‘The Convulsionists of Saint Medard’ by Brian Allan

brianallanspf2014_311x331Brian Allan is a personal experiencer of the paranormal and a prolific author of exceptionally researched books on mysterious phenomena and new science. He is a passionate and uncompromising investigator and commentator on all things mysterious. A formidable and true Elder Statesman of paranormal research.

He is the editor of the fabulous, free online magazine, Phenomena:
Brian Allan’s website: http://www.brianjallan-home.co.uk/


Authors Note: This article is adapted from a chapter in one of my books entitled ‘I Cast Thee Out’.



Artistic portrayal of secours at a convulsionnaire meeting. Anonymous engraving from the eighteenth century.

For millennia humanity has exhibited an almost visceral need to worship something, anything, to explain the events, either good or bad, that befell it. In the course of doing this there have been repeated examples where some of those involved in the various kinds of worship exhibited strange and frequently alarming physical manifestations that were invariably attributed by those who witnessed them to forces (typically malign) beyond human control. With the advent of organised monotheistic religion, attempts were made to rationalise any tragic or unfavourable occurrences in spiritual terms and the blame could then be squarely attributed to entities that did not originate in any heavenly scenario, but almost certainly came from satanic or demonic sources.

Of course conversely, anything favourable was automatically deemed to have come as a gift from God. All of which was highly efficient and convenient, if for no other reason than it helped reinforce the concept of a beneficent and merciful God and his sworn opponent, the inherently evil Satan. Perhaps one the most bizarre examples of these physical manifestations involving a fairly large number of people was exhibited in France at a graveyard beside the Parisian church of St Medard during the early 18th century. This involved a series of truly extraordinary and potentially life-threatening physical phenomena that affected a number of people, who collectively became known as ‘The Convulsionists of Saint Medard’.

While the title, ‘convulsionist’, may seem self explanatory, i.e. someone who, for legitimate medical reasons both physical and/or neurological, is prone to uncontrollable and sometimes quite extreme physical contortions and convulsions, there is considerably more to what occurred at St Medard than first meets the eye. Taken in its own right what happened at the church and graveyard closely matches some of the phenomena exhibited by the Ursuline nuns of Loudon (the story of which was written as a novel in 1952 by Aldous Huxley and called ‘The Devils of Loudon’, it was later filmed in 1971 by Ken Russell as ‘The Devils’, a disturbing film that still possesses the ability to shock and unsettle. There was also a stage play and an opera version, neither of which are particularly well known.)

Another alleged example of demonic or satanic possession from around the same superstitious era in France manifested in the form of Nicole Obery at Luon. Due to the perceived threat of Protestantism at the time this particular incident was milked for all it was worth for purely propaganda reasons by the Catholic Church. Needless to say the church emerged the victor in a truly spectacular fashion and the main possessing entity, ‘Beelzebub, the prince of the Huguenots’ no less, was duly sent packing. In fact the girl, Nicole, was supposedly exorcised of a number of demons, all of whom were also presumably Huguenots and they all promptly left for Geneva, which was the recognised centre of Calvinism at the time. However, the sheer scale of what occurred in 1731 at the Parisian Church of St Medard really upped the ante for suspected possessions and in this case supposed miracles. What happened here were exhibitions of truly alarming and much more extreme phenomena. The focus of these events was attributed to the sanctity of the then deacon of Paris, the appropriately named François de Pâris, who was a prominent member of the ascetic Jansenist movement.


The Jansenists

Jansenism was a Roman Catholic religious schism mostly found in France and noted for promoting the argument that humanity could not attain salvation by its own efforts, i.e. it was doomed if left to its own devices. Salvation could only jansenistsbe achieved through a deliberate act of God, a view that was rejected by the Church who swiftly declared them heretics. The extreme asceticism of the reverend de Pâris took various forms including sleeping on a hard wooden board covered only with a course blanket studded with iron wire, he wore a hair shirt with a spiked belt and wore no shoes. He refused any form of heating even in mid winter, and also lashed himself with a metal studded lash. The food he ate was often made to taste revolting so that he would not even get any pleasure from the simple and necessary act of eating. Some of these practises are still allegedly used by the fundamentalist Catholic organisation ‘Opus Dei’. It is also relevant that the lay followers of the Jansenist movement also had scant regard for their bodily well being, a trait they shared with groups such as the Cathar ‘perfecti’, the Bogomils and others who followed extreme varieties and schisms of Christianity


The Convulsionists

Although the accounts of the ‘miracles’ or ‘convulsions’ seem like the product of a rather inventive although sick imagination, they do appear to have some degree of authenticity, although that would rather depend on what one regarded as miraculous. While there were several reliable witnesses to the events the main source for the contemporary accounts came from Louis de Page, a lawyer and a magistrate and Judge named Louis Montegron. It is interesting that the judge initially refused to believe the testimony of his colleague de Page, but, intrigued, he actually went to the church cemetery to witness the events for himself and the main surprisingly abundant and detailed body of corroboration comes from his written accounts.

The ‘miracles’ and ‘convulsions’ began almost immediately after the 1727 internment of François de Pâris in the church of Saint Medard. When the deacon was placed in his tomb, which was located behind the altar in the adjoining church, a crippled child who had been brought along by his father fell to the floor in an apparent convulsion and was taken outside into the churchyard. Louis de Page who had been in the church witnessed the child, whose leg had been crippled from birth, leap to his feet and scamper around while the muscle tissue appeared to reform as he watched. In a slightly different context this apparently spontaneous manipulation of human tissue is a feature found in other cases involving ecstatic trances and of course possession.

Almost within a matter of hours the local people, the vast majority both ill and of humble means, flocked to the churchyard and a few days later hunchbacks, cripples, lepers and others with similar afflictions arrived seeking a cure. By this time de Page had informed Judge Montegron and he arrived to witness and record a large number of these apparent ‘cures’. One account dated the September 7th 1731 records that many of those present (oddly enough mainly women) were on the ground with their bodies twisted in remarkable contortions. Many were so bent that the back of their heads touched their heels; but all of them were frothing at the mouth and speaking in tongues. In fact special clothing was created especially for the use of the female convulsionists (sometimes also referred to as ‘Convulsionnaires’), it was designed so that it was fastened at the ankles to prevent their dresses ending up over their heads, something that the male spectators, and there were many, gawped at with ill-concealed glee.

The men who were present also seemed affected by the general frenzy and started to beat the women with iron bars and heavy pieces of wood. One woman was naked to the waist and one of the men had her flesh grasped with a set of pincers which he was twisting violently; none of this seemed to produce any pain and the men were asked to try harder. On another visit Montegron records that another woman threw herself to the ground and some men, who aConvulsionnaires confined to the Bastille 300x374ppeared to be ready for what followed, pressed six sharp metal poles against her chest and leaning heavily on them. The poles did not penetrate her skin and there was no sign on pain, she even appeared to derive pleasure from it.

Perhaps the most (depending on how one looks at it) grotesque event recorded by the judge involved a young woman seated at a trestle table in the cemetery eating faeces and apparently enjoying the process. Montegron continued to record similar events over a period of some weeks, although the vast majority of the phenomena involved the convulsions. Eventually the church authorities put an end to the continuing spectacle, which was drawing huge crowds on a daily basis, by the expedient of simply shutting the church and posting guards outside it. Slowly those displaying the convulsions and other kinds of ‘possession’ became fewer and fewer and eventually the phenomenon stopped completely.


Extremes of Belief

Snake handling at Pentecostal Church of God, Lejunior, Harlan County, Kentucky September 15, 1946 (National Archives and Records Administration). Photo by Russell Lee.Was this only the effect of nothing more than religious hysteria, and might there be connections with other examples of this kind of phenomenon? Because in some ways what occurred at this obscure Parisian church has resonance with many Pentecostalist serpent handing cults mainly located in the southern states of the USA, where the adherents regularly place their hands and arms in beside poisonous reptiles and (most of the time) do not get bitten. They also ingest various poisons; all based on the assumption that scripture grants them immunity from the effects of poisons; the biblical justification for this comes from the following:

‘And these signs shall follow them that believe: In my name shall they cast out devils; they shall speak with new tongues. They shall take up serpents; and if they drink any deadly thing, it shall not hurt them; they shall lay hands on the sick, and they shall recover. (Mark 16:17-18)’

‘Behold, I give unto you power to tread on serpents and scorpions, and over all the power of the enemy: and nothing shall by any means hurt you. (Luke 10:19)’

If the results of these practises were 100% then perhaps we could lend them some credence, but they are not because both the pastors and the laity frequently succumb to the toxins and when they do they are judged as not having had a strong enough belief. yet another variation on this, which is yet to occur are the adherents who are convinced that when ‘the rapture’ occurs they will be lifted bodily from the earth and sit beside God in Heaven while the rest of humanity who are less fortunate will be left to fend for themselves during the apocalypse that will follow. The biblical justification for these ideas are, the faithful claim, found in various parts of the Bible, but mainly in ‘Second Thessalonians’, ‘The Gospel of Matthew’, ‘First Corinthians’ and, (perhaps typically) the apocalyptic and all encompassing ‘Book of Revelation’. At least one full length feature film entitled ‘Left Behind’, has been made about this event and several books (novels it has to be said) have also been written, the reality has yet to occur.

These are only a few examples of what can happen when people become totally fixated to the point of fanaticism about scripture and what it is deemed to mean, because there are many variations of interpretation and few of them agree. Sadly these disagreements have all-too-often led to some truly horrific wars and slaughter all in the name of religion and equally sadly those involved felt totally justified in what they were doing. We still see it happening today although the perpetrators are no longer Christians. While ‘The Rapture’ is yet to befall us (albeit highly unlikely), the snake handling cults and what occurred at St Medard are matters of fact and demonstrable. If there is something truly supernatural operating here maybe its origins are more to do with our still badly flawed understanding of just what human beings are capable of doing when they really put their minds to it. In other words, can sufficient will-power actually affect reality? If so then this really is mind over matter in a literal sense; although whether it is due to will power (or faith, in this context it is the same thing) is something else again and (although it is unlikely to ever be fully understood) if it is then the reality of magick (and perhaps miracles too) becomes a distinct possibility.

Brian Allan

More articles by Brian Allan

*All images added by Ellis from public domain sources and retailers. Please click on the images for their source.



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