Charity as Healing: Dealing with Demonic Possession in Seventeenth-Century France

Last October, the Centre for Privacy Studies organised a symposium in collaboration with the Centre de recherche du château de Versailles, called “Conspicuous Privacy: Charity in Versailles under Louis XIV”. The idea behind this event was to tackle the conflicting role of charity in the court of Louis XIV. Charitable acts were expected, as a Christian duty, to be performed humbly in private. However, at the same time, they were used as a tool for ostentation and political manoeuvre. As the event description puts it: “There is an apparent paradox between the normative privacy of charitable acts, and the public flaunting of these acts that happened in reality.”

My presentation at this event focused on how charity could be understood as public masking of private intentions during the Affair of the Poisons. Madame de Brinvilliers, a noblewoman involved in a poisoning plot, was said to pretend to perform charity at the hospital in order to experiment the efficacy of poisons on the paupers. Hospitals were a central focus of charity, but they were also a place where people were extremely vulnerable, which exacerbated the anxieties of the time – such as the fear of poisoners. In such a context, the charity that was closely associated with healing could also be considered suspicious or dangerous.

Adam Elsheimer ( 1598 ). Wellcome Images L0015276

While working at the hospitals and healing the sick was considered an important charitable act, charity was also seen as a form of healing. Nobles would donate to religious institutions asking for prayers or masses to heal a loved one. Good actions were seen as purifying the soul, and therefore, acted to cleanse one’s body. I am very curious about this tangled reciprocity between charity and healing. Could this be a useful tool to explore how charity existed in this threshold between private duty and public performance?

Interestingly, cases of possessions were among the ailments that could require charity as healing in early modern France. One of the most well-known cases of possession in seventeenth-century France was the one involving the Ursuline nun Jeanne des Anges. In the 1630s, the superior of the Ursuline convent in Loudun was said to be possessed by several demons, having to undergo numerous exorcisms. Jeanne became notorious for her suffering at the hands of demonic forces and for her faith throughout the laborious process of trying to remove them.[1] In her memoir, charity is shown as being a key part of her battle against the demons:


“One night during my prayer, as I prayed to Our Lord to let me know his will on this subject, I was told internally that I had to fight this demon by acts of charity, patience, and submission; with those, I would get over it.”[2]


After having all demons expelled from her body, Jeanne made pilgrimages that attracted a broad public. The notoriety of this case fostered a cult-like following of the nun who went through so many miraculous exorcisms. She began to act as a miracle-worker, and  her fame allowed her to meet Richelieu and King Louis XIII.

Scene from Jerzy Kawalerowicz’s movie “Mother Joan of the Angels”, also known as “The Devil and the Nun”, from 1961.

She became a consultant in cases of possession or ecstasies, as her intimate experience with exorcisms would enable her to identify which effects had a divine origin and which were of demonic influence. In the records of these consultations, Jeanne continued to stress the role of charity in dealing with cases of possessions and illusions. After examining the case of a nun from a convent in Pontivy who was having visions, Jeanne had divine revelations, in which a voice said that the woman was under a dark influence. The angelic voice also pointed out the need for charity to save the woman from the devil.

The charity referred here seems to be two-fold. One the one hand, there was the need for charity towards the woman, in the form of spiritual guidance by the priests and nuns around her. On the other hand, there was the need for charity by the nun, as the engagement in charitable acts would help to keep her illusions away. Jeanne also dedicated herself to charity after her exorcisms in order to make sure that the supernatural evils could not return to her body.

This seems to indicate that there is a different private dimension to charity. Beyond being a Christian duty, charity appears to have a direct power within the body, being intimately related to control over one’s own personhood in the face of supernatural challenges.

In the future, I aim to compare healing as charity and charity as healing from Catholic and Protestant examples to see how it can help us understand the interplay between health, faith, and privacy in the early modern period. For now, I am pleased to inform that the event “Conspicuous Privacy” will result in a published special issue! More information will follow here on the blog and on PRIVACY’s website.



[1] More information on the whole phenomenon of the possessions of Loudun can be found in Michel de Certeau’s “The Possession at Loudun”. Sarah Faber also described in amazing detail the events surrounding Jeanne in particular.

[2] “Une nuit, pendant mon oraison, comme je priais Nostre-Seigneur de ma faire connoistre sa volonté sur ce sujet, il me fut dit intérieurement que je devois combattre ce démon par les actes de charité, de patience et de soumission, et, qu’avec cela, j’en viendrois à bout.” (Soeur Jeanne des Anges, supérieure des Ursulines de Loudun, XVIIe siècle : autobiographie d’une hystérique possédée, d’après le manuscrit inédit de la bibliothèque de Tours. Paris : G. Charpentier et Cie, 1886, p. 148.)