, until the King, moved either by the representations of physicians or by the remonstrances of Jesuit theologians, caused the cemetery to be closed on the twenty-ninth of January, 1732.
Not for such interdiction, however, did the phenomena, once in progress, intermit. For fifteen years, or longer, the symptoms continued, with more or less violence. Indeed, the number of Convulsionists greatly increased after the cemetery was closed, extending to those who had no ailment or bodily infirmity.
The symptoms, though varying in different individuals, were of one general character, partaking, especially as to the muscular phenomena, of the nature of hysteria, or hystero-catalepsy. The patient, soon after being placed on the revered tomb, or on the ground near it, was commonly attacked by a tumultuous movement of all his members. Contractions exhibited themselves in the neck, shoulders, and principal muscles all over the body. The nervous system became dreadfully excited. The heart beat violently, and the patient, sometimes retaining partial consciousness and suffering extreme pain, could not restrain violent cries. He usually experienced, also, a tingling or pricking sensation in any diseased member. Those who from birth had been afflicted with paralysis, or partial paralysis, of a limb, or one side of the body, felt the convulsions chiefly in that limb or side. The convulsions were often so violent that numerous assistants could scarcely restrain the patient from seriously injuring himself by dashing his body or limbs against the marble.
The Demoiselle Fourcroy, alleged to have been suddenly cured, on the fourteenth of April, 1732, by means of these convulsions, of a confirmed anchylosis, which had deformed her left foot, and which the physicians had pronounced incurable, thus describes, in her deposition, her sensations:--”They caused me to take wine in which was some earth from the tomb of M. de Paris, and I immediately engaged in prayer, as the commencement of a neuvaine” (that is, a nine-days’ act of devotion). “Almost at the same moment I was seized with a great shuddering, and soon after with a violent agitation of the members, which caused my whole body to jerk into the air, and gave me a force I had never before possessed,--so that the united strength of several persons present could scarcely restrain me. After a time, in the course of these violent convulsive movements, I lost all consciousness. As soon as they passed off, I recovered my senses, and felt a sensation of tranquillity and internal peace, such as I had never experienced before.”
It was usually at the moment of recovery from these convulsions, as Montgeron alleges and the certificates published by him declare, that the cures deemed by him miraculous were effected. Sometimes, however, these cures were gradual only, extending through several days or weeks.
In Montgeron’s work fourteen distinct cures are minutely reported, all of persons declared by the attendant physicians to be incurable. Each of these cures, with the documentary evidence in support of it, occupies from fifty to one hundred pages of his book. The greater number are cases of paralysis, usually of one entire side of the body, in some instances complicated with general dropsy, in others with cancer, in others again with attacks of apoplexy. There are four cases where the eyesight was restored,--one of them of a lachrymal fistula; one of a young Spanish nobleman, who suddenly recovered the use of his right eye, the left, however, remaining uncured; and there is a case in which a young woman, deaf and dumb from birth, is reported to have been suddenly and completely cured on the tomb of M. de Paris, at the moment the convulsions ceased, immediately repeating, though not understanding, any word that was spoken to her by the bystanders.
My limits do not permit me to follow Montgeron through the details amid the documentary proof of these cures. That the patient, in each case, previously examined by some physician of reputation, was pronounced incurable, does not prove that he was so. Yet, unless Montgeron lie, some of the cures are inexplicable, upon any received principles of medical science. One man, (Philippe Sergent,) whose right knee had shrunk to such a degree that the right leg was, and had been for more than a year, three finger-breadths shorter than the left, was, according to the certificates, cured on the spot, threw away his crutches, and walked home, unaided, followed by a wondering crowd. Another patient, (Marguerite Thibault,) affected by general dropsy, and whose feet and legs were swollen to three times their natural size, is reported to have been cured so suddenly that before she left the tomb her servant could put on her feet the same slippers she had worn previously to her malady. This woman had also been afflicted, for three years, with paralysis of the left side, so complete as to deprive it of all power of motion. Yet she is stated to have raised herself unaided, on the tomb, to have walked from the spot, and even to have ascended the stairs of her house on her return. The symptom immediately preceding her cure is said to have been “a beneficent heat, which diffused itself over the entire left side, so long deadly cold.” This was followed by a consciousness of power to move it; and her first effort was to stretch out her paralytic arm.
But these cures, wonderful as they appear, are far less marvellous than another class of phenomena already referred to.
The convulsions were often accompanied by an urgent instinctive desire for certain extreme remedies, sometimes of a frightful character,--as stretching the limbs with a violence similar to that of the rack,--administering on the breast, stomach, or other parts of the body, hundreds of terrible blows with heavy weapons of wood, iron, or stone,--pressing with main force against various parts of the body with sharp-pointed swords,--pressure under enormous weights--exposure to excessive heat, etc. Montgeron, viewing the whole as miraculous, says:--”God frequently causes the convulsionists the most acute pains, and at the same time intimates to them, by a supernatural instinct, that the formidable succors which He desires that they should demand will cause all their sufferings to cease; and these sufferings usually have a sort of relation to the succors which are to prove a remedy for them. For instance, an oppression on the breast indicates the necessity for blows of extreme violence on that part; an excessive cold, or a devouring heat suddenly seizes a convulsionist, requires that he should be pushed into the midst of flames; a sharp pang, similar to that caused by an iron point piercing the flesh, demands a thrust of a rapier, given in the spot where the pain is felt, be it in the throat, in the mouth, or in the eyes, of which there are numerous examples; and let the rapier be pushed as it may, the point, no matter how sharp, cannot pierce the most tender flesh, not even the eye of the patient: of this, in my third proposition, I shall adduce proof the most incontestable.”
To some extent, it would seem, the symptoms themselves, attending the convulsions, appeared, to the observant physician, to warrant the propriety of the remedy desired. Montgeron copies a report of a case made to him, and attested by a gentleman of his acquaintance, a Jansenist, who had persuaded his cousin, Dr. M----, at that time a distinguished physician of Paris, and much prejudiced against the Jansenist movement, to accompany him to a house where there was a young girl subject to the reigning epidemic. They found her in a room with twenty or thirty persons, and at the moment in convulsions. The assistants agreed to place the case in the hands of the physician, and he carefully noted the movements of the patient.
“After a time,” proceeds the reporter, “he was greatly astonished to observe a sudden convulsive retraction of all the members. Examining the patient closely, touching her breast and limbs, he became aware of a contraction of the nerves, which gradually reached such a degree of violence that the whole body was disfigured in a frightful manner. His surprise was extreme, and it was soon changed to alarm, which induced him to forget his prejudices, and to resort to the very means he had previously condemned as useless or dangerous. He caused us to place ourselves, one at the head and one at each hand and foot, and bade us pull moderately. We did so.
“‘Not enough,’ he said, with his hand on the patient’s breast; ‘stronger!’
“‘Stronger yet!’ he exclaimed.
“We told him we were exerting our entire strength.
“‘Two, then, to each limb,’ he said.
“It was done, (by the aid of long and very strong pieces of cloth-listing,) but proved insufficient.
“‘Three to each!’ he cried; ‘the child will die; pull with all your force! Stronger still!’
“‘Then four to each!’
“He was obeyed.
“‘Ah, that relieves,’ he said; ‘the nerves resume their tone; the symptoms improve. But do not relax the tension.’
“Then again, after a pause,--”‘Strong! stronger! The contractions increase. Put all your strength to it.’“
Ultimately five persons were assigned to each hand; and the nearest aided themselves by bracing their feet against the bed. They continued their efforts during half an hour, sometimes pulling with all their strength, sometimes less strongly, as the physician observed the contraction of the nerves to increase or relax. Finally he ordered the tension to be gradually diminished, in proportion as the convulsion passed off.
After a time this convulsion was succeeded by another, causing a sudden and alarming swelling of the chest. “The girl stood leaning against a wall, and in that position he caused us, as had been our wont, to press with force on her chest. This we did, interposing a small cushion composed of listing. At first, I alone assisted.” Then Dr. M---- ordered three, four, five, ultimately even a greater number of persons, to aid them. “The convulsion ceased gradually, and in the same proportion he caused us to diminish the pressure.”
“Afterwards the physician, having retired to another room, said to us, before going away, ‘You would be homicides, gentlemen, if you did not render these succors; for the symptoms require them; and the girl would die, if you refused them. There is nothing but what is natural in the relation between her state and these succors.’“
Another example, occurring in 1740, and still more striking, because the case was that of a girl only three years of age, given by Montgeron on the authority (among other witnesses) of Count de Novion, a near relative of the Duke de Gesvres, Governor of Paris. The Count, having been present throughout this case, testifies from personal observation.
The child’s limbs, as in the previous example, were drawn up by violent convulsive movements, and the muscles became as it were knotted, causing extreme pain. The little creature urgently begged that they would draw her legs and arms. Moderate tension caused no diminution of the pain; violent tension, administered with fear and trembling, relieved her immediately. She complained also of acute pain in the breast, which swelled to an alarming extent. To remove this, nothing proved effectual but excessive pressure with the knee on the part affected.
After a time, however, some of the Anti-Succorist theologians persuaded the mother that the succors ought not to be administered,--and even raised doubts in her mind and in that of the Count, as to whether the Devil had not some agency in the affair. “Who knows,” said the latter, “if the Arch-Enemy has no part in this?” So they intermitted the succors for some weeks. During this time the infant gradually sank from day to day, would scarcely eat or drink, seldom slept, and death seemed imminent.
The physician, being called in, declared that the only hope was in resuming the succors, terrible as they appeared, and that, too, promptly. To the father he said, “if you delay, it will be too late. While you are trying all your fine experiments with her, your child will die.” They resumed the same violent remedies as before; and the child was gradually restored to perfect health.
But these examples, whatever we may think of them, are but some of the most moderate, which Montgeron himself admits to be explicable on natural principles. He says: “During the first months that the succors commenced, the power of resistance offered by the convulsionists did not appear so surprising, and seemed, indeed, to be the effect of an excessive swelling which was observed in the muscles upon which the convulsionists requested the blows to be given, and of the violent agitation of the animal spirits; so that the succors demanded by the sufferers appeared, in a measure, the natural remedy for the state in which God had placed them. But when, every day, the violence of the blows increased, it became evident that the natural force of the muscles could not equal that of the tremendous strokes which the convulsionists demanded, in obedience, as they said, to the will of God. And here was manifested the miracle.”
I proceed to give, as an example of one of the more violent succors here spoken of as miraculous, a narrative, not only vouched for by Montgeron himself as a witness present, but put forth, in the first instance, by one of the most violent Anti-Succorists, the Abbe d’Asfeld, in his work already referred to,--and put forth by him in order to be condemned as a wicked tempting of Providence, or, worse, an accepting of aid from the Prince of Darkness himself. It occurred in 1734.
“Here,” says the Abbe, “is an example, all the more worthy of attention, inasmuch as persons of every station and condition, ecclesiastics, magistrates, ladies of rank, were among the spectators. Jeanne Moler, a young girl of twenty-two or twenty-three years of age, standing up with her back resting against a stone wall, an extremely robust man took an andiron - a thick, roughly shaped bar of iron, bent at both ends, but the front end divided in two, to serve for feet, and furnished with a thick, short knob - weighing, as was said, from twenty-five to thirty pounds, and therewith gave her, with his whole force, numerous blows on the stomach. They counted upwards of a hundred at a time. One day a certain friar, after having given her sixty such blows, tried the same weapon against a wall; and it is said that at the twenty-fifth blow he broke an opening through it.”
Dom La Taste, the great opponent of Jansenism, alluding to the same circumstance, says, “I do not dispute the fact, that the andiron sunk so deeply that it appeared to penetrate to the very backbone.” -- Montgeron, after quoting the above, adds his own testimony, as to this same occurrence, in these words:--”As I am not ashamed to confess that I am one of those who have followed up most closely the work of the convulsions, I freely admit that I am the person to whom the author alludes, when he speaks of a certain friar who tried against a wall the effect of blows similar to those he had given the convulsionist. As this is an occurrence personal to myself, I trust the reader will perceive the propriety of my presenting to him the narrative in a more exact and detailed form than that in which it is given by the author of the ‘Vains Efforts.’
“I had begun, as I usually do, by giving the convulsionist very moderate blows. But after a time, excited by her constant complaints, which left me no room to doubt that the oppression in the pit of the stomach of which she complained could be relieved only by violent blows, I gradually increased the force of mine, employing at last my whole strength; but in vain. The convulsionist continued to complain that the blows I gave her were so feeble that they procured her no relief; and she caused me to put the andiron into the hands of a large and stout man who happened to be one of the spectators. He kept within no bounds. Instructed by the trial he had seen me make that nothing could be too severe, he discharged such terrible blows, always on the pit of the stomach, as to shake the wall against which the convulsionist was leaning.
“She caused him to give her one hundred such blows, not reckoning as anything the sixty I had just administered. She warmly thanked the man who had procured her such relief, and reproached me for my weakness and my lack of faith.
“When the hundred blows were completed, I took the andiron, desirous of trying against the wall itself whether my blows, which she thought so feeble and complained of so bitterly, really did produce no effect. At the twenty-fifth stroke the stone against which I struck, and which had been shaken by the previous blows, was shattered, and the pieces fell out on the opposite side, leaving an opening of more than six inches square.
“Now let us observe what were the portions of the body of the convulsionist on which these fearful blows were dealt. It is true that they first came in contact with the skin, but they sank immediately to the back of the patient; their force was not arrested at the surface.
“I insist unnecessarily, perhaps, upon this fact, since all, even our greatest enemies, admit its truth. But, however incontestable it is, I conceive that I cannot too strongly prove it to those who have not themselves witnessed what happened; inasmuch as the principal objection made by the author of the ‘Memoire Theologique’ consists in supposing that the violence of the most tremendous blows given to convulsionists is suspended by the Devil, who thus nullifies the effect they would naturally produce.”
Montgeron further says, that “the greatest enemies of these miraculous succors admitted the fact that such terrible blows, far from producing the slightest wound, or causing the convulsionist the least suffering, actually cured the pains of which she complained.”
The convulsionist sometimes demanded enormous pressure instead of violent blows. To this also the Abbe d’Asfeld testifies. I translate from his “Vains Efforts.”
“Next came the exercise of the platform. It consisted in placing on the convulsionist, who was stretched on the ground, a board of sufficient size to cover her entirely; and as many men as could stand upon it mounted on the board. The convulsionist sustained them all.”
Montgeron adds:--”This relation is tolerably exact, and it only remains for me to observe, that, as they gave each other the hand, for reciprocal support, most of those who were on the hoard rested the whole weight of the body on a single foot. Thus, twenty men at a time often stood upon the board, and were supported on the body of a young convulsionist. Now, as most men weigh a hundred and fifty pounds, and many weigh more, the body of the girl must have sustained a weight of three thousand pounds, if not sometimes nearly four thousand,--a load sufficient to crush an ox. Yet, not only was the convulsionist not oppressed by it, but she often found the pressure insufficient to correct the swelling which distended her muscles. With what force must not God have endowed the body of this girl! Since the days of Samson, was ever seen such a prodigy?”
If these incidents, attested as they are by friend and foe, seem to us incredible, what shall we say of another, not less strongly attested?
Let us first, as before, take the statement of an adversary. I translate from the “Memoire Theologique.”
“A convulsionist laid herself on the floor, flat on her back; and a man, kneeling beside her, and raising a flint stone, weighing upwards of twenty pounds, as high as he could, after several preliminary trials, dashed it, with all his force, against the breast of the convulsionist, giving her one hundred such blows in succession.
To this Montgeron subjoins:--”But the author ought to have added, that, at each blow, the whole room shook, the floor trembled, and the spectators could not repress a shudder at the frightful noise which was heard, as each blow fell on the convulsionist’s breast.” We need not be surprised that he adds,--”Not only ought such strokes naturally to rupture the minute vessels, the delicate glands, the veins and the arteries of which the breast is composed,--not only ought they, in the course of Nature, to have crushed and reduced the whole to a bloody mass,--but they ought to have shattered to pieces the bones and cartilages by which the breast is inclosed.”
This was the view of the case taken by a celebrated physician of the day. Montgeron tells us:--”This philosopher maintained that the facts alleged could not be true, because they were physically impossible. He raised, among other objections, this,--that the flexible, delicate nature of the skin, of the flesh, and of the viscera, is incompatible with a force and a consistency so extraordinary as the alleged facts presuppose; and, consequently, that it was impossible, without ceasing to be what they are,--without a radical change in their qualities,--that they should acquire a force superior to that of the hardest and most solid bodies. They let him quietly complete his anatomical argument, and set forth all his proofs, and merely answered, ‘Come and see; test the truth of the facts for yourself.’ He went. At first sight, he is seized with astonishment; he doubts the evidence of his eyes; he asks to be allowed himself to administer the succors. They immediately place in his hands iron bars of a crushing weight. He does not spare his blows; he exerts his utmost strength. The weapon sinks into the flesh, seems to penetrate to the entrails. But the convulsionist only laughs at his idle efforts. His blows but procure her relief, without leaving the least impression, the slightest trace, even on the epidermis.”
Space fails me to furnish more than a very few additional specimens of the endless incidents of which the details are scattered by Montgeron over hundreds of pages,--incidents occurring in various parts of Paris, daily, for many years. Three or four more of these may suffice for my present purpose.
A certain Marie Sonnet had made herself so remarkable by the incredible succors she demanded, that a physician of Paris, Dr. A----, published, in regard to her case, a satirical letter addressed to M. de Montgeron, in which, after attacking the girl’s moral character, he assumed this strange position. “It is a sentiment universally established, that it is in the power of the Devil, when God permits, to communicate to man forces above those of Nature. Nor must it be said that God never permits this; the case of the girl Sonnet is unanswerable proof to the contrary.”
Among the incidents which appear to have led to this opinion one is thus stated by him:--”They let fall upon her stomach, from the height of the ceiling, a stone weighing fifty pounds, while her body, bent back like a bow, was supported on the point of a sharpened stake, placed just under the spine; yet, far from being crushed by the stone, or pierced by the stake, it was a relief to her.”
Montgeron supplies further particulars of this case. He says:--”It was not once, it was a hundred times in succession, and that daily repeated, that this flint stone was raised by main force, by the aid of a pulley, to the ceiling of the room, and thence suddenly let fall on the stomach of the patient. This stone weighed, it is true, fifty pounds only; but, descending from a great height, its effect was immensely increased by the momentum it acquired in falling, as soon as the cord was detached by which it was suspended in the air. And, in truth, the ribs of the convulsionist bent under the terrible shock, sinking under the weight till her stomach and bowels were so completely flattened that the stone seemed wholly to displace them. Yet she received no injury whatever, but was relieved, as Dr. A---- himself admits. He confesses, also, that the body of the convulsionist was bent back so that the head and feet touched the floor, and was supported only on the sharp point of a stake right under her reins, and placed perpendicularly beneath the spot where the stone was to fall. The weight of the stone in falling was, therefore, arrested only by the point of this stake, the body of the convulsionist being between them, so that the entire force of the blow was concentrated opposite that point. The stake appeared to penetrate to a certain depth into the body, yet neither the skin nor the flesh received the slightest injury, nor did the convulsionist experience any pain whatever.”
This same Marie Sonnet exposed herself to terrible tests by fire. A certificate in regard to this matter, signed by eleven persons, of whom one was an English lord, one a Doctor of Theology in the Sorbonne, and another the brother of Voltaire, Armand Arouet, Treasurer of the Chamber of Accounts, is given by Montgeron, and I here translate it:--”We, the undersigned, certify, that this day, between eight and ten o’clock,—Marie Sonnet, being in convulsion, was placed, her head resting on one stool and her feet on another, these stools being entirely within a large chimney and under the opening of the same, so that her body was suspended in the air above the fire, which was of extreme violence, and that she remained in that position for the space of thirty-six minutes, at four different times; yet the cloth [drap] in which she was wrapped (she having no other dress) was not burned, though the flames sometimes passed above it: all which appears to us entirely supernatural. In testimony whereof; we have signed our names, this twelfth of May, 1736.”
To this certificate, which was afterwards legally recorded, a postscript is appended, stating, that, while they were writing out the certificate, Marie placed herself a fifth time over the fire, as before, remaining there nine minutes; that she appeared to sleep, though the fire was excessively hot; fifteen logs of wood, besides fagots, having been consumed in the two hours and a quarter during which the witnesses remained.
Montgeron adds, that this exhibition has been witnessed at least a hundred times, and by a multitude of persons. And he expressly states, that the stools, which consisted of iron frames, with a board upon each, were placed entirely within the fireplace, and one on each side of the fire; so that, as Marie Sonnet rested her head on one stool and her feet on the other, her body remained suspended immediately above the fire and further, that, “no matter how intense the heat, not only did she suffer no inconvenience, but the cloth in which she was wrapped was never injured, nor even singed, though it was sometimes actually in the flames.”
He declares, also, that Marie, on other occasions, remained over the fire much longer than is above certified. The author of the “Vains Efforts” admits that “she remained exposed to the fire long enough to roast a piece of mutton or veal.”
Montgeron informs us, in addition, that Marie Sonnet sometimes varied the form of this experiment, with a somewhat varying result. He says:--”I have seen her five or six times, and in the presence of a multitude of persons, thrust both her feet, with shoes and stockings on, into the midst of a burning brazier but in this case the fire did not respect the shoes, as, in the other, it had respected the cloth that enwrapped her. The shoes caught fire, and the soles were reduced to ashes, but without the convulsionist experiencing pain in her feet, which she continued to keep for a considerable time in the fire. Once I had the curiosity to examine the soles of her stockings, in order to ascertain if they, too, were burnt. As soon as I touched them they crumbled to powder, so that the sole of the foot remained bare.”
Dr. A----, in the letter already alluded to, which he published against this girl, admits, that, “while in the midst of flames, or stretched over a burning brazier, she received no injury whatever.”
M. Poncet, whom I have elsewhere mentioned as one of the chief writers against the Succorists, admits the following:--
“This convulsionist [Gabrielle Moler] placed herself on her knees before a large fire full of burning coals all in flame. Then, a person being seated behind her, and holding her by a band, she plunged her head into the flames, which closed over it; then, being drawn back, she repeated the same, continuing it with a regular alternate movement. She has been seen thus to throw herself on the fire six hundred times in succession. Usually she wore a bonnet, but sometimes not; and when she did wear one, the top of the bonnet was occasionally burned.” Montgeron adds, “but her hair never.”
Gabrielle was the first who (in 1736) demanded what was called the succor of the swords. Montgeron says, -- “She was prompted by the supernatural instinct which guided her to select the strongest and sharpest sword she could find among those worn by the spectators. Then setting herself with her back against a wall, she placed the point of the sword just above her stomach, and called upon him who seemed the strongest man to push it with all his force; and though the sword bent into the form of a bow from the violence with which it was pushed, so that they had to press against the middle of the blade to keep it straight, still the convulsionist cried out, ‘Stronger! stronger!’ After a time she applied the point of the sword to her throat, and required it to he pushed with the same violence as before. The point caused the skin to sink into the throat to the depth of four finger-breadths, but it never pierced the flesh, let them push as violently as they would. Nevertheless, the point of the sword seemed to attach itself to the skin; for, when drawn back, it drew the skin with it, and left a trifling redness, such as would be caused by the prick of a pin. For the rest, the convulsionist suffered no pain whatever.”
Similar is the testimony of an Advocate of the Parliament of Paris, extracts from whose certificate in regard to the succors rendered to the Sister Madeleine are given by Montgeron. Here is one of these:--
“One day, extended on the ground, she caused a spit to be placed upright, with the point on her bare throat. Then a stout man mounted on a chair, and suspended his whole body from the head of the spit, pressing with all his force, as if to transfix the throat and pierce the floor beneath. But the flesh merely sank in with the point of the spit, without being in the least injured.
“Another day, she placed the point of a very sharp sword against the hollow of the throat, just below the epiglottis, and, standing with her back against the wall, called on them to push the sword. A vigorous man did so, till the blade bent, though not so much as to form a complete arc. The point sank into the flesh about an inch. I was curious to measure the exact depth, and found that the flesh rose so far around the sword-point that I could sink a finger in beyond the first joint. She received this succor twice. The sword was one of the sharpest I have ever seen. We tried it against a portfolio containing the paper intended for the minutes which on such occasions I always make out. It perforated the pasteboard and a considerable part of the papers within.”
The Sister Madeleine carried her temerity in this matter still farther. Here is a portion of the certificate of an ecclesiastic, for whose uprightness and truthfulness Montgeron vouches in strong terms, and who relates what he alleges he saw on the thirty-first of May, 1744.
“Madeleine caused them to hold two swords in the air horizontally. She herself placed the point of one in the inner corner of the right eye, and of the other in the inner corner of the left, and then called out to those who held the swords, ‘In the name of the Father, push!’ They did so with all their force; and I confess that I shuddered from head to foot.... A second time Madeleine caused them to set two swords against the pupils of her eyes, and to press them strongly, as before. This time I took especial notice of the part of the sword that was on a level with the surface of the eye when the pressure was the strongest, and I perceived that the point had penetrated a good inch into the pupil.”
The Chaplain in Ordinary of the King, under date of the fourth of October, 1744, testifies to confirmatory facts. He says:--”I have seen them push sword-points against the eyes of Sisters Madeleine and Felicite, sometimes on the pupil, sometimes in the corner of the eye, sometimes on the eyelid,--with such force as to cause the eyeball to project, till the spectators shuddered.”
Another officer of the royal household gives a certificate of succors administered to this same Madeleine, of a character scarcely less wonderful, with pointed spits, of which two were broken against her body.
This officer certifies, also, that, on one occasion, when pushing a sharp sword against Madeleine, not being able to push strongly enough to satisfy her, he placed a book bound in parchment on his own breast, placed the hilt of his sword against it, and pressed with so much force that the cover of the book was quite spoiled by the deep indentation made by the sword-hilt. He adds:--”The instinct of her convulsion caused her sometimes to demand as many as twenty-two swords at a time. These were placed, some in front, some against her back, some against her sides, in every direction. I myself never saw quite so many employed; but I was present, and was myself assisting, when eighteen swords were pushed at once against various parts of her body. Although the force with which this prodigious succor was administered caused deep indentations in the flesh, she never received the slightest wound. It often happened that her convulsions caused the flesh to react under the pressure of the sword-points, so as forcibly to push back the assistants.”
The Advocate of the Parliament of Paris, already mentioned, certifies to the same phenomenon. His words are:--”One can feel, under the sword-point, a movement of the flesh, which, from time to time, thrusts back the sword. This occurs the most strongly when the succor is nearly at an end. The convulsionist calls out, ‘Enough!’ as soon as the pains are relieved.”
The same Advocate states, that sometimes the convulsionist threw the weight of her body on the swords, the hilts resting on the floor, and being secured from slipping. He speaks of one case in which, “while she was balancing herself on the points of several swords upon which she had thrown herself with all her weight, one of them broke.”
The officer of the king’s household already spoken of testifies to a similar fact. A certain Sister Dina, he says, caused six swords thus to break against her body. He adds, that he himself broke the blade of a sword while thrusting against her; and that he saw two others broken in the same way.
In regard to what Montgeron considers the exacting instinct, the same officer says:--”I had the curiosity to ask Sister Madeleine, in her natural state, what was the sort of suffering which caused her to have recourse to such astonishing succors. She replied, that the pain she suffered was the same as if swords were actually piercing her; that she felt relieved of this pain as soon as the sword-points penetrated to her skin, and quite cured when the assistants put their whole force to it. She laughed when the swords pierced her dress, saying, ‘I feel the points on my skin. That relieves. That does me good.”
Both the Advocate of Parliament and the ecclesiastic from whose certificates I have quoted testify that the convulsionists were repeatedly undressed and examined by a committee of their own sex, consisting in part of incredulous ladies of fashion, to ascertain that they had nothing concealed under their clothes to resist the sword-points. But in every case it was ascertained that they wore but the ordinary articles of under-clothing. The Sister Dina was examined in this way; and it was ascertained that she had nothing under her gown except a chemise and a simple linen stomacher. Her clothing was found pierced in many places, but the flesh wholly uninjured.
Although throughout the writings of the Anti-Succorists there are constant denunciations of these succors as flagrant and wicked temptings of Providence, yet I do not find therein any allegation that serious injury was ever sustained by any of the patients. Montgeron himself, however, admits, that, on one occasion, a wound was received. He tells us that a certain convulsionist long resisted the instinct which bade her demand the succor of a triangular-bladed sword against the left breast, fearing the result. At last, however, the pain became so intense that she was fain to consent. For the first seven or eight minutes the sword-point only indented the flesh, as usual. But then, says Montgeron, “her faith suddenly failing her, she cried out, ‘Ah you will kill me!’ No sooner had she pronounced the words than the sword pierced the flesh, making a wound two inches in depth.” He alleges, further, that the instinct of the convulsionist informed her that the wound would have no bad consequences, and could be cured by severe blows of a club on the same spot; which, he declares, happened accordingly.
Besides the incidents above related, and a hundred others of similar character, which, if time and the reader’s patience permitted, I might cull from Montgeron’s pages, the restless enthusiasm of the convulsionists ultimately betrayed them into extravagances, in which it is often hard to decide whether the grotesque or the horrible more predominated. One convulsionist descended the long stairs of an infirmary head-foremost, lying on her back; another caused herself to be attached, by a rope round her neck, to a hook in the wall. A third repeated her prayers while turning somersets. A fourth, suspended by the feet, with the head hanging down, remained in that position three-quarters of an hour. A fifth, lying down on a tomb, caused herself to be covered to the neck with baked earth mixed with sand and saturated with vinegar. A sixth made her bed, in winter, on billets of wood; a seventh on bars of iron. The Sister Felicite was in the habit of causing herself to be nailed to the cross, and of remaining there half an hour at a time, gayly conversing with the pious who surrounded her. Another sister, named Scholastique, after long hesitation between different modes of mortification, having one day remarked the manner in which they constructed the pavement of the streets, had her dress tightly fastened below the knee, and then ordered one of the assistants to take her by the legs, and, with her head downward, to dash it repeatedly against the tiled floor, after the fashion of paviors, when using a rammer.
“If,” says Calmeil, “the idea had chanced to suggest itself to one of these theomaniacs, that disembowelling alive would be a sacrifice pleasing to the Supreme Being, she would undoubtedly have insisted upon being subjected to such a martyrdom.”
The mental and physiological phenomena connected with this epidemic remain to be noticed, together with the theories and suggestions put forth by medical and other contemporary writers, in explanation of what has here been sketched, the substance of which is usually admitted by these commentators, however incredible, when related at this distance of time, it may appear. Next month the subject will be continued.
HAVING, in a previous number, furnished a brief sketch of the phenomena, purely physical, which characterized the epidemic of St. Medard, it remains to notice those of a mental and psychological character.
One of the most common incidents connected with the convulsions of that period was the appearance of a mental condition, called, in the language of the day, a state of ecstasy, bearing unmistakable analogy to the artificial somnambulism produced by magnetic influence, and to the trance of modern spiritualism.
During this condition, there was a sudden exaltation of the mental faculties, often a wonderful command of language, sometimes the power of thought-reading, at other times, as was alleged, the gift of prophecy. While it lasted, the insensibility of the patients was occasionally so complete, that, as Montgeron says, “they have been pierced in an inhuman manner, without evincing the slightest sensation”; and when it passed off, they frequently did not recollect anything they had said or done during its continuance.
At times, like somnambulism, it seemed to assume something of a cataleptic character, though I cannot find any record of that most characteristic symptom of catalepsy, the rigid persistence of a limb in any position in which it may be placed. What was called the “state of death,” is thus described by Montgeron: “The state of death is a species of ecstasy, in which the convulsionist, whose soul seems entirely absorbed by some vision, loses the use of his senses, wholly or in part. Some convulsionists have remained in this state two or even three days at a time, the eyes open, without any movement, the face very pale, the whole body insensible, immovable, and stiff as a corpse. During all this time, they give little sign of life, other than a feeble, scarcely perceptible respiration. Most of the convulsionists, however, have not these ecstasies so strongly marked. Some, though remaining immovable an entire day or longer, do not continue during all that time deprived of sight and hearing, nor are they totally devoid of sensibility; though their members, at certain intervals, become so stiff that they lose almost entirely the use of them.”
The “state of death,” however, was much more rare than other forms of this abnormal condition. The Abbe d’Asfeld, in his work against the convulsionists, alluding to the state of ecstasy, defines it as a state “in which the soul, carried away by a superior force, and, as it were, out of itself, becomes unconscious of surrounding objects, and occupies itself with those which imagination presents”; and he adds,--“It is marked by alienation of the senses, proceeding, however, from some cause other than sleep. This alienation of the senses is sometimes complete, sometimes incomplete.”
Montgeron, commenting on the above, says,--“This last phase, during which the alienation of the senses is imperfect, is precisely the condition of most of the convulsionists, when in the state of ecstasy. They usually see the persons present; they speak to them; sometimes they hear what is said to them; but as to the rest, their souls seem absorbed in the contemplation of objects which a superior power discloses to their vision.”
And a little farther on he adds,--“In these ecstasies the convulsionists are struck all of a sudden with the unexpected aspect of some object, the sight of which enchants them with joy. Their eyes beam; their heads are raised toward heaven; they appear as if they would fly thither. To see them afterwards absorbed in profound contemplation, with an air of inexpressible satisfaction, one would say that they are admiring the divine beauty. Their countenances are animated with a lively and brilliant fire; and their eyes, which cannot be made to close during the entire duration of the ecstasy, remain completely motionless, open, and fixed, as on the object which seems to interest them. They are in some sort transfigured; they appear quite changed. Even those who, out of this state, have in their physiognomy something mean or repulsive, alter so that they can scarcely be recognized It is during these ecstasies that many of the convulsionists deliver their finest discourses and their chief predictions,--that they speak in unknown tongues,--that they read the secret thoughts of others,--and even sometimes that they give their representations.”
A provincial ecclesiastic, quoted by Montgeron, and who, it should be remarked, found fault with many of the doings of the convulsionists, admits the exalted character of these declamations. He says,--” Their discourses on religion are spirited, touching, profound,--delivered with an eloquence and a dignity which our greatest masters cannot approach, and with a grace and appropriateness of gesture rivalling that of our best actors.... One of the girls who pronounced such discourses was but thirteen years and a half old; and most of them were utterly incompetent, in their natural state, thus to treat subjects far beyond their capacity.”
Colbert, already quoted, bears testimony to the same effect. Writing to Madame de Coetquen, he says:--”I have read extracts from these discourses, and have been greatly struck with them. The expressions are noble, the views grand, the theology exact. It is impossible that the imagination, and especially the imagination of a child, should originate such beautiful things. Sublimity full of eloquence reigns throughout these productions.”
To judge fairly of this phenomenon, we must consider the previous condition and acquirements of those who pronounced such discourses. Montgeron, while declaring that among the convulsionists there were occasionally to be found persons of respectable standing, adds:--”But it must be confessed that in general God has chosen the convulsionists among the common people; that they were chiefly young children, especially girls; that almost all of them had lived till then in ignorance and obscurity; that several of them were deformed, and some, in their natural state, even exhibited imbecility. Of such, for the most part, it was that God made choice, to show forth to us His power.”
The staple of these discourses--wild and fantastic enough--may be gathered from the following:
“The Almighty thus raised up all of a sudden a number of persons, the greater part without any instruction; He opened the mouths of a number of young girls, some of whom could not read; and He caused them to announce, in terms the most magnificent, that the times had now arrived,--that in a few years the Prophet Elias would appear,--that he would be despised and treated with outrage by the Catholics,--that he would even be put to death, together with several of those who had expected his coming and had become his disciples and followers,--that God would employ this Prophet to convert all the Jews,--that they, when thus converted, would immediately carry the light unto all nations,--that they would re-establish Christianity throughout the world,--and that they would preach the morality of the gospel in all its purity, and cause it to spread over the whole earth.”
Montgeron, commenting (as he expresses it) upon “the manner in which the convulsionists are supernaturally enlightened, and in which they deliver their discourses and their predictions,” says,--”Ordinarily, the words are not dictated to them; it is only the ideas that are presented to their minds by a supernatural instinct, and they are left to express these thoughts in terms of their own selection. Hence it happens that occasionally their most beautiful discourses are marred by ill-chosen and incorrect expressions, and by phrases obscure and badly turned; so that the beauty of some of these consists rather in the depth of thought, the grandeur of the subjects treated, and the magnificence of the images presented, than in the language in which the whole is rendered.
“It is evident, that, when they are thus left to clothe in their own language the ideas given them, they are also at liberty to add to them, if they will. And, in fact, most of them declare that they perceive within themselves the power to mix in their own ideas with those supernaturally communicated, which suddenly seize their minds; and they are obliged to be extremely careful not to confound their own thoughts with those which they receive from a superior intelligence. This is sometimes the more difficult, inasmuch as the ideas thus coming to them do not always come with equal clearness.
“Sometimes, however, the terms are dictated to them internally, but without their being forced to pronounce them, nor hindered from adding to them, if they choose to do so.
“Finally, in regard to certain subjects,--for example, the lights which illumine their minds, and oblige them to announce the second coming of the Prophet Elias, and all that has reference to that great event,--their lips pronounce a succession of words wholly independently of their will; so that they themselves listen like the auditors, having no knowledge of what they say, except only as, word for word, it is pronounced.”
Montgeron appears, however, to admit that the exaltation of intelligence which is apparent during the state of ecstasy may, to some extent, be accounted for on natural principles. Starting from the fact, that, during the convulsions, external objects produce much less effect upon the senses than in the natural state, he argues that “the more the soul is disembarrassed of external impressions, the greater is its activity, the greater its power to frame thoughts, and the greater its lucidity.” He admits, further,--”Although most of the convulsionists have, when in convulsion, much more intelligence than in their ordinary state, that intelligence is not always supernatural, but may be the mere effect of the mental activity which results when soul is disengaged from sense. Nay, there are examples of convulsionists availing themselves of the superior intelligence which they have in convulsion to make out dissertations on mere temporal affairs. This intelligence, also, may at times fail to subjugate their passions; and I am convinced that they may occasionally make a bad use of it.”
In another place, Montgeron says plainly, that “persons accustomed to receive revelations, but not raised to the state of the Prophets, may readily imagine things to he revealed to them which are but the promptings of their own minds,”—and that this has happened, not only to the convulsionists, but (by the confession of many of the ancient-fathers) also to the greatest saints. But he protests against the conclusion, as illogical, that the convulsionists never speak by the spirit of God, because they do not
always do so.
He admits, however, that it is extremely difficult to distinguish between what ought to he received as divinely revealed and what ought to he rejected as originating in the convulsionist’s own mind; nor does he give any rule by which this may he done. The knowledge necessary to the “discerning of spirits” he thinks can he obtained only by humble prayer.
The power of prophecy is one of the gifts claimed by Montgeron as having been bestowed on various convulsionists during their ecstatic state. Yet he gives no detailed proofs of prophecies touching temporal matters having been literally fulfilled, unless it be prophecies by convulsionist-patients in regard to the future crises of their diseases. And he admits that false predictions were not infrequent, and that false interpretations of visions touching the future were of common occurrence. He says,--”It is sometimes revealed to a convulsionist, for example, that there is to happen to some person not named a certain accident, every detail of which is minutely given; and the convulsionist is ordered to declare what has been communicated to him, that the hand of God may be recognized in its fulfilment But, at the same time, the convulsionist receiving this vision believes it to apply to a certain person, whom he designates by name. The prediction, however, is not verified in the case of the person named, so that those who heard it delivered conclude that it is false; but it is verified in the case of another person, to whom the accident happens, attended by all the minutely detailed particulars.”
If this be correctly given, it is what animal magnetizers would call a case of imperfect lucidity.
The case as to the gift of tongues is still less satisfactorily made out. A few, Montgeron says, translate, after the ecstasy, what they have declaimed, during its continuance, in an unknown tongue; but for this, of course, we have their word only. The greater part know nothing of what they have said, when the ecstasy has passed. As to these, he admits,--”The only proof we have that they understand the words at the time they pronounce them is that they often express, in the most lively manner, the various sentiments contained in their discourse, not only by their gestures, but also by the attitudes the body assumes, and by the expression of the countenance, on which the different sentiments are painted, by turns, in a manner the most expressive, so that one is able, up to a certain point, to detect the feelings by which they are moved; and it has been easy for the attentive observer to perceive that most of these discourses were detailed predictions as to the coming of the Prophet Elias,” etc.
If it be presumptuous, considering the marvels which modern observations disclose, to pronounce that the alleged unknown languages were unmeaning sounds only, it is evident, at least, that the above is inconclusive as to their true character.
Much more trustworthy appears to be the evidence touching the phenomenon of thought-reading.
The fact that many of the convulsionists were able “to discover the secrets of the heart” is admitted by their principal opponents. The Abbe d’Asfeld himself adduces examples of it. M. Poncet admits its reality. The provincial ecclesiastic whom I have already quoted says that he “found examples without number of convulsionists who discovered the secrets of the heart in the most minute detail: for example, to disclose to a person that at such a period of his life he did such or such a thing; to another, that he had done so and so before coming hither,” etc. The author of the “Recherche de la Verite,” a pamphlet on the phenomena of the convulsions, which seems very candidly written, acknowledges as one of these “the manifestation of the thoughts and the discovery of secret things.”
Montgeron testifies to the fact, from repeated personal observation, that they revealed to him things known to himself alone; and after adducing the admissions above alluded to, and some others, he adds,--” But it would be superfluous further to multiply testimony in proof of a fact admitted by all the world, even by the avowed adversaries of the convulsions, who have found no other method of explaining it than by doing Satan the honor to proclaim him the author of these revelations.”
Besides these gifts, real or alleged, there was occasionally observed, during ecstasy, an extraordinary development of the musical faculty. Montgeron tells us,--”Mademoiselle Dancogne, who, as was well known, had no voice whatever in her natural state, sings in the most perfect manner canticles in an unknown tongue, and that to the admiration of all those who hear her.”
As to the general character of these psychological phenomena, the theologians of that day were, with few exceptions, agreed that they were of a supernatural character,--the usual question mooted between them being, whether they were due to a Divine or to a Satanic influence. The medical opponents of the movement sometimes took the ground that the state of ecstasy was allied to delirium or insanity,--and that it was a degraded condition, inasmuch as the patient abandoned the exercise of his free will: an argument similar to that which has been made in our day against somewhat analogous phenomena, by a Bostonian.
In concluding a sketch, in which, though it be necessarily a brief one, I have taken pains to set forth with strict accuracy all the essential features which mark the character of this extraordinary epidemic, it is proper I should state that the opponents of Jansenism concur in bringing against the convulsionists the charge that many of them were not only ignorant and illiterate girls, but persons of bad character, occasionally of notoriously immoral habits; nay, that some of them justified the vicious courses in which they indulged by declaring these to be a representation of a religious tendency, emblematic of that degradation through which the Church must pass, before, recalled by the voice of Elms, it regained its pristine purity.
Montgeron, while admitting that such charges may justly be brought against some of the convulsionists, denies the general truth of the allegation, yet after such a fashion that one sees plainly he considers it necessary, in establishing the character and divine source of the discourses and predictions delivered in the state of ecstasy, to do so without reference to the moral standing of the ecstatics. When one of his opponents (the physician who addressed to him the satirical letter already referred to) ascribes to him the position, that one must decide the divine or diabolical state of a person alleged to be inspired by reference to that person’s morals and conduct, he replies,--”God forbid that I should advance so false a proposition!” And he proceeds to argue that the Deity often avails Himself; as a medium for expressing His will, of unworthy subjects. He says,--”Who does not know that the Holy Spirit, whose divine rays are never stained, let them shine where they will, ‘bloweth where it listeth,’ and distributes its gifts to whom best it seems, without always causing these to be accompanied by internal virtues? Does not Scripture inform us that God caused miracles to be wrought and great prophecies to be delivered by very vicious persons, as Judas, Caiaphas, Balaam, and others? Jesus Christ himself teaches us that there will be workers of iniquity among the number of those who prophesy and of those who will work miracles in his name, declaring that on the Day of Judgment many will say unto him, ‘Lord, have we not prophesied in thy name, and in thy name done many wonderful works?’ and that he will reply to them, ‘Depart from me, ye that work iniquity.”‘
And he proceeds thus--”If; therefore, all that our enemies allege against the character of the convulsionists were true, it does not follow that God would not employ such persons as the ministers of His miracles and His prophecies, provided, always, that these miracles and these prophecies have a worthy object, and tend to a knowledge of the truth, to the spread of charity, and to the reformation of the morals of mankind.”
These accusations of immorality are, probably, greatly exaggerated by the enemies of the Jansenists; yet one may gather, even from the tenor of Montgeron’s defence, that there was more or less truth in the charges brought against the conduct of some of the convulsionists, and that the state of ecstasy, whatever its true nature, was by no means confined to persons of good moral character.
Such are the alleged facts, physical and mental, connected with this extraordinary episode in the history of mental epidemics.
On the perusal of such a narrative as the above, the questions which naturally suggest themselves are,--To what extent can we rationally attach credit to it? And, if true, what is the explanation of phenomena apparently so incredible?
As to the first, the admission of a distinguished contemporary historian, noted for his skeptical tendencies, in regard to the evidence for these alleged miracles, is noteworthy. It is in these words--”Many of these were immediately proved on the spot before judges of unquestioned integrity, attested by witnesses of credit and distinction, in a learned age, an(l on the most eminent theatre that is now in the world; nor were the Jesuits, though a learned body, supported by the civil magistrate, and determined enemies to those opinions in whose favor the miracles were supposed to have been wrought, ever able distinctly to refute or detect them.”
Similar is the admission of another celebrated author, at least as skeptical as Hume, and writing at the very time, and on the very spot where these marvellous events were occurring. Diderot, speaking of the St. Medard manifestations, says,--”We have of these pretended miracles a vast collection, which may brave the most determined incredulity. Its author, Carre de Montgeron, is a magistrate, a man of gravity, who up to that time had been a professed materialist,--on insufficient grounds, it is true, but yet a man who certainly had no expectation of making his fortune by becoming a Jansenist. An eye-witness of the facts be relates, and of which he had an opportunity of judging
dispassionately and disinterestedly, his testimony is indorsed by that of a thousand others. All relate what they have seen; and their depositions have every possible mark of authenticity; the originals being recorded and preserved in the public archives.”
Even in the very denunciations of opponents we find corroboratory evidence of the main facts in question. Witness the terms in which the Bishop of Bethleem declaims against the scenes of St. Medard:--”What! we find ecclesiastics, priests, in the midst of numerous assemblies composed of persons of every rank and of both sexes, doffing their cassocks, habiting themselves in shirt and trousers, the better to be able to act the part of executioners, casting on the ground young girls, dragging them face-downward along the earth, and then discharging on their bodies innumerable blows, till they themselves, the dealers of these blows, are reduced to such a state of exhaustion that they are obliged to have water poured on their heads! What! we find men pretending to sentiments of religion and humanity dealing, with the full swing of their arms, thirty or forty thousand blows with heavy clubs on the arms, on the legs, on the heads of young girls, and making other desperate efforts capable of crushing the skulls of the sufferers! What! we find cultivated ladies, pious and of high rank, doctors of law, civil and canonical, laymen of character, even curates, daily witnessing this spectacle of fanaticism and horror in silence, instead of opposing it with all their force; nay, they applaud it by their presence, even by their countenance and their conversation! Was ever, throughout all history, such another example of excesses thus scandalous, thus multiplied?”
De Lan, another opponent, thus sketches the same scenes--”Young girls, bareheaded, dashed their heads against a wall or against a marble slab” they caused their limbs to be drawn by strong men, even to the extent of dislocation; they caused blows to be given them that would kill the most robust, and in such numbers that one is terrified. I know one person who counted four thousand at a single sitting; they were given sometimes with the palm of the hand, sometimes with the fist; sometimes on the back, sometimes on the stomach. Occasionally, heavy cudgels or clubs were employed instead.... Some convulsionists ran pins into their heads, without suffering any pain; others would have thrown themselves from the windows, had they not been prevented. Others, again, carried their zeal so far as to cause themselves to be hanged up by a hook,” etc.
Modern medical writers of reputation usually admit the main facts, and seek a natural explanation of them. In the article, “Convulsions,” in the great “Dictionnaire des Sciences Medicales,” (published in 1812-22,) which article is from the pen of an able physiologist, Dr. Montegre, we find the following, in regard to the St. Medard phenomena: “Carre de Montgeron surrounded these prodigies with depositions so numerous and so authentic, that, after having examined them, no doubt can remain.... However great my reluctance to admit such facts, it is impossible for me to refuse to receive them.” As to the succors, so-called, he frankly confesses that they seem to him as fully proved as the rest. He says,--”There are the same witnesses, and the incidents themselves are still more clear and precise. It is not so much of cures that there is question in this case, as of apparent and external facts, in regard to which there can he no misconception.”
Dr. Calmeil, in his well-known work on Insanity, while regarding this epidemic as one of the most striking examples of religious mania, accepts the relation of Montgeron as in the main true. “From various motives,” says he, “these theomaniacs sought out the most frightful bodily tortures. Would it be credible, if it were not that the entire population of Paris concurred in testifying to the fact, that more than five hundred women pushed ‘the rage of fanaticism or the perversion’ of sensibility to such a point, that they exposed themselves to burning fires, that they had their heads compressed between boards, that they caused to be administered on the abdomen, on the breast, on the stomach, on every part of the body, blows of clubs, stampings of the feet, blows with weapons of stone, with bars of iron? Yet the theomaniacs of St. Medard braved all these tests, sometimes as proofs that God had rendered them invulnerable, sometimes to demonstrate that God could cure them by means calculated to kill them, had they not been the objects of his special protection, sometimes to show that blows usually painful only caused to them pleasant relief. The picture of the punishments to which the convulsionists submitted, as if by inspiration, so that no one might doubt, as Montgeron has it, that it was easy for the Almighty to render invulnerable and insensible bodies the most frail and delicate, would induce us to believe, if the contrary were not so conclusively established, that a rage for homicide and suicide had taken possession of the greater part of the sect of the Appellants.”
Though I am acquainted with no class of phenomena occurring elsewhere that will match the “Great Succors” of St. Medard, yet we find occasional glimpses of instincts somewhat analogous to those claimed for the convulsionists, in other examples.
In Hecker’s “Epidemics of the Middle Ages” there is a chapter devoted to what he calls the “Dancing Mania,” the account of which he thus introduces:--” So early as the year 1374, assemblages of men and women were seen at Aix-la-Cha-pelle, who had come out of Germany, and who, united by one common delusion, exhibited to the public, both in the streets and in the churches, the following strange spectacle. They formed circles hand in hand, and, appearing to have lost all control over their senses, continued dancing, regardless of the bystanders, for hours together, in wild delirium, until at length they fell to the ground in a state of exhaustion. They then complained of extreme oppression, and groaned as if in the agonies of death, until they were swathed in cloths bound tightly round their waists; upon which they recovered, and remained free from complaint until the next attack. This practice of swathing was resorted to on account of the tympany which followed these spasmodic ravings; but the bystanders frequently relieved patients in a less artificial manner, by thumping and trampling upon the parts affected. While dancing they neither saw nor heard, being insensible to external impressions through the senses, but were haunted by visions. And again,--”In Liege, Utrecht, Tongres, and many other towns of Belgium, the dancers appeared with garlands in their hair, and their waists girt with cloths, that they might, as soon as the paroxysm was over, receive immediate relief from the attack of tympany. This bandage, by the insertion of a stick, was easily twisted tight; many, however, obtained more relief from kicks and blows, which they found numbers of persons ready to administer.”
Physicians of our own day, while magnetizing, have occasionally encountered not dissimilar phenomena. Dr. Bertrand tells us that the first patient he ever magnetized, being attacked by a disease of an hysterical character, became subject to convulsions of so long duration and so violent in character, that he had never, in all his practice, seen the like; and that she suffered horribly. He adds:--”Here is what happened during her first convulsion--fits. This unhappy girl, whose instinct was perverted by intensity of pain, earnestly entreated the persons present to press upon her with such force as at any other time would have produced the most serious injury. I had the greatest difficulty to prevent those around her from acceding to her urgent requests that they would kneel upon her with all their weight, that they would exert with their hands the utmost pressure on the pit of her stomach, even on her throat, with the view of driving off the imaginary hysterical ball of which she complained. Though at any other time such treatment would have produced severe pain, she declared that it relieved her and when the fit passed off, she did not seem to suffer the least inconvenience from it.”
The above, connecting as it does the phenomena exhibited during the St. Medard epidemic with those observed by animal magnetizers, brings us to the second query, namely, as to the cause of these phenomena.
And here we find physicians, not mesmerists, comparing these phenomena, and others of the same class, with the effects observed by animal magnetizers. Dr. Montegre, already quoted, says,--” The phenomena of magnetism, and those presented by cases of possession and of fascination, connect themselves with those observed among the convulsionists, not only by the most complete resemblance, but also by the cause which determines them. There is not a single phenomenon observed in the one case that has not its counterpart in the others.” Calmeil, while admitting that the “nervous effects produced by animal magnetizers bear a close resemblance to those which have been observed at Loudun, at Louviers, and during other convulsive epidemics,” offers the following, in explanation of the physical phenomena connected with the “Great Succors”:--”The energetic resistance, which, in the case of the convulsionists, the skin, the cellular tissue, and the surface of the body and limbs offered to the shock of blows, is certainly calculated to excite surprise. But many of these fanatics greatly deceived themselves, when they imagined that they were invulnerable; for it has been repeatedly proved that several of them, as a consequent of the cruel trials they solicited, suffered from large ecchymoses on the integuments, and numerous contusions on those portions of the surface which were exposed to the rudest attacks. For the rest, the blows were never administered except during the torments of convulsion; and at that time the tympany of the abdomen, the state of spasm of the uterus in women and of the alimentary canal in both sexes, the state of contraction, of orgasm, of turgescence in the fleshy envelopes, in the muscular layers which protect and inclose the abdomen, the thorax, the principal vascular trunks, and the bony surfaces, must essentially contribute to weaken, to deaden, to nullify, the effect of the blows. Is it not by means of an analogous state of orgasm, which an over-excited will produces, that boxers and athletes find themselves in a condition to brave, to a certain point, the dangers of their profession? In fine, it is to be remarked, that, when dealing blows on the bodies of the convulsionists, the assistants employed weapons of considerable volume, having fiat or rounded surfaces, cylindrical or blunted. But the action of such physical agents is not to be compared, as regards its danger, with that of thongs, switches, or other supple and flexible instruments with distinct edges. Finally, the contact and the repeated impression of the blows produced on the couvulsionists the effect of a sort of salutary pounding, and rendered less poignant and less sensible the tortures of hysteria. It would have been preferable, doubtless, to make use of less murderous succors; the rage for distinction as the possessor of a miraculous gift, even more perhaps than the instinctive need of immediate relief, prompting these convulsionary theomaniacs to make choice of means calculated to act on the imagination of a populace, whose interest could be kept awake only by a constant repetition of wonders.”
Calmeil, of all the medical authors I have consulted, appears to have the most closely studied the various phases of the St. Medard epidemic. Yet the explanations above given seem to me quite incommensurate with the phenomena admitted.
Some of the patients, he says, suffered from ecchymosis and contusions. In plain, unprofessional language, they were beaten black and blue. That is such a result as usually follows a few blows from a boxer’s fist or from an ordinary walking-stick. But when the weapon employed is a rough iron bar weighing upwards of twenty-nine pounds, when the number of blows dealt in succession on the pit of the stomach of a young girl exceeds a hundred and fifty, and when these are delivered with the utmost force of an athletic man, is it bruises and contusions we look for as the only consequence? Or does it explain the immunity with which this frightful infliction was received, to call it’ a salutary pounding? The argument drawn from the turgescence of the viscera and other organs, from the spasmodic contraction of the muscles and the general state of orgasm of the system, has doubtless great weight; but does it reach far enough to explain to us the fact, (if it be a fact, and as such Calmeil accepts it,) that a girl, bent back so that her bead and feet touched the floor, the centre of the vertebral column being supported on a sharp-pointed stake, received, day after day, with impunity, directly on her stomach and bowels, one hundred times in succession, a flint stone weighing fifty pounds, dropped suddenly from a height of twelve or fifteen feet? Boxers, it is true, in the excited state in which they enter the ring, receive, unmoved, from their opponents blows which would prostrate a man not prepared, by hard training, for the trial. But even such blows, in the end, sometimes prove mortal; and what should we say of substituting for the human fist a sharp-pointed rapier, and expecting that the tension of the nervous system would render impenetrable the skin of the combatant? Finally, it is to be admitted, that flexible weapons, especially if loaded, as the cat-o’-nine-tails, still used in some countries as an instrument of military punishment, occasionally is, with hard, angular substances, are among the most severe that can be employed to inflict punishment or destroy life. But what would even the poor condemned soldier, shrinking from that terrible instrument of torture which modern civilization has not yet been shamed into discarding, think of the proposal to substitute for it the andiron with which Montgeron, at the twenty-fifth blow, broke an opening through a stone wall,--the executioner--drummer being commanded to deal, with his utmost strength, one hundred and sixty blows in succession, with that ponderous bar, (a bar with rough edges, no cylindrical rod,) not on the back of the culprit, but on his unprotected breast?
No wonder that Dc Gasparin, with all his aversion for the supernatural, and all his disinclination to admit anything which he cannot explain, after quoting from Calmeil the above explanation, feels its insufficiency, and seeks another. These are his words:
“How does it happen, that, after being struck with the justice of these observations, one still retains a sort of intellectual uneasiness, a certain suspicion of the disproportion between the explanation and the phenomena it seeks to explain? How does it happen, that, under the influence of such an impression, many suffer themselves to be seduced into an admission of diabolical or miraculous agency? It happens, because Dr. Calmeil, faithful to the countersign of all learned bodies in England and France, refuses to admit fluidic action, or to make a single step in advance of the ordinary theory of nervous excitement. Now it is in vain to talk of contractions, of spasms, of turgescence; all this evidently fails to reach the case of the St. Medard succors. To reach it we need the intervention of a peculiar force,--of a fluid which is disengaged, sometimes by the effect of certain crises, sometimes by the power of magnetism itself. Those who systematically keep up this hiatus in the study of human physiology are the best allies of the superstitions they profess to combat.... Suppose that study seriously undertaken, with what precision should we resolve the problem of which now we can but indicate the solution! Habituated to the wonders of the nervous fluid, knowing that it can raise, at a distance, inert objects, that it can biologize, that it can communicate suppleness or rigidity, the highest development of the senses or absolute insensibility, we should not be greatly surprised to discover that it communicates also, in certain cases, elasticity and that degree of impenetrability which characterizes gum-elastic.”
De Gasparin further explains his theory in the following passage:--”The great difficulty is not to explain the perversion of sensibility exhibited by the convulsionists. Aside from that question, does it not remain incomprehensible that feeble women should have received, without being a hundred times crushed to pieces, the frightful blows of which we have spoken? How can we explain such a power of resistance? A very small change, operated by the nervous fluid, would suffice to render the matter very simple. Let us suppose the skin and fibres of the convulsionists to acquire, in virtue of their peculiar state of excitement, a consistency analogous to that of gum-elastic then all the facts that astonish us would become as natural as possible. With convulsionists of gum-elastic, or, rather, whose bony framework was covered with muscles and tissues of gum-elastic, what would happen?”
He then proceeds to admit that “a vigorous thrust with a rapier, or stroke with a sabre, as such thrusts and strokes are usually dealt, would doubtless penetrate such an envelope” but, he alleges, the St. Medard convulsionists never, in. a single instance, permitted such thrusts or strokes, with rapier or sabre, to be given; prudently restricting themselves to pressure only, exerted after the sword-point had been placed against the body. He reminds us, further, that neither razors nor pistol-balls, both of which would penetrate gum-elastic, were ever tried on the convulsionists; and he adds:--”Neither flint stones nor andirons nor clubs nor swords and spits, pressed against it, would have broken the surface of the gum-elastic envelope. They would have produced no visible injury. At the most, they might have caused a certain degree of internal friction, more or less serious, according to the thickness of the gum-elastic cuirass which covered the bones and the various organs.”
I am fain to confess, that this imagining of men and women of gum-elastic, all but the skeleton, does not seem to me so simple a matter as it appears to have been regarded by M. de Gasparin. Let us take it for granted that his theory of a nervous fluid, which is the agent in table-moving, is the true one. How is the mere disengaging of such a fluid to work a sudden transmutation of muscular and tendinous fibre and cellular tissue into a substance possessing the essential properties of a vegetable gum? And what becomes of the skin, ordinarily so delicate, so easily abraded or pierced, so readily injured? Is that transmuted also? Let us concede it. But the concession does not suffice. There remain the bones and cartilages, naturally so brittle, so liable to fracture. Let us even suppose the breast and stomach of a convulsionist protected by an artificial coating of actual gum-elastic, would it be a safe experiment to drop upon it, from a height of twelve feet, a flint stone weighing fifty pounds? We are expressly told that the ribs bent under the terrible shock, and sank, flattened, even to the backbone. Is it not certain, that human ribs and cartilages, in their normal state, would have snapped off, in spite of the interposed protection? Must we not, then, imagine osseous and cartilaginous fibre, too, transmuted? Indeed, while we are about it, I do not see why we should stop short of the skeleton. Since we understand nothing of the manner of transmutation, it is as easy to imagine bone turned to gum-elastic, as skin and muscle and tendon.
In truth, if we look at it narrowly, this theory of De Gasparin is little more than a virtual admission, that during convulsion, by some sudden change, the bodies of the patients did, as they themselves declared, become, to a marvellous extent, invulnerable,--with the suggestion added, that the nervous fluid may, after some unexplained fashion, have been the agent of that change.
For the rest, though the alleged analogy between the properties of gum-elastic and those which, in this abnormal state, the human body seems to acquire, is, to a certain extent, sustained by many of the observations above recorded,--for example, when a sharp-pointed rapier, violently pushed against Gabrielle Moler’s throat, sank to the depth of four finger-breadths, and, when drawn back, seeming to attach itself to the skin, drew it back also, causing a trifling injury,--yet others seem to prove that there is little strictness in that analogy. The King’s Chaplain and the Advocate of Parliament, whose testimony I have cited, both certify that the flesh occasionally reacted under the sword, swelling up, so as to thrust back the weapons, and even push back the assistants. There is no corresponding property in gum-elastic. And Montgeron expressly tells us, that, at the close of a terrible succor called for by Gabrielle Moler, when she caused four sharpened shovels, placed, one above, one below, and one on each side, of one of her breasts, to be pushed by the main force of four assistants, a committee of ladies present “had the curiosity to examine her breast immediately after this operation, and unanimously certified that they found it as hard as a stone.” If this observation can be depended on, the gum-elastic theory, even as an analogically approximating explanation of this entire class of phenomena, is untenable.
It is further to be remarked, that one of the positions assumed by M. de Gasparin, as the basis of his hypothesis, does not tally with some of the facts detailed by Montgeron. It was pushes with swords, the former alleges, never thrusts, to which the convulsionists were exposed. I have already stated that this was usually the fact; but there seem to have been striking exceptions. On the authority of a priest and of an officer of the royal household, Montgeron gives us the details of a symbolical combat of the most desperate character, with rapiers, between Sisters Madeleine and Felicite, occurring in May, 1744, in the presence of thirty persons. One of the witnesses says,--”I know not if I ever saw enemies attack each other with more fury or less circumspection. They fell upon one another without the slightest precaution, thrusting against each other with the points of their rapiers at hap-hazard, wherever the thrust happened to take effect. And this they did again and again, and with all the force of which, in convulsion, they were capable,--which, as all the world knows, is a force far greater than the same persons possess in their ordinary state.”
And the officer thus further certifies:--”After the combat, Madeleine took two short swords, resembling daggers, and, holding one in each hand, dealt seven or eight blows, pushed home with all her strength, on the breast of Filicite, raising her hands and then stabbing with the utmost eagerness, just as an assassin who wished to murder some one would plunge two daggers repeatedly into his breast. Felicite received the strokes with perfect tranquillity, and without evincing the slightest emotion. Then, taking two similar daggers, she did the very same to Madeleine, who, with her arms crossed, received the thrusts as tranquilly as the other had done. Immediately afterwards, these two convulsionists attacked one another with daggers, as with the fury of two maniacs, who, having resolved on mutual destruction, were solely bent each on poniarding the other.”
It is added, that neither the one nor the other received the least appearance of a wound, nor did either seem at all fatigued by so long and furious an exercise.
It is not stated, in this particular instance, as it is in others, that these girls were examined by a committee of their sex, before or after the combat, to ascertain that they had under their dresses no concealed means of protection; so that the possibility of trickery must be admitted. If, as the officer who certifies appears convinced, all was fair, then M. de Gasparin’s admission that a vigorous sword-thrust would penetrate the gum-elastic envelope is fatal to the theory he propounds.
Yet, withal, we may reasonably assent to the probability that M. de Gasparin, in seeking an explanation of these marvellous phenomena, may have proceeded in the right direction. Modern physicians admit, that, at times, during somnambulism, complete insensibility, resembling hysteric coma, prevails. But if, as is commonly believed, this insensibility is caused by some modification or abnormal condition of the nervous fluid, then to some other modification or changed condition of the same fluid comparative invulnerability may be due. For there is connection, to a certain extent, between insensibility and invulnerability. A patient rendered unconscious of pain, by chloroform or otherwise, throughout the duration of a severe and prolonged surgical operation, escapes a perilous shock to the nervous system, and may survive an ordeal which, if he had felt the agony usually induced, would have proved fatal. Pain is not only a warning monitor, it becomes also, sometimes, the agent of punishment, if the warning be disregarded.
But, on the other hand, we must not forget that insensibility and invulnerability, though to a certain extent allied, are two distinct things. Injury the most serious may occur without the premonitory warning, even without immediate subsequent suffering. A person in a perfect state of insensibility might doubtless receive, without experiencing any pain whatever, a blow that would shatter the bones of a limb, and render it powerless for life. Indeed, there is on record a well-attested case of a poor pedestrian, who, having laid himself down on the platform of a lime-kiln, and dropping asleep, and the fire having increased and burnt off one foot to the ankle, rose in the morning to depart, and knew nothing of his misfortune, until, putting his burnt limb to the ground, to support his body in rising, the extremity of his leg-bone, calcined into lime, crumbled to fragments beneath him.
Contemporary medical authorities, even when they have the rare courage to deny to the convulsions either a divine or a diabolical character, furnish no explanation of them more satisfactory than the citing of similar cases, more or less strongly attested, in the past. This may confirm our faith in the reality of the phenomena, but does not resolve our difficulties as to the causes of them.
It does not fall within my purpose to hazard any opinion as to these causes, nor, if it did, am I prepared to offer any. Some considerations might be adduced, calculated to lessen our wonder as to an occasional phenomenon on this marvelous record. Physiologists, for example, are agreed that the common opinion as to the sensibility of the interior of the eye is an incorrect one and that consideration might be put forth, when we read that Sisters Madeleine and Felicite suffered with impunity swords to be pressed against that delicate organ, until the point sank an inch beneath its surface. But all such isolated considerations are partial, inconclusive, and, as regards any general satisfactory explanation, far short of the requirements of the case.
More weight may justly be given to another consideration: to the exaggerations inseparable from enthusiasm, and the inaccuracies into which inexperienced observers must ever fall. As to the necessity of making large allowance for these, I entirely agree with Calmeil and Do Gasparin. But let the allowance made for such errors be more or less, it cannot extend to an absolute denial of the chief phenomena, unless we are prepared to follow Hume in his assertion that what is contrary to our experience can be proved by no evidence of testimony whatever, and that, though we have here nothing, save the marvelous character of the events, to oppose to the cloud of witnesses who attest them, that alone, in the eyes of reasonable people, should be regarded as a sufficient refutation.
The mental and psychological phenomena, only less marvellous than the physical because we have seen more of their like, will, on that account, be more readily received.
The deacon Francois de Paris
austerely performing his duties