The Celtic tribe of the Gauls, choosing the site for Loudun several centuries before the creation of Christianity, named it Lugh-Dun, ‘a fortified hill dedicated to the God of Light’.
In the Middle Ages, Loudun was located on the edge of three provinces: Poitou, Anjou, and Touraine. Long and dead-straight roads span like spokes of a wheel through fertile fields towards the town.
After a long and hot morning’s drive, I parked in the medieval centre of Loudun, eased out of the car, and enjoyed a particularly good café noisette in the low-murmuring shade of the Bar des Arcades.
Loudun’s sunlit prospect from the bar terrace seemed anything but devilish. The sandy Loire limestone, known as tuffeau, melded in the sunshine with the Roman tiles and slates of the walls in a patchwork that complemented the dapple of shade under the plane trees.
I wanted to walk to where Urbain Grandier, priest of the nearby church St Pierre-du-Marche and of the Ursulines convent, was put on trial in 1634, accused of instigating demonic possession and convulsions among the nuns, following a series of exorcisms that started two years earlier. More relevant perhaps was the fact that he had enraged the all-powerful Cardinal Richelieu.
Grandier was found guilty of witchcraft and burned alive in front of many of the town’s horrified population. The event was well known in the 17th century, as were similar incidents all over Europe (such as the Pendle witch trials in northern England just 20 years earlier).
In 1952 Aldous Huxley published a short story based on the incident, The Devils of Loudun, which was adapted in 1960 for the stage and again for the twice-filmed 1969 opera Die Teufel von Loudun by Krzysztof Penderecki, and for the 1971 film The Devils, directed by Ken Russell.
Loudun and its devils have been stirring the public imagination for 387 years.
Finishing the coffee and checking the map, I found that I was already a few metres away from the site where Grandier’s body had burned. I needed only to lift my eyes from the table to the collegiate church opposite, where the trial had taken place.
I crossed the road and entered the Church of St Croix, renamed ‘Espace Sainte Croix’, first built in 1062 and now used for cultural events and exhibitions. Again, lifting my eyes high to the roof revealed its historic identity better than the children’s exhibition that cluttered the floor level.
The Burgundian Romanesque chancel and 14th century wall paintings seem badly faded and need urgently to be revived and recoloured to mark the original extraordinary vision of this notable building. There should be a sign for visitors – ‘Please raise your eyes high to the roof and see history!’
From there I walked up the hill to the church of St Pierre-du-Marche where Grandier had officiated as the priest. Built over several decades in the 16th century, there is a remarkable Renaissance portal and along the walls an almost alarming and lifelike modern depiction of the stages of the cross, the figures depicted in three-dimensional passion and urgency.
Outside once again, stepping carefully into the mid-day heat past some remarkably loud miniature dogs and their remarkably large owner, I passed the imposing Hotel de Ville with its statue of Cardinal Richelieu’s protégé, Theophraste Renaudot, Loudun’s most celebrated native son, who wrote and published the first newspaper in France – La Gazette. Renaudot was a remarkable man; humanitarian, social reformer, scientist, and the physician and biographer of Louis XIV.
I sat for a while under a cherry tree in the park named after another local celebrity, Jean-Charles Cornay, a missionary, martyr, and saint who tried to travel to Szechuan in China but was unable to progress further than Tonkin at a time when the French were deeply unpopular in Vietnam.
He was captured there in 1837 on the orders of Emperor Minh Mang, and was accused of leading an evil sect and of rebellion. He was tortured, then dismembered and beheaded at the age of 28. John Paul II canonised him in 1988 as one of the 117 martyrs of Vietnam.
I look up again and see a young couple engaged and engrossed in much passionate cuddling and kissing on the other side of the park under another cherry tree, an appropriate antidote to the story of the tragic and mild-mannered Jean-Charles Cornay.
I moved on past the mysterious and inaccessible 12th century Roman chapel of St Jean, with its nave open to the sky and tangled gloriously by wild flowers. Once the property of the Order of St Jean of Jerusalem, it now seems abandoned and ignored, apart from a self-consciously old noticeboard baldly stating in a few lines a 1000-year history of use by different interests and congregations.
I returned whence I came as a distant bell chimed twelve. I was somehow shocked but also well satisfied with my tortuous, perilous and devilish hour-long walk around Loudun and its notable diabolical history of disaster, division, dissolution, and death.
Oh, and a particularly good noisette at the Bar des Arcades…