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 Medieval exorcism of a woman.

The Exorcism Of Marthe Brossier: The First Exorcism With Scientific Controls

Marthe Brossier was a celebrity in France in the 1590s. She was a woman possessed by demons and her family took “the act” on tour. They went from town-to-town showing off the Satanic entity that resided within their child’s soul, all before a packed crowd.

It was a thrilling show. Brossier’s eyes would roll back into her head, leaving nothing but vacant white spaces behind. Her tongue, as red as blood, would lash out like a snake’s, and she would convulse on the ground as a deep, demonic voice erupted from within her stomach.

It caught so much attention that King Henri IV himself ordered her exorcism. He had some of the highest priests in the country gather around her, sprinkling her with holy water and reciting scriptures in Latin while the demon in Brossier, tormented by the Holy Scriptures, screamed in agony and pain.

Cathedral of Bayeux (France, Normandy), exorcism by Saint Exupère (painting by Rupalley). (Philippe Alès/CC BY SA 3.0)

Cathedral of Bayeux (France, Normandy), exorcism by Saint Exupère (painting by Rupalley). (Philippe Alès/ CC BY SA 3.0 )

But what Brossier didn’t know was that her exorcism was a sham. The holy water was just ordinary water, and the Latin books the priests were reading were nothing more than an old poem by Virgil.

Her exorcism was a science experiment – the first time in history that a demonic possession was systematically put to the test . Brossier failed – and in the process, revealed some incredible things about the human mind.

Marthe Brossier: An Alleged Victim Of Witchcraft

Marthe Brossier was 20-years-old when the demons “possessed” her. She was already thought of as a bit of a strange bird – a woman who would sneak out of her house dressed as a man with, apparently, no interest whatsoever in getting married. To the villagers in her small town, it practically seemed a matter of course when a demonic voice started rising out of her.

Her neighbor, Anne Chevreau , was blamed for the witchcraft. She was an unmarried, middle-aged woman – by the standards of the time, the trademark profile of a witch – and whatever complaint Brossier put against her was convincing enough that Chevreau was thrown into jail.

‘Examination of a Witch’ by T. H. Matteson. (Public Domain)

‘Examination of a Witch’ by T. H. Matteson. ( Public Domain )

But the Brossier family didn’t hide their demon child. They took her on the road, traveling from town to town showing her off, and letting everyone see the evil spirit that had taken hold of their girl.

The Catholic Church’s Favorite Demon

To the Catholic Church, the demons in Brossier’s body were a godsend. The king of France, Henri IV, was on a campaign of tolerance toward the Huguenots, the local Protestants. To the Catholic Church, their rise was a threat – and in Brossier, they had proof had Protestants were in league with the devil.

The voice that spoke through her belly even while her mouth was closed called itself Beelzebub, and it called itself the “Prince of the Huguenots”.

Before, the demon had taken hold of a woman named Nicole Aubrey . The Church would tour her around letting the world hear her declare blasphemies against God in the Huguenots’ names, once saying:

“I with my obstinate Huguenots will do [Christ] more evil than the Jews did!"

Beelzebub from Russian icon of ‘Harrowing of Hell’. (CC BY SA 3.0)

Beelzebub from Russian icon of ‘Harrowing of Hell’. ( CC BY SA 3.0 )

But Aubrey had been publicly exorcised, and the Church’s favorite demon had been lost. That was why Brossier seemed like a godsend. Once more, the Church had someone who could denounce the Protestants in a demon’s name.

A priest gave her formal certificate of genuine possession, and the Church joined their tours. In front of an awe-struck crowd they would publicly exorcise her – only to have Beelzebub climb back into her body for the joy of another crowd.

The Exorcism Of Marthe Brossier

Michel Marescot, the personal physician to King Henri IV, was given the task of exposing her. On the king’s orders, Marthe Brossier was brought to the Abbey of St. Geneuesua, to be exorcised, under Marescot’s watch, by the Bishop of Paris himself.

Nearly as soon as Brossier kneeled down with the bishop to pray, the demon took hold of her. She fell onto her back, convulsing and breathing like a wild animal. Her eyes turned back in her head, her tongue flared out, and a dark, gravelly voice from within her stomach shouted vulgar, unprintable words.

The priests put a piece of wood in her mouth to keep her from swallowing her own tongue, then gathered around her, holding a piece of Jesus Christ’s true cross and reading Holy Scriptures to cast out the demon. When she saw the true cross, she began to writhe in pain on the floor, a dark voice within her screaming out blasphemies and death threats.

‘Saint Peter Martyr Exorcizing a Woman Possessed by a Devil’, 1445/55 by Antonio Vivarini. (Art Institute Chicago)

‘Saint Peter Martyr Exorcizing a Woman Possessed by a Devil’, 1445/55 by Antonio Vivarini. ( Art Institute Chicago )

The Unbeliever

Marescot alone was not impressed. He wrote a short, simple note:

“Nothing of the devil; many things counterfeited; and a few things of sickness.”

Marescot revealed he had switched out the priests’ tools. The piece of the true cross they had used, he explained, was nothing more than an ordinary piece of wood. The real true cross was in her mouth, being used a tongue depressor – and she hadn’t reacted to it at all.

The priests still weren’t convinced. They had seen Brossier do things no human being ought to be able to do. It wasn’t just the strange voice that called out from within her body – while lying on her back, she had leapt up into the air and flown back further than most men could jump standing up.

Denying what he’d seen, one of the priests warned Marescot, was blasphemy. The devil could very well carry him away.

‘Luzifer’ (1890) by Franz Stuck. (Public Domain)

‘Luzifer’ (1890) by Franz Stuck. ( Public Domain )

Marescot was unimpressed. “I will take that hazard and peril upon me,” he shot back. “Let him carry me away if he can.”

The Fake Exorcism

It was the Archbishop of Lyon, Charles Miron, who found a way to prove Marescot right. Just switching out the piece of the true cross hadn’t been enough to convince his fellow priests, so Bishop Miron took it further. He switched out everything.

For several days, the priests gave Brossier nothing to drink but holy water, never letting on that the water she was drinking had been blessed by a priest. Then they filled a holy water vessel with ordinary water and sprinkled it on her, telling her it was sacred.

Brossier fell for the trap. She didn’t react at all throughout nearly a week of drinking holy water but screamed in agony when the ordinary water was sprinkled on her face.

‘Exorcism.’ (Lawrence OP/CC BY NC ND 2.0)

‘Exorcism.’ (Lawrence OP/ CC BY NC ND 2.0 )

Every part of Miron’s scheme worked. When he held up a piece of iron and pretend it was from Jesus’s Christ’s true cross, Brossier broke into convulsions. When he read her Virgil’s “Aeneid” in Latin, pretending it was the Bible, she threw herself onto the ground.

Marthe Brossier was a fraud.

For the first time in recorded history, a demonic possession had been exposed through a controlled experiment.

A Liar Or A Lunatic?

At the time, the story struck the people as a simple one. A woman had lied about a demon, and there was nothing more to it than a simple case of fraud.

There are clues, though, that there might have been something more going on that just a simple lie. And Anne Chevreau, the woman Brossier accused of witchcraft, certainly thought so. The Brossier she knew, she said when she got out of prison, wasn’t a fraud. She was just dangerously mentally ill.

It’s hard to say for sure if Chevreau was right – but Brossier definitely never admitted that she was faking. Even after she was exposed, she went on claiming to be possessed long after anyone deigned to pay her any attention for it.

If she wasn’t faking, it opens up some strange possibilities about the human mind.

Details on the right panel of the bronze door of the Basilica of San Zeno. (Mattana/CC BY SA 3.0)

Details on the right panel of the bronze door of the Basilica of San Zeno. (Mattana/ CC BY SA 3.0 )

Marthe Brossier was capable of seemingly supernatural things. She could do ventriloquists tricks, she could be pricked without feeling pain, and she could leap massive distances while lying on her back. She was performing incredible feats of strength – and if she didn’t think she was lying, these acts probably weren’t rehearsed.

Perhaps, in a way, Brossier really was possessed. But another sort of demon may have had a hold of her: a demon of her own mind.

Top Image: Medieval exorcism of a woman. Source: 15 Minute History

By Mark Oliver

References

 “Brossier, Marthe.” World History. March 28, 2015. Web. http://www.worldhistory.biz/sundries/33004-brossier-marthe-b-ca-1573.html

Connor, Steve. “Martha Brossier”. The Dumbstruck Archive . Oxford University Press, 2000. Web. http://www.stevenconnor.com/dumbstruck/archive/brossier.htm

Kaptchuck, Ted et. al. “Placebo Controls, Exorcisms and the Evil.” Lancet 374(9697). Oct. 10, 2009. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2819054/

Marescot, Michel et. al. “A Trve Discovrse, Vpon the Matter of Martha Brossier of Romorantin, Pretended to be Possessed by a Deuill.” Early English Books Online . https://quod.lib.umich.edu/e/eebo/A16950.0001.001/1:4?rgn=div1;view=fulltext

Newitz, Annalee. “The 16 th Century Exorcism That Became Political Propaganda.” Io9. September 23, 2013. https://io9.gizmodo.com/the-16th-century-exorcism-that-became-political-propaga-1366919568

Petry, Yvonne. “’Many Things Surpass our Knowledge’: An Early Modern Surgeon on Magic, Witchcraft and Demonic Possession.” Social History of Medicine 25(1). 2011. http://citeseerx.ist.psu.edu/viewdoc/download?doi=10.1.1.892.7367&rep=rep1&type=pdf

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