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In November 1565, a married teenaged girl named Nicole Aubrey (also spelled Obry) began experiencing physical torments that she claimed had been brought on by a vision of her dead grandfather. A native of Vervins, France, the fifteen-year-old Nicole had become so sick that she could not eat and reportedly went into such contortions that, as one eyewitness would later describe, twelve or fifteen men were needed to hold her down. She also spoke in a gruff and frightening voice and claimed that the spirit of her grandfather was possessing her. The grandfather told that that he had died without confessing and instructed Nicole and her family to carry out various penances as a result. Despite doing what was requested, Nicole's possession continued.
Nicole's family arranged for a Dominican priest, Pierre de la Motte, to exorcise her. Through repeated exorcisms, de la Motte managed to get the possessing spirit to confess that it was a devil rather than an angel. Nicole's possession became worse and she became deaf, blind and mute (to make her unable to take communion). Also, the chief devil possessing her reportedly invited numerous other devils to come in to possess her body as well. According to reports, de la Motte drove out twenty-eight of the demons possessing Nicole after which they "fled to Geneva" (which was the centre of the Calvinist movement at the time). The chief demon possessing her, who named himself "Beelzebub, the Prince of the Huguenots" (Huguenots were French Protestants) insisted that no one less that the Bishop of Laon could drive him out. When Bishop Jean de Bours arrived in Vervins in January 1566 to do an exorcism, he was no more successful than the other priests.
The case quickly took on political dimensions with the local Huguenots insisting that the entire possession story was a hoax and attempted to have the exorcisms stopped. They had good reason for their skepticism considering that "Beelzebub" was accusing them of consorting with Satan. Largely for her own protection, Nicole was transferred to Laon where she was subjected to a series of public exorcisms which took on all the pomp of a religious pageant. Each day, Nicole was taken from the convent where she was staying in a great religious procession to the majestic Cathedrale Notre-Dame de Laon where she mounted a specially constructed scaffold. There, before a large audience, the exorcist would order "Prince Beelzebub" to speak and Nicole would dutifully deliver a sermon on the evils that the Protestants would inflict on France's Catholics. The content was little different from the anti-Huguenot sermons that priests and bishops across the country were delivering on a daily basis. That a demon, one of Satan's fallen, was telling the Catholics who were listening what they largely wanted to believe about their Huguenot neighbours seemed guaranteed to boost religious tensions. Among other things, "Prince Beelzebub" told his listeners that local Huguenots had stolen a communion wafer, cut it up, and burned the pieces. "Beelzebub" also boasted that "I with my obstinate Huguenots will do Him [Christ] more evil than the Jews did!"
According to one Catholic chronicler describing Nicole Aubrey's public exorcisms, "The Catholics in great joy gave thanks to God, being more confirmed in their faith; while some Huguenots returned to the way of salvation, others became more and more stubborn, mocking the entire proceeding thing.” That Huguenots continued to insist that the entire spectacle was a hoax perpetrated by the Church using a gullible young girl did nothing to ease tensions. On February 8, 1566, the "miracle of Laon" occurred when the Bishop of Laon held up a communion wafer and drove out the last of the demons from Nicole's body. Nothing more seems to have been recorded about Nicole and she faded into obscurity afterward.
The Laon "miracle" helped reinforce anti-Protestant attitudes with Catholic clergy spreading the word across Europe to become one of the rallying points of the Counter-Reformation,. It also played an important role in the religious holy wars that wracked France during the 16th century. That included the St Bartholomew's Day Massacre in August 1572 in which thousands of Huguenots were killed. The French Wars of Religion would drag on until the end of the 16th century and would eventually lead to the expulsion of the Huguenots from France.
One of the most intriguing descriptions of Nicole's possession was how she was able to speak without the apparent use of her vocal cords. According to Jean Boulaese, who wrote the most well-known description of Nicole and her possession:
Speaking in Nicole, with her mouth open wide enough to allow the passage of a walnut, and with a swelling beneath the throat; or, to be more exact, in the throat beneath the chin; but in any case without either making use of or moving the lips, the grandfather replied loudly in a cracked voice: I am from God, who endured death and suffering for us all, from the virgin Mary, and all the saints of Paradise. I am the soul of Joachim Willot.
Though Nicole had initially insisted that her grandfather's spirit was using her body with her conscious cooperation, she was later forced to revise this to be more in keeping with Catholic doctrine. Since doctrine didn't allow for the existence of "good spirits" using living people to pass on messages, their interrogation shaped her responses to comform with Church views on demonic possession. Given her desire to please her interrogators, the anti-Protestant message she delivered hardly seems that surprising.
Along with spurring the anti-Huguenot mania gripping France, Nicole Aubrey's possession also became influential in terms of inspiring copycat cases of possession. In the French city of Soissons, four people were publicly exorcised in 1582. One of these, a 13-year-old boy named Laurent, was reported possessed by a demon calling himself Bonnoir. Another possessees was more unusual since he was a 50-year-old man named Nicholas Facquier who managed to be possessed twice (repossessed?). A third case was more unusual still since it was a woman named Marguerite Obry (no relation) who claimed to be possessed by the same Beelzebub who had possessed Nicole Aubrey years before.
Though the Soissons possessions were never as well-known as the Laon possession, there were numerous similarities. All of the the possessees went into convulsions whenever holy relics were placed on their stomach or when they were forced to drink holy water. And, like Nicole Aubrey, they accused the local Huguenots of various religious crimes. The demons reportedly claimed that they had come to "give comfort to their Huguenot friends" but were forced to recognize the power of the True Church during the public exorcism which drove them out.
The last great possession case of the 16th centuy was Marthe Brossier who apparently became convinced that she was possessed after reading about Nicole Aubrey's case. Beginning in 1598, Marthe's family carried her from town to town in the Loire valley where she received multiple public exorcisms. This continued for over a year before French authorities had her arrested out of fear that she would stir up anti-Huguenot prejudice. Marthe either escaped (or was helped to escape) and returned to seeking out exorcisms, this time in southern France. Despite travelling to Rome and appealing to the Vatican, Marthe was diagnosed as suffering from illness rather than being truly possessed. According to the various doctors and theologians who examined her, her condition was nihil a daemone: multa ficta: a morbo pauca (nothing from the demon; much invention; a little from illness).
Though the age of possession was hardly over (there would be other cases throughout the 17th and 18th centuries), the Nicole Aubrey exorcism and others like it became a central plank in the propaganda war being waged by the Catholic Church against Protestant movements. The "miracle of Laon" would be part of Catholic tradition long after the political turmoil that inspired it died down. That exorcism and cases of demonic possession are still with us today in many societies demonstrates its popularity as a tool for propping up belief systems being threatened by skepticism. How effective that tool is depends on the willingness of people to believe the unbelievable.
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