Convulsionnaires of Saint-Médard

Hello and welcome back to Paname, a podcast that surreptitiously runs a finger along the dusty draw of Paris past. Last time we looked at dubious miracles this time forbidden miracles.

That right on this podcast we are going to be talking about more miracles, and not the kind of miracle like getting a seat on line 13 during rush hour but some of the more unusual miracles, after all in Paris’ long history there have been many. For example while I was researching this one I stumbled across the miracle of Saint Genevieve. She is the young girl who saved Paris from Attila the Hun in the 5th centaury. Story has it that Attila was on his way, storming West towards Paris ready to massacre the Parisians, apparently having already massacred 11,000 virgins at Cologne. The Parisians were about ready to flee and Genevieve said ‘get down on your knees and pray’ which they did and Attila, miraculously, avoided Paris altogether and went and slaughtered the Orleans instead.  Some people thought maybe Attila was put off because the Parisians had all stayed to defend Paris, others said perhaps there were just not 11,00 virgins to be massacred in Paris – so who knows. Well that was one of the miracles that happened here in Paris. Poor old Genevieve she did become the patron saint of Paris and she was buried up at the mount St Genevieve by the Pantheon until, sadly, the revolutionaries took out her remains and scattered them around Paris. And that might be why when later she was called on to defend Paris against the Huns again, in the Second World War, she snubbed them, and you know they invaded. So just goes to show, treat your people with a bit more respect. 

So it is not this miracle that interests us today, nor is it the miracle of Saint Catherine Labouré. Now I did not even know who she was until I started doing this podcast. But she is actually a great draw for Catholics coming to Paris. She is another young woman, a devout Catholic,  who like other young women like Joan of Arc and St Genevieve,  she saw heavenly visions, most famously the Virgin Mary and she went on to create the miraculous medals. Anyway she dedicated her life to the church and caring for others and she died in 1876 but her body was exhumed 57 years later and, miraculously, she was perfectly preserved.  Now this comes into this Catholic belief of the notion of incorruptible body and it is a belief that corpses of a saint don’t decompose and it is a sign that God has intervened because of that person’s holiness. Anyway Saint Catherine’s uncorrupted body can still be seen today in Rue du Bac and she is displayed in a glass coffin and I must admit that she does look remarkably well preserved for someone who died over 140 years ago.

But it is none of these miraculous people or events which interest us today, but rather the little and now much overlooked, church and one time cemetery of St Médard’ in the 5th art.  where, in the 18th centaury the miracles became so contentious that the king himself had to intervene. So lets hop on the metro and head over to the rue Mouffetard in the 5th art and find out what this is all about.

Rue Mouffetard is a charming market street, even though ‘mouffetard’ does mean putrid stench, but that is a story for another podcast. But that’s not what we are interested in today. At the end of the street is the lovely church Saint Médard. It is believed that there was a church here since the 7th centaury although it was destroyed by Vikings and various people and built up over the 15th, 16th, 17th and even 18th centaury. Its nice if you can tear yourself away from the cheese shops and all the other things on the rue Mouffetard for a little visit and see its old stained glass windows which date back to the 16th Centaury or even the more modern ones. Now religious buildings did not get off lightly following the revolution of 1789 but luckily St Médard managed to survive as it was turned into a ‘Temple of Work’, which I’m not exactly sure what that is or what they would have been doing in there, but nonetheless it is still here today.

Saint Médard himself, which this story is not about, it just happens in this church but I thought you might be interested to know about the actual saint. St Médard himself is a bishop who lived in the 5 & 6thth Centaury. There is a famous saying which  relates to his feast day, it goes:

Quand il pleut à la St Médard, il pleut 40 jours plus tard!

Should Saint Médard’s day be wet, it will rain for forty yet;

Now legend has it that young Medardus was once protected from the rain by the wings of an eagle and it’s for this reason he is often depicted with an eagle hovering above him as a sort of unusual umbrella. Anyway his saint day is on the 8th of June and he is the patron saint of winemakers, brewers, farmers as well as prisoners and the mentally ill. So for this reason Farmers and winemakers and maybe prisoners and the mentally ill, would carefully monitor the weather on the 8th of June for fear it was going to rain for 40 days. This would not come true however, if it was sunny on the 11th of June, because the 11th of June which is the feast of St Barnabas, the full saying goes:

Should Saint Médard’s day be wet, it will rain for forty yet;

At least until Saint Barnabas, the summer sun won’t favour us.”

Quite a nice little rhyme isn’t it?
But it is not the miracle of the weather that interests us today, or the church or Saint Médard or any of the people I have spoken about so far it is rather the graveyard, which by the way no longer exists. Its been turned into a little playground. Today children hop around and play on the swings and slides and old people feed the pigeons and such like, little knowing that a few hundred years ago all sorts of unusual miracles were happening which led way to what they called the ‘Convulsionaries itself but rather the graveyard where, following the death of the deacon a wave of miracles, hallucinations or mass hysteria took place. These convulsionairs, lets go back and find out what it was all about. 

It all started on the 1st of May 1727 following the funeral of the Deacon François de Pâris which took place here at Saint Médard and he was buried in the cemetery. He died, at the young age of 37, but this is hardly surprising when you considered how he lived.  Now he was a devout Jansenist he chose to live an ascetic life one of one of extreme austerity and self-mortification. So just to give you an idea of the type of self mortification: he would sleep on a hard bed, covered himself with a sheet bristling with iron wires, he woke up at two every morning and went to bed at ten every evening.  As if this was not enough he wore a hair shirt; a spiked metal belt and a chain around his right arm.  He beat himself with an iron-tipped lash until the blood ran down his back.  He did not allow himself to have a fire to warm himself up in the winter and he only ate one meal a day which was just a humble fare of bread, rice, cabbage or vegetable soup with no seasoning. He had bread and water on fast days and only meat at Christmas, Easter and Pentecost. He apparently would make his way around the streets of the neighbourhood which, earlier I mentioned Mouffetard meant putrid stench it was a pretty dirty, poor, impoverished neighbourhood at this time so it was a really filthy place, but he would make his way round the streets, doing charitably work, but without wearing any shoes so his feet would become filthy and cut up.

Monsieur Francois, as he was called was very popular with the poor people because he believed deeply that to help the poor he must live and work among them and this is exactly what he did. A lot of the people in that neighbourhood would have been working producing goods and working in the silk looms and he bought himself a loom and taught himself how to use it and so he was working side by side with all the people in the neighbourhood. So at his death a huge number of people came to his funeral and it becomes a little complicated here to know if it was straight away that the miracles start happening from the moment of his funeral, during the funeral – you can find accounts of people convulsing, touching the coffin and being able to walk and such like or whether the miracles started immediately afterwards. But there are all sorts of miracles that are attributed to Monsieur Francois, the Deacon Paris following his burial. Some of them were contested, there is a quite famous one of Anne Le Franc who apparently was a woman who had her arm paralysed and either touched the coffin or touched his grave and she regains the use of her arm. Some of them were contested but many, many, many miracles were ratified and they said that these were definite miracles. 

Now this goes on for some time, around 4 years, the miracles keep happening and these miracles were mainly of the type of healing: so  people getting better; regaining the use of their limbs; being able to see or just general feeling better after making contact with the grave and this, of course like any miraculous event, brings people so more and more people start hearing about this graveyard, the miraculous events attributed to it coming to Mouffetard, coming to this neighbourhood trying to either see miracles happening or have the miracles happen to themselves.

We can understand why people would be looking for miracles, certainly at a time when people were living difficult poor lives with little medical assistance or help, but it is a little harder to understand what happens next. The pilgrims go from looking for healing to  rather having intense religious experiences and it’s mainly women who this happens to and its witnessed by a great number of people. So obviously lots of people have heard about this fantastic graveyard where all these miracles are happening, when it starts getting a little strange people come to it and one man inparticulare:  Louis-Basile Carré de Montgéron. He comes along with his friend on the 7th of September 1731, very much with the idea to disprove this to say that it is all absolute nonsense and that these miracles are not happening, he doesn’t believe it.   But when he gets there he is profoundly struck by what he sees and himself experiences, an overwhelming religious feeling and experience and apparently gets down onto his knees and prays for hours on end. And  converts that day to Jansenism and continued to revisit the churchyard many times, collecting enough evidence for an incredible book that he publishes and gives to King Louis the XV who finds it disgusting both probably for the content and for what it means and throws him into the Bastille prison.

Part of the problem is the political and religious significance of Jansenism itself and that these miracles are happening following the death of a Jansenist Deacon.  The implication of course is that God supports and recognises the movement. So what is Jansenism and why was it such a big deal or indeed a problem? It is of course quite complex but in a nutshell Jansiems was a religious movement that developed, mainly in France, during the 17th and 18th Centuries. At its core it grapples with the religious problem of divine grace and human freedom.  In other words Jansenism believes in predestination. This was problematic as it was against the teaching of the Catholic Church and looked, to many, a lot like Calvinism. Janenists were openly hostile to Jesuits and Jesuit teachings, however the Jesuits had been very influential in France especially during the reign of Louis XIV. As a result Louis had persecuted the Jansenist and tried to stamp them out. Thus supporting Jansenism was in itself a political gesture.

Montgéron  however is not deterred and he will  not be silenced, he goes on to  publish three further books once he is released from Bastille.   But I’m sure you are wondering what was he seeing? What was happening? What was so disturbing?   A word of warning this is rather disturbing and a little violent so its perhaps not for the younger listener.

So from previously a place of mainly healing the graveyard had become one of spectacle. Women, and again,  they were mainly women could be seen taking part in savage sometimes sordid and even quite sexual acts. They went to the graveyard and they were described as convulsing and that is why they are collectively given the name the Convulsionnaires of saint Médard.  This all took place and it was a time obviously where women were rarely seen in states of undress and here they were partaking in acts which often saw them undressing, partially undressing, completely undressing showing more flesh than they might have done otherwise. Women could be seen hitting their heads against stone walls, being beaten with wooden and metal bars; having their nipples twisted in a metal clamp, being trampled on. A famous case which happened on Toussaint of 1731, which is all saints day, where a woman experiencing extreme convulsions and apparently even levitated.  Another a woman was roast over a fire for more than an hour.  What’s curious about this is that they seem to feel no pain and in fact they pleaded for more punishment. There is tell of women cleaning festering wounds by liking them clean or eating the diseased flesh, women eating charcoal, earth and even faeces. Others who would merely mime religious scenes such as the crucifixion or more obscurely the rooster that crowed three times to indicate the betrayal of Jesus.  

At a time of limited medical knowledge we can perhaps understand why people were interested in being healed, maybe they were never sick perhaps it was merely psychosomatic in nature. But these strange and troubling acts of essential mass hysteria are harder to understand and reconcile. Maybe in a time of incredible repression, notable of women, they found here a sort of  release. Maybe it is something darker, something perhaps more complex.

Anyway as a result some people were jailed for what they did in the graveyard. Some were considered dangerous to themselves, others were considered dangerous to others, you cant just beat people with metal bars and expect to get away with it. And the people asking to be hit may have been mentally ill but needless to say both ended up in prison

There was  support of the mentally unstable at that time. Other women were imprisoned because they took on religious roles that were not open to women. So, famously, there is Sister Melanie who would carry out mass, as she was put into Bastille prison for having done this.

Well by now the king had had more than enough, so sent in the soldiers to shut down  this cemetery in 1732 which they were ultimately able to do. Someone found this very funny and wrote a little note on the door saying: “God is forbidden by order of the King to perform any more miracles in the cemetery of Saint-Médard”

But did this stop the Convulsionnnairs? Well it didn’t actually. Instead of this happening in the cemetery it just moved into private residences and carried on happening. It was not until the expulsion of the Jesuists in 1762, the deadly enemies of the Jansenists that this all finally came to a close.

And I thought I might share with you an account that comes from the writings of Friedrich Melchior, Baron von Grimm, what an excellent name, who wrote about these convulsions in his famous Correspondance littéraire.  The correspondence Litterarie themselves are really quite interesting, they were a sort of cultural newsletter which was distributed between 1753 and 1790 and was written and produced by Von Grimm and included contributions from Diderot, Madam d’Epinay and he wrote this newsletter on a bi-weekly basis up until about 1773 when he handed  over responsibility.  The newsletter was copied out  by hand in order to avoid French censorship it was confidential and Grimm had a very small subscriber base across Europe include apparently Catherine the Great of Russia. So Von Grimm describes in one of his letters the crucifixion of two "sisters" and again skip this bit if you do not like gory details but for those of you who do here goes:

"The first scene was that of the crucifixion of the sister Rachel and the sister Felicité, two women from thirty to forty years in age, who were moved, as they pretended, to exhibit this lively image of the passion of our Saviour in a mean lodging in Paris in August, 1759. These two wretched creatures were actually nailed to two wooden crosses, through their hands and their feet, and continued fastened to them for upwards of three hours; during this time they sometimes pretended to slumber, and, at other times, uttered a quantity of infantine nonsense and gibberish, asking for sweetmeats, and threatening and fondling the spectators, in lisping accents, and all the babyish diminutives of the nursery.

The nails were, at length, drawn out, and a considerable quantity of blood flowed from all the wounds; after washing and bandaging, the patients sat down quietly to a little repast in the midst of the apartment. Although their votaries and ghostly advisers maintained that they experienced no pain, but on the contrary, the most exquisite delight from these operations, the respectable reporters concur in testifying that it was easy to see throughout that they were in the utmost agony...

After this tragedy, there was another kind of afterpiece by the inferior performers and pupils of this school of imposture: various women were stretched on the floor and beat with bludgeons on the head and breast, and trodden violently under the feet of their spiritual assistants, to their infinite relief and gratification, as the managers of the spectacle most solemnly asserted, but, with more or less apparent dread and suffering...They had also the points of swords forcibly thrust against their sides and bosoms...
The second exhibition...consisted in the crucifixion of the sister Francoise and the sister Marie, -and a great deal of beating and thrusting with swords on the bodies of some of their unfortunate apprentices...Francoise remained upwards of three hours on the cross, but the sister Marie wanted faith or fortitude to edify the beholders to the same extent - she shuddered at the fastening of the nails, and, in less than an hour, fairly cried out that she could stand it no longer, and must be taken down: she was unfastened accordingly and carried out of the chamber in a state of insensibility, to the no small discomfiture of her associates.

The spectacle was concluded  with a still more unlucky performance. The sister Francoise had announced that God had commanded her on that day to burn the gown off her back, and had assured her of much comfort from the operation. A    fire was actually set to her skirts but, instead of appearing to experience any delight, the failing saint very speedily screamed out in terror and they were obliged to pour water upon her petticoats and carry her off half roasted - half drowned - and utterly ashamed of her exhibition.
Those horrible and degrading practices had been going on in the heart of Paris for upwards of twenty years...a few profligate priests were supposed to be at the bottom of the contrivance, but all the agents, or victims, rather, were women"
 (taken from The Church in France by Charles Butler)