The Miracle of Laon

This is the story of a French woman by the name of Nicole Obry, who was possessed in 1566 during the time of the French religious wars between the Huguenots and Catholics. 


Obry entered the city of Laon in triumphal style on 24 January 1566, in procession with an entourage of priests and family, and was met by the bishop, Jean de Bours.  Again a scaffold had been constructed, in the catherdral, to permit the crowds (it was said, of 20, 000 people) to witness the bishop’s exorcisms.  By this point, it was clear that Obrey’s chief functions were to attack the Huguenots by aligning them with the devil, and to defend the Catholic church, most notably by displaying the triumph of the Host as a means of exorcism.  Obry’s performances heightened the centrality of the doctrine of the Real Presence when the devil Beelzebub jeered at the Host.  A large and extraordinary engraving by Thomas Belot depicting the exorcisms at Laon, and printed in 1569, is accompanied by a legend which quotes a dialogue between Bishop de Bours and Obry’s devil Beelzebub.  The images show a sequence of events as she was brought into church on a litter, her face puffed up and her tongue out, men struggling to control her superhuman strength and people saying prayers for her, while demons fly out of the cathedral after the successful exorcism.  This text, alongside the pictorial placard.
The use of the present tense here is therefore of special interest, suggesting the kind of breathlessness that might accompany someone reading out loud to enthralled non-readers.


The text reads in part:
At Laon, the demoniac is taken to the Church and in procession, after which there is preaching by a good Cordelier [friar].  Then the Bishop says the Mass, after which he does the conjuration.

To which Beelzebub responds:  I entered here by the commandment of God, for the sins of the people, to show that I am a devil here to convert or harden my Huguenots, and to make all one or all the other, and by the blood Bod [sic; ‘Bieu’ for the French “Dieu”, meaning God], I have to do my task and my office.  I will make them all one. 

To which the bishop says: It will be Jesus who will make them all one, in one sole religion . .. You must show [who is] your master, [He] who will make you leave. 

Beelzebub responds:  Who?  Your John the white? [Jean le blanc: referring to the presence of God in the bread of the Host]

The bishop says to him:  that is why He is pursuing you. 

Beelzebub responds:  Ha, ha, I am constrained by it, there is the Hoc there, there is the Hoc [referring to the words of consecration ‘Hoc est corpus meum’ – ‘this is my body’]. This he repeats several times, at which those present marvelled greatly. 

The bishop then elevates the precious Body of God, saying:  Look, here is the precious Body of our Saviour Jesus Christ your master.  You will say not one more word now.  I command you in the name and in the virtue of the precious body of our Saviour and Lord Jesus Christ, true God and man, here present, that now you will leave directly the body of this creature of God, without harming anyone, and will go to the depths of hell, to be tormented there, and that you will not come back here. Get out evil spirit, get out, here is your master, get out. 

Before which the demoniac, having the face of a great devil, levitates six feet up in the air, and cries very horribly . . . The people filled the Church, the pulpit, and the . .. vaults, seeing this and hearing it, and redoubling their cries to God of ‘mercy’. 

Then  . ..  hard, stiff, mute, blind, deaf, without any movement or feeling she is shown to the view of all, as a statue of wood, which was also ascertained by the experience of touching her.


This encounter was the last major appearance of Beelzebub, whose powers receded in Obry’s body each day, after she received the Host.  On 8 February 1566, at three in the afternoon, Beelzebub, who had been chased into her left arm, exited her body.  This was to be the date commemorated as the ‘Miracle of Laon’, a feast observed until the French Revolution. 

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Reference
Ferber, Sarah.  Demonic Possession  and Exorcism in Early Modern France.  Routledge Publishers, London 2004 . pp 30-33