Sex in history, by Gordan Rattray Taylor

Throughout the Middle Ages, and especially in nunneries, we find epidemics of such convulsions. A particularly clear-cut case is that investigated by the great German doctor de Weier (1515-76), one of the first people to explore such supposed cases of diabolic possession clinically and objectively. He reports them in his great work “De Praestigiis Daemonum“, a model of scientific detachment. He was one of the members of an investigating committee sent in 1565 to enquire into the case of “possession” occurring among the nuns of the convent of Nazareth at Cologne. De Weier noted that the convulsions exhibited several features betraying their erotic origin: during the attacks, he noted, the nuns would lie on their backs with closed eyes and their abdomens elevated in arc-en-cercle. After the convulsions had passed, his notes say, they

“opened their eyes with apparent expressions of shame and pain”.

The epidemic had started when a young girl who lived in the nunnery began to suffer from the hallucination that she was being visited every night by her lover. Nuns who were put to guard her became frightened by her convulsive movements and began to exhibit them also. Soon the epidemic spread to the entire group. (25)

Upon investigation, the committee discovered that some of the neighbouring youths had been climbing into the nunnery every night to enjoy an affair with nuns of their acquaintance. It was when this had been discovered and stopped that the convulsions developed. De Weier also studied similar phenomena in other nunneries and an orphanage, as he recounts in his Fourth Book. (256) Maury has collected a number of such cases in his “Histoire d’Astrologie et Magie“.

Erotic convulsions seem frequently to be induced when a hysteric loves a particular individual and the love is withdrawn or is not returned. In the celebrated case of Loudun (1634) which Aldous Huxley has recently popularized, the nun concerned, Jeanne des Anges, was enamoured of the Cure Grandier: as a move towards coming to know him better she invited him to become the confessor of the small convent of which she was abbess. He refused. She then developed a prolonged series of convulsions, accusing him of having bewitched her — and, psychologically, he was of course the responsible, though innocent, party. The sexual character of her hysteria is patent. Thus she claimed to have become possessed by seven devils, each of which she named and described. The first, Asmodeus, filled her head, she said, with sexual fantasies. The fourth, Isaacaron, aroused her passion by more direct methods, and this, she explained, was the cause of the violent bodily movements — a frank explanation which anticipates that of Freud by almost 300 years. Her convulsions culminated in a phantom pregnancy. The Cure was burnt alive as a sorcerer; the nun became an object of veneration, was presented to the queen and performed several miracles.

Many other cases can be found. A quarter of a century earlier a young girl called Madeleine de Mandol, of La Baume, accused a local priest, Gaufridi, of seducing and bewitching her, and soon she was joined in these accusations by Louise Capeau. Both exhibited convulsions with the characteristic rigidities. Once six men stood on the arched body of Madeleine de Mandol, just as later men were to stand on the body of Jeanne des Anges.