The Convulsionists of St. Médard: Second Paper

HAVING, in a previous number, furnished a brief sketch of the phenomena, purely physical, which characterized the epidemic of St. Médard, it remains to notice those of a mental and psychological character.

One of the most common incidents connected with the convulsions of that period was the appearance of a mental condition, called, in the language of the day, a state of ecstasy, bearing unmistakable analogy to the artificial somnambulism produced by magnetic influence, and to the trance of modern spiritualism.

During this condition, there was a sudden exaltation of the mental faculties, often a wonderful command of language, sometimes the power of thought-reading, at other times, as was alleged, the gift of prophecy. While it lasted, the insensibility of the patients was occasionally so complete, that, as Montgeron says, “ they have been pierced in an inhuman manner, without evincing the slightest sensation ” ; 1 and when it passed off, they frequently did not recollect anything they had said or done during its continuance.

At times, like somnambulism, it seemed to assume something of a cataleptic character, though I cannot find any record of that most characteristic symptom of catalepsy, the rigid persistence of a limb in any position in which it may be placed. What was called the “state of death,” is thus described by Montgéron: —

“ The state of death is a species of ecstasy, in which the convulsionist, whose soul seems entirely absorbed by some vision, loses the use of his senses, wholly or in part. Some convulsionists have remained in this state two or even three days at a time, the eyes open, without any movement, the face very pale, the whole body insensible, immovable, and stiff as a corpse. During all this time, they give little sign of life, other than a feeble, scarcely perceptible respiration. Most of the convulsionists, however, have not these ecstasies so strongly marked. Some, though remaining immovable an entire day or longer, do not continue during all that time deprived of sight and hearing, nor are they totally devoid of sensibility; though their members, at certain intervals, become so stiff that they lose almost entirely the use of them.” 2

The “ state of death,” however, was much more rare than other forms of this abnormal condition. The Abbe d’Asfeld, in his work against the convulsionists, alluding to the state of ecstasy, defines it as a state “ in which the soul, carried away by a superior force, and, as it were, out of itself, becomes unconscious of surrounding objects, and occupies itself with those which imagination presents ” ; and he adds, — “ It is marked by alienation of the senses, proceeding, however, from some cause other than sleep. This alienation of the senses is sometimes complete, sometimes incomplete.” 3

Montgeron, commenting on the above, says, — “ This last phase, during which the alienation of the senses is imperfect, is precisely the condition of most of the convulsionists, when in the state of ecstasy. They usually see the persons present ; they speak to them ; sometimes they hear what is said to them ; but as to the rest, their souls seem absorbed in the contemplation of objects which a superior power discloses to their vision.” 4

And a little farther on he adds,— “ In these ecstasies the convulsionists are struck all of a sudden with the unexpected aspect of some object, the sight of which enchants them with joy. Their eyes beam; their heads are raised toward heaven ; they appear as if they would fly thither. To see them afterwards absorbed in profound contemplation, with an air of inexpressible satisfaction, one would say that they are admiring the divine beauty. Their countenances are animated with a lively and brilliant fire; and their eyes, which cannot be made to close during the entire duration of the ecstasy, remain completely motionless, open, and fixed, as on the object which seems to interest them. They are in some sort transfigured; they appear quite changed. Even those who, out of this state, have in their physiognomy something mean or repulsive, alter so that they can scarcely be recognized. . . . . It is during these ec-

stasies that many of the convulsionists deliver their finest discourses and their chief predictions,—that they speak in unknown tongues,—that they read the secret thoughts of others,—and even sometimes that they give their representations.” 5

A provincial ecclesiastic, quoted by Montgeron, and who, it should be remarked, fouud fault with many of the doings of the convulsionists, admits the exalted character of these declamations, He says, — “ Their discourses on religion are spirited, touching, profound, — delivered with an eloquence and a dignity which our greatest masters cannot approach, and with a grace and appropriateness of gesture rivalling that of our best actors. . . . . Oue of the girls who pronounced such discourses was but thirteen years and a half old ; and most of them were utterly incompetent, in their natural state, thus to treat subjects far beyond their capacity.” 6

Colbert, already quoted, bears testimony to the same effect. Writing to Madame de Coetquen, he says,—“ I have read extracts from these discourses, and have been greatly struck with them. The expressions are noble, the views grand, the theology exact. It is impossible that the imagination, and especially the imagination of a child, should originate such beautiful things. Sublimity full of eloquence reigns throughout these productions,” 7

To judge fairly of this phenomenon, we must consider the previous condition and acquirements of those who pronounced such discourses. Montgeron, while declaring that among the convulsionists there were occasionally to be found persons of respectable standing, adds,—“ But it must be confessed that in general God has chosen the convulsionists among the common people; that they were chiefly young children, especially girls; that almost all of them had lived till then in ignorance and obscurity; that several of them were deformed, and some, in their natural state, even exhibited imbecility. Of such, for the most part, it was that God made choice, to show forth to us His power.” 8

The staple of these discourses — wild and fantastic enough — may be gathered from the following: —

“ The Almighty thus raised up all of a sudden a number of persons, the greater part without any instruction ; He opened the mouths of a number of young girls, some of whom could not read ; and He caused them to announce, in terms the most magnificent, that the times had now arrived, — that in a few years the Prophet Elias would appear, — that he would be despised and treated with outrage by the Catholics, —that he would even be put to death, together with several of those who had expected his coming and had become his disciples and followers, — that God would employ this Prophet to convert all the Jews, — that they, when thus converted, would immediately carry the light unto all nations, — that they would reestablish Christianity throughout the world,—and that they would preach the morality of the gospel in all its purity, and cause it to spread over the whole earth.” 9

This state of ecstasy is one which has existed, probably, in occasional instances, through all past time, especially among religious enthusiasts. The writings of the ancient fathers contain constant allusions to it. St. Augustine, for example, speaks of it as a phenomenon which he has personally witnessed. Referring to persons thus impressed, he says, — “ I have seen some who addressed their discourse sometimes to the persons around them, sometimes to other beings, as if they were actually present; and when they came to themselves, some could report what they had seen, others preserved no recollection of it whatever.” — De Gen. ad Litter. Lib. XII. c. 13.

Montgeron, commenting (as he expresses it) upon “ the manner in which the convulsionists are supernaturally enlightened, and in which they deliver their discourses and their predictions,” says, —

“ Ordinarily, the words are not dictated to them; it is only the ideas that are presented to their minds by a supernatural Instinct, and they are left to express these thoughts in terms of their own selection. Hence it happens that occasionally their most beautiful discourses are marred by ill-chosen and incorrect expressions, and by phrases obscure and padly turned ; so that the beauty of some of these consists rather in the depth of thought, the grandeur of the subjects treated, and the magnificence of the images presented, than in the language in which the whole is rendered.

“ It is evident, that, when they are thus left to clothe in their own language the ideas given them, they are also at liberty to add to them, if they will. And, in fact, most of them declare that they perceive within themselves the power to mix in their own ideas with those supernaturally communicated, which suddenly seize their minds; and they are obliged to be extremely careful not to confound their own thoughts with those which they receive from a superior intelligence. This is sometimes the more difficult, inasmuch as the ideas thus coming to them do not always come with equal clearness.

“ Sometimes, however, the terms are dictated to them internally, but without their being forced to pronounce them, nor hindered from adding to them, if they choose to do so.

“ Finally, in regard to certain subjects, — for example, the lights which illumine their minds, and oblige them to announce the second coming of the Prophet Elias, and all that has reference to that great event, — their lips pronounce a succession of words wholly independently of their will; so that they themselves listen like the auditors, having no knowledge of what they say, except only as, word for word, it is pronounced.” 10

Montgeron appears, however, to admit that the exaltation of intelligence which is apparent during the state of ecstasy may, to some extent, be accounted for on natural principles. Starting from the fact, that, during the convulsions, external objects produce much less effect upon the senses than in the natural state, he argues that “ the more the soul is disembarrassed of external impressions, the greater is its activity, the greater its power to frame thoughts, and the greater its lucidity.” 11 He admits, further,— “Although most of the convulsionists have, when in convulsion, much more intelligence than in their ordinary state, that intelligence is not always supernatural, but may be the mere effect of the mental activity which results when soul is disengaged from sense. Nay, there are examples of convulsionists availing themselves of the superior intelligence which they have in convulsion to make out dissertations on mere temporal affairs. This intelligence, also, may at times fail to subjugate their passions; and I am convinced that they may occasionally make a bad use of it.”12

In another place, Montgeron says plainly, that “ persons accustomed to receive revelations, but not raised to the state of the Prophets, may readily imagine things to be revealed to them which are but the promptings of their own minds,”13 — and that this has happened, not only to the convulsionists, but (by the confession of many of the ancient fathers 14) also to the greatest saints. But he protests against the conclusion, as illogical, that the convulsionists never speak by the spirit of God, because they do not always do so.

He admits, however, 15 that it is extremely difficult to distinguish between what ought to be received as divinely revealed and what ought to be rejected as originating in the convulsion!st’s own mind ; nor does he give any rule by which this may be done. The knowledge necessary to the “ discerning of spirits ” he thinks can be obtained only by humble prayer. 16

The power of prophecy is one of the gifts claimed by Montgeron as having been bestowed on various convulsionists during their ecstatic state. Yet he gives no detailed proofs of prophecies touching temporal matters having been literally fulfilled, unless it be prophecies by convulsionist-patients in regard to the future crises of their diseases. And he admits that false predictions were not infrequent, and that false interpretations of visions touching the future were of common occurrence. He says, —

“ It is sometimes revealed to a convulsionist, for example, that there is to happen to some person not named a certain accident, every detail of which is minutely given; and the convulsionist is ordered to declare what has been communicated to him, that the hand of God may be recognized in its fulfilment. . . . . But, at the same time, the convulsionist receiving this vision believes it to apply to a certain person, whom he designates by name. The prediction, however, is not verified in the case of the person named, so that those who heard it delivered conclude that it is false; but it is verified in the case of another person, to whom the accident happens, attended by all the minutely detailed particulars.” 17

If this be correctly given, it is what animal magnetizers would call a case of imperfect lucidity.

The ease as to the gift of tongues is still less satisfactorily made out. A few, Montgeron says, translate, after the ecstasy, what they have declaimed, during its continuance, in an unknown tongue; but tor this, of course, we have their word only. The greater part know nothing of what they have said, when the ecstasy has passed. As to these, he admits, —

“ The only proof we have that they understand the words at the time they pronounce them is that they often express, in the most lively manner, the various sentiments contained in their discourse, not only by their gestures, but also by the attitudes the body assumes, and by the expression of the countenance, on which the different sentiments are painted, by turns, in a manner the most expressive, so that one is able, up to a certain point, to detect the feelings by which they are moved; and it has been easy for the attentive observer to perceive that most of these discourses were detailed predictions as to the coming of the Prophet Elias,” etc.18

If it be presumptuous, considering the marvels which modern observations disclose, to pronounce that the alleged unknown languages were unmeaning sounds only, it is evident, at least, that the above is inconclusive as to their true character.

Much more trustworthy appears to be the evidence touching the phenomenon of thought-reading.

The fact that many of the convulsionists were able “ to discover the secrets of the heart ” is admitted by their principal opponents. The Abbe d’Asfeld himself adduces examples of it.19 M. Poncet admits its reality.20 The provincial ecclesiastic whom I have already quoted says that he “ found examples without number of convulsionists who discovered the secrets of the heart in the most minute detail: for example, to disclose to a person that at such a period of his life he did such or such a thing ; to another, that he had done so and so before coming hither,” etc. 21 The author of the “ Recherche de la Vérité,” a pamphlet on the phenomena of the convulsions, which seems very Candidly written, acknowledges as one of these “ the manifestation of the thoughts and the discovery of secret things.” 22

Montgeron testifies to the fact, from repeated personal observation, that they revealed to him things known to himself alone ; and after adducing the admissions above alluded to, and some others, he adds, — “ But it would be superfluous further to multiply testimony in proof of a fact admitted by all the world, even by the avowed adversaries of the convulsions, who have found no other method of explaining it than by doing Satan the honor to proclaim him the author of these revelations.” 23

Besides these gifts, real or alleged, there was occasionally observed, during ecstasy, an extraordinary development of the musical faculty. Montgeron tells us, — “ Mademoiselle Daneogué, who, as was well known, had no voice whatever in her natural state, sings in the most perfect manner canticles in an unknown tongue, and that to the admiration of all those who hear her.” 24

As to the general character of these psychological phenomena, the theologians of that day were, with few exceptions, agreed that they were of a supernatural character, — the usual question mooted between them being, whether they were due to a Divine or to a Satanic influence* The medical opponents of the movement sometimes took the ground that the state of ecstasy was allied to delirium or insanity,—and that it was a degraded condition, inasmuch as the patient abandoned the exercise of his free will: an argument similar to that which has been made in our day against somewhat analogous phenomena, by a Bostonian. 25

In concluding a sketch, in which, though it be necessarily a brief one, I have taken pains to set forth with strict accuracy all the essential features which mark the character of this extraordinary epidemic, it is proper I should state that, the opponents of Jansenism concur in bringing against the convulsionists the charge that many of them were not only ignorant and illiterate girls, but persons of bad character, occasionally of notoriously immoral habits; nay, that some of them justified the vicious courses in which they indulged by declaring these to be a representation of a religious tendency, emblematic of that degradation through which the Church must pass, before, recalled by the voice of Elias, it regained its pristine purity.

Montgeron, while admitting that such charges may justly be brought against some of the convulsionists, denies the general truth of the allegation, yet after such a fashion that one sees plainly he considers it necessary, in establishing the character and divine source of the discourses and predictions delivered in the state of ecstasy, to do so without reference to the moral standing of the ecstatics. When one of his opponents (the physician who addressed to him the satirical letter already referred to) ascribes to him the position, that one must decide the divine or diabolical state of a person alleged to be inspired by reference to that person’s morals and conduct, he replies, — “ God forbid that I should advance so false a proposition ! ” And he proceeds to argue that the Deity often avails Himself, as a medium for expressing His will, of unworthy subjects. He says, —

“ Who does not know that the Holy Spirit, whose divine rays are never stained, let them shine where they will, ‘ bloweth where it listeth,’ and distributes its gifts to whom best it seems, without always causing these to be accompanied by internal virtues ? Does not Scripture inform us that God caused miracles to be wrought and great prophecies to be delivered by very vicious persons, as Judas, Caiaphas, Balaam, and others ? Jesus Christ himself teaches us that there will be workers of iniquity among the number of those who prophesy and of those who will work miracles in his name, declaring that on the Day of Judgment many will say unto him, ‘ Lord, have we not prophesied in thy name, and in thy name done many wonderful works ? ’ and that he will reply to them, ‘ Depart from me, ye that work iniquity.’”

And he proceeds thus: — “If, therefore, all that our enemies allege against the character of the Convulsionists were true, it does not follow that God would not employ such persons as the ministers of His miracles and His prophecies, provided, always, that these miracles and these prophecies have a worthy object, and tend to a knowledge of the truth, to the spread of charity, and to the reformation of the morals of mankind.” 26

These accusations of immorality are, probably, greatly exaggerated by the enemies of the Jansenists ; yet one may gather, even from the tenor of Montgeron’s defence, that there was more or less truth in the charges brought against the conduct of some of the convulsionists, and that the state of ecstasy, whatever its true nature, was by no means confined to persons of good moral character.

Such are the alleged facts, physical and mental, connected with this extraordinary episode in the history of mental epidemics.

On the perusal of such a narrative as the above, the questions which naturally suggest themselves are, — To what extent can we rationally attach credit to it ? And, if true, what is the explanation of phenomena apparently so incredible ?

As to the first, the admission of a distinguished contemporary historian, noted for his skeptical tendencies, in regard to the evidence for these alleged miracles, is noteworthy. It is in these words : — “Many of them were immediately proved on the spot before judges of unquestioned integrity, attested by witnesses of credit and distinction, in a learned age, and on the most eminent theatre that is now in the world ; nor were the Jesuits, though a learned body, supported by the civil magistrate, and determined enemies to those opinions in whose favor the miracles were supposed to have been wrought, ever able distinctly to refute of detect them.” 27

Similar is the admission of another celebrated author, at least as skeptical as Hume, and writing at the very time, and on the very spot where these marvellous events were occurring. Diderot, speaking of the St.-Medard manifestations, says, — “ We have of these pretended miracles a vast collection, which may brave the most determined incredulity. Its author, Carre de Montgeron, is a magistrate, a man of gravity, who up to that time had been a professed materialist,— on insufficient grounds, it is true, but yet a man who certainly had no expectation of making his fortune by becoming a Jansenist. An eye-witness of the facts he relates, and of which he had an opportunity of judging dispassionately and disinterestedly, his testimony is indorsed by that of a thousand others. AIL relate what they have seen ; and their depositions have every possible mark of authenticity ; the originals being recorded and preserved in the public archives.”28

Even in the very denunciations of opponents we find corroboratory evidence of the main facts in question. Witness the terms in which the Bishop of Bethleem declaims against the scenes of St. Medard : — “ What! we find ecclesiastics, priests, in the midst of numerous assemblies composed of persons of every rank and of both sexes, doffing their cassocks, habiting themselves in shirt and trousers, the better to be able to act the part of executioners, casting on the ground young girls, dragging them facedownward along the earth, and then discharging on their bodies innumerable blows, till they themselves, the dealers of these blows, are reduced to such a state of exhaustion that they are obliged to have water poured on their heads! What! we find men pretending to sentiments of religion and humanity dealing, with the full swing of their arms, thirty or forty thousand blows with heavy clubs on the arms, on the legs, on the heads of young girls, and making other desperate efforts capable of crushing the skulls of the sufferers ! What! we find cultivated ladies, pious and of high rank, doctors of law, civil and canonical, laymen of character, even curates, daily witnessing this spectacle of fanaticism and horror in silence, instead of opposing it with all their force ; nay, they applaud it by their presence, even by their countenance and their conversation ! Was ever, throughout all history, such another example of excesses thus scandalous, thus multiplied ? ” 29

De Lan, another opponent, thus sketches the same scenes : — “ Young girls, bareheaded, dashed their heads against a wall or against a marble slab ; they caused their limbs to be drawn by strong men; even to the extent of dislocation ; 30 they caused blows to be given them that would kill the most robust, and in such numbers that one is terrified. I know one person who counted four thousand at a single sitting ; they were given sometimes with the palm of the hand, sometimes with the fist; sometimes on the back, sometimes on the stomach. Occasionally, heavy cudgels or clubs were employed instead. 31 . . . . Some cpnvulsionists ran pins into their heads, without suffering any pain; others would have thrown themselves from the windows, had they not been prevented. Others, again, carried their zeal so far as to cause themselves to be hanged up by a book,” etc. 32

Modern medical writers of reputation usually admit the main facts, and seek a natural explanation of them. In the article, “ Convulsions,” in the great “ Dietionnaire des Sciences Medlcalcs,” (published in 1812-22,) which article is from the pen of an able physiologist, Dr. Montègre, we find the following, in regard to the St.-Medard phenomena: — “ Carré de Montgeron surrounded these prodigies with depositions so numerous and so authentic, that, after having examined them, no doubt can remain. . . . . However great my reluctance to admit such facts, it is impossible for me to refuse to receive them.” As to the succors, so-called, he frankly confesses that they seem to him as fully proved as the rest. He says, — “ There are the same witnesses, and the incidents themselves are still more clear and precise. It is not so much of cures that there is question in this case, as of apparent and external facts, in regard to which there can he no misconception.”

Dr. Calmeil, in his well-known work on Insanity, while regarding this epidemic as one of the most striking examples of religious mania, accepts the relation of Montgeron as in the main true. “ From various motives,” says he, “ these theomaniacs sought out the most frightful bodily tortures. Would it be credible, if it were not that the entire population of Paris concurred in testifying to the fact, that more than five hundred women pushed the rage of fanaticism or the perversion of sensibility to such a point, that they exposed themselves to burning fires, that they had their heads compressed between boards, that they caused to be administered on the abdomen, on the breast, on the stomach, on every part of the body, blows of clubs, stampings of the feet, blows with weapons of stone, with bars of iron? Yet the theomaniacs of St. Medard braved all these tests, sometimes as proofs that God had rendered them invulnerable, sometimes to demonstrate that God could cure them by means calculated to kill them, had they not been the objects of His special protection, sometimes to show that blows usually painful only caused to them pleasant relief. The picture of the punishments to which the convulsionists submitted, as if by inspiration, so that no one might doubt, as Montgeron has it, that it was easy for the Almighty to render invulnerable and insensible bodies the most frail and delicate, would induce us to believe, if the contrary were not so conclusively established, that a rage, for homicide and suicide had taken possession of the greater part of the sect of the Appellants. 33

Though I am acquainted with no class of phenomena occurring elsewhere that will match the “Great Succors” of St. Medard, yet we find occasional glimpses of instincts somewhat analogous to those claimed for the convulsionists, in other examples.

In Hecker’s “ Epidemics of the Middle Ages ” there is a chapter devoted to what he calls the “ Dancing Mania,” the account of which he thus introduces “ So early as the year 1374, assemblages of men and women were seen at Aix-la-Chapelle, who had come out of Germany, and who, united by one common delusion, exhibited to the public, both in the streets and in the churches, the following strange spectacle. They formed circles hand in hand, and, appearing to have lost all control over their senses, continued dancing, regardless of the bystanders, for hours together, in wild delirium, until at length they fell to the ground in a state of exhaustion. They then complained of extreme oppression, and groaned as it in the agonies ot death, until they were swathed in cloths bound tightly round their waists ; upon which they recovered, and remained free from complaint until the next attack. This practice of swathing was resorted to on account of the tympany 34 which followed these spasmodic ravings ; but the bystanders frequently relieved patients in a less artificial manner, by thumping and trampling upon the parts affected. 'While dancing they neither saw nor heard, being insensible to external impressions through the senses, but were haunted by visions.” And again, — “ In Liege, Utrecht, Tongres, and many other towns of Belgium, the dancers appeared with garlands in their hair, and their waists girt with cloths, that they might, as soon as the paroxysm was over, receive immediate relief from the attack of tympany. This bandage, by the insertion of a stick, was easily twisted tight; many, however, obtained more relief from kicks and blows, which they found numbers of persons ready to administer.”35

Physicians of our own day, while magnetizing, have occasionally encountered not dissimilar phenomena. Dr. Bertrand tells us that the first patient he ever magnetized, being attacked by a disease of an hysterical character, became subject to convulsions of so long duration and so violent in character, that he had never, in all his practice, seen the like ; and that she suffered horribly. He adds, — “ Here is what happened during her first convulsion-fits. This unhappy girl, whose instinct was perverted by intensity of pain, earnestly entreated the persons present to press upon her with such force as at any other time would have produced the most serious injury. I had the greatest difficulty to prevent those around her from acceding to her urgent requests that they would kneel upon her with all their weight, that they would exert with their hands the utmost pressure on the pit of her stomach, even on her throat, with the view of driving off the imaginary hysterical ball of which she complained. Though at any other time such treatment would have produced severe pain, she declared that it relieved her; and when the fit passed off, she did not seem to suffer the least inconvenience from it.” 36

The above, connecting as it does the phenomena exhibited during the St.-Medard epidemic with those observed by animal magnetizers, brings us to the second query, namely, as to the cause of these phenomena.

And here we find physicians, not mesmerists, comparing these phenomena, and others of the same class, with the effects observed by animal magnetizers. Dr. Montegre, already quoted, says, — “The phenomena of magnetism, and those presented by cases of possession and of fascination, connect themselves with those observed among the convulsionists, not only by the most complete resemblance, but also by the cause which determines them. There is not a single phenomenon observed in the one case that has not its counterpart in the others.” 37

Calmeil, while admitting that the “nervous effects produced by animal magnetizers bear a close resemblance to those which have been observed at Loudun, at Louviers, and during other convulsive epidemics,” offers the following, in explanation of the physical phenomena connected with the “Great Succors ”: —

“ The energetic resistance, which, in the case of the convulsionists, the skiu, the cellular tissue, and the surface of the body and limbs offered to the shock of blows, is certainly calculated to excite surprise. But many of these fanatics greatly deceived themselves, when they imagined that they were invulnerable; for it has been repeatedly proved that several of them, as a consequent of the cruel trials they solicited, suffered from large ecchymoses on the integuments, and numerous contusions on those portions of the surface which were exposed to the rudest attacks. For the rest, the blows were never administered except during the torments of convulsion ; and at that time the tympany (météorisme) of the abdomen, the state of spasm of the uterus in women and of the alimentary canal in both sexes, the state of contraction, of orgasm, of turgescence in the fleshy envelopes, in the muscular layers which protect and inclose the abdomen, the thorax, the principal vascular trunks, and the bony surfaces, must essentially contribute to weaken, to deaden, to nullify, the effect of the blows. Is it not by means of an analogous state of orgasm, which an over-excited will produces, that boxers and athletes find themselves in a condition to brave, to a certain point, the dangers of their profession? In fine, it is to be remarked, that, when dealing blows on the bodies of the convulsionists, the assistants employed weapons of considerable volume, having flat or rounded surfaces, cylindrical or blunted. But the action of such physical agents is not to be compared, as regards its danger, with that of thongs, switches, or other supple and flexible instruments with distinct edges. Finally, the contact and the repeated impression of the blows produced on the convulsionists the effect of a sort of salutary pounding, and rendered less poignant and less sensible the tortures of hysteria. It would have been preferable, doubtless, to make use of less murderous succors; the rage for distinction as the possessor of a miraculous gift, even more perhaps than the instinctive need of immediate relief, prompting these convulsionary theomaniacs to make choice of means calculated to act on the imagination of a populace, whose interest could be kept awake only by a constant repetition of wonders.” 38

Calmeil, of all the medical authors I have consulted, appears to have the most closely studied the various phases of the St.-Medard epidemic.† Yet the explanations above given seem to me quite incommensurate with the phenomena admitted.

Some of the patients, he says, suffered from ecchymosis and contusions. In plain, unprofessional language, they were beaten black and blue. That is such a result as usually follows a few blows from a boxer’s fist or from an ordinary walking-stick. But when the weapon employed is a rough iron bar weighing upwards of twenty-nine pounds, when the number of blows dealt in succession on the pit of the stomach of a young girl exceeds a hundred and fifty, and when these are delivered with the utmost force of an athletic man, is it bruises and contusions we look for as the only consequence? Or does it explain the immunity with which this frightful infliction was received, to call it a salutary pounding ? The argument drawn from the turgescence of the viscera and other organs, from the spasmodic contraction of the muscles and the general state of orgasm of the system, has doubtless great weight; but does it reach far enough to explain to us the fact, (if it be a fact, and as such Calmeil accepts it,) that a girl, bent back so that her head and feet touched the floor, the centre of the vertebral column being supported on a sharp-pointed stake, received, day after day, with impunity, directly on her stomach and bowels, one hundred times in succession, a flint stone weighing fifty pounds, dropped suddenly from a height of twelve or fifteen feet ? Boxers, it is true, in the excited state in which they enter the ring, receive, unmoved, from their opponents blows which would prostrate a man not prepared, by hard training, for the trial. But even such blows, in the end, sometimes prove mortal; and what should we say of substituting for the human fist a sharp-pointed rapier, and expecting that the tension of the nervous system would render impenetrable the skin ot the combatant ? Finally, it is to be admitted, that flexible weapons, especially if loaded, as the cat-o’-nine-tails, still used in some countries as an instrument of military punishment, occasionally is, with hard, angular substances, are among the most severe that can be employed to inflict punishment or destroy life. But what would even the poor condemned Soldier, shrinking from that terrible instrument of torture which modern civilization has not yet been shamed into discarding, think of the proposal to substitute for it the andiron with which Montgeron, at the twenty-fifth blow, broke an opening through a stone wall,—the executioner.-drummer being commanded to deal, with his utmost strength, one hundred and sixty blows in succession, with that ponderous bar, (a bar with rough edges, no cylindrical rod,) not on the back of the culprit, but on his unprotected breast ?

No wonder that De Gasparin, with all his aversion for the supernatural, and all his disinclination to admit anything which he cannot explain, after quoting from Calmeil the above explanation, feels its insufficiency, and seeks another. These are his words:—

“ How does it happen, that, after being struck with the justice of these observations, one still retains a sort of intellectual uneasiness, a certain suspicion of the disproportion between the explanation and the phenomena it seeks to explain ? How does it happen, that, under the influence of such an impression, many suffer themselves to be seduced into an admission of diabolical or miraculous agency ? It happens, because Dr. Calmeil, faithful to the Countersign of all learned bodies in England and France, refuses to admit tluidic action, or to make a single step in advance of the ordinary theory of nervous excitement. Now it is in vain to talk of contractions, of spasms, of turgescence; all this evidently fails to reach the case of the St.-Medard succors. To reach it we need the intervention of a peculiar force, — of a fluid which is disengaged, sometimes by the effect of certain crises, sometimes by the power of magnetism itself. Those who systematically keep up this hiatus in the study ot human physiology are the best allies of the superstitions they profess to combat. . . . . Suppose that study seriously undertaken, with what precision should we resolve the problem of which now we can but indicate the solution ! Habituated to the wonders of the nervous fluid, knowing that it can raise, at a distance, inert objects, that it can biologize, that it can communicate suppleness or rigidity, the highest development of the senses or absolute insensibility, we should not be greatly surprised to discover that it communicates also, in certain cases, elasticity and that degree of impenetrability which characterizes gum-elastic.” 39

De Gasparin further explains his theory in the following passage :—“ The great difficulty is not to explain the perversion of sensibility exhibited by the convulsionists. Aside from that question, does it not remain incomprehensible that feeble women should have received, without being a hundred times crushed to pieces, the frightful blows of which we have spoken ? How can we explain such a power of resistance ? A very small change, operated by the nervous fluid, would suffice to render the matter very simple. Let us suppose the skin and fibres of the convulsionists to acquire, in virtue of their peculiar state of excitement, a consistency analogous to that of gum-elastic ; then all the facts that astonish us would become as natural as possible. With convulsionists of gum - elastic,40 or, rather, whose bony framework was covered with muscles and tissues of gum-elastic, what would happen ? ”

He then proceeds to admit that “a vigorous thrust with a rapier, or stroke with a sabrc, as such thrusts and strokes are usually dealt, would doubtless penetrate such an envelope ”; but, he alleges, the St.-Médard convulsionists never, in a single instance, permitted such thrusts or strokes, with rapier or sabre, to be given ; prudently restricting themselves to pressure only, exerted after the swordpoint had been placed against the body. He reminds us, further, that neither razors nor pistol-balls, both of which would penetrate gum-elastic, were ever tried on the convulsionists ; and he adds,—“Neither flint stones nor andirons nor clubs nor swords and spits, pressed against it, would have broken the surface of the gum-elastic envelope. They would have produced no visible injury. At the most, they might have caused a certain degree of internal friction, more or less serious, according to the thickness of the gumelastic cuirass which covered the bones and the various organs.”41

I am fain to confess, that this imagining of men and women of gum-elastic, all but the skeleton, does not seem to me so simple a matter as it appears to have been regarded by M. de Gasparin. Let us take it for granted that his theory of a nervous fluid, which is the agent in tablemoving,42 is the true one. How is the mere disengaging of such a fluid to work a sudden transmutation of muscular and tendinous fibre and cellular tissue into a substance possessing the essential properties of a vegetable gum ? And what becomes of the skin, ordinarily so delicate, so easily abraded or pierced, so readily injured ? Is that transmuted also ? Let us concede it. But the concession does not suffice. There remain the bones and cartilages, naturally so brittle, so liable to fracture. Let us even suppose the breast and stomach of a convulsionist protected by an artificial coating of actual gum-elastic, would it be a safe experiment to drop upon it, from a height of twelve feet, a flint stone weighing fiftypounds ? We are expressly told that the ribs bent under the terrible shock, and sank, flattened, even to the backbone. Is it not certain, that human ribs and cartilages, in their normal state, would have snapped off, in spite of the interposed protection ? Must we not, then, imagine osseous and cartilaginous fibre, too, transmuted ? Indeed, while we are about it, I do not see why we should stop short of the skeleton. Since we understand nothing of the manner of transmutation, it is as easy to imagine bone turned to gum-elastic, as skin and muscle and tendon.

In truth, if we look at it narrowly, this theory of De Gasparin is little more than a virtual admission, that, during convulsion, by some sudden change, the bodies of the patients did, as they themselves declared, become, to a marvellous extent, invulnerable, — with the suggestion added, that the nervous fluid may, after some unexplained fashion, have been the agent of that change.

For the rest, though the alleged analogy between the properties of gum-elastic and those which, in this abnormal state, the human body seems to acquire, is, to a certain extent, sustained by many of the observations above recorded, — for example, when a sharp-pointed rapier, violently pushed against Gabrielle Moler’s throat, sank to the depth of four finger-breadths, and, when drawn back, seeming to attach itself to the skin, drew it back also, causing a trifling injury,— yet others seem to prove that there is little strictness in that analogy. The King’s Chaplain and the Advocate of Parliament, whose testimony I have cited, both certify that the flesh occasionally reacted under the sword, swelling up, so as to thrust back the weapons, and even push back the assistants. There is no corresponding property in gumelastic. And Montgéron expressly tells us, that, at the close of a terrible succor called for by Gabrielle Moler, when she caused four sharpened shovels, placed, one above, one below, and one on each side, of one of her breasts, to be pushed by the main force of four assistants, a committee of ladies present “ had the curiosity to examine her breast immediately after this operation, and unanimously certified that they found it as hard as a stone.” 43 If this observation can be depended on, the gum - elastic theory, even as an analogically approximating explanation of this entire class of phenomena, is untenable.

It is further to be remarked, that one of the positions assumed by M. de Gasparin, as the basis of his hypothesis, does not tally with some of the facts detailed by Montgeron. It was pushes with swords, the former alleges, never thrusts, to which the convulsionists were exposed. I have already stated that this was usually the fact; but there seem to have been striking exceptions. On the authority of a priest and of an officer of the royal household, Montgeron gives us the details of a symbolical combat of the most desperate character, with rapiers, between Sisters Madeleine and Félieité, occurring in May, 1744, in the presence of thirty persons. One of the witnesses says, — “ I know not if I ever saw enemies attack each other with more fury or less circumspection. They fell upon one another without the slightest precaution, thrusting against each other with the points of their rapiers at hap-hazard, wherever the thrust happened to take effect. And this they did again and again, and with all the force of which, in convulsion, they were capable, — which, as all the world knows, is a force far greater than the same persons possess in their ordinary state.”

And the officer thus further certifies : —“After the combat, Madeleine took two short swords, resembling daggers, and, holding one in each hand, dealt seven or eight blows, pushed home with all her strength, on the breast of Felicité, raising her hands and then stabbing with the utmost eagerness, just as an assassin who wished to murder some one would plunge two daggers repeatedly into his breast. Felieite received the strokes with perfect tranquillity, and without evincing the slightest emotion. Then, taking two similar daggers, she did the very same to Madeleine, who, with her arms crossed, received the thrusts as tranquilly as the other had done. Immediately afterwards, these two convulsionists attacked one another with daggers, as with the fury of two maniacs, who, having resolved on mutual destruction, were solely bent each on poniarding the other.” 44

It is added, that “ neither the one nor the other received the least appearance of a wound, nor did either seem at all fatigued by so long and furious an exercise.”

It is not stated, in this particular instance, as it is in others, that these girls were examined by a committee of their sex, before or after the combat, to ascertain that they had under their dresses no concealed means of protection; so that the possibility of trickery must be admitted. If, as the officer who certifies appears convinced, all was fair, then M. de Gasparin’s admission that a vigorous Sword-thrust would penetrate the gumelastic envelope is fatal to the theory he propounds.

Yet, withal, we may reasonably assent to the probability that M. de Gasparin, in seeking an explanation of these marvellous phenomena, may have proceeded in the right direction. Modern physicians admit, that, at times, during somnambulism, complete insensibility, resembling hysteric coma, prevails.45 But if, as is commonly believed, this insensibility is caused by some modification or abnormal condition of the nervous fluid, then to some other modification or changed condition of the same fluid comparative invulnerability may be due. For there is connection, to a certain extent, between insensibility and invulnerability. A patient rendered unconscious of pain, by chloroform or otherwise, throughout the duration of a severe and prolonged surgical operation, escapes a perilous shock to the nervous system, and may survive an ordeal which, if he had felt the agony usually induced, would have proved fatal. Pain is not only a warning monitor, it becomes also, sometimes, the agent of punishment, if the warning be disregarded.

But, on the other hand, we must not forget that insensibility and invulnerability, though to a certain extent allied, are two distinct things. Injury the most serious may occur without the premonitory warning, even without immediate subsequent suffering. A person in a perfect state of insensibility might doubtless receive, without experiencing any pain whatever, a blow that would shatter the bones of a limb, and render it powerless for life. Indeed, there is on record a wellattested case of a poor pedestrian, who, having laid himself down on the platform of a lime-kiln, and dropping asleep, and the fire having increased and burnt off one foot to the ankle, rose in the morning to depart, and knew nothing of his misfortune, until, putting his burnt limb to the ground, to support his body in rising, the extremity of his leg-bone, calcined into lime, crumbled to fragments beneath him.46

Contemporary medical authorities, even when they have the rare courage to deny to the convulsions either a divine or a diabolical character, furnish no explanation of them more satisfactory than the citing of similar cases, more or less strongly attested, in the past.47 This may confirm our faith in the reality of the phenomena, but does not resolve our difficulties as to the causes of them.

It does not fall within my purpose to hazard any opinion as to these causes, nor, if it did, am I prepared to offer any. Some considerations might be adduced, calculated to lessen our wonder as to an occasional phenomenon on this marvellous record. Physiologists, for example, are agreed that the common opinion as to the sensibility of the interior of the eye is an incorrect one ; 48 and that consideration might be put forth, when we read that Sisters Madeleine and Felicite suffered with impunity swords to be pressed against that delicate organ, until the point sank an inch beneath its surface. But all such isolated considerations are partial, inconclusive, and, as regards any general satisfactory explanation, far short of the requirements of the case.

More weight may justly be given to another consideration : to the exaggerations inseparable from enthusiasm, and the inaccuracies into which inexperienced observers must ever fall. As to the necessity of making large allowance for these, I entirely agree with Calmeil and De Gasparin, But let the allowance made for such errors be more or less, it cannot extend to an absolute denial of the chief phenomena, unless we are prepared to follow Hume in his assertion that what is contrary to our experience can be proved by no evidence of testimony whatever, — and that, though we have here nothing, save the marvellous character of the events, to oppose to the cloud of witnesses who attest them, that alone, in the eyes of reasonable people, should be regarded as a sufficient refutation .49

The mental and psychological phenomena, only less marvellous than the physical because we have seen more of their like, will, on that account, be more readily received. ,

  1. Montgéron, Tom. II. Idée de l' État des Convulsionnaires, p. 104.
  2. Montgéron, Tom. II. Idée de l' État, etc., p. 104.
  3. Vains Efforts des Discernans, p. 36.
  4. Montgéron, Tom. II. Ideé de l' État, etc., p. 66.
  5. Montgéron, Tom. II. Idée de l' Éial, etc., p. 67. The latter part of the quotation alludes to crucifixion and other symbolical representations, to which the convulsionists were much given.
  6. Montgéron, Tom. II. Idée de l; État, etc., p. 77.
  7. Lettre de M. Colbert, du 8 Février, 1733, à Madame de Coetquen.
  8. Montgéron, Tom. II.
  9. Montgéron, Tom. II. Idée de l' ɶuvre, etc., p. 123.
  10. Montgéron, Tom. II. Idée de l' État, etc. p. 82.
  11. Ibid. p. 17.
  12. Ibid. p. 19.
  13. Montgéron, Tom. II. Idée de l' État, etc., p. 77.
  14. In proof of this opinion, Montgéron gives numerous quotations from St. Augustine, St. Thomas, St. Gregory, and various theologians and ecclesiastics of high reputation, to the effect that “it often happens that errors and defects are mixed in with holy and divine revelations, (of saints and others, in ecstasy,) either by some vice of nature, or by the deception of the Devil, in the same way that our minds often draw false conclusions from true premises.” — Ibid. pp. 88-96.
  15. Ibid. p. 94.
  16. Ibid. p. 95.
  17. Montgéron, Tom. II. Idée de l' État, etc., pp. 102, 103.
  18. Ibid. p. 73.
  19. Vains Efforts des Discernans, pp. 39, 40.
  20. Lettres de M. Poncet, Let. VII. p. 129.
  21. Montgéron, Tom. II. Idée de l'État, etc., p. 76.
  22. Recherche de la Vérité, p. 25.
  23. Moutgéron, Tom. II. Idée de l' État, etc., p. 76.
  24. Montgéron, Tom. IIIdée de l' État, etc., p. 73.
  25. Philosophy of Mysterious Agents, Human and Mundane, by E. C. Rogers, Boston, 1853, p. 321, and elsewhere. He argues, “ that, in as far as persons become ' mediums,’ they are mere automatons,” surrendering all mental control, and resigning their manhood.
  26. Montgéron, Tom. II. Idée de l'État, etc., pp. 34, 35.
  27. Hume’s Essays, Vol. II. sect. 10.
  28. Diderot’s Pensées Philosophiques. The original edition appeared in 1746, published in Paris.
  29. Dom La Taste’s Lettres Théologiques, Tom. II. p. 878.
  30. Montgéron expressly tells us, that, in the case of Marguerite Catherine Turpin, her limbs were drawn, by means of strong bands, “with such extreme violence that the bones of her knees and thighs cracked with a loud noise.” — Tom. III. p. 553.
  31. Montgéron supplies evidence that the expression clubs, here used, is not misapplied. He furnishes quotations from a petition addressed to the Parliament of Paris by the mother of the girl Turpin, praying for a legal investigation of her daughter’s case by the attorney-general, and offering to furnish him with the names, station in life, and addresses of the witnesses to the wonderful cure, in this case, of a monstrous deformity that was almost congenital; in which petition it is stated, — “Little by little the force with which she was struck was augmented, and at last the blows were given with billets of oak-wood, one end of which was reduced in diameter so as to form a handle, while the other end, with which the strokes were dealt, was from seven to eight inches in circumference, so that these billets were in fact small clubs.” (Montgéron, Tom. III. p. 552.) This would give from eight to nine inches, English measure, or nearly three inches in diameter, and of oak!
  32. Dissertation Théohgique sur les Convulsions, pp. 70, 71.
  33. De la Folie, Tom. II. p. 373.
  34. Tympany is defined by Johnson, “A kind of obstructed flatulence that swells the body like a drum.”
  35. The Epidemics of the Middle Ages, pp. 8991. The same work supplies other points of analogy between this epidemic and that of St. Medard; for example: “ Where the disease was completely developed, the attack commenced with epileptic convulsions.” — p. 88.
  36. Traité du Somnambulisme, pp. 384, 385.
  37. Dictionnaire des Sciences Médicales, Art. Convulsions.
  38. De la Folie, considérée sous le Point de Vue Pathologique, Philosophique, Historique, et Judiciaire, par le Dr. Calmeil, Paris, 1845, Tom. II. pp. 386, 387.
  39. See, in Calmeil’s work cited above, the chapter entitled Théomanie Extato-Convulsive parmi les Jansenistes, Tom. II. pp. 313—400.
  40. Du Surnaturel en General, Tom. II. pp. 94. 95.
  41. I translate literally the words of the original: “ avec des convulsionnaires en gomme élastique,” p. 90.
  42. * Du Surnaurel en Général, Tom. II. pp. 99, 91.
  43. See note in De Gasparin’s Experiments in Table-Moving.”
  44. Montgéron, Tom. III. p. 703.
  45. Montgéron, Tom. III. pp. 712, 713.
  46. Carpenter’s Principles of Human Physiology, p. 647.
  47. Carpenter’sPrinciples of Human Physiology, p. 561. The story, incredible if it appear, is indorsed by Carpenter as vouched for by Mr. Richard Smith, late Senior Surgeon of the Bristol Infirmary, under whose care the sufferer had been. The case resulted, after a fortnight, in death.
  48. Such will be found throughout Hecquet’s “ Le Naturalisme des Convulsions dans les Maladies,” Paris, 1733. Dr, Philippe Hecquet, born in 1661, acquired great reputation in Paris as a physician, being elected in 1712 President, of the Faculty of Medicine in that city. He is the author of numerous works on medical subjects. In his “ Naturalisme des Convulsions,” published at the very time when the St.-Medard excitement was at the highest, he admits the main facts, but denies their miraculous character.
  49. “The eye, contrary to the usual notions, is a very insensible part of the body, unless affected with inflammation; for, though the mucous membrane which covers its surface, and which is prolonged from the skin, is acutely sensible to tactile impressions, the interior is by no means so, as is well known to those who have operated much on this organ.” — Carpenter’s Principles of Human Physiology, p. 682.
  50. Hume’s Essays, Vol. II. p. 133.