Thursday, 14 April 2016

The Convulsionaries - some first-hand accounts

The vast amount of documentation available on the Convulsionnaires, even just on the internet, is daunting.  I was quite pleased, therefore, to find a couple of old books in English which contain summaries and translations of some of the more famous cases, mostly taken from Montgeron.  Both are based largely on the work of the famous psychiatrist Louis-Florentin Calmeil (1798-1895), author of De la folie (1845); Calmeil's basic thesis was the existence of a pathological state he called a théomanie extaso-convulsive.  His selection from the sources includes the Protestants of the Cévenne  is inevitably biased towards the sensational, but the passages are genuine enough.  Most, but not all, the examples involve supposed miraculous cures.


Catherine Bigot, a deaf-mute, was one of the earliest cases to exhibit convulsionary symptoms. 
"On the 27th of August, 1731, Montgeron relates, they conducted to the cemetery of Saint Médard, a young girl, deaf and dumb from her birth. As soon as she was placed on the tomb, she fell into most terrible convulsions, accompanied with a great perspiration, and manifested, by her gestures, that she was suffering principally in her head, in the throat, and the ears. After the attack, she remained as if dead, and they were obliged to remove her from the tomb. Having, in some degree, recovered her senses, she gave them to understand, by signs, that she wished to be placed again on the tomb, which was accordingly done. The convulsions immediately recommenced with more violence than before, and they carried her away a second time, to enable her to breathe. They yielded again to the desire she evinced, to be brought back to the tomb-stone of the deacon; the convulsions returned, and they were forced to carry away the patient to her own home, where she remained until nine o'clock at night, violently agitated with convulsive movements.
The 28th of August, 1731, she made a second visit to the sepulchre of the Deacon Paris, and the result was a return of the convulsions, which were only allayed at the end of the day. The 29th and the 30th of August, after a kind of swooning, the young invalid found she was able to hear and speak, but, it is said, without understanding the sense of the words which struck upon her ear." (See Montgeron, vol. 2, p. 10f)

Marie-Madeleine Bridan, aged 45, the wife of an employee in the Royale Ferme,  was cured of  severe and painful hydropsy the tomb of the Diacre Pâris.  Her testimony of  is reproduced in the Lettres théologiques, 1739-40 of Dom Louis Bernard La Taste, an opponent of the Jansenists who believed the convulsions that she experienced were diabolically inspired: Marie-Madeleine’s deposition in the Bibliothèque de Port-Royal is dated 25 October 1731.
The day of St. Marcel, says la fille Bridan, I thought to make an effort to approach the tomb, which I had not been able to do since my first novena, on account of the great crowd. I leant down my head on the tomb for a quarter of an hour, to say my prayers there… At that moment I was seized with a trembling - I could not raise myself up; two persons were obliged to take me by the arms, to place me in a chair, where I lost all remembrance. When I came to myself, I had such frightful convulsions that it required three or four persons to hold me . . I continued, for twenty-two days, to go every day to the tomb, and each time I experienced the same convulsions as at first, sometimes even much stronger, and in greater number. In the height of the fit I lost all knowledge, which returned as soon as it had passed off.  I had them, also, at the house, whenever I drank the water into which they had thrown some of the earth from the tomb of M. Paris, with this difference, that they were not so violent, and that they did not deprive me of reason ... I suffered great pain when I retained my senses; but, almost as soon as these convulsions ceased, my pains, also, were at an end. . . At times, it seemed as if my legs were being torn, then again, as if my head was being opened; it appeared to me, sometimes, that my members were dragged, as it were, by four horses” ( Lettres théologiques vol. 2, p.1272)

 Jeanne Thénard, aged thirty, went to the grave of Pâris upon All Saints Day, in 1731.  She  convulsed so violently and leaped so high and with so much strength that her attendants could scarcely hold her or prevent her from injuring herself by striking the marble of the tomb. As a result she regained the use of her limbs which had been twisted and malformed from a childhood accident.
. She was immediately seized with most violent convulsions. Her body was shot up into the air with great force, she was thus raised repeatedly when she had been lying down: she was agitated so violently that several persons who were holding her in order to prevent her striking herself against the marble could with difficulty restrain her movements; and she fatigued them to that degree that they were bathed in perspiration, and were obliged constantly to relieve one another . . . The first day the convulsions only broke out when she placed herself upon the tomb; afterwards she remained lying on the ground till night, and during that time she tired out a number of persons who had the charity to lend her their assistance. . . ."(vol.2, p.36)


La fille Fourcroy was the subject of a detailed consideration by Montgeron.  The daughter of a Parisian marchand-épicier,  she had a deformed body and suffered from fevers and dropsy; her badly twisted foot was declared incurable by “five famour surgeons”.  On visiting the tomb at Saint-Médard,  she began to exhibit convulsions but, repelled by the idea, withdrew from the cemetery Only some months later, on the point of death, after drinking wine containing earth from Francois Paris’s grave,  was she finally thrown into convulsions and miraculously cured of her afflictions:
Montgeron publishes her own deposition, in which she expresses the sense of tranquility and peace which the convulsions left her with.
Towards the middle of December, 1731, says the girl Fourcroy, I had desired to be conducted to the tomb of Paris, to make an act of thanksgiving.... I was struck with terror (on entering the cemetery of St.Médard) at the sound of fearful cries and a kind of howling that some of the convulsionists were making in the cemetery, and I thought of going away without approaching the tomb of the Deacon:  but the person who accompanied me having encouraged me, I sat down on the tomb. . . . After remaining there about a quarter of an hour in prayer, some movements with which I was seized warned all who were near  me that I was threatened with convulsions. At the word convulsion, calling to mind the cries that I had heard under ground when I arrived, I was so much alarmed that I gave some money to the porter to make a way out for me that I might retire; and the apprehension of having convulsive movements gave me strength that was not common to me, to enable me to leave the cemetery very quickly. . . . Notwithstanding, on the night of the 20th of March 1732, finding myself so ill as to consider I was at the point of rendering up my soul, the fear of death which I thought was so near prevailed over the fear of convulsions, and I begged them to go and bring me some of the earth from the tomb of the Deacon Paris, to put into the wine which from time to time they made me take a few drops of.  The 21st, at midnight, they made me take some wine, into which they had put some of the earth, and I began prayers for a Novena. Almost at the same moment I experienced a great shivering, and soon after a violent agitation in all the members, which caused me to fling my body up into the air, and which gave me a strength that I had never before felt; so much so, that several persons together could with great difficulty hold me. In the course of these violent movements, which were truly convulsions, I lost all recollection. As soon as they were over and I had recovered my senses, I felt a tranquillity and an interior peace that 1 had never before experienced, and which it would be exceedingly difficult to explain, though I have since then very frequently felt it after my convulsive fits. (vol.2, p.1 and  Suite de l’observation de la fille Fourcroy)

This striking first-hand account  of the experience of convulsions is described as  by“a woman of intelligence, of the name of Geoffroy”;  this is probably Madeleine Geoffroy was miraculously cured at the tomb of the Deacon in December 1731.  I can’t find the passage translated from Montgeron, but doubtless it is there somewhere:
The convulsive movements I had without losing my recollection, forced me to strike with my feet against the ground or the tomb when I was laid on it. I could not at all prevent these movements. Sometimes my head shook and turned round for a long time; sometimes my arms became perfectly rigid. At other times they were thrown about from side to side, and my body was often turned round as if on a pivot…The persons who held me were obliged to follow the movements of the convulsions… The pain I suffered was beyond what I could express; it made me cry out at times with a shrill voice, and then again in a plaintive tone… It sometimes happened the burial place being crowded with sick people when I arrived, and there being no room for me, they held me over the tomb by a sash tied round the waist. As I was then very much constrained, and in a place too confined to allow of their following my convulsive motions, I suffered more than usual, as my knees beat against the marble beneath with great violence. . . . The same movements took place at home, with this difference, that they were not so intense. When I was alone in my room I laid down on the floor at a distance from the fire, for fear of accidents, as soon as I felt the heaviness that preceded the convulsions, and it is thus that I frequently suffered from them when alone without assistance from anyone…
I have been assured that, in the midst of the convulsions—when I lost all recollection — my eyes were completely turned, and all the movements of which I have spoken above, were much more violent. I always felt some relief after the fits, and this alleviation was invariably most sensible when the attacks were most violent. (vol. 3, p. 57(?))

Several members of the Giroust family, hosiers from Saint-Antoine, were closely associated with the early development of the cult of François de Pâris and claimed miraculous cures.  (Marguerite Giroust, aged 42, was briefly incarcerated in the Bastille in 1732, for  having persistently defied the ban and visited Saint-Médard in search of relief from her asthma.)
The cure of Elisabeth Giroust took place in August 1732,  no longer therefore in the immediate context of the cemetery.  She was clearly a young girl, no doubt a suggestible one.  Dom La Taste, who reports the case, was not altogether  unreasonable to think her actions were diabolically inspired:  as well as uncontrolled movements, she experienced hallucinations, claiming to hear a voice in the interior of her chest. She also demanded various secours, involving being dragged and carried around.
The 26th of Angust, 1732 (say the parents of this convulsionist), about eleven o'clock at night, our daughter being in convulsions, and carried on the shoulders of one of our company ,  that person being unable any longer to support her in consequence of the violence of the fits, threw her upon our bed. The convulsions were then so strong, and accompanied with such loud cries (a thing that had not before happened), that all the assistants were terrified and greatly frightened: her body was doubled up again and again; her eyes became sparkling and red as blood. We were all around the bed, and after some minutes passed in this terrible state, we heard her pronounce with a most extraordinary clear and piercing voice these words, 'I am cured!- At that moment the convulsions ceased, and she sat up in the bed. Having come to herself again, and recovered her perfect senses, she again said to us quietly, 'Ah! I am cured!' We were all filled with joy, and we asked her with great eagerness, what proof she had that she was cured?  'I felt all at once,' she replied, 'dreadful pains in my stomach, and as if a ball had gone up into my throat, and descended again into my stomach, where it burst with such violence, that I thought my body would be rent in two; and since it burst, I heard, as it were within me, a strong piercing voice, which repeated two or three times, ' I am cured;' which very much surprised me.
The same author continues that “it often happened this sick person rolled herself on the pavement, and caused herself to be dragged by the head and the feet on the ground, insisted upon being carried on a man's shoulders for ten hours consecutively, and would get into a rage when they refused her this singular pleasure.” (Lettres théologiques, vol. 2, p.966ff)

The spectacular gyrations and  subsequent conversion to Jansenism of Monsieur  Fontaine in 1733 are related at length by Montgeron.    Fontaine  is described as Secretary of State to Louis XV and “receveur des placets” – clearly therefore a significant public figure.  It ought to be easy to find other references to this whirling dervish of Jansenism, but so far I’ve drawn a blank.  Montgeron also evoked his incredible feats of self-deprivation and fasting.
The conversion of the Secretary of State of Louis XV. Mons. Fontaine to Jansenism was made known by a most curious manifestation of muscular agitation. This person was very much opposed, as were all the Court, to the cause of the Jansenist appellants: being in Paris, at the beginning of 1733, in a house, where he had been invited to dine with a large company, he felt himself all at once compelled by an invisible power to turn round and round on one foot with prodigious swiftness, without being able to prevent himself; which gyrations lasted upwards of an hour without a moment's intermission. From the first moment of this singular convulsion, an instinct which came from above, caused him to beg that they would give him a book of prayer as quickly as possible. The one which came first to hand, and which they presented to him, was a volume of the Moral Reflexions of Father Quesnel, and although Fontaine did not cease turning round with a dazzling rapidity, he read aloud from that book as long as the convulsions lasted.
"These convulsions continued to recur at intervals during six months or more, they took place regularly at a stated period twice a day; and they only ceased to attack Fontaine, the 6th of August, 1733, after he had finished to read, whilst still turning round with great violence, the eight volumes of the Reflexions of Father Quesnel on the New Testament, which Fontaine was in the habit of doing when desirous of elevating his heart to God.
"This prevailing convulsive movement began every morning precisely at nine o'clock, and lasted an hour and a half or two hours at a time. That in the afternoon commenced at three o'clock, and continued as long as the one in the morning. Every day M. Fontaine found on rising so great a weakness in the legs that he was scarcely able to stand; which lasted till nine o'clock, when the spinning convulsion began. ... At that time his body rested on one leg, which during the hour and a half or two hours, that the turning lasted, never quitted the centre where it had been placed, whilst the other leg made a circle with an inconceivable rapidity, being generally in the air, though sometimes it rested very lightly on the ground. The spinning round of the whole body was effected with such wonderful quickness, that a great number of persons have counted as many as sixty turns in the course of a minute. . . .
"After the spinning convulsion of the morning was at an end, Fontaine felt himself better able to stand; but his legs only recovered their vigour in the afternoon, and then he felt strong, and in perfect health till the following morning.

"The effect that the instinct of this convulsion made upon his mind was to change all his sentiments with regard to the appeal . . . (against the bull Unigenitus) to make him regard the Moral Reflections (of Father Quesnel), as a source of light, of blessings, of graces, to detach him completely from the things of the world, to cause him to give up his commission, to make him give considerable alms, to strip himself of every thing and reduce himself to a state of poverty, to live in seclusion, humiliation and the most austere penance. (vol. 2, p.12-3)


Mme Thévenet’s convulsions took place in September / October 1734 and were particularly extreme.  A further dimension is added by the fact her symptoms were provoked by the sight of Prayer Books and attendance at Mass, which encouraged the idea she was diabolically possessed.   At one point she declared herself one of the Jansenist elect, but was eventually persuaded to return to the orthodox fold and experienced no further agitations.
The 20th of September, 1734, the widow Thévenet, hoping to rid herself altogether of a deafness, determined to drink—and did drink—some water having some particles of earth mixed with it from the grave of Paris; the same day she moistened her ear with a piece of linen impregnated with the same water, and began a novena in honour of the deceased deacon.
The 21st of September, she felt herself struck with terror at the sight of three books of prayer which were brought to her by a convulsionist.
The 29th, she commenced a second novena by invoking Paris; the following nights she was agitated, sensibly affected, and became a prey to a sudden oppression of the heart, and an extraordinary fear."The 1st of October, the nervous system became more disturbed; shiverings were added to the moral anxiety; the patient announced that things seemed to pass within her which were altogether strange.
The 2nd of October, during the mass she was at, she perceived, through her whole frame, an undefinable perturbation which impelled her to go out of doors, when her head began to move violently without her will, participating in this violent action. As soon as they carried her to her room, she began, in spite of herself, to move about her arms and her legs with great violence, and every part that was susceptible of motion, and gave herself hard blows on the lower extremities. A woman who tried to hold her was so affected at the sight of this spectacle, that she experienced herself a long nervous shivering. A brother of the widow Thévenet, canon of Corbeil, exhausted himself ineffectually in endeavouring to prevent his sister beating herself. The expression of the features became wolfish, her eyes were turned, she repeated that she had the happiness of being a convulsionist, that she must thank God for that favour; and the blows she gave herself succeeded each other very rapidly.
At times she made violent leaps, as if to raise herself up to the ceiling; the disorder of her dress proved that she was insensible to all feelings of modesty; the words which she pronounced with rapidity, were unintelligible, and did not belong to any known language.
They tried to make her take some nourishment; she yielded to the desire to speak, and put herself in violent agitation, and made a thousand ridiculous contortions. She summoned in a familiar way her friends and neighbours, struck them on the limbs, looked at them with a bewildered air, began anew to give them blows, and continued to shew signs of an alarming cerebral excitement. They decided upon putting her into bed; she begun to recite prayers that were much in use amongst the convulsionists of Saint Médard, and fell into convulsive fits, which made her friends think that she raised herself up into the air with a bound from her bed, together with the covering which was on it.
"About five o'clock the same evening, Manor, a convulsionist, (a servant of the convulsionists Girard and Plessel), arrived at Miss Thevenet's, and they embraced with great joy . . . Manor, going on her knees, repeated a prayer to Paris . . . during which time Madame Thévenet again became more furious; she got out of bed and began to leap, raising herself towards the ceiling. Afterwards she made various contortions of the head and arms." (La Taste, vol. 1, p.649)
Other extraordinary gestures and movements are described which it is unnecessary to enter into.
This woman was at length reduced to the last extremity by her sufferings. She appeared at the point of death, and yet she uttered exclamations of joy, declaring herself a convulsionnaire and one of the elect. New convulsive movements ensued, she bounded from her bed to the height of three feet. A clergyman, who was present, said, "These were the mysteries of Satan;" whereupon the widow Thévenet fell into the most terrible convulsive attacks.  Towards mid-day she presented all the signs of ecstasy, she recited certain propositions of the book of Quesnel, and discoursed on La Grace Triomphante. Two days later, Canon Marriette, her brother, having spoken to her on the frightful state in which she had been, she came to herself entirely, and anxiously desired to have her director; and he had no sooner come than she delivered up to her brother a portrait of the Deacon Paris, two packets of earth from his tomb, a morsel of wood of his bed, which things were thrown into the fire.
Then, says La Taste, she made a profession of faith in the Catholic Church . . . And she experienced no further agitation, her intellect remaining- sound. (p.655)
(Translated from  Calmeil, De la folie,vol. 2, p. 327ff; from the original account  by La Taste) 


Richard Robert Madden, Phantasmata or Illusions and Fanaticisms of Protean Forms Productive of Great Evils. 2 vols. London: T. C. Newby 1857, p.357ff.
Agénor comte de Gasparin, Science Vs. Modern Spiritualism, 1857 p.49ff.

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